Architects (and isolation veterans) share their ideas on creating environments that will improve the self-iso experience
Imagine this: a faint line appears next to the T of your little RAT—T standing for Totally Positive, of course. Hence sentencing you to avoiding everyone in your house… Oh, wait. There’s no need to imagine it. You’ve probably already been there, done that. And if you haven’t—don’t worry. If Omicron doesn’t have you isolating this season, Heineken-time probably will.
Nobody needs to hear about how trying self-isolation can be on our wellbeing. But have you ever thought about how the physical spaces we’re isolating in contribute to our COVID recovery—and sanity? Dr. Charmaine ‘Ilaiū Talei and architectural Masters student Janae Van Panahon have. In fact, they’re teaching a whole paper this semester called ‘Living with COVID; home isolation to resilience centres.’ They were generous enough to talk to me about how we can make our spaces more isolation-friendly, now and in the future.
An important thing to become familiar with is Therapeutic Design, which operates on the idea that a space can heal its users. Dr. ‘Ilaiū Talei explains that architects incorporate Therapeutic Design by “using natural ventilation as much as possible […] using sustainable materials, like timber, […] having a view outside, hopefully to nature,” and optimising sunlight throughout the day. Such design strategies help to bring the outside in. They enable us to visually or tangibly connect with nature, which Dr. ‘Ilaiū Talei says, “influences our sense of wellbeing.”
As well as being architects, Dr. ‘Ilaiū Talei and Janae have both had COVID. They know that getting Kevin McLeod to come and Grand Design the shit out of your flat probably isn’t feasible. However, we can still incorporate Therapeutic Design into our current spaces, or at least identify what rooms are best to isolate in (should you need to do so away from the rest of your household). From our conversation, it became clear to me that if your room does not have a comfortable source of light or natural ventilation, you need to put your Enola Holmes hat on. Scope out the room that has those features, then usurp it temporarily in the name of the Team of Five Million.
To get that connection to nature so important for healing, you could organise with your housemates when you can use outdoor areas (if you have them), like the deck. Alternatively, you could spread your legs over to the letterbox each day or be the person who moves the wheelie bin to the side of the road on rubbish day. Dr. ‘Ilaiū Talei says, “keeping occupied with domestic rituals” can distract you from what you’re going through, give your day a “sense of meaning”, and relieve you from that feeling of being locked up.
Janae and Dr. ‘Ilaiū Talei explained that outdoor areas can also become the place where we connect with others during isolation. Decks and other outdoor spaces can be where we get socially-distanced, but face-to-face time, ensuring that “one doesn’t feel isolated completely.” Another option is using a staircase as the shared space. Some people could set themselves up at the top of the stairs, while others stayed at the bottom.
Perhaps you don’t live in a multi-storied house, a house with an outdoor area, or a house in general. Maybe you live in a shoe-box of a space often referred to as “Student Accommodation”. Apart from filling the shelves with plants, incorporating Therapeutic Design might be pretty challenging, especially when you have to stick your nose out the 5cm of open window to feel any sort of breeze. One thing that might work for you is designating areas for certain tasks. For example, when Dr. ‘Ilaiū Talei was isolating with her family, she used a sheet to demarcate her workspace. But boundaries don’t need to be physical; time can also work in the same way.
“Maybe it’s in the morning that’s where you work, but in the afternoon, that’s your relaxed space—that’s where you eat. It’s finding what works for you. Maybe for some they do need a designated spot for exercising, for example, but everything else can be done in the same spot. For others it might be that the bed is the place where they love to work because it makes them feel comfortable […] It’s asking oneself: “What works for me?”
It’s fair to say that most living spaces weren’t designed with isolation in mind, some without any regard for what it might be like to shelter a sick person. Incorporating aspects of Therapeutic Design could just take our self-iso experience from a Level 1 to a Level 4.
Moving forward, Dr. ‘Ilaiū Talei and Janae are helping soon-to-be architects design pandemically-prepared houses. From sanitisation stations to isolation suites, homes of the future will need to function in different ways to keep their inhabitants healthy. Check out some of their students’ thinking into what such houses might look like in the artwork accompanying this piece.