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A few years before the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918-20, which killed more than 1800 Torontonians and an estimated 50 million people around the world, the city was battling another respiratory disease: tuberculosis.

At the Orde Street School near College Street and University Avenue, that meant the creation of its “Open Air School” on the top floor. Believing that copious amounts of sunlight and fresh air – even in winter – would combat the illness, pupils “took their lessons in rooms with open windows, often bundled in blankets” and would alternate with exercise, nap time and a hot cocoa break (according to the school’s blog).

Around the time of the Spanish Flu pandemic, the Orde Street School in Toronto created what it called an 'Open Air School' to combat the illness.

Toronto Archives

If one will pardon the pun, this kind of thinking was in the air a great deal in the early 20th century. Indeed, sanatoriums were located outside of city centres – Ontario’s first at Gravenhurst was on the shores of Lake Muskoka – so patients could lap up the photons and oxygen molecules, and, for a brief period, residential architects dipped their toes into the water by producing “antiseptic” houses that boasted healing qualities, such as the famous 1927 Lovell Health House by Richard Neutra in Los Angeles, which not only incorporated massive windows, but had a kitchen planned around a raw food diet.

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A hundred years later, however, can we really say that architecture changed permanently because of these?

“Well, definitely copper piping,” architect Paul Dowsett says over the telephone. “We transitioned from lead piping to copper piping for plumbing … because copper held far fewer germs.”

So, to follow that thread, will architecture change post-COVID-19? Are there things architects should do differently? And if so, should those things become part of the building code?

Julie Bogdanowicz, an urban planner with the City of Toronto, says that courtyards in multiunit residential buildings are already being encouraged. In the city’s Growing Up: Planning for Children in New Vertical Communities guidelines, open-air forecourts and courtyards “provide both a memorable destination for children or resting place for families” which, she points out, works for interaction while social distancing as well. The 2017 document points to the St. Lawrence Neighbourhood (1970s) as a good example of a self-contained neighbourhood that includes schools, community centres, shops and the long, linear Crombie Park.

Retired architect Paul Reuber, who designed a residential building in the St. Lawrence neighbourhood (that contains a school) and has often featured open-air courtyards and glassed-in corridors with ventilation in other multiunit projects, is more pessimistic: “We aren’t producing much architecture that’s taking any steps forward, and what I mean by a step forward is, it asks you ‘what can the building do for the residents’ instead of ‘what can the building do to advance the career of the architect?’

“The first kind of building, you look at how people get along, the social mix,” he continues. “Whether it’s going to be a courtyard; whether they can sun on terraces; whether they can meet and maintain social distancing around the pool … how they can wave to each other; how, when somebody is sick, neighbours can just come down the hall and give you a hand.”

While open-air common areas will no doubt have a place in the post-COVID-19 world, Mr. Dowsett also thinks the reverse is true: we will need to seal our homes as tightly as we can to keep pathogens away. “Who knows, the next pandemic, it might be something that is completely airborne in ways that we can’t even imagine yet,” he posits. “We’re not just addressing all the key features of this pandemic, we’re trying to think outside of that, and bigger than that, and I think making buildings airtight is really good, and then with managed ventilation, we can have the appropriate filtration systems that really do filter out those airborne particles.”

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Sustainable's Warden Hilltop Village would feature open-air interior 'streets' and air-sealed apartments.


In fact, quite serendipitously, Mr. Dowsett’s firm, Sustainable, won second prize in a pre-COVID-19 competition for a mixed-used development that, if built, would demonstrate post-COVID-19 features other architects might want to consider. Not only would Warden Hilltop Village encourage connectivity between neighbours (to be resilient in times of crisis), there would be open-air “streets” on the building’s interior that contrast with the “well air-sealed” apartments.

Architect Tye Farrow, who has spent much of his career designing health care facilities, says that the residential architecture of the future will very much be about “the 15-minute city.

“It’s effectively walking the distance of about a mile, and within that you’ve got all of the services that you want…if everybody was tested within that neighbourhood, and you could pull up the gates, then you could continue on.” It would be, he continues, a “health-causing environment” that might look very different if architects allow for physical distancing in public areas and place hand-washing stations every few hundred meters.

A rendering of a COVID-19 hospital system by architect Tye Farrow.

Farrow Partners

Hospital architecture may change as well. Not only will there be a need for decompression areas for “burned-out” medical staff, Mr. Farrow continues, features that hospitals in the Middle East already incorporate, such as parking garages that can be quickly converted to an intensive-care ward, will also be included. And if those changes can’t happen before the next pandemic, Mr. Farrow is figuring out how to quickly erect buildings with more solidity (and natural light) than tent-hospitals via timber blocks with a Velcro-like metal surface, which allows them to be stacked like Legos.

“If there’s anything we should be doing to handle the symptoms of all this,” finishes Mr. Reuber, taking a back-to-basics approach, “it’s just to wear a mask, because masks will handle the pandemic in almost any building form.”

Economist Mohamed El-Erian says that the coronavirus shutdown will create a buyer's market for real estate, offset by reduced incomes putting stress on the whole sector. El-Erian was in conversation with Rudyard Griffiths from the Munk Debates. The Globe and Mail

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