UPDATE 08.08.2020: On 6 August, the BBC posted "This is what coronavirus will do to our offices and homes." The article makes staggering predictions of how home and work will look for those who lived in large cities when COVID-19 shut the world down. Follow Laila in 2025 and see how her adaptive workspaces, home office, and living quarters have changed in the 5 years since coronavirus spread into a global pandemic. Their analysis closeley parallels mine in the following post, originally written 06.27.2020.
Throughout history, all societies have adapted to, or been overcome by, disease. In the late 19th century, the United States followed the European modelling for “clean air” spaces, air shafts in buildings, high windows, doors with plenty of ventilation, and more. Lovers of this fin de siecle architecture have to look no further than disease for the reason why Venetian sewers and Swiss sanitariums like Davos are the way they are; common wisdom while tuberculosis ravaged the developed world required a way to “clear the air” of contagion (hence the idiom) to allow patients to recover. How, in this new age of pandemic, will architecture again evolve?
Now is the time to speak with architects and designers regarding pandemic design. If you’re uncomfortable with strangers in your home to take measurements, there are companies offering 3D interior modelling, scans for which are created by workers in full PPE. Most in-demand are the professionals who work along and don’t employ large crews/groups that would have multiple points of exposure to COVID-19, and understandably so.
Contact with strangers increases your possibility of infection, hence why big box stores like Lowe’s and Home Depot are packed to the gills on weekends. Homeowners have taken to DIY-ing many improvements to their home. Many are finding that the open floor plan we all yearned for is impractical for multiple persons occupying the same space, just as an open office concept became the bane of the cubicle warrior. Some are only the battery on their noise-canceling headphones away from filicide. Without discretionary spending now going towards travel, vacations, gas, car insurance, etc., for most, the home renovation and remodeling market is hotter than ever. No one has gone through lockdown without cleaning out every closet and calculating the best plan, affordable or not, for their family to coexist.
It’s not uncommon to find more than a dozen 2x4’s at Lowe’s or Home Depot these days. What are people building with all this lumber? Fencing. Planter beds. Boxes. Catios. They’re screening in their porches. French doors are going in. They’re finally getting around to all of the things that are easy to ignore when we’re only at home to sleep. Now that work, school, and play time all take place at the house, homeowners are making the most out of their properties.
A New Generation of Builders
As COVID-19 continues to blaze through the United States, we will come to rely on our architecture to provide us with levels of defense against biological forces. New construction which confines people into disease-spreading conditions cannot be done ethically. For the discerning (read: wealthy) homeowner, it’s not too far off (and has certainly been accelerated by this year’s events) that the same companies utilizing the Internet Of Everything will utilize that same level of internal home monitoring for preventative measures like temperature checks using thermal imaging. Think Star Trek’s ship scanners. If Amazon’s delivery drone project catches on, then it’s not so strange to think that, instead of a Victorian-era coal chute on every house facing streets for delivery, there could be a “drone dropbox.” How many people use their chimneys anyway now that we’re experiencing climate change? Christmas 2016 in North Carolina was 81* at 9am. Bezos needs the chimney more than Santa.
While more futuristic than the architecture of Davos Sanitarium, far-UVC light and other nonintrusive sanitizing technologies are going to be the future of construction in the developed world. Ask yourself: would you prefer to continue wiping and spraying everything you own with disinfectant every time you get back to the house, or would you rather stand in a Cleanse Portal for a few minutes and let science do the work for you? A Cleanse Portal at every point of entrance or egress from every building in the developed world will be a massive step towards evolving the way we occupy space in the age of viral pandemics.
What Does This Mean for Me?
If the Cleanse Portal raises the hair on the back of your neck the same way Netflix original Black Mirror does, you’re not alone. Continuing automation and reliance on “smart” technology has been, and always will be, a constant point of contention between people; just look at 2004’s film I, Robot. Sixteen years later, we’re still collectively unsure how we feel about turning over more and more aspects of daily life to automation. Some people are thrilled at the prospect of menial chores being done by mindless automatons, while others see “smart technology” as a danger to personal liberty and privacy.
However, in the face of these advances becoming the difference between American COVID-19 cases continuing their embarrassingly colossal upswing or our finally controlling its spread, we will need to reach a compromise between our self-preservative instincts and the need for progress to contain this deadly virus. Reliance on these advanced medical technologies and integrating them into buildings, both commercial and residential, is the way forward.
Evolutions in architecture and building standards are inevitable. It may be a few years or a few decades, but in this inescapable age of pandemics, we are going to continue to progress towards pandemic-quashing building standards and options. Centuries ago, that looked like high windows and better circulation. Now, it looks like drone drop-off chimneys and sanitizing lights. It’s not what I pictured either.
As long as humans have been living packed in close to one another, we’ve had to deal with the spread of illness. Evolving technologies and infrastructure have progressed the developed world to a point where we no longer worry about severe contagious diseases outside of the seasonal flu, or perhaps pneumonia or strep throat in a particularly nasty season. However, months into the COVID-19 pandemic, we are being forced to reckon with the notion that our current systems are not sufficient for a bug like COVID-19.
When TB blazed through the developed world, we adapted by changing the way we built our cities and infrastructure. As COVID-19 continues its unmitigated path through America, we will continue to adapt in ways that will permit us to live comfortably in a new normal. Whether our future is Cleanse Portals or some insofar undiscovered breakthrough, we must acknowledge a certain inevitable truth: we must rely on these advances and adaptive technologies. If we don’t begin working anti-COVID-19 technologies and designs into buildings, schools, offices, homes, etc., Americans will find ourselves constantly defeated by this virus. The age of pandemics has cemented this into human history with remarkable security. Necessity is the mother of invention. I, for one, look forward to meeting her offspring.
