Interior design student Leigh Ann Bryan was merrily working on her capstone studio project designing a public interior and wellness center earlier this year when the COVID-19 pandemic arrived.

Her project was focused around a design to encourage loitering in public spaces, which has been shown to be good for communities rather than a bad thing.

“When the pandemic hit, the goal of the project seemed completely at odds with what was happening,” she said. “It was kind of laughable actually.”

Undeterred, Bryan went to work, redesigning her project for a pandemic and focusing on public space within an office environment. Her work has led to a top prize in the Next Work Environment Competition. The competition included nearly 700 submissions from around the world, including from professional design firms. Bryan’s design won for the office building amenity category.

“This is a very big honor for Leigh Ann and really demonstrates the caliber of her interior design capstone studio work — in the midst of a pandemic,” said Ryan Smith, director of the School of Design and Construction. “She was competing in a professional category among stiff competition, and she had to pivot her studio design problem midstream to account for COVID and post-COVID scenarios.”

As part of her re-design, Bryan made a number of changes to her project midstream. She re-worked her pocket gardens to support better ventilation in the space. For physical distancing, she created seating that would be flexible enough to use after the pandemic. She also designed a table system that could be used for multiple purposes.

“Physical distancing was built into the design, so users wouldn’t have to consciously think about it,” she said. “I wanted it to be intuitive, so that even if the user wasn’t actively thinking about distancing, they would naturally fall into it.”

She also designed a mobile hand-washing station, created visually engaging dividing walls to guide circulation, and used copper that is anti-microbial for metal finishes.

“COVID is such a big thing, and it’s going to be around for a while,” Bryan said. “A lot of public spaces, offices, and stores are going to be adapting their interiors for COVID, and I think designers have a great opportunity to change those environments for the better for the long-term as well as for the pandemic, so I wanted to take on that challenge.”

Bryan, who came to WSU from Spokane Falls Community College, stayed positive about working on the project in spite of being on lockdown and having to do her work online.

“I enjoy working alone for the most part, and since this was a solo project it was easier to do it remotely than a group project would have been,” she said. “But I did definitely miss the studio environment. You can’t really recreate that environment virtually, so you lose impromptu conversations and the ideas that may spark from it.”

This summer, Bryan also worked with the Voiland College’s facilities staff to rework the classrooms for post-COVID occupancy, measuring the classrooms and making floor plans using Sketch-Up.

“Our deadline was short, and we did a ton of work in a short amount of time,” she said. “I’m much better now at very quickly and – almost sort of ruthlessly – reworking plans spatially. And the Facilities team is fantastic, so it was really great experience overall.”

Although she has interests in a wide variety of design ideas, Bryan hopes to continue looking at the question of how the coronavirus will affect building interiors and the built environment, in particular, in multi-family housing.

For instance, she wonders, how is the virus affecting a particular community? Do a lot of at-risk populations use this space? Is a building entrance a congestion point that will make physical distancing difficult? Are there areas of the building, like restaurants, where people will not be wearing masks and if so, how can you keep those areas safe? Is the material on a chair going to be resistant to viruses or easy-to-clean? Which parts of the building are going to be touched the most and how can that be mitigated? Is a design choice or strategy going to work post-COVID, or will it become dated and awkward?

“Problem-solving is a big hook for me,” she said. “I especially like that a major part of interior design is anticipating the future – even, to an extent, creating the future. The best environments should suit and complement the human experience, and figuring out that ideal is really interesting to me.”