As urban spaces grapple with a global pandemic, designers should embrace the notion that safe places need not be clinical spaces, said urban strategist Barrie Barton during a keynote speech in early September at the ULI Asia Pacific REImagine conference, highlighting a hospital and an office tower in the region with nontraditional design touches.

When incorporating wellness-oriented elements into office buildings and other projects, designers should focus on materials, textures, and lighting, in addition to other features that can make spaces feel safe yet welcoming, according to Barton, founder of Right Angle Studio, a Sydney-based consulting firm that helps clients understand and improve life in cities.

“What urban designers are trying to do is to say, ‘We need to create great places despite COVID. It needs to be beautiful because it’s got social distancing.’ We shouldn’t have to choose between something being safe and something being beautiful. That’s the false choice that COVID is putting in front of us,” Barton said.

Barton’s firm has started a number of successful businesses that it owns and operates, including Australia’s first-ever online city guides, Melbourne’s Rooftop Cinema, Sydney’s Golden Age Cinema & Bar, and most recently the Paramount Recreation Club, a rooftop café and fitness studio that provides busy city people with a beautiful space to improve physical, mental, and social health.

Right now, we are in the “baby talk” phase of redesigning spaces and places that fit the new pandemic mold, Barton said.

He cited a children’s hospital in Thailand and a planned office tower in Australia as examples of how wellness-minded, nonclinical design can be carried out.

EKH Children’s Hospital, near Bangkok, includes kid-friendly aspects such as a giant slide in the entrance hall, waiting areas that double as playgrounds, child-size furniture, animal-themed patient rooms, and a complex-wide pastel color palette.

“A hospital is the kind of place most people would rather avoid as much as they can. We have witnessed more medical institutions attempt to create a more pleasant and friendlier environment, some with the architecture and interior decoration that are almost equivalent to a shopping mall or [luxury] hotels,” ArchDaily noted in an article about EKH, which was designed by Thailand-based architecture firm Integrated Field.

The other project highlighted by Barton is the planned 40-story global headquarters of Sydney-based software company Atlassian. The tower, set to open in 2025, is billed as the world’s tallest “hybrid timber” building—a blend of mass timber, concrete, glass, and steel.

According to ZDNet, the project will provide natural ventilation, large terraces with plants, and a mix of indoor and outdoor spaces. Atlassian said that the building will operate on 100 percent renewable energy, demand 50 percent less energy consumption than a conventional project, and achieve 50 percent less carbon output during construction. New York City’s SHoP Architects and Australia’s BVN are designing the high-rise.

“This is not just about attracting and retaining the best talent or increasing workforce productivity, although there is data supporting the case that healthy buildings, with fresh air and natural materials, do just that,” Coren Sharples, founding principal of SHoP Architects, told Vogue Living about the design of the Atlassian tower. “It is becoming increasingly clear that the old ways of building are not sustainable, literally—for the health and well-being of people, of communities, of the planet.”

The EKH and Atlassian projects align with Barton’s assertion that the coronavirus pandemic is challenging us to reevaluate the concept of disruption in our business and personal worlds.

“We’ve been in a Silicon Valley–style bubble when we’ve been thinking about disruption for the last few decades—thinking it’s a lot of fun and we’ll fail fast and start again, and all of that kind of hyperbole,” Barton said. “But disruption is really ugly. There are a whole lot of very, very difficult problems that we’re trying to solve at the moment. It’s very far from aspirational.”

Barton urged people to reimagine, not re-create, when it comes to the built environment and other facets of our pandemic-influenced lives.

“Let’s not be sentimental and nostalgic and go back to the way that things were. We have an opportunity to make them much better than they ever have been, particularly in property, where we affect everyone’s lives,” he said. “So don’t be scared, don’t get panicked into doing something. Take your time, do your research, do your thinking, reimagine, and then step forward with confidence.”