How Epidemics Impact Home Design

May 22, 2022

Since isolating inside your home you may start to notice small details of your house or apartment you hadn’t thought about before—like why your older home doesn’t have a wardrobe, or how white subway tile became so ubiquitous.  You may also be wondering if there’s anything you can do—aside from the usual cleaning and disinfecting process—to help keep your home as virus-free as possible during the coronavirus outbreak.  This excerpt from an article that appeared in Architectural Digest dives into how epidemics impact home design.

Whether you realise it or not, a number of the design features in our homes today originated, or were popularised, because of previous infectious disease outbreaks, like the 1918 flu pandemic, tuberculosis, and dysentery.  Here are a few examples of home design elements tied to attempts to prevent or slow the spread of infectious disease.

AD subway tile

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White Kitchen Tiles and Linoleum

White subway tiles are classic, shiny, and easy-to-clean.  They may even make you feel as though your kitchen is a more hygienic place to prepare food, and that’s exactly the idea.  In the late 19th century, as people were beginning to understand how infectious diseases spread, public buildings—hospitals in particular—installed white tiles so workers could immediately spot any dirt or grime, and easily wipe it clean.  Along with tiles, linoleum replaced hardwood floors and oilcloth as the sanitary flooring of choice, also thanks to being easy to clean.


Though household wardrobes have been around in some form for centuries, what we think of as the place where we store our clothes is a more recent innovation. In fact, up until the beginning of the 20th century, most clothing and related items were kept in stand-alone furniture. “It used to be that almost everything was [kept] in armoires,” Lloyd Alter, a former architect and design historian who now teaches sustainable design at Ryerson School of Interior Design, tells Clever. “When you look at the plans from the turn of the century, the closets are tiny, tiny, tiny—if they exist at all.” The switch to closets was to make rooms easier to clean. Bulky furniture items like armoires were difficult to move and therefore collected dust, which was thought to pass along germs. By the mid-1920s, Le Corbusier was writing about the importance of minimalism, cleanliness, and hygiene in home design, advocating for built-ins throughout the house, which eventually became the norm.

Sleeping Porches

Though porches themselves have been around for a long time, and have been used as a place to sleep while escaping the summer heat, sleeping porches became popular during the tuberculosis epidemic of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  In a time before antibiotics, sunlight and fresh air were the best-known “cures” for the deadly disease.  People with tuberculosis flocked to the American Southwest—Tucson in particular.  “One thing that we have as a result of tuberculosis is the ‘Arizona room,’ which was basically a sleeping porch,” Jennifer Levstik, an architectural historian and consultant with Logan Simpson, tells Clever.  “They are basically porches that are screened in and usually on the back of the house—and that’s something that was part of treating the illness.”

Half bath

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Powder Rooms

Half baths on the ground floor of a house near the front door—are also the result of the attempt to prevent the spread of infectious diseases in the early 20th century.  Those were the days of having daily coal and ice deliveries.  Every day, at least one delivery person would traipse inside your home after being inside many other homes, including some where people may have been sick with something contagious. You wouldn't want delivery people to come into your house and use the bathroom and sink that the rest of the family was using.  And, as Alter points out, having an accessible sink on the ground floor of homes made it more convenient for people to wash their hands—which, as we’ve been reminded of a lot recently, is crucial for health and hygiene.

Design sponge

Image found hereIt is too early to tell what kind of home design innovations will come from the COVID-19 outbreak.  Chances are good that features to help prevent or stop the spread of infectious disease will be top of mind again.  Alter predicts the return of the vestibule—this time, with a sink immediately as you enter.  A vestibule serves as a transition zone between the inside of the home and the outside world, and a sink in that area could provide a good sanitation area providing some much needed peace of mind.

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