As you cope with the realities of what #stayhome means—your laptop balanced precariously on your knees, your roommate banging around dishes in the kitchen, your only view a wall with a bookshelf on the verge of avalanche—consider this: you could be stuck here in the COVID-19 version of limbo for many weeks to come. And yes, that truth takes on a new dimension in Vancouver, where space is already at a micro-condo-sized premium.
But when you get past the shock of better-for-us-all isolation, take a good, long look around, and ponder what interior designers have carefully thought about for decades. Contemplate how everything in your space, and where it’s placed, will affect your state of mind, your physical health, and even your creativity and productivity. Science and research prove it. According to local experts, the solutions could be as simple as a few potted plants or moving the furniture so your work station sits at the nearest window.
You can do this.
“I think spaces are much more important than people think,” says Paola Gavilanez, a professor of interior design at the Wilson School of Design at Kwantlen Polytechnic University. For now, she suggests, there’s no sense worrying about the fact that you’re in serious danger of taking root on the sofa. Instead, wait till things calm down to ask yourself, “What do I need to do to stay healthy at a time when I’m being told to spend 24 hours a day inside the house?” And that’s where the expertise of interior designers can help.
“We’ve been shifting to working from home for a long time now,” Gavilanez says reassuringly. “It doesn’t have to be expensive or require major construction.”
To illustrate what she means, Gavilanez, who has family roots in Ecuador, cites a phrase from the popular Argentine comic-strip character Mafalda: “She says, ‘That which is urgent doesn’t leave time for that which is important.’ ”
Until we have time to adjust to our new homebound world, we’re going to have to make the best of what we have. “So we’re at the point of thinking ‘What little things can I change, and what little things should make things better?’ ” Gavilanez offers.
For starters, if social distancing suddenly has you channelling Japanese tidying guru Marie Kondo, madly sorting through shelves, purging, or reorganizing, you have the right instinct.
Experts seem to agree that one of the first keys to making your new status as a homebody work is decluttering.
“This is the time for spring cleaning and decluttering—that’s the number one thing that people can do to enjoy their home,” says Kendall Ansell, founder, owner, and principal designer at Kendall Ansell Interiors. “People live with clutter all the time, and this is a chance to get more organized. I’m staring at my bookshelf right now, saying, ‘Oh, I don’t need that many books.’ ”
Research says this approach will bring you calm at a time in the world when you need it. “It’s the theory of organized complexity,” Gavilanez explains. “Nature is complex but not messy, and humans respond well to spaces that have variety—books, art, furniture. So it’s not that the room should be minimalistic; that can feel like a jail. But even if you have a space full of books and other things, decluttering will help. Humans respond to order and organization. But order doesn’t mean nothing on my walls and nothing in the space.”
The added benefit: as Ansell says with a laugh, your next video conference might not feature piles of laundry or a counter full of dishes as the backdrop.
The same sense of order will serve you well as you start adapting your home as a workspace for the first time. Gavilanez cites a Harvard Business Review study that found you need to prevent your work life from blurring with your home life to be productive. And yes, that means not trying to write reports from under your duvet in bed. “A Harvard Medical School study says limit the bedroom to sleep and sex; that means no TV and no work materials,” Gavilanez says. “That will strengthen your mental connection to sleep.
“Unless you can maintain boundaries, you will always feel at work,” she adds. “So, to be productive, try to make a space and routine that fosters ‘coming home from work’ even when working at home.” For Gavilanez, that means that she and her husband get up at the same time each day, 7 a.m., get dressed, and “go” to work at their respective stations.
However, that does not mean that they necessarily stay in a single spot all day, glued to their chairs. In fact, Gavilanez has found other research suggesting that moving from position to position throughout the day can benefit you mentally and physically—whether it’s sitting on the floor or bending back on a lounger. “Changing the position of what you look at, from sitting up to lounging, might improve your creative skills,” she suggests.
