• 26 May 2020

Karen Telling: How the built environment can adapt after COVID-19

Karen Telling, Director of Waterman Structures and a member of Revo’s Technical Affair’s committee, recently participated in Revo’s expert panel debate titled ‘Future Gazing: Re-imagining Spaces’. In this blog, Karen gives her insight into how the built environment can adapt to address the impact of COVID-19.

It’s clear that COVID-19 has had a major impact on our daily lives. The way we work, shop and spend our leisure time has been completely altered over the last few months. Even before the outbreak, the retail, leisure, mixed-use and urban regeneration sectors were facing a period of significant change to enable them to keep pace with a technologically advancing world.

I believe the key to ensuring these developments deliver what society needs now, and for the future, is for the built environment to respond to the ‘new normal’, embrace our new ways of living and find positive, flexible compromises.

The retail industry has seen a dramatic reduction in physical shopping with a seismic shift towards online retail. It looks set to stay this way for the foreseeable future, with the time-saving benefits of this approach appealing to a wide cross-section of society – especially for the more mundane elements of the weekly grocery shop and other generic purchases. Where people are unable to shop online they have embraced ‘localism’, turning to stores in their local communities. Within family units the desire for long distance travel for general shopping and leisure purposes has been greatly reduced, challenging large ‘chain’ retailers to be authentic in locations where they are competing against independent stores.

This trend of localisation has enhanced the developing movement towards town and city centre living, focused around all-encompassing community hubs with rounded offers. These create places where people can live, work, shop and spend their leisure time and it is expected that this type of development will continue to be created within historic high streets.

Increasingly, retail developments need to add value by creating destinations inspired by the ‘historic’ outlet model, where shorter leases and quicker turnovers are the norm. However, a crucial role currently missing is that of the overall centre manager. With the focus now shifting from big project developments towards the creation of a kit of smaller parts within a larger area, centre managers are vital for successful schemes, acting as the curator of town centre destinations.

There is also now a real need for greater local authority engagement with developers and the wider community to help bring people’s needs together, driving demand and leading to successful place-making. This requires a combined approach where all parties actively participate in, and drive, community agendas to create bespoke communities.

Looking to the future, structural engineers must be a key participant in the early engagement on a project as they are integral to unlocking the cost / benefit / value puzzle. How we develop existing sites needs to be challenged by weighing-up utilisation of existing assets for flexibility and ease of adaptability, while considering the costs and perceived value. Sustainability and achieving net zero carbon buildings by 2030 is also a key consideration which is heavily influenced by the structural aspects of an emerging design.

To truly embrace a sustainable approach, retailers must be realistic in their lease requirements which need to be challenged and tailored to meet bespoke needs for individual tenant purposes. Compromises need to be made in respect of existing structural grids, non-optimum clear heights and specific not global loading requirements. Early engagement of engineers is crucial to the development of specific locational briefs for sign-off, with the economic and sustainability aspects of the structural engineering ultimately helping to drive the architectural constraints.

Since the start of lock-down, people’s experience of working from home has generally been very positive, with technology allowing effective communication and access of information. Remote working has seen us all utilise technology as we join online project meetings and undertake digital design and modelling tasks in a virtual world. This has seen a major reduction is unnecessary time spent travelling to meetings and sites leading, in turn, to significant environmental benefits with the massive reduction in business travel globally.

Until there is post-vaccination certainty with stabilised markets, the potential demand from end users is uncertain and developers are naturally pausing for thought. However, as engineers we remain active as we continue to provide valuable guidance whilst looking ahead to anticipate future development trends as the nation recovers.

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