Answering Your Questions About Communal Spaces

KCBS Radio is answering your questions about all things coronavirus every weekday at 9:20 am
By KCBS All News 106.9FM and 740AM

As we continue to navigate these unprecedented times KCBS is getting the answers to your questions about the coronavirus pandemic. Every weekday morning at 9:20 a.m. we're doing an "Ask An Expert" segment, focusing on a different aspect of the situation each day, sponsored by Sierra Pacific Financial Advisors.

Today as Texas and Florida orders all bars to shut down again, we're taking a closer look at the future of traditional communal spaces like restaurants, bars, hotels and schools with Ken Lowney, the founder and principal of Lowney Architecture in Oakland.

So let's talk a little about the big picture from your perspective. You know, in the past when architects and designers did their work, they probably didn't spend a lot of time worrying about a pandemic, did they?

Not at all (laughs). No, we're worried about building codes and zoning ordinances and trying to make the community happy for our larger projects, but never did something like this - the whole idea of social distancing and thinking about space where we have to now - never entered our minds.

And so, what have you found in these last few weeks and months as this thing's exploded, that's on your mind?

Well, I'm surprised. The design of many of our buildings, we're still waiting to find out what to do. And when I look at many of the, for example, large box grocery stores we've done, what I'm pleased to see is, the design has a loose fit over the program. So there's plenty of space in the aisles, there's two entrances and exits. There's lots of space around checkout. So the large box grocery stores really quite easily adapted to this unforeseen pandemic, social distancing. And they have tall ceilings too, so there's a lot more air flowing through. But of course, when you look at all the restaurants, particularly restaurants located downtown that live off lunchtime business, you know, all of the restaurants, many of them where I work in downtown Oakland are obviously closed and many have gone out of business permanently. They just can't stay in business. And many of the ways that they might have stayed in business, for example, the CARES act, initially the PPP didn't really offer enough rent coverage to help restaurants. So they had no business, they couldn't pay the rent, they couldn't pay the employees. So it's just a small step to being out of business.

And you've touched on a few key issues here. You've got the business question of dollars and cents in, dollars and cents out. You've got the safety issues, the uncertainty about what the right thing to do is. Nobody wants to sink a bunch of money into improvements and find out they did the wrong thing.

Oh, I know it's maddening, it's maddening. And so we are in the process of designing five or 10 hotels right now and we're very aware of what the implications are - some of the implications, anyway - with COVID in social distancing. But we don't really - we're waiting for direction from the CDC. We're waiting to find out about vaccines and how people are going to manage this. And it seems some of the hotels for example, are one off and they might have more trouble compared to a brand that can be explicit about its standards, cleaning protocols and filtration systems and have the wherewithal to have touchless check in and an app that opens your door. But none of this is happening yet. We're still in the process of approving buildings that are largely the way they were before, just cause we don't know exactly what to do. So the room count corridor, checkout, check-ins, we're just kind of waiting to see what has to happen.

And as we do this sort of pause, are there models out there that you've come across, whether it's for a hotel or a supermarket or a bar/restaurant, anything that you would look to and say, I think that might be the way to go.

Well, I think I touched on it a little bit with this concept of a loose fit. So if you have a building, hotels or restaurants that are really constrained by space because of the cost per square foot of the rent, or just that's all the space there is, there's not much room to maneuver. But if you have more space and of course that can, and usually does cost more, then you have much more flexibility on how to manage these unforeseen issues. So it's almost impossible from a practical standpoint when you're just scraping enough money to put a business together, to anticipate a black swan event, which surely this is one of those, that it just comes and it's outside of a business plan. So it's very, very hard to manage.

Alright, well let's get to some of the questions that have come in from our listeners to askus@kcbsradio.com. Let's start with this first one. I've heard that some staggering percentage of restaurants are never going to reopen. Is there anything that you think could be done about that, maybe some kind of tax credit or fee waiver or something?