These days, Ansell, who’s used to working from home while looking after a three-year-old son, moves around the house a lot. She’s created stations where her child plays—“the living room is puzzles and Thomas the Tank Engine, the kitchen nook is iPad and colouring, and upstairs are the binoculars and spy stuff”—and she and her self-employed husband move their work as necessary to keep one eye on their son (while no doubt saying a little prayer of thanks to whoever invented laptops).
“I really don’t believe in just one spot,” Ansell says. “I think it is good for the psyche to move spots.”
Once you've had time to recover from this abrupt societal sea change—after you’ve decluttered your house and figured out a way to frame a video conference without outing your aversion to folding laundry—you may be ready to consider the benefits of biophilic design. The term refers to the way that humans feel well around nature. It’s how we evolved. There’s a large body of research that says anything you can do to bring a little nature into your home will have health benefits, Gavilanez advises, lowering stress and even boosting creativity.
One of the most obvious ways to do that is through house plants. Look at any of the Vancouver lofts and condos that Ansell has designed and you’ll see a burst of greenery: sometimes it’s just a small grouping of spiky zebra succulents sitting on a bedside table; sometimes it’s a leafy tropical statement anchoring the corner of a white-on-white room.
“A space can feel very sterile without any life in it—I like succulents, a gum tree, a snake plant,” Ansell says. “And it doesn’t have to be a super high-design plant: I have ’mums in my house and they’re not even flowering right now. You just need a few, and adding that to your decor is a mood booster.”
Another strong way of bringing nature into your home is through light, according to a 2015 British study by Stephen R. Kellert and Elizabeth F. Calabrese, says Gavilanez.
“It’s making the most of natural light and having access to daylight, so that could mean spending time close to a window or spending a little time on the patio or moving the workspace close to a window,” Gavilanez offers. “Maybe it’s moving a mirror to reflect natural light or painting walls lighter colours.”
Close behind that is the need for fresh air while you’re in your home. A recent U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report stated, “Americans, on average, spend approximately 90 percent of their time indoors,” (that’s pre-coronovirus, by the way), “where the concentrations of some pollutants are often 2 to 5 times higher than typical outdoor concentrations.” So open the windows and encourage natural ventilation whenever you can. And while you’re there, remember that humans have an innate need to experience weather shifts. “If it’s raining, open the window and smell the rain on the earth and listen to the sound of rain,” says Gavilanez, “or feel the breeze.”
Elsewhere, consider the sight and sound of water—perhaps a little deck fountain—or light up the fireplace you haven’t used in a while. The same soothing effects come from the presence of animals—created by putting a bird feeder on your deck, adding an aquarium to your living room, or planting a butterfly-attracting garden this spring, riffs Gavilanez.
Images of nature also produce benefits, meaning you might want to put that abstract landscape or botanical print in a more prominent spot. Gavilanez points out that the same goes for natural materials, especially for people whose urge toward space-age minimalism verges on the final scenes of 2001: A Space Odyssey. “Humans respond well to anything from the natural world—wood, stone, cotton, leather,” she says. “I’m not recommending that everybody make it look like a cottage in the woods, but, for example, the bedroom could have exposed wood on the bed, or cozy wools might make it feel better.”
Ansell, too, sings the praises of natural wool—even if not everyone in her household is as impressed. “I’m always a big fan of the comfy throw or pillows,” she says. “For a throw, I like wool, but my kid says it’s scratchy, so you need to gauge what your family needs.” In these cash-strapped times, Ansell encourages moving and redeploying items from around the house, whether by shifting a warm quilt from the bedroom to the living room, or digging out a wool blanket from the closet to add natural, cocooning layers.
Small ideas like these may seem trivial now, but as we face distressing statistics and uncertainty beyond our doors, the need for comfort and refuge become more important behind them. And who knows? Our work-life adjustments may have effects lasting long after the COVID-19 crisis, however it comes to a resolution.
For her part, Ansell feels that it might affect not only the way we live and work, but also the future of home design after you can leave your house for more than a grocery run.
"It's going to be an interesting time whenever this is over,” she says, getting ready to move to the Lego station from the kitchen nook. “Real estate will be interesting; units with a home office will be in demand.”
Until that hard-to-see future arrives, get comfortable, declutter, and, above all else, just #stayhome.