UPDATE 08.22.2020: On 15 August, the CEO of Zillow began saying the same thing your humble real estate professional said months ago: telecommuting and de-urbanization are here to stay. With the passage of time and high-powered individuals echoing what you and I have known for months, we can now officially accept this "Great Reshuffling," as he put it, as canon.
On May 4, 2020, Bloomberg.com published an article entitled “Home-Flipping Giant Opendoor Says It’s Time to Resume Buying.” I will be honest, as I always have been: just as I was pleased when iBuyers shut down their operations, I was equally dismayed reading this article. Putting aside the frantic attempt to maintain a strong corporate image, I realized that these businesses beginning their buying efforts again is going to do more harm than good in the long run.
iBuyers such as Opendoor are, unfortunately, reaching the end of their financial cushion by the time of this announcement, if it hadn’t run out already. Unlike many Americans, Opendoor was able to raise “$1.3 billion in equity capital from investors including SoftBank Group Corp.’s Vision Fund.” When you combine the need to keep the lights on with the overwhelming pressure to maintain investor’s comfort, it becomes clear why Opendoor is starting to resume its buying practices. The company needs money, and cannot raise sufficient amounts - even from fundraising efforts - unless it’s in operation.
While I appreciate Opendoor’s hiatus on the claim of public safety, if they really were concerned about public health, they’d still be closed now. Resuming business while the country is staring down the barrel of a second wave of COVID-19 infections shows that the motivating force behind this resumption of activity is fiscally motivated. News touching on the strong potential of a second wave were published as early as May 2, if not sooner.
Why Should We Trust Them?
If it wasn’t obvious enough, I do not believe we should trust the longevity of these iBuyers. As soon as they shut down over public health concerns , they lost the right to ask for the public’s trust in either their business model or their safety procedures.
Individual real estate agents and their offices immediately turned to an online platform for conducting business, utilizing industry applications like DocuSign, ZipForms, Dotloop, RealScout, Bombbomb,, etc., with ferocity in order to keep their clients’ experience moving as seamlessly as possible. When times got tough, we got going. Demand for virtual tours has skyrocketed in my office, and we are all helping each other figure out the tech tools for video production & sharing so we can still keep home buyers and sellers doing what they do best: buying and selling from each other. What did the iBuyers do?
When Will They Leave Again?
If a second wave of coronavirus does hit as predicted, there’s no reason to expect that iBuyers won’t leave the desperate folks working with them hung out to dry. Just as in the first round of activity cessation, the family trying to sell their home in a busy downtown area will be left hanging with no follow-through or accountability from the large, “trustworthy” company who claimed they would offer a certain price for the home and make the closing process quick & painless. Suddenly this family can no longer move their young children to a more suburban area where social distancing is easier. What happens then?
The draw of iBuyers is also their greatest weakness: instant pricing and rapid closing. A company that can turn around a real estate sale in 2 weeks or less can also pull out of that transaction at the drop of a hat. Remember that $1.3 billion in capital that Opendoor raised from investors? Your $300,000 home is a drop in that bucket. All the risk they talk about being willing to accept is your family’s ability to move. They are willing to risk leaving you and your loved ones high and dry in the name of profitability.
While the everyday person hit the pavement and hustled to keep their families afloat during COVID-19, these large corporations ran to their rich benefactors begging for a bailout. These rescue funds raised are a shortsighted “solution” to an ongoing problem. 50% of businesses currently shut due to COVID-19 will never reopen. This virus is not going anywhere. There is no way to know how long it will be until corporations like OpenDoor permanently go under as well.
The Human Touch
It is very difficult to find an individual real estate agent, or even a team, who has access to $1.3 billion in seed capital. According to careerexplorer.com, the average annual income for a real estate agent in North Carolina is around $59,920 per year. Rather than fleeing under the wing of wealthy donors, NC real estate agents improvised, adapted, and overcame to keep us all safe while maintaining business operations as normally as possible.
The father with two children to put through college on this income is going to fight for your transaction to close on time. The husband-and-wife team who make a comfortable, if simple, living on their annual earnings are going to do their darndest to get you the very best price as you sell the home you raised your family in, because they understand the complicated feelings that come along with selling something with so many memories inside it. They do it all on a commission less than what Opendoor will charge.
When COVID-19 strips away all sense of normalcy and security, a local agent will (from at least 6 feet away) hold your hand through every aspect of your purchase or sale. We know what it feels like to have our livelihood threatened by this virus, so we are doing our best to help our clients avoid uncertainty surrounding one of the largest transactions of their lives.
Resuming operations with no guarantee of longevity will only serve those at the upper echelons of corporations like OpenDoor. They will profit as long as they can before “normal operations” become untenable again, at which point they’ll drop everything and retreat once again. With a predicted economic constriction of 32-25% in the third quarter of 2020, iBuyers won’t have a chance of maintaining the high liquidity required for their business models, and we will lose them once again.
It’s not a question of if iBuyers will cease real estate activity again, it’s a question of when they will. At some point, the recession we are nose-diving into will come back to bite them and they will have to reduce activities, if not shut down completely. I wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of that “sorry, but you aren’t important enough to us” letter.
Jessica Mohr is a licensed real estate broker working in her hometown of Raleigh, North Carolina.