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COVID-19 spurring a massive shift in real estate, built environment thinking

Russell Hixson
COVID-19 spurring a massive shift in real estate, built environment thinking

As cities and businesses around the globe are adjusting to the COVID-19 pandemic, industry leaders are completely rethinking the concept of built spaces. 

The latest discussion in the Lifescape, Untethered from Place, an online conversation series, explored how digital technology, data collection and human experiences are poised to revolutionize the built environment.

The four-part series was presented by the Institute for Lifescape by Kasian Architecture, in association with the Urban Land Institute, Alberta, and brought together global experts, scientists, theorists, business leaders, civic leaders and citizens with discussions that assess how the removal of city life will affect the human order throughout the business world, from small start-ups to large firms. 

“How do our cities influence the human behaviours that drive socialization, commerce, health and well-being? What impact does city life have on our psyches, our ability to innovate and problem-solve? How are people affected when cities, as we know them, are removed from the equation? These are just a few of the questions that this series attempts to answer,” says Will Craig, Kasian’s Calgary principal and the moderator of the series.

For the discussion Craig was joined by Paul Doherty, president and CEO of The Digit Group Inc. and Ken Bautista, a partner at Makespace.

“This is an absurd time, but it is reality,” said Doherty, who explained how social distancing guidelines are presenting his team with complex problems about actual risk and perception of risk. “Because of how mechanical systems work and hermetically sealed office buildings, it would take about 15 minutes of breath to become infected, five if talking, 50 seconds if singing, so social distancing does not work at all in an interior environment.”

He and his team are now exploring ways to disrupt air circulation to prevent droplets from spreading and using UV treatment to sanitize air.

“As all this is going on, you have two kinds of entrepreneurs,” said Bautista. “One is just trying to keep the lights on and those who are trying to keep the lights on, but also thinking about what the future is.”

He noted the way stores and restaurants are operating and consumers are behaving will likely impact real estate needs going forward.


The human-centric need is changing and it’s our responsibility to lead that way,

— Paul Doherty

The Digit Group Inc.


“You can’t rely on walk-by traffic anymore,” he said. “You will have a lot of owners and brands thinking differently about what they use their space for. How do we build neighbourhoods and areas knowing that the spaces will now change. It will be open season on what it means to be a creator and a consumer and a tenant in around these businesses.”

Doherty highlighted that technology and people’s expectation of certain experiences is already shaping how his team is thinking about planning a community near Beijing.

“This rethinking of what space is necessary is driving the adoption of autonomous vehicles which raises the idea of moving real estate,” he said. “The experience is most important, so what would happen if your favourite chefs with a moveable kitchen were able to plug into your habitat?”

Doherty said his team is also exploring the idea of doing away with medical waiting rooms and having exam room spaces and other facilities “plug in” to people’s homes. 

“The human-centric need is changing and it’s our responsibility to lead that way,” said Doherty, noting many large development firms have their heads in the sand thinking that business will go back to normal.

“Lots of people are realizing that 30 per cent of their workforce could stay home and they are just as productive,” he said. 

Doherty brought up the realization that as new buildings are built to collect data over their lifetime, at a certain point the value of the data exceeds the value of the physical building. He noted director Jon Favreau, who has been experimenting with film techniques for “The Mandalorian” has shown interest in finding ways to utilize real estate data to aid filmmaking. 

“It is wide open. The rules haven’t been made and we are seeing some phenomenal examples from the entertainment industry,” said Doherty. 

Bautista noted for the construction industry, successful companies will be those who are able to give clients better pre-visualization phases. 

“Bringing it back to ‘The Mandalorian,’ they used technology to pre-visualize the story so that before shooting they knew exactly what they were going to do,” he said. “You need to apply that to construction and spaces. Opportunities in design and construction are getting great at pre-visualization.”


Follow the author on Twitter @RussellReports.

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