Open air spaces – an advantage during epidemics

During the recent lock down, we all felt how important open air spaces are. We missed being out in the parks and the luckiest among us used their gardens, terraces and balconies everyday.

In open air, while following distancing recommendations, infection transmission is substantially reduced by the free movement of the air. It makes sense, especially during epidemics, to move as many of our daily activities outdoors. While keeping us safe and healthy, this will also save a lot of the resources spent on cooling and heating the indoor spaces.

Outdoor meeting spaces are bound to become a must in every office building. Most schools reopening in Europe are also moving some of their classes outdoors and remodeling their courtyards.

These outdoor spaces already exist in exceptional buildings around the world, but budget or climate constraints prevented their typology to become mainstream. Health considerations today will make all of us, including developers, prioritize differently.

In office buildings, a typical floor can be planned to incorporate wide terraces, allowing for meetings in open air. See below the Meridia Office Building, recently completed in Nice, France, by Nicholas Laisne Architectes.

NL*A Reveals Plans for Open-Concept Green Office Building in France,Courtesy of Nicolas Laisné Associés
Nicolas Laisne Architectes / Meridia – Office Building, Nice, France
NL*A Reveals Plans for Open-Concept Green Office Building in France,Courtesy of Nicolas Laisné Associés
Nicolas Laisne Architectes / Meridia – Office Building, Nice, France

In high-rise buildings, a median level can be allocated to open gardens, to be used by all for recreation or as an open air meeting hall. Mid-level gardens work better than roof top gardens as they get more protection from the winds and are less exposed to harsh direct sun. The vegetation is easier to maintain and more species can thrive, resulting in lush gardens that provide a very relaxing environment.

This mid level gardens are currently not favored by commercial developers because they “use” a part of the regulated building height: it is obviously more profitable to use the full height of a building for office space. However, in those circumstances where zoning height restrictions are less important, developers might be persuaded to enclose such a garden in their buildings, with health and wellness benefits for all its users and a memorable urban presence that will only add value to their property.

Paris, Skygarden
KPF, Robinson Tower, Singapore

The health benefit of open air activities in schools, both in “normal” times and during epidemics is a fact well accepted. However, today, few schools make the effort required to hold more classes outdoors. For most, the courtyard is a recess and sport place only.

Open air schools were used before WWII to fight tuberculosis. The models designed and operated throughout France, Germany, UK, USA promoted as many hours as possible in open air. Their buildings were designed with large glass walls that could be fully opened during good weather. Sun and fresh air were deemed critical for maintaining and enhancing good immunity against tuberculosis for children.

Arh. Eugène Beaudouin /1932 / Open Air School / Suresnes, France
Arh. Richard Neutra / 1934 /Elementary School Corona Ave. / California / USA

A pavilion layout, with open gardens and covered pedestrian routes outside the building encourages outdoor activities and small group gatherings. Good natural ventilation of all spaces reduces and dilutes viral clouds that might float in the air. In open air viruses disperse very fast: one would have to be in close proximity to a sneezing/coughing person to get infected.

Below a recent example of an elementary school layout in Israel in which the classrooms spread over a green campus, connected by covered walkways and multiple gardens. This type of school would work well for limiting person to person infection spread, as it provides plenty of space for social distancing, very good natural ventilation and plenty of opportunities for outdoor activities.

Schwartz Besnosoff Architects and Town Planners, Tidhar Elementary School, Israel
Schwartz Besnosoff Architects and Town Planners, Tidhar Elementary School, Israel

There are a number of design strategies that can be used to retrofit / remodel existing school courtyards (like the all concrete ones built in the 1960 in Romania) in order to encourage social distancing and outdoor learning. These are:

  • Planting vegetation, including big trees for shadow within the school yard. Divide the courtyard with vegetation, assign spaces for each class to be held outdoor.
  • Design sloping or terraced play surfaces to restrict large group gatherings and to encourage movement.
  • Insert different patterns / textures in the courtyard pavement to promote circuit movement games

Some of these are illustrated by the examples below.

Dekker Perich Sabatini Architects /Learning Courtyards / Elementary School Cottonwood / Carlsbad, USA
Paredes Pedrosa Architects / Kid University / Spain
Davidson College / North Carolina, USA
Playground/ Fawns, United Kingdom
Playform Patterns / Metalbac & Farbe

Last week (beginning of May 2020), upon reopening of schools in France, a very sad picture went viral, see below. It pictures a school courtyard, where each child is restricted in a square drawn with chalk on the pavement. It seems extreme and it is making the playground look more like jail. Should we fail to provide a learning, nurturing environment for children in schools, we should give up schools entirely. There are better ways!

Franta / 2020 / Copii in pauza / Imagine Lionel Top

Along the same lines of promoting as many outdoor learning activities as practical, it would be good to see the official school terms structure better aligned with local weather conditions. In Bucharest, for example, should we switch to a longer winter vacation (1st of December to 31st of January) and a shorter summer vacation (1st of July to 10th of August) we could gain 2 extra months with plenty of opportunities of doing classes in open air.

Montessori School – Open Air Classroom

Raluca Buzdugan / 20 mai 2020

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