Research and Development

Fighting COVID-19 with Generative Design

Sayjel Vijay Patel
January 15, 2021


While the current social distancing rules in many countries impacted by the corona virus COVID-19 outbreak advise against brief or outdoor encounters, emerging research suggests that indoor spaces, where measures are often more difficult to adopt, pose a greater concern.

For example, a review of recent COVID-19 outbreaks, such as among workers on the 11th floor of a South Korean call center[1], and among diners sitting near an infected person and downwind of an air conditioning unit in Guangzhou, China[2], suggests a critical relationship between three factors related to virus transmission: the volume of air; the density of people; and the duration of time spent in that space.[3]

There is a recurring pattern in these examples: prolonged activities in enclosed, densely occupied environments with limited clean or recycled air exchange become prime occasions for outbreaks.

Each of these factors has deep implications for the design of space: open plan offices; lecture halls; restaurants; care homes; nurseries; and warehouses are a few of the spaces that will need to be re-imagined by architects today. The flow and design of contemporary public spaces such as subway stations and shopping malls will need to be reconsidered.

We face a challenge akin to the reconstruction of Europe after World War II. However, our cities have not been reduced to rubble. We cannot start from a clean slate. We will have to work with what we have.

We are at the edge of a new epoch in architectural design. We have before us an opportunity to leverage scientific understanding and architectural philosophy for the creation and embrace of new tools. We have the mandate to re-imagine an architectural future more attuned to the climate and behavior of the individual, culture, and location.

For this, some fundamental questions — which have been elusive within the practice of architecture — remain open:

  1. How do we design spaces that anticipate the unforeseen without falling back to convention?
  2. How do leaps in available technology and science provide a ground-up, case-by-case method to combat the pandemic?
  3. Are top-down generic prescriptive measures the right way to tackle infection risks?

Meteorological Architecture

By just looking around our communities, we notice a gap between the theory and application of pandemic control measures. This chasm is a result of a lack of public knowledge of risk management.

For example, restaurant owners implement the guidelines, but the spirit of the measures are sometimes lost in the daily pressures of running their businesses.

If architects, trained in the art of understanding and visualizing space, assess risk factors poorly in the design process, how can we expect those without our training to understand the implications of government measures which are communicated as a set of generic regulations or restrictions?

Perhaps the answer lies by reflecting on the works of two architects: Paloma Gonzalez Rojas and Phillip Rahm. They have contributed new design methods to mapping invisible spatial factors directly connected to the spread of COVID-19: pedestrian motion, and air flow.

Gonzalez Rojas, in her research at MIT, looked at the development of new tools and methods to introduce human motion as a driver in the design process.[4] She is critical of architects who fail to connect the design of space with the movement of people who interact with it. Software packages that address pedestrian traffic, such as Bentley Systems’ ‘Legion’, have remained in the field of engineering, targeting fire egress or other goal-oriented scenarios.

Figure 2“ Walk Across” (2014), an MIT Thesis which analyzes data from real motion as the basis to create a “Space-Motion Metric.” This metric takes pedestrian motion and spatial features as input, and composes actions with speed, time and gestures.

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While Gonzalez Rojas frames her work from a largely human perspective, Rahm takes the position of the environment. In the “Domestic Astronomy” project, he proposes an apartment concept which exploits small allowances in temperature distribution to define space and activity. The goal of the project is “to reassemble a whole, to recompose in a single unit, the different climatic elements separated by the techniques of the building industry for constructing a global interior ecosystem as a new sort of astronomy of the interior where temperature, light, time, and space recombine into one single atmosphere, a single temporality, a geography.”[6]

Although inspired by the ongoing threat of climate challenge, Rahm’s “Meteorological Architecture” is relevant to the current pandemic crisis. In this work, he demonstrates how it is possible to articulate environmental phenomena such as convection, conduction, and evaporation as “new tools for architectural composition.”[5]

Figure 3 “Domestic Astronomy” (2009) by Phillip Rahm, proposes a new apartment typology that exploits the physical differences in temperature throughout space to specify different domestic activities and programs.

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In Praise of Incrementalism

A recent episode of the ‘Freakonomics Podcast’ (Episode 264: In Praise of Incrementalism) offers an additional cross-disciplinary insight using professional cycling as an example. Here, competitors use innumerable small and seemingly insignificant details of technique, which compound to improve their chances of winning. This concept can be extended as an architectural strategy in the fight against the COVID-19 virus and future pandemics. A series of incremental traffic and ‘meteorological’ tweaks to a room or a space may give occupants significantly better odds against virus contraction.

