The seismic shift that coronavirus catalysed across every facet of life - including where and how we choose to live - has had profound implications for the property developer, bringing with it new opportunities - as well as responsibilities.
The design of homes is typically a response to consumers’ needs and lifestyles, explains Jacques van Embden, Managing Director at urban property development firm, Blok, “and as such, it tends to evolve gradually over time, in line with societal shifts.
“That is, until a pandemic takes hold."
With such a rapid and staggering change to our way of living, van Embden believes that the developer has a responsibility to interrogate the role of design within this emerging new paradigm, and it is this very step change that he believes will lead to a rise in what he dubs, human-centred or ‘conscious design.’
These sentiments have been echoed across the global industry. “The pandemic is testing everyone - it’s been challenging, but it shows that well-planned places with holistic management that have been thought through…are really attractive,” says Robert Evans of UK-based developer Argent.
“Pandemics have a history of disrupting and altering life in cities and communities, adds Nels Nelson, a senior planner at international design company Stantec, in a four-part series that covers Covid-19’s impact on urban design around the globe. “Though being destructive in themselves, they have led to great improvements for the life of city dwellers.”
The role of the community
As South Africa begins the long path to socio-economic recovery, consumers’ needs and priorities have changed. Covid-19 and lockdown have taken a toll on the collective emotional, physical and financial wellbeing of people, “which has led to us reassessing what is truly important to us,” explains van Embden.
While ‘wellness’ and ‘self care’ have been buzzwords long before the pandemic, they now dovetail with an increasing emphasis on community. “The community plays a key role in consumers’ holistic health, as social interaction contributes to our overall wellbeing. The social distancing required as part of the management of Covid-19 only served to heighten the importance of these interactions.”
And the hub of these communities? Cities, it appears. A a new report from international law firm Withers Worldwide recently pegged suburbia as being less well-positioned to accommodate the resurgence in demand for community, caused by the increased amount of time spent at home over the past year.
The report also identified other key considerations that were driving a shift in development as the increased demand for a more flexible living space; a heightened aspiration for community; and a greater focus on a home’s locality.
Van Embden believes that as the world slowly emerges from the pandemic, people will seek this sense of community both inside as well as outside their buildings. “Urban or city living is, in general, less isolated than suburbia or estate living, providing more opportunities to interact with others.”
He believes that developers need to carry this same awareness through to their design. “We should be thinking about creating unique spaces within buildings that facilitate social connection among residents, while enabling them to connect with their broader neighbourhood community outside the homes.”
This also calls into question the need for a wide array of amenities, and van Embden believes that developers need to reassess, streamline and simplify their value proposition. While consumers still prioritise attractive amenities - especially those that support this increasing emphasis on wellness - he believes that developers should not make assumptions about what is important to consumers, and rather conduct in-depth research.
“Developers may find that their audience would prefer a desirable location over a plethora of building amenities, as the right location will allow them to fulfil these needs outside the home.”
He cites Sea Point as an example. “It’s a highly popular investment location because of the lifestyle it offers. It might be that a fully-equipped gym in an apartment block is not as important to someone who is looking to buy in the area, as they have access to the promenade and a number of fitness centres on their doorstep.”
After a year of being told to stay at home, people now want to be outside their home, believes van Embden, and he anticipates that they will be out in droves, the minute it is safe for them to do so. “We, as developers, need to look at how we can accommodate this trend towards living outside the home, and how we acknowledge and incorporate this into our design.”
Beyond sustainable to pleasurable
‘Hedonistic sustainability’ is a term coined by Danish architect Bjarke Ingels, which means the integration of sustainability into our cities, while creating pleasurable environments for people. As Ingels says, “The only way you can make sustainability win is if you make it more desirable than the alternative.”
He believes that the arrival of biophilia as a health and wellness aspect of a city is important, and “we’re going to see much more of it in the future.”
Van Embden agrees. “Developers need to have an immersive understanding of where they are developing, and should be looking to the natural resources within the immediate environment, considering how they can harness, complement or enhance these through design.
“This past year brought about a new appreciation for our natural environment, with a renewed focus on greening our living spaces. Energy efficiency and reducing our carbon footprint are now non-negotiable - but how do we go beyond this, promoting biodiversity within the very bones of our developments?” he questions.
While it might not directly answer van Embden’s immediate question, more care and thoughtfulness in how we live, work, interact with others - and even build - might be just the answer we’ve been searching for.
Writer: Kyle Solms