UB architecture students use design to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in New York City

Poster of COVID health guidelines shows full range of spaces within a multi-unit housing building in New York City. Graphics show a brownstone style house with directional arrows highlighting main spaces where guidelines are focused.

by Rachel Teaman

Published November 18, 2020

UB architecture students are leveraging the power of design to help New York City (NYC) build awareness of COVID-19 safety guidelines among a particularly at-risk population: residents of multi-family housing.

Students worked with city officials and a network of design professionals to create graphics that visualize a full range of COVID-19 preventive measures, including specific precautions for high-density environments like apartment complexes. 

Working in partnership with the NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) and the American Institute of Architects (AIA), the student team has translated federal, state, and city health guidelines into a system of illustrations that both simplify and broaden access to essential information.

Multi-family buildings represent the greatest proportion of housing stock in New York City. The higher-density conditions and shared living spaces of apartment complexes also can present challenges for managing the spread of the coronavirus. Language barriers further hamper awareness of health and safety guidelines. 

Representatives of the AIA New York Unified Task Force initially proposed the idea to city officials in the spring, during New York City’s devastating wave of COVID-19 cases. UB Associate Professor of architecture Nicholas Rajkovich helped to organize the student team, which worked in close consultation with the NYC Mayor’s Office of Resiliency, HPD, the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and a national network of design professionals to create the illustrations. The graphics campaign was deployed last week to thousands of multifamily housing complexes across the five boroughs of New York City.

"Keeping New Yorkers housed stably and safely is a key part of HPD's mission so we look forward to getting this critical information delivered to multifamily buildings across the city to help prevent the spread of COVID-19," said HPD Commissioner Louise Carroll. “We would like to extend our thanks to the University of Buffalo and the American Institute of Architects for initiating and designing this project, and to our colleagues at the City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene for advising on the content.”

The final infographics were created by architecture students Cameron Ziegler (BS Arch ’21) and Blayne Burnside (BS Arch ’21) based on initial designs by Ashley Chiffy (MArch ’20), Chris Sweeney (BS Arch ’20), and Benjamin Ezquerra (BS Arch’20).

The graphics visualize a full range of COVID-19 preventive measures, including specific precautions for high-density environments like apartment complexes. The design challenge was to integrate and simplify multiple levels of information into an easy-to-read graphic system.

The final set of illustrations, which includes a poster, pamphlets, and images intended for social media, are organized into a spatial hierarchy that walks the user through six spaces where in-person contact – both within and across families – is most common: the lobby, laundry room, garden, living room, kitchen and bathroom. Among the visualized guidelines are highlighted high-touch surfaces such as handrails and bathroom doorknobs, which residents are encouraged to clean frequently. Drawings of gathering spaces in both common and private areas offer creative solutions for spatial distancing – e.g., by rearranging furnishings, and safely entering and exiting elevators.

The design process was highly collaborative, presenting students with a unique professional learning experience, says Rajkovich.

“We wanted our students to play a central role in our battle against the coronavirus. The pandemic is fundamentally changing the way we think about space and buildings and the way we interact with each other. In the end, COVID-19 is ultimately an issue of adequate space and clean air –these are the purview of architects and planners.”

In addition to one-on-one consultation with City officials and design professionals, students conducted independent research and presented their ideas for review through online pin-up critiques.

“There is so much collaboration that goes on in a project like this, a process that made our designs so much better,” says Cameron Ziegler, who worked on the final-phase drawings. “There was a different mindset to this project than the typical hypothetical studio project, because it was actually being sent out to people in the city. The research needed to be concrete and the graphics needed to make sense to every single person who sees them.”

Keeping the drawings simple was a constant challenge. “We wanted to make sure that our advisories did not get bogged down with excessive information, so we kept each room to just three key points,” Ziegler added. “This was not always easy, but it resulted in the advisories being very clean, clear and concise.”

Students even took the initiative to research housing stock in New York City, to ensure the drawings accurately represent the city’s building typologies. Student Blayne Burnside explains: “It became very clear, and is no mystery, that the New York City brownstone is a defining factor of the streets, along with the towering brick apartment buildings and duplex homes.”

The following advisors helped the students define the creative direction and content:

  • Daphne Binder and Theodore Kofman of Space ODT
  • Illya Azaroff, +LAB Architect PLLC and New York City College of Technology
  • Kristen Zeiber and Katie Slusher, Kent State University
  • Kevin Van Den Wymelenberg, Mark Fretz, and Patrick Horve, University of Oregon
  • Laurie Schoeman, Enterprise Community Partners

The City is distributing the materials to building managers and superintendents of multifamily buildings, as well as the individual residents.