Designing & transforming social spaces in the COVID era – Things to Consider

When you start to plan and design ‘COVID-Safe’ or ‘COVID-Secure’ social spaces and outdoor areas there are so many elements to consider.

Usually I start a design process with a site visit, then I go away and accumulate lots of images that will get the client excited for our design direction.

It could not be more different when you are designing a space suitable for social distancing.

Initially you need to work out with the client what sort of social distancing they need to work to. Last Autumn in 2020 I had to show up to every meeting fully prepared about what the rules were for that town/borough and what they meant in practice. I also had to have a detailed understanding of the tier system and how their requirements might alter if the tiers changed.

Despite insisting to my various maths teachers throughout school that ‘I would never need to know that’….it is a lot of maths at this point. You need to measure all of the spaces and work out how to get as many ‘bums on seats’ as possible in the space available.

For outside areas, if you haven’t got a lot of space there is a decision to be made between providing general rain cover for an area with dividers and screens or creating more intimate booth seating. You must also consider how to get your customers in and out of the space safely, as well as think about access for service areas, toilets and fire safety.

Once these layouts have been back and forward and signed off by the client you can then start the design process.

The initial design ‘spark’ for me nearly always comes from what’s already there.

Bars for example, already have an identity that the customer base knows. Social distancing spaces are not about rebranding, they are about taking what you already have, which is working and reshaping it so your customers still get the same feelings when they come to your venue, even if they can’t prop themselves up on the bar.

When we transformed the Bodega Garden in Cobden chambers Courtyard, there was already some amazing art on the walls by Smallkid. In this case all of the booths were designed to be open at the back so they didn’t cover up the art that is famous in Nottingham and one of the reasons people would visit Cobden Chambers.

We used the colours from the wall artwork to influence all of our design decisions and we had fun creating booths with tall planters between each booth. These were made high enough to be able to get seven groups of six in. These booths were made up of slatted natural wood to keep the space feeling natural and intimate but not like you’re sitting in a box!

One major consideration for the final chosen surface is cleaning. Having designed near 100 festivals in my career, cleaning isn’t something we would ever prioritise for creative direction because luckily 9/10 times the rain does most the hard work. However, in a time when things must be cleaned constantly- with serious virus killing chemicals, it becomes the most important factor. At one point last year I had 20 pieces of timber painted and glazed up in a row for a cleaning product test. This means I can choose the most durable finish and advise the client if anything will cloud or damage the products. A raw timber table just isn’t an option when you need to do a full clean between each sitting.

The next stages are considering how to keep your customers feeling comfortable. The weather is obviously a ‘hot topic’ in the UK, and keeping everyone dry and warm, (when if it wasn’t for COVID they’d probably be inside) is a priority. We explore all of the options for lighting, heating, rain cover that are best. You also can’t forget about those all-important soft furnishings too, as no one wants a numb bum at the end of a couple of pints.

When it comes to heating there are a lot of factors to consider. The natural impulse is to fill an outdoor space with as much heating as you can, but it’s expensive to run. You must weigh up where you really need the heat, what you can afford, and where that true British spirit will come in, and your customers will contently adorn a beer jacket to be able to see their friends. There are also fantastic solutions like heaters on timers and infrared options which can be really cost effective. There is always a solution that doesn’t have to break the bank.

Having confirmed all of these different elements, you then have to go back and check the Government guidelines and face the prospect that having spent a chunk of money on your Tier 3, groups of 6 beer garden, you then might find yourself in Tier 1 in the hottest summer on record.

We work with our clients to explain how things can be moved around or changed to accommodate more people depending on the ever-changing rules. The point of all of our social space designs is that eventually (dare I say it) when everything’s ‘back to normal’, you end up with a brilliant outdoor space perfect for a summer or winter day which is fit for use regardless of COVID.

– Cordi Ashwell

A few of our designs with social distancing in mind…