Well, I think the first thing to do is to patronize them. They're going out of business because people aren't going to them. So it's harder to do in a downtown restaurant when you're not going to work. So those people have a different set of circumstances, but certainly neighborhood restaurants, you can support them. And many of them are doing a great job pivoting to using their kitchens to entirely to-go regimens. They're incorporating grocery stores. Many, many restaurants are selling products that they use to actually put into their food. So you can buy eggs, pasta, wine, olive oil, granola. And it's a really cool throwback to having this combination restaurant and grocery store. It's all to go of course. So I think patronizing them is the best way to keep them going.

I mentioned the PPP, I think it was revised because of the negative impact on a restaurant so that if a business can qualify for that it turns into a grant and they can cover rent. And that's a big piece of the puzzle for restaurants staying in business in addition, of course, to traffic. But yeah, a lot of them are going out of business. It's tough.

With respect to reopening schools, many buildings are singular buildings with few windows in each classroom, narrow hallways to access the rooms. How would schools be able to guarantee proper ventilation and filtration for the safety of students and teachers?

How would they guarantee it? So that's sort of going back to this loose fit idea. So either you have to expand out into playgrounds or parking lots. Instead of thinking about space, you have to think about time and scheduling the use of the classroom with fewer students. Look at adding bigger windows. And of course the whole idea of all the mechanical systems, everyone is looking at mechanical systems differently now. What we think we know about COVID-19 is it's transmitted through aerosols, so air is a big deal. So HVAC systems deal with the philosophy of air volume and the purity of the air. And so if the existing system can manage to change the velocity or the volume or add increased filtration, then maybe it can be used in the classroom. But if it can't then it probably has to be replaced.

Yeah we've got a lot of interest in that very topic. This next one says, I'd like to hear your guest talk about the role of air quality and air handling systems. How complicated and/or expensive is it to provide proper air flows since we know that transmission of the virus is less effective in a well-ventilated environment?

It depends. So if it's, for example, in a restaurant, depending on the design of the restaurant, you expose ductwork and the units on the roof. It may not be so difficult to increase the capacity because you don't have to rip apart ceilings and whatnot. But if all of the mechanical system is buried inside ceilings and walls it's a lot more expensive. It might mean moving light fixtures and art and adding a lot of costs, which may not be possible. So it totally depends on the system and the design of the space.

The next question asks about sterilizing systems and ultraviolet C lights used to sterilize air in some hospitals. Since these are cheap add-ons to a home or office (you can get them added to your HVAC system), please ask your guest about why we're not talking more about sterilizing all work environments, since it's not particularly expensive. Are you familiar with this stuff? And is it being used much in environments, outside of hospitals and healthcare?

No, I'm not familiar with it and it sounds fantastic. And maybe something like that could just be an add-on to a mechanical system to sterilize the air. So, you know, there's all kinds of things that are coming that have one use and now we're finding a fantastic way of repurposing those technologies.

I assume that when it comes to air handling, a lot of this is written into building codes and the like, that everybody relies on the same basic template when they start to build out a system, right?

Yeah, that's right. And those codes get changed every few years. So first we have to find out what has to be done, what we can do and then adopt a code or a practice. Which is why the first step before codes can be adopted, brands and advertising communicate what the business is doing to actually protect our health to create confidence so you can feel comfortable going back into this space. But I feel like before all the mechanical systems and buildings are ripped out, we're probably going to be doing something different, like utilizing other things we already have, such as this whole idea of parklets taking over parking spaces for parks. Well, now I think we can take over parking spaces for outdoor seating. So that seems like a faster fix to a problem while we're still trying to figure out what the bigger solutions are.

And to that end, talking about schools as we were a moment or two ago, how easy is it for a school or a health club or anybody to pop up some sort of open air structure if they have the space to do it, and essentially do indoors outdoors?

Super easy. Weights and exercise equipment doesn't need electricity. You can just put the rubber flooring out in the parking lot, have a tensile structure or tents and workout outside. That's a very easy thing to do and then mark it out so it's an appropriate distance apart and people can move around and get their equipment. I saw in The New York Times like a week or two ago, there were some gyms opening up and it had a picture of individuals in the tent. And I mean, that's extreme. For me personally, I would rather just do pushups outside in my backyard. But if you feel the need to go to a gym to do a certain exercise, people are finding a way to do it. I think that social distance and you know, air flow is probably a more enjoyable way of doing it, but that's a great example of many design solutions to this problem. So everyone's trying different things and working on it to eventually find out what works best.