A series of incremental traffic and ‘meteorological’ tweaks to a room or a space may give occupants significantly better odds against virus contraction.

Although the simulation of airflow and crowding are sciences developed by engineers, the conditions under study are always bound up in design decisions, and require closer attention from architects.

Gonzalez Rojas and Rahm demonstrate that we have the tools at our disposal to move these considerations beyond goal-oriented situations to the ambiguity of daily life through the design of nuanced spatial interventions.

Covid Space Planner

We at Digital Blue Foam have taken the first steps to develop an easy-to-use tool that helps designers take into account the invisible factors discussed earlier.

Structures may be fixed, but the air and occupants are the constant variables. Our prototype analyzes factors such as total occupancy and proximity; airflow and ventilation; and duration of activity in the space. Based on these factors, the tool applies Digital Blue Foam’s generative design capabilities to recommend spatial planning strategies — such as the location of entry points; work areas; furnishings; and retrofits — to mitigate the risk of virus spread.

Designing and managing buildings as dynamic environments is a challenging undertaking. Our discussions with clients are focused on creating adaptive mapping systems that understand occupancy and the allocation of spaces for ventilation or cleaning, allowing a more effective use of the building under daily changes in occupancy.

Our discussions with clients are focused on creating adaptive mapping systems that understand occupancy and the allocation of spaces for ventilation or cleaning, allowing a more effective use of the building under daily changes in occupancy.

The aim is to create leverage for a transdisciplinary approach that will recruit wind engineering, human behaviour studies, and interactive way-finding sciences. As a result, we are currently speaking with experts in medicine, computational fluid dynamics (CFD) analysis, and way-finding to develop capabilities around occupancy, airflow simulation, and risk assessment.

Undoubtedly, tensions and contradictions will emerge as we input data, run models, and configure and compare alternative options. We hereby call on all architects and designers to embrace this added complexity as an inspiration leading us towards solutions and new ideas as we confront the beast. As Rem Koolhaas said in a recent Time Magazine article: “For anything that will be necessary to create an exception, or a moment of genuine inspiration, human intercourse is necessary.”[6

Figure 3 Digital Blue Foam Covid Planner 2020. From 2D inputs to 3D visualization

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Figure 4 Digital Blue Foam Covid Planner 2020. User interface showing circulation study

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Throughout its history, the practice of architecture has focused on designing the purely visual and functional aspects of space. Now, we, as a profession, face one of our toughest challenges with the COVID-19 global pandemic. Following disasters such as wars, earthquakes, and conflagrations, architects have faced blank-slate rebuilding challenges. In the wake of the current crisis, we have no such luxury. We must work to transform the existing building stock, using incremental design approaches that apply emerging knowledge of dynamic, human, and meteorological factors to reduce risks of contagion. Ultimately, these approaches will lead to the design of better spaces and more sustainable cities in the future.

This is the radical rethinking of architectural and environmental design that the pandemic has forced on us. As we plan for the reopening of workplaces, schools, and other sites, we must shift our attention to the invisible forces and atmospheric qualities that influence how we occupy space. What has been a topic of contemporary discourse and debate for years is today a matter of life and death.


1 Lu J, Gu J, Li K, Xu C, Su W, Lai Z, et al. COVID-19 outbreak associated with air conditioning in restaurant, Guangzhou, China, 2020. Emerg Infect Dis. 2020 Jul [May 14, 2020].

2 Park SY, Kim YM, Yi S, Lee S, Na BJ, Kim CB, et al. Coronavirus disease outbreak in call center, South Korea. Emerg Infect Dis. 2020 Aug [May 14, 2020].

3 Bromage, Erin. “The Risks — Know Them — Avoid Them”, May 6, 2020,

4 Gonzalez Rojas, Paloma. Space and motion : data based rules of public space pedestrians. Thesis: S.M., Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Department of Architecture, 2015.

5 Rahm, Philippe. Meteorological Architecture. Architectural Design. 2009

6 Phillip Rahm Architects. “Domestic Astronomy”, 2009

7 Luscombe Belinda. Architect Rem Koolhaas Says Redesigning Public Spaces Was Necessary Before the Pandemic, May 2020

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