• Wed. Jun 23rd, 2021

How the Coronavirus Will Change Home Design

But among those who can afford to be selective, remote work has allowed some to sample their options. Last summer, Sara Sodine Parr, a 28-year-old tech worker, and her husband moved away from San Francisco and tested out a succession of monthlong rental houses in other cities, noting which features they liked and didn’t. At the end of the year, they bought a house in Austin, Texas, with three bedrooms (“so we can each have a separate office”), a front porch (“ideal for meeting neighbors”), and a garage (“we can turn [it] into a gym”).

Parr and her husband’s preferences—for more space, more closed-off space, and more outdoor space—are similar to what I heard from many others. “There’s no going back to a smaller apartment, if I can help it,” Gina Murrell, a university librarian in Oakland, California, who last year upgraded from a studio apartment to a one-bedroom, told me. Taylor Marr, an economist at the real-estate website Redfin, told me that in home-buying, “The new gold rush is square footage.”

Square footage, that is, as well as ways of dividing it up. I heard industry experts talk about heightened demand for home offices, “Zoom rooms,” and outdoor sheds, as well as for more-compact “niches” or “alcoves.” In a recent presentation to homebuilders and developers, Mollie Carmichael of the housing-market research firm Zonda talked about “making use of the end of the hallway” or “tucking that space under the stairs” when adding a workstation to a floor plan—something, anything that isn’t the kitchen table or the couch.

As valuable as those setups would be, “It’s still going to be a luxury for someone to have a dedicated home office,” said Joel Sanders, a New York City–based architect who oversees MIXdesign, a consultancy that designs for people’s needs regardless of age, race, gender, or ability. At-home workspaces for everyone else lucky enough to have the option will have to be more space-efficient, and might rely on sliding partitions or “hidable” desks.

Of all the home-office innovation I heard about during my reporting, the apex was a remote-work bed that Sanders fantasizes about designing. He imagines that it would have “an ergonomic headboard that double[s] as a seat back,” “adjustable lighting,” “a waterproof work surface that swivels,” and “monitors with good sight lines for work, Zoom, and entertainment.”

An illustration of a house with a large yard, with a city skyline visible in the distance
Kate Dehler

Meanwhile, a parallel set of features and amenities is emerging to address health concerns, the other force that’s acting on people’s preferences. Carmichael, in her presentation, noted that nearly 70 percent of the homebuyers her company surveyed last year said they were willing to pay about $1,000 each for water and air filtration throughout a house. And Tim Anderson, the CEO of Focus, a luxury residential developer in Chicago, told me that in some projects, his company is installing features such as a heating system that has “all outside air coming in, so you’re not recirculating hallway air through your unit,” and touchless technology that would let people enter a building and then an elevator by scanning QR codes.