We've gone in recent years into so much height in our architecture. This question mentions there are a lot of empty offices in San Francisco right now and points out that elevators remained the choke point in tall buildings and wants to know whether there's any safe way to move people on elevators.

Not now. You can only have a few people in them at a time so it is really a choke point. And it goes to a larger question on density and urban living and the use of cities and the benefits of city living versus the benefits of suburban living or country living. And it's certainly proven that you'll make more money. You'll find more people. There's more opportunities in cities. So that's why people go to cities and in cities real estate is expensive so you have high rises, it just follows through the logic of real estate and costs that you're going to have these little choke points. So some of these office buildings have multiple entrances, but then you're going to be choked in these elevators.

So one thing possible to do is to make use of freight elevators instead of tenants going only to the elevators for normal use. There's other elevators in buildings that are around the back in loading docks and potentially you could get twice as many, three times as many people, if you use different elevator systems. Urban Land Institute had this whole policy on unhealthy buildings and trying to get people to take stairs, which makes sense if you're going three or four stories up maybe, but not so much for going 20 stories or 30 stories. But maybe it does if you're training for a marathon (laughs).

(Laughs) I was going to say we can add the whole health aspect in right there.

Right (laughs). So stairs, of course, they're enclosed spaces too. So it's an issue. Many job types can stay home. And for my own firm - I have a 50% architecture office - we're in no rush to get back to the office. We're taking our time. We're a leader in many things, but we're going to be a follower in this particular thing because we don't want our employees or colleagues or associates to be unnecessarily exposed if we don't have to.

So let me ask you, then, as you look long term, what do you see your own office looking like? Not an office or something different?

Well for me personally, my firm is growing quite a bit and I rented a second floor underneath my office in downtown Oakland, before I had the people to put into it. And then I felt sort of stupid after I did that, and it turned out to be following my business plan was the best thing I ever did because now it's quite easy for me to space people out. Because we were tight. If you look at the percent or the area that employees occupied in office space, it was 350 square feet, and until COVID it was still plummeting down to 150 or something, or less. And so now obviously space per employee is going to go way back up. And we've already done the layout which shows how people get in, how to get out, the spacing of seating and plexiglass separators.

So when it's time to go back, if the conditions are similar to what they are now, my office can go back. But like I say we're not in a rush. And people are all over the map of wanting to stay home and work, being eager to get back to the office and out of the house. But that depends on so many things. School's opening, the confidence in taking public transportation like BART, all these things are linked, the whole system. And so it's hard to have one thing work and not have everything work.

I'm glad you brought up the footprint of space per square foot because I've been asked that question a lot by everybody from cafe owners to people in school districts. Is there a magic number that you're aware of or a recommended number or even a direction in which people ought to aim?

As far as area per foot?

Yeah, in fact I even had somebody the other day talking about a wedding saying, the county says we can have a hundred guests, but we don't know if the space we've got is big enough because we don't know how many square feet to allow for each guest.

Well, that's interesting. So 36 square feet would be a starting point, but then you have to sort of think about a layout. 36 square feet would be a beginning point, but then you want to just think about how you move around the space, the shape of the space.

This is why people hire architects (laughs).

Yeah. I was just thinking that it used to be six feet was the ideal with a mask, and now it's 30 feet. Is that right?

Well, depends on who you're listening to, but there's certainly discussion that six feet would be a bare minimum if you're going to be there for a brief encounter. It's probably a whole different situation if you're going to spend eight hours working.

Yeah. And not to promote my profession architecture, but it would be worth laying out how that space might work for an event. So event planners or interior architects or architects, call someone up and figure out how that would work. And then people get the invitation, the confirmation and they get a map of how to get to their seat or the map of how to go to the bathroom and just how to navigate the space, because what we don't want to do is have people floating around, bumping into each other. Providing a way of using spaces that are safe, particularly spaces that you don't know. So like, how do you park, how do you get in, how do you get out and how do you go to the bathroom, how do you say hello to the bride and groom. All of that can be choreographed to figure it out, and certainly makes a lot more sense to do that in advance than sort of, willy-nilly impromptu.

This interview has been edited for clarity.