COVID Insights, Perspectives 09.23.2020

Let’s Take it Outside

Our team in Los Angeles envisions open-air spaces as a way to meet the current moment. Meena Krenek, Interior Design Director for the studio, shares more.
Visuals by Razan AlShadfan

At the beginning of the pandemic, I began walking an hour every morning to regain some normalcy and enjoy the outdoors despite the mandated confinement. On these walks, I’d pass a house with a covered porch. Seated there was a man working on his laptop and taking calls. Covered by the extension of the roof, he embraced his new workplace every day, rain or shine. Then, I’d pass a woman sitting in an outdoor shed in the backyard, doors open to reveal a height-adjustable desk, task chair, desk lamp, and a coffee machine.

And further along, at the local coffee shop, I’d frequently notice a large queue circled around the building. The owners had placed a mobile shipping container in the middle of the parking lot, creating a walk-up coffee kiosk that addressed ventilation concerns while providing a new outdoor experience for their loyal customers. As a designer observing these resourceful transformations all around me, I couldn’t help but wonder how we might develop more open-air spaces to meet the current moment while enhancing workplace, learning, retail, and dining experiences. A team of designers in our Los Angeles studio endeavored to find out.

First we wanted to understand our innate desire for outdoor settings. A core reason why we crave sunlight? Exposure to plants, natural light, and outdoor air has been proven to improve our physical and mental well-being. The body’s exposure to sunlight has a direct impact on serotonin production—that is, the mood-boosting chemical responsible for signaling feelings of happiness and well-being to the brain. Further, sunlight stimulates the body’s natural production of vitamin D. So, spending time in the sunshine—even if you’re indoors—helps your body produce the amount of vitamin D it needs to work properly.

Another factor at play are circadian rhythms, those biological, mental, and behavioral changes that follow a 24-hour cycle and respond to light and darkness within our environments. Circadian rhythms are produced by natural factors within the body, but they are mostly affected by signals from the environment—light being the primary cue.  Exposure to light turns the genes that control our  internal clocks “on” and “off.” Circadian rhythms dictate sleep-wake cycles, hormone release, body temperature, and other important bodily functions.  

Bringing out indoor spaces outside

Health experts agree that the risk of COVID-19 transmission is significantly less in outdoor spaces, where ventilation is less of a concern. But even with many businesses incorporating outdoor spaces in response to the pandemic, we still live in a mostly indoor world. An example of this is the restaurant industry, where storefronts may have only 10 to 20 percent dedicated to outdoor dining. While this percentage varies based upon location, climate, and other factors, we think there’s an opportunity to increase it. Our goal is to more evenly distribute the real estate ratio of indoor to outdoor space for where we live, work, and play.

Our concept, Taking it Outside, begins with a vibrant learning space that can be enclosed or opened up to the outdoors. Mobile wall systems facilitate passive cooling, as well as the airflow and breathability needed for a healthy environment. The indoor floor materials spill out into the outdoor area, where a smart shading system provides reactive shaded spaces. Mobile plant stands are not just for decoration; they hold bug-repellent plant species to keep pests away. A magnetic lighting system works with the frameworks of the canopy for easy adjustability, and large screens could be integrated on outside walls for outdoor instruction.

Key to the concept is integrating cooling systems and heaters within these open-air spaces to support comfort levels. Typically, when we move from conditioned space to outdoor space, the transition can create a shock to the senses. A transition space between conditioned indoor space and the outdoor area—similar to a residential sunroom or multi-story building’s atrium space—creates a more fluid and graceful experience.

This concept naturally lends itself to not just learning spaces, but also workplaces and community spaces—and likely other typologies, too. And while we believe it’s both provocative and, more importantly, viable, something needs to happen before implementation: a shift in the mindsets that dictate what can and cannot happen outdoors. Can we be as productive in an outdoor environment as we are in enclosed spaces? Can we take more activities that are typically conducted inside, outside?

We believe so. The pandemic has forced us to be nimble and evolve our thinking about the built environment. We have greater awareness of how space can support our activities, interactions, comfort, and ultimately, our health.  Natural light and air are free, so why not take advantage of this? By Taking it Outside, we can be agile and adapt to our ever-changing world with environments that support well-being during a pandemic—and beyond.