Addressing Building Design as a result of COVID-19

We’re starting to see how operations and building design are going to change moving into the future. While there will continue to be new requirements and guidelines that we will need to adhere to as we move forward, it’s important to consider long-term design implications.

We’ve seen retailers make short-term changes on the fly to quickly meet new local requirements to stay open and keep their employees and customers safe, but many of these were temporary, hoping that the pandemic would be over quickly.

Many of these changes have been evaluated as we progress and we’ve learned what has and hasn’t been working for retailers. It hasn’t been a one size fits all approach, with different regions for the same retailer having varying success with the same approaches.

What can we expect going forward?

  • Modifications to local building codes
  • Order fulfillment changes
  • Technology updates
  • New store/restaurant concepts

Some local jurisdictions may continue to enforce mandates related to occupancy, materials and finishes, and circulation which are more stringent than established building code requirements. For example, although the building code establishes allowable occupant load, local jurisdictions could potentially maintain reduced occupancies to accommodate social distancing and help reduce the spread of COVID-19. In addition, anticipate modifications to health department guidelines potentially impacting building design and operations, including cleaning practices, food handling, the dining experience, and customer service interaction.

As consumer habits have shifted, speeding up e-commerce to a rate previously not expected until 2030, we’ve seen retailers rushing to retarget their strategies to include more online shopping and ways to add pickup in-store and curbside.

With the increase in e-commerce and BOPIS (“Buy Online, Pickup In-Store”), retailers have been adding new ways for customers to shop. ALDI expanded their online pickup service to customers in 35 states to make shopping at their stores more convenient and accessible for everyone. To make shopping more convenient for even more of their shoppers, ALDI is planning to open 500 more new curbside pickup sites in 2021.

Other retailers, grocers, and restaurants have increased delivery services and curbside pickup in response to greater demand by consumers. As the need surged, businesses added more workers to meet the increase in orders, sometimes cordoning off additional spots in their parking lots to add capacity for more order pickup. Restaurants across the US have added additional outdoor seating to allow people to get out of the house while maintaining social distancing measures.

Retailers are also looking at additional ways to increase efficiencies in order fulfillment and delivery of products. Walmart and Kroger were already well on their way to testing different types of automation for online orders. The hybrid approach that Walmart has taken in Salem, NH with a micro-fulfillment center attached to their store is expected to expand to other retailers. This approach allows for more efficient, profitable online orders while keeping the sales floor open to customers who will want to shop the aisles.

From robots to touchless technology, advancements are happening continually that affect not just how we interact with buildings but also what’s feasible in our built-environment. Touchless technology has been on the rise for years, with many facilities utilizing automatic doors at entrances/exits and motion-activated faucets, soap dispensers, and flushing toilets in restrooms. Retailers have increasingly embraced checkout counters utilizing tap to pay and paying via an app on your phone. These technologies have already become widely used and are increasingly what customers and occupants of buildings expect.

“Considering the advances that are being made with touchless technology, we expect to see building owners continue to implement these solutions in new and existing facilities,” said Travis Hager, SGA Principal. “Voice-based technology, for example, has taken off in recent years, and with the public more concerned with minimizing surface contact in high traffic areas, the development of voice-enabled systems will only accelerate.”

“For years now, companies like Sam’s Club and Sonic have offered an app where you can place your order, or scan your items, and pay directly from your phone. Over the past few years, we’ve seen an increase in the number of fast-food companies offering this option. There was a surge in the use of these apps during the height of COVID-19 stay at home orders,” continued Hager. “We will probably see more technologies like those as we progress post-COVID. Some fast-food brands, like KFC, are exploring conceptual ideas for a modern version of a drive-in restaurant where you would place your order via an app on your phone.”

With new concepts emerging for modern drive-ins and hybrid approaches to sales floor and micro-fulfillment centers, we’re going to see restaurants, grocers, and retailers test different methods to keep their employees safe, customers coming back, and profitability up in a world changed by this pandemic.