Design in a time of Covid


The Covid-19 pandemic has posed major challenges to architects to modify their working methods in order to sustain business. Tom Boddy reports on how they have adjusted to a ‘new normal’

After the stringent lockdown restrictions were imposed by the government on 23 March, architecture, like most other industries, had to change its approaches and develop new ways of working. Fundamentally, architectural practices had to adopt remote working at short notice, adopting new processes to enable designers to collaborate and function as close to normally as possible, and thus avoid huge business disruption.

Maintaining production
A major factor for practice directors – and one that many businesses would have raised as an issue before lockdown necessitated it – was whether productivity would decline severely as a result of the ‘new normal’ of home working. However, architects seem to have embraced the challenge of moving to remote working, and worked hard to make sure they stay on top of upcoming projects. David Shaw, national design director at Pick Everard, tells ADF, “At the start of lockdown there was a minor blip in productivity, as we had to become familiar with the new processes, however, this was short-lived and since then it has not been a concern for us.”

Giving a similar perspective from central Europe, Prague-based Ondřej Chybík and Michal Krištof (founders of studio Chybík + Krištof), say that the crisis has actually been beneficial to their work in some ways: “We have observed that productivity and team engagement remained the same.” They say a key reason for this is architects benefitting from having the opportunity to focus, in a quiet space; added to the fact that many team members have found that the reduced time spent commuting has led to increased productivity.

New processes
Throughout lockdown, architects have harnessed a wealth of existing and new technology and processes to stay connected, particularly in terms of video conferencing. The firms we spoke to all said that conferencing has been successfully used, but has come with a few issues. Chybík + Krištof found that it even aided efficiency, creating more time for staff, and allowing them to give “more in-depth and long-lasting attention” to their projects.

Joelle Laney, senior associate at Perkins and Will, comments, “One expected pro has been the feeling of intimacy; we were suddenly invited into the homes of our clients, and vice versa,” – this has also helped cement staff relationships. David Shaw says that although video conferencing has been a massive boon for Pick Everard, many of their staff have “discovered how mentally taxing back-to-back video chats can be.” As a result the firm have encouraged all staff to balance their diaries carefully to avoid an overly demanding video conferencing load being placed on them.

Despite maintaining ‘business as usual’ to a degree, there have still been many challenges faced by architects. One that many of the architects have found onerous is the loss of ‘sense of community’ within practices as staff have moved to working as satellites. Laney adds: “In a creative industry such as architecture and design, being in physical communication and collaboration as part of a team is a huge inspiration for our work.” She says that with the country out of lockdown, it is essential to return to face-to-face collaboration for design to flourish: “If we want to carry on producing high quality designs, having spaces for in-person interaction for our teams will be necessary.”

Another issue that has posed tough challenges for architects is dealing with personal stresses for staff, as their lives have been altered in myriad ways by the crisis. David Shaw says that although his firm’s staff morale has generally been good, there have been “pockets of more challenging emotions based around personal circumstances.” Joelle Laney cites that “just a few” of the challenges experienced at Perkins and Will were “health-related fears, inability to travel to loved ones, childcare and home-schooling pressures, isolation and economic concerns.” To help support staff, Pick Everard have set up a wellbeing section within the practice, including ‘personal resilience toolkits’ as well as a number of trained mental health first aiders.

Positive outcomes
From the firms we spoke to, architects seem to have successfully confronted many of the challenges posed by this strange and difficult period, and many have actually turned this negative experience into something positive. According to Chybík + Krištof, “going through a hard time together made us stronger, and we got to know each other even better, particularly on a human level.” Architects working from home have even been able to increase their focus on work, with less distractions, providing “an excellent benefit for creative thinkers,” says Joelle Laney. She also mentions how Perkins and Will have been able to invite junior members of their teams to ‘listen in’ on client meetings and presentations, likely to not have been possible with face-to-face meetings previously.

David Shaw says that Pick Everard have discovered that flexible home working on a firm-wide scale is achievable and can still yield benefits. He comments, “Regional teams have been communicating more easily and readily through the use of Microsoft Teams, and we have definitely become a more agile business, which we’re looking forward to sustaining in the long term.”

Beyond the pandemic
Adjusting to the new processes that architects have adopted to function in a world living with Covid has been an upheaval to say the least. And it’s led to a situation that’s significantly different to their previous normal working lives, but also one which is likely to be sustained in the near future.

But will their approach and processes change post-pandemic, in a future where the virus remains a background risk? Chybík + Krištof say: “We believe that many of the strategies that we have developed as a practice during this time will be carried on in our future work.” Flexibility and agile methods of working, which have been adopted by most practices, “will form part of a new way of working within our practice,” says Pick Everard’s David Shaw. Joelle Laney agreed that while Perkins and Will’s approach to designing buildings has changed, they will continue to embrace the new working approaches required, in a way that benefits the firm for the long-term.