As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt every aspect of our lives, at RVi we are coming to terms with the fact that the virus is also impacting the way we design community amenities. In early March, we were forging ahead with the design of amenity centers as though everything would soon return to normal. Two months later, it is clear the virus will not “just go away.” How then should we design a facility scheduled to open during a pandemic? Do we apply “normal” design standards and hope for the best, or must we craft solutions that assume social distancing is here to stay? The decisions we make today are sure to impact the capacity and usefulness of these facilities tomorrow.

While we don’t have all the answers (yet), we do know that the best solutions anticipate both outcomes: temporary adaptations for social distancing that enable limited use today and the flexibility to either easily return to normal use after a vaccine is developed or to function effectively with social distancing as a permanent condition. We also know that the best solutions provide access to the outdoors. Being outdoors supports good physical and mental health and relieves the stresses associated with lengthy stay-at-home orders. And, new research is revealing that virus transmission in the outdoors is extraordinarily low. Of the countries performing contact tracing, only a single outbreak has been reported from an outdoor environment¹. Being outdoors is healthy and safe.

We have long known that amenities, both indoor and out, are an important part of the master planned community lifestyle. Residents buy homes in these communities to be part of that lifestyle and to have access to amenities that traditional subdivisions typically don’t provide. Now we see that, in addition to lifestyle, these amenities offer safety; they provide safe, close-to-home access to outdoor exercise, recreation, and socialization opportunities without having to venture into the surrounding population. To be certain that our design solutions provide this valuable benefit without unnecessarily restricting an amenity’s future use, we’ve been looking closely at existing design solutions that function well, whether we’re social distancing or not. We’ve also been studying ways of adjusting amenity design standards to make them more adaptable to current and future needs without requiring extensive modification later. Here are a few of our findings:

  1. Be Generous with Open Space: Open space benefits the environment, enhances property values, residents love it, and it’s safe. At La Cima in San Marcos, TX, we’ve dedicated over 40% of the site to open space uses, including a 700-acre habitat preserve, numerous parks, a community garden, and miles of trails. Every resident has convenient access to a variety of outdoor experiences. With the exception of playground equipment and swimming facilities, these amenities can all be enjoyed without restriction during a Stay-at-Home order. And, as an added bonus, all that open space increases the potential for developer lot premiums.
  2. Provide Opportunities for Outdoor Recreation: While open space is important, so are programmed outdoor recreation facilities; they may be the only place residents get much-needed exercise during the pandemic. Unfortunately, because many older amenity centers are designed around indoor activities and outdoor pools, some or all of their uses may be restricted during the pandemic. At The Mix at Kissing Tree in San Marcos, TX, we’ve designed a massive 20-acre outdoor recreation area that provides residents with bocce courts, an 18-hole putting course, horseshoe pits, washers, and pickleball courts−all of which can be used without restriction while social distancing.
  3. Design for Flexibility: Flexible design makes it possible to open a facility employing social distancing measures today and smoothly return to normal use in the future. At Headwaters in Dripping Springs, TX, rather than placing every community function under one roof, they are physically separated. At HW Central, the workout center, coffee shop, outdoor pavilion, and poolside BBQ are housed in a “village” comprised of four smaller structures with generous outdoor use areas in between. This layout allows normal use while social distancing, yet will easily revert to normal use without modification. Back at La Cima, the community center is now being designed to contain extra wall outlets and USB ports and a “juiced-up” Wi-Fi network−all designed to serve stay-at-home workers who are still uncomfortable with going into town to work. Its movable furnishings can be easily reconfigured for greater density in the future. In the meantime, it will be a safe workspace with plenty of leg room. The center also features a poolside terrace designed for outdoor yoga that will accommodate outdoor community and HOA meetings if necessary.

Regardless of whether this pandemic ends anytime soon or becomes a permanent condition, it’s clear that people are social beings who want to interact with one another. We need community, we need healthy recreation, and we need access to the outdoors. At RVi, we understand the importance of these needs and we are committed to finding design solutions that satisfy them.

¹Indoor transmission of SARS-CoV-2, Hua Qian, Te Miao, Li LIU, Xiaohong Zheng, Danting Luo, Yuguo Li
medRxiv 2020.04.04.20053058; doi: