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Shifting Spaces

As AUC plans for the second phase of its New Cairo campus construction, we examine faculty predictions on how physical space and architecture will change

By Reem Abouemera

“COVID-19 could be the first of waves, not the only wave. That will definitely change behavior, and in my own practice, it will change design – precisely, it will change architectural design,” said Khaled Tarabieh, associate professor and associate chair of the Department of Architecture. 

Looking ahead, the University began its AUC Next 100 Campus Plan along with international architecture firm Beyer Blinder Belle, who will be guiding the University through the master planning process for the design and construction of the second phase of our New Cairo campus. BBB engaged the AUC community, including student interns, in creating a vision for the future of the campus – supporting the space needs of the 21st century.

Among the engaged stakeholders who shared their vision for AUC New Cairo were Tarabieh’s students in his Sustainable Design class. Over the summer, they explored environmentally friendly uses for AUC’s undeveloped land, putting themselves in the shoes of the architects and actively working on the campus project by being assigned an AUC site and tasked with master planning it. 

From green roofs to permeable pavements, students worked from scratch to come up with their own architectural proposals. Their efforts were guided by Tarabieh, who holds both a master’s and PhD in city planning for energy-efficient environments from the University of Pennsylvania and is an expert on the design, construction and assessment of green buildings.

Tarabieh shared with AUCToday his architectural insights on what the future could look like for AUC post COVID-19, in light of his expertise and based on the ideas proposed by his students during their participation in the AUC Next 100 Campus Plan exercise.

Hybrid Flexible (HyFlex) Classes

Among the pandemic’s expected implications is the prevalence of HyFlex courses, where students can attend their classes either fully face to face, via videoconferencing as the classes happen in person or via recorded sessions after class, Tarabieh noted. Therefore, classrooms need to be equipped with technological resources to enable students to equally access all these participation modes and achieve the same learning objectives regardless of the mode they choose.

Class space would also need to be reconfigured to maximize physical distancing and may even need to be redesigned or enlarged, especially if the number of enrolled students per semester remains more or less constant.

“The new normal will demand that we take certain aspects into account, like how humans will adapt to being 1 meter apart from each other and wearing protective masks,” he said.

The Air We Breathe

The pandemic has taught us how particles can linger in the air, and confined spaces can be a transmission source for the virus. So improving indoor air quality must be at the forefront of priorities, Tarabieh said, highlighting that a “breath of fresh air” can go a long way.

AUC has always fostered a clean and green campus and taken several measures to implement that, from developing a sustainable trash management system to building the University’s first extensive green roof.

Now the buildings will need to be even more sustainable and healthier than before, with mechanical systems designed to supply fresh air and purify air at higher levels, Tarabieh noted.

“Priorities have changed,” he said. “It’s no longer about just supplying cold air or nice-quality air that’s free of humidity – it’s about purifying the air — an issue that imposes greater difficulty on mechanical design and that will require future investment in quality air conditioning systems and being ready for a higher energy bill.”

To achieve that, AUC will need to invest heavily in technology, particularly ultraviolet germicidal irradiation technology that purifies the air and inactivates airborne bacteria and viruses — similar to the concept of home air purifiers but on a larger scale. In addition, a front-loaded investment in building systems could take the form of more advanced air filters and portable filtration units.

Keep Disinfecting

We’re all using hand sanitizers much more than before, stocking them in our bags and pockets while on the go. Since we’ve been doing it for a while, it’s become second nature and is likely to stay. 

While seemingly simple, the frequent use of sanitizers has entirely different effects on physical spaces, especially concerning material selections. Since we’re spraying different types of liquids all day, the choice of material becomes vital, Tarabieh pointed out. 

“AUC will need to seek bacteria-resistant materials and antimicrobial surfaces that don’t allow viruses to settle onto them,” he said. “You won’t be able to use cloth materials that COVID-19 can stick to while cleaning classrooms, for example. Using carpets will be challenging not only because it acts as a dust sink but also because it’s a potential surface that retains the virus for a prolonged time. Floors, furniture and wall materials also need to be able to withstand that kind of frequent spraying and cleaning without deteriorating.”

Naturally, life-post-pandemic will be all about frequent cleaning and disinfecting public areas. COVID-19 got us used to the sight of housekeepers in protective suits or vehicles spraying disinfectants everywhere — and that will become part of the AUC norm for decades to come.

Tarabieh expects that the University will be recruiting for a much larger “army of specialized technical disinfection teams in addition to the typical army of housekeepers as well as disinfectant jobs to run a facility like AUC and sanitize it like a hospital.” 

But a large base of housekeepers simultaneously means more stock of protective equipment: sanitation suits, masks, sanitizers and disinfectants. “Yes, we’ll need much larger storage closets, but the bigger impact will be on their architectural programming,” stressed Tarabieh. “There has to be a mechanism to not only store the equipment but also dry it when needed, have it in stock at all times and dispose of it without coming in contact with the rest of the equipment. In other words, a sustainable cleaning system will need to be built from scratch.”

Back to Partitions?

“In the last 10 years of green architecture, we’ve been calling for open office spaces without partitions,” recounted Tarabieh. “It’s a healthier environment when you’re in an open office space, enjoying daylight and socializing with one another.”

Since the outbreak of the pandemic, researchers are now taking a step back on the idea of open office spaces because being in close proximity with others can pose significant risks. As a result, the direction is headed toward increasing spaces between offices.

“There’s a likelihood that we’re going back to compartments,” said Tarabieh.

That’s for office space.

But “the power of outdoors” will likely take over in other aspects of life, with a new trend that is likely to emerge. “It’s similar to ‘stay home,’ but this time, it’s ‘stay outside and get some fresh air.’”

Outdoor classes might become a norm in the post-COVID world

Tarabieh predicts that AUC will invest more in landscaping to design more pedestrian-friendly areas in expectation of new normals such as outdoor classes, for instance. He emphasized that the nature of courses will change — classes can be taught on the go while walking with students, socializing, or having a drink or meal together.

“The idea of stagnant classroom instruction was fading away anyway before COVID but the fading accelerated post-pandemic onto the new normal,” Tarabieh said. “The architectural vocabulary of outdoor spaces will change, including how to define and design these spaces. AUC will need more steps that allow gatherings and instruction in the fresh air and pit-like design spaces like those on Bartlett Plaza, where people sit in a circle or a U-shape.”

For Better or Worse

The lingering question remains, “Will the post-COVID-19 world be better or worse than it was before the pandemic?” No one knows, but Tarabieh is looking on the bright side.

“The whole world will change,” he affirmed. “Every house now has a home office, and each one of us — from children to grandparents — needs internet access. Smart TVs, smartphones and digital tools are keeping us connected, and there’s an overarching theme of strengthening sustainability worldwide.”

Through it all, humans have proven their perseverance. “There will be nothing called ‘reset to the beginning’ post-COVID,’ but this isn’t the first challenge that mankind has faced,” Tarabieh reflected. “For thousands of years, humans faced challenges. They will adapt and find ways to do what they used to do before the pandemic. I’m not saying that its impact will last forever — but human beings have an exceptional characteristic, which is adaptability.”

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