Domino Effect: Post-pandemic architecture trends for offices, bars, restaurants and schools

How do you go about designing the buildings of the future when the future is uncertain?

It’s a question John Dancer has had plenty of time to contemplate over the past two years, with the pandemic challenging so much of what he thought he knew about architecture and design.

Dancer is vice president of Cornerstone Architects, an architectural firm with offices in Traverse City and Grand Rapids that specializes in projects across sectors such as education, hospitality, corporate commercial, arts and culture, multi-unit residential, and municipal.

Over the years, Dancer and his colleagues have designed some of northern Michigan’s most recognizable buildings, including the Great Lakes Maritime Academy, the Hagerty headquarters, the Brasserie Amie building downtown (formerly The Franklin), and many of the key campus buildings at Interlochen Center for the Arts.

Even armed with a strong project portfolio, Cornerstone Architects couldn’t dodge the shock waves of the pandemic which Dancer says have shaken the very foundations of the architectural building design.

One particularly notable trend? The massive downsizing of the American office stock.

“I don’t think we have any office buildings (in our queue) at all right now between our Traverse City and Grand Rapids offices,” Dancer said. “There’s some mixed-use projects that we’re looking at, but those primarily would be a commercial use on the first floor and residential on the upper floors.

“My feeling is, there’s a lot of vacant office space out there right now.”

Dancer noted that commercial offices have never been Cornerstone’s bread-and-butter as an architectural firm, but that those contracts have become even fewer and farther between since the start of the pandemic. With many businesses still operating in virtual or hybrid modes, Dancer expects that a true “return to the office” movement may never materialize.

Instead, he’s forecasting a more flexible future – one where employees have more freedom to decide whether to work from home, where some staff (but not all) work out of the office on a regular basis, and where the office becomes more of a hub for meetings and all-hands-on-deck collaboration than for everyday work.

If that shift occurs, it could cause a domino effect that completely reshapes the way commercial buildings are used – and whether some of those buildings are even commercial at all, he says.

“It’s maybe short-sighted, because you never know how much (the office sector) will rebound,” Dancer mused. “But I could see a lot of office space being transformed into residential. It doesn’t seem like that’s happened (in Traverse City) yet, but it might be starting to happen in Grand Rapids.”

The office-to-housing conversion trend has indeed started to take root in Grand Rapids. Last year, the city approved zoning changes that gave many commercial building owners the freedom to convert first-floor retail units into residential space.

Per a report from WOOD-TV – an NBC affiliate serving the Grand Rapids, Holland and Kalamazoo region – the rezoning theoretically enables “almost half of the city’s 6,000 commercially zoned properties to allow first-floor apartments.” The zoning change was a response to the growing number of empty storefronts that Grand Rapids has seen during the pandemic.

Grand Rapids isn’t the only city looking at these types of changes. According to RentCafe, a popular apartment search website, developers in the United States created 32,000 new apartment units between 2020 and 2021 just by converting existing building spaces that had previously been used for other purposes. Forty-one percent of those conversions transformed former office buildings into apartments, equating to approximately 13,250 units.

This trend, called “adaptive real estate,” was already on the rise coming out of the 2010s, but it’s hit a crescendo. Statistically, 2021 was the biggest year on record for adaptive real estate, with 20,122 unit conversions in total. That number is up from 11,838 in 2020 and is nearly 24% higher than the previous peak in 2017, which saw 15,480 apartment conversions nationwide.

Cities leading the charge on office-to-apartment conversions, according to CNBC, include Washington, D.C., Chicago, Los Angeles, and Cleveland.

While office buildings are largely on hold while everyone waits for the dust to settle, Dancer indicated that other facets of Cornerstone’s business – particularly the education and hospitality sectors – are roaring back to life.

“There’s quite a bit of activity happening now (with restaurants and bars),” Dancer said, crediting a mix of pent-up demand from the pandemic, a rosier-looking future, and a clear sense in the food and beverage community of which design trends are going to be valuable going forward.

Increasing confidence and a fresh perspective on outdoor use has boosted the market, he says.

“Whether we’re taking an alley, a sidewalk, a roof, it’s all considered more dining and bar space now,” he said.

Dancer say his office space in downtown Grand Rapids is a front-row view for the outdoor dining trend.

“They literally closed one lane of (Bridge Street) for outdoor dining last summer, and because of all of the space, all the lights, and all of the planters, it’s great,” he said. “It’s really nice, and I don’t think it’s going to go away. I think, pandemic or no pandemic, people like sitting out there.”

Dancer also sees outdoor spaces being a trend going forward in education, with one K-12 district eyeing a full outdoor-based curriculum melding zip lines and physics.

Other schools are focusing on pop-ups, a pandemic-era necessity that has gained traction.

“So now they’re saying, ‘Well, how can we create outdoor spaces that are more fixed that we can always use, pandemic or no pandemic?’” he said.

Even indoor education areas are changing. Dancer cited Cornerstone’s recent work on NMC’s West Hall Innovation Center (pictured above) – which was commissioned in 2018 and completed in 2020 – as a design that serendipitously included many of the things schools needed in the COVID era.

He sees the building’s design approach – which de-emphasizes classrooms and lecture halls in favor of communal areas, wide-open spaces and smaller study areas – fast becoming the dominant strain of education architecture.

“It’s really geared toward individual study and group study, and you can just take any of these study rooms or enclaves and meet there,” he said about the inviting space, which includes a cafeteria. “The building is open 24/7, so students who don’t have internet access who live someplace else can come do their coursework there.”

The West Hall design proved to be an asset for NMC in the era of social distancing and hybrid learning, in that it gave students different ways to use the college’s facilities. Dancer said those trends are cropping up more and more in K-12 education, too, noting that two of the most recent overhauls at Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS) – the reconstructed Eastern Elementary and the in-the-works Montessori building – both feature a wide variety of open spaces, rather than just individual classrooms and hallways connecting them.

His prediction is that eventually every TCAPS building could have a similar design, whether by way of full building replacements or significant renovations, including deconstructing the traditional corridor.

“If you just took a typical double-loaded corridor with classrooms on both sides, you could carve out a couple of those different classrooms, and make them accessible to the corridors, and you would have a much different-feeling space,” he said. “You’d still have some traditional learning, but you’d have other kinds of group learning spaces, too.”