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Living and Working in COVID-19 Australia

The conversation surrounding living in the Covid-19 pandemic is muddled, divided by opinions and speculation on what working and living in Australia will or should look like.

Architects call for new home designs that will prioritise our health and well-being, physical and mental. Many in the broader public seem to be more concerned with the implications of cost in the suggestions being floated around. Other questions have been raised, such as the continued viability of co-living and whether it remains a market worth investing in. Long-running social issues such as income inequality and affordable housing have been brought to the prominent surface as the impact of the novel coronavirus swept through our communities.

Today, we take a look at what is being said for a better look at how our architects and homeowners and renters think the world we live in will change because of coronavirus.

The Properties We Live In: Build-To-Rent (BTR) and Co-Living

Before the pandemic, BTR and co-living were two markets just finding ground in Australia, surrounding by a promising buzz within the real estate industry, with property experts toting them as solutions to our affordable housing problem and a more sustainable, community-centric way of living.

Following the outbreak, market conditions have become more unstable, and trends more unpredictable. What is being said about BTR and co-living, however, remains optimistic. Mirvac, the developer on the frontlines of Australia's push into the BTR market believes that the uncertainty of today's economic conditions will only make BTR—a cheaper, more flexible alternative to traditional housing—more attractive.

This, however, does not remove the underlying challenges that BTR developments in Australia continue to face, such as unfavourable taxation policies, and potentially high vacancy rates that are inherent to the concept of BTR.

That being said, the positioning of BTR as an increasingly favourable option may see the surrounding taxation regulation and policy shift in order to encourage BTR within Australia. In June of this year, the NSW government indicated a commitment to the growth of BTR, a promising sign of its continued viability as a market and investment opportunity.

Another market on the rise, also positioned as an answer to sky-high housing prices and increased flexibility in a fast-paced world, is co-living. On the surface, this seems like the exact opposite of the type of living arrangement we need in a pandemic. UKO, and NSW-based co-living company, describes on its website "communal spaces and amenities" and "community dinners". In the year of self-isolation and government-mandated quarantines, communal spaces and community dinners sound like the perfect vehicle for coronavirus transmission.

There is a flip-side to this, however, which is the ability to quarantine as a group. There is much to be said about the mental well-being of individuals who are able to quarantine with family and friends, able to conduct face-to-face activities and games, versus individuals who are forced to quarantine alone, whose social interactions must come through a digital screen. With careful and responsible management of coronavirus containment and prevention measures, the co-living sector can be and (in the US) has been surprisingly resilient in the face of the pandemic. In fact, as we adjust to the new normal of post-pandemic Australia, co-living may be even more appealing for the very reason of being able to quarantine as a community.

In short, both BTR and co-living are emerging markets in Australia that have been battered by the pandemic's impact on our economy, not unlike most of our industries and markets. BTR and co-living, however, continue to maintain the headway they've already made into Australian real estate, and perhaps, grow.

Urban Planning:

Beyond the type of property we choose to live in, the current trends and ideas that drive the way we build cities and homes are adapting. The 20-minute city is a concept of local living, built around the 5km-radius restrictions during Covid-19 lockdowns.

The 20-minute city calls for building up local life, from shopping centres to parks to employment opportunities. It refocuses our busy, fast-paced city lives on home and the area around home.

More than that, this has benefits for creating green spaces, community spirit and creating jobs closer to home that can be more accessible for those who cannot afford to live near the dense, urban sprawl of the city where most jobs are concentrated. The increased supply of necessities and local goods and services would also cut down commuting time, making it cheaper and greener to access what we want.

Architecture in Homes and Offices:

As lockdown ushers us inside the house and away from our offices and workplaces, working from home has become the new norm. And, it seems, it is a new norm that might be here to stay—the WFH setup has employees reporting in happier and more relaxed. Cutting out commute time alone allows people to sleep in, in addition to reducing traffic congestion on the roads. For workers who cannot afford to live in the heart of the city, they are also potentially seeing higher accessibility to the option to live in more affordable suburbs while still holding down a higher-paying city job without the travel cost.

Lockdown, for all its drawbacks, has demonstrated that for a good percentage of the population, WFH works and has proven benefits. But the more time we spend at home, the more we begin to realise our homes are not designed for extended periods of lockdown where we are required to stay inside the house for days on end. The trend in modern homes favours open-plan, airy spaces that have a breathable aesthetic. Study nooks instead of study rooms are more commonly seen today, especially in townhouses and small to mid-sized homes, where a fully furnished study is traded for an extra bedroom.

Lockdown, however, has illuminated the drawbacks of this style of home, which is primarily privacy. Open, airy spaces also translate to sounds travelling easily around the house. In the current work-from-home environment, this is hardly ideal for couples or families that have to quarantine together, and may have to work and attend different online meetings in the same space.

Architects and home designers have thus taken to re-imagining our homes in the post-Covid world. How will people want to live in the future? How should homes be designed now that privacy for self and work have become highlighted as crucial and sorely missing aspects of contemporary Asutralian homes?

Demand might tend to favour homes with better WFH support, for example. Standing desks to promote movement have been suggested, along with soundproofed studies or simply a study area delineated with an enclosed space and a door. Greater access to the natural environment may also become more important as people spend increasingly more time at home.

Hygiene may also have a greater priority. Extracting the kitchen from the living area, which tend to flow into one another, may help reduce exposure of external contaminants to the food prep area. While these suggestions have been raised, the general public, however, seems more concerned with the high costs implied behind these changes. Australia already has a housing affordability problem. How much more would it cost a family of four, for example, to purchase a three-bedroom home that is also equipped with a study? Is the additional cost even a feasible option for many Australian families?

And for as much talk as architects have had about new ways of living and new styles of home to promote better lifestyles during quarantine, there are others who have been equally critical of their underlying assumption that his new normal—returning to daily life outside the house, seeing a rise in the number of coronavirus cases, going back into lockdown, reducing the number of cases, rinse and repeat—is here to stay. Surely, they say, this will be a really bad year that we look back on in five years. Surely, by this time next year, coronavirus will be a distant dream.

Being either a prophet nor a scientist, I can hardly make any predictions on what our lives will look like in a year. However, here are some of the facts:

US cases are only just beginning to plateau, which just means that on August 26th, they had 42,355 new confirmed coronavirus cases. India's cases are seeing an overall rising trend, now outstripping the US in daily cases. Globally and within Australia, coronavirus cases see new outbreaks and second or even third waves. It's an endless tug of war that pushes us out from lockdown only to pull us straight back in.

With natural herd immunity being either too unlikely or too costly to achieve, our only hope is a vaccine that has not yet been developed and even when it is developed, may only be able to reduce the severity of Covid-19 symptoms and/or provide temporary protection. And even this is not a guarantee—at best, the earliest timeline for a Covid-19 vaccine to be made available to the public is mid-2021, approximately ten months away.

In short, Covid-19 is here to stay for the foreseeable future—and its impacts may stay for longer. (ET)

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