The new normal

Posted: 04/05/20
 
Architecture is, by its very nature, a collaborative industry with the sharing of thoughts and ideas key to how we design. Whether a concept stage brainstorm, a public consultation with residents, or a design review with the wider project team, the architectural process has people at the very heart of it.

With this in mind, we discuss the impact of the ongoing lock down, which has seen architectural practices across the country and their clients adapt to home working, and the longer term impact on our industry with Lee Davies, Partner at Conran and Partners.
To set the scene, Lee is currently managing a number of major regeneration projects from a cabin he recently built at the end of his garden in Brighton. He, like many of us has been self-isolating for over six weeks now.
How are you adapting to the ‘new normal’ approach to work?

Collaboration is fundamental to the way we operate and create so ensuring that we maintain communication both internally and with clients and the wider projects team has been a key priority.

The transition to move our 90+ staff to home working was a relatively smooth process. As the outbreak hit Asia much earlier than the UK, we trialled home working with our Hong Kong team first which prepared us for the bigger move of our two UK studios. As you can imagine, this was quite a logistical challenge that our dedicated IT team handled remarkably well. Everyone has adapted to and engaged with this new way of working extremely well.

Whilst the transition has been relatively smooth, there have inevitably been some glitches. Some people’s home infrastructure isn’t as robust as our own, so the core quality of conversation has been a little wobbly at times and things are taking a little longer than usual. Despite this, everyone we are engaging with is adapting and embracing change and the new technology available to help us continue our work.

Microsoft Teams has become a fundamental part of the way we communicate with colleagues and clients. We’ve used Teams to retain elements of our normal studio culture too with virtual pub Fridays and online working groups for things like BIM and sustainability. We’ve also introduced company-wide weekly call overs which have made us feel more joined up and inclusive across the three studios than ever.
Over the recent weeks many of us have had to adapt to new ways of living, working and managing our daily responsibilities. We ask Lee, what immediate changes have you noticed in the industry?

Many architectural projects are slowing with a reported 65% of the UK's construction value temporarily shut down forcing many practices to reduce their team sizes in order to secure the future of their businesses. Despite this, there is a great feeling of optimism across the industry, new opportunities are still coming in and projects are continuing.

Many of our larger clients are having to agree new protocols and procedures for agreement and sign off, adapting to these new processes has inevitably slowed the pace of certain projects. We’re all just adapting to the new normal whilst trying to work out what that normal is!
Lee has extensive experience in master planning, urban design and regeneration and is currently leading on a number of affordable housing developments across the UK. With many architectural projects being cancelled or delayed, we ask how the crisis will impact people who really need and are waiting for new homes?

Demand for housing isn’t going to change. The current housing shortage is so huge that the registered social landlords and councils that we work for have no choice but to carry on creating new homes to meet with demand.

As with the 2008 recession, councils and RSLs continued to deliver new housing projects, their ability to take a longer-term view has made them generally more resilient and less influenced by fluctuations in the economy.

The current lock down has really highlighted the poor and overcrowded living conditions and resultant wellbeing of many and the importance of high-quality living conditions for everyone. I can see that there will be a greater push for even better quality homes than what is currently being designed, through enhanced space standards, improved private outdoor space, better digital connectivity and wellbeing initiatives.

People are valuing their connections to nature and generous living spaces. Whilst the industry is well versed about these things already, communal spaces that enhance wellbeing, comfortable internal climates, adequate natural light and ventilation, outside space and views out will all be valued far more going forward. I would like to see minimum national space standards reviewed too and accountable measurable wellbeing criteria introduced into legislation.
As a nation, we’ve developed a newfound love and appreciation for the NHS and its committed staff, we’ve become more accustomed to shopping locally, we’re taking up new hobbies, learning new skills and starting to appreciate each other a little more. Good things often come from times of discomfort and change. We therefore ask Lee what positive things have you taken from the experience so far?

I think the majority of us will value our studio environment, natural collaboration and the connections we make on a day-to-day basis more than ever.

Whilst I’m thoroughly enjoying the ease of my commute to the end of my garden, I do miss riding my Vespa to and from the studio each day and feeling like an active part of the city.

Family time has inevitably become a more prominent part of most of our lives and I think this experience will make many of us appreciate family and the homes we live in more, as well as the ability to successfully separate work from home life.
This week RIBA announced the findings of an industry survey into how COVID-19 is affecting the profession, highlighting that the disruption to work and impact on architects’ mental health have been staggering. Almost 80% of respondents reported project delays, with over a third seeing their projects cancelled entirely and a worrying 23% stating that the pandemic has had a negative impact on their mental health.**

Fundamentally, whilst architects always operate in an uncertain industry, the current crisis is simply unprecedented in modern times. Not knowing how things are going to materialise over the coming weeks and months makes putting things in place for the longer term, whether it is for specific projects or the strategic shape of our practice, very difficult and if we allow it to be, stressful. But on the other hand, architects are by their very nature optimists whose main task in life is to find what is possible. It is keeping true to this approach that will see us through and ensure that the ‘new normal’ can be not all-bad for ourselves but also the society we serve.
*Data provider Glenigan - https://www.constructionnews.co.uk/financial/65-of-uks-construction-value-shut-down-31-03-2020/

**RIBA survey - https://www.architecture.com/knowledge-and-resources/knowledge-landing-page/riba-covid-19-survey-executive-summary
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