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Reconfiguring multi-unit living in a work-from-home world

John Bleasby
Reconfiguring multi-unit living in a work-from-home world

Many believed at first that the work-from-home experience would be over once COVID-19 ran its course. Clearly that is not the case. Major organizations across a wide swath of industries and governments are making the decision to keep their employees working at home indefinitely. That’s presenting a challenge for multi-unit residential owners and developers.

Globally, the Wall Street Journal reports that U.S. mining giant Freeport-McMoRan has only five per cent of its 28,000 employees working in the office, and it may stay that way. Tata Consultancy Services Inc. of India plans to cut the office time of their over 400,000 worldwide employees by 75 per cent by 2025. Smaller companies are making similar decisions in a search for efficiency gains and lower overhead costs.

As working from home becomes more permanent, employees everywhere are taking action. A U.K survey conducted by Ipsos MORI, reported in Building magazine, says that 49 per cent of people are looking to move away from city or town centres, largely related to the search for more workspace privacy and increased living space. 

What about Canada? This past September, Ray Wong, Altus Group vice–president of data operations and data analytics, told his audience attending CanaData 2020 that this year has accelerated changes to the Canadian workplace dynamic. He already sees a shift to smaller commercial footprints in retail space demands and impacts to sublet rates in downtown cores. Yet he is unsure of any widespread shift to the suburbs in Canada at this time.

Nevertheless, evidence suggests that changes in Canadian residential sentiment are happening. Condominium sales fell 8.5 per cent amid media reports that a growing number of investors want out of new condo deals in the Toronto region. Meanwhile, GTA detached home sales soared 33.9 per cent in October, in part reflecting attractive borrowing rates for those able to afford city house prices.

Upper corporate management and certain professionals may have few problems purchasing larger homes or allocating space in their existing homes for a fulltime office. However, those at lower levels, now sequestered in apartments and unable to afford multi-room dwellings, are being forced to take a fresh look at where they live and now also work.

Aside from the impact on commercial office properties, this major shift in the work environment may force current residential owners and landlords to react in order to appeal to those who must continue to live in small rental apartments or condominiums. For example, open floor plans of existing units may need to be retrofitted with movable partitions that permit shifts in purpose during the day from bedroom to office, or from dining area to workspace, and back again at night.

Going forward, new multi-unit residential developments will face similar interior design challenges. The esthetic appeal of large open living spaces or one-bedroom units may give way to demands for more segregated two-bedroom layouts in order to offer workspace privacy. Walk-in closets might yield to mini-offices with fold-away work surfaces.

Aside from work-at-home privacy conditions, addressing health and safety protocols in both new and existing residential buildings will become normal features.

Individually managed air filtration and replacement systems for each unit will be expected. Balcony designs may need to be enlarged to allow more open air exposure. Operating windows will become standard. Rooftop gardens as communal spaces are another idea being considered.

The number of building entrances may need to be restricted. Lobbies, artfully redesigned with dividers such as living “green walls” to segregate people and discourage large groups, could act as access gateways incorporating automated temperature checks. Renters or condo purchasers might expect touchless technology at entry doors and in elevators. Some designers are considering extra wide staircases for those wanting to avoid elevators entirely.

It’s a challenge to be faced. The new work-at-home world requires both a combination of quick fixes to address immediate occupier needs, and a committed long-term outlook regarding future multi-unit design.

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