Elena Xausa

Perception was reality in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, as the metastasizing cases outside of China prompted xenophobia, dread, and the schadenfreude of doomsday preppers. But reality surpassed perception once stock prices tumbled, unemployment hit record highs, and 2008 started to feel like a warm-up lap rather than the main event for this generation of workers.

In late March, the AIA Research and Practice team projected a 15% decrease in revenue among firms in April, on the heels of a 10% decrease in March. They also reported that more than two-thirds of firms saw prospective projects slow or stop. As cease-work orders and stay-home orders by state and local governments roll out, this number will likely go up, but the true impact of lost potential is unknown.

Long-term implications for the AIA’s Architectural Billings Index (ABI), where design activity leads nonresidential construction activity by 9-12 months, is also unknown. “The ABI reflects average conditions in a normal cycle, but now we’ve just stopped,” says AIA Chief Economist Kermit Baker, Hon. AIA, “and how and when it will start over is unclear. If this is a two- or three-month work stoppage, there won’t be that much damage to the economy, fundamentally.”

“The longer it drags on,” he says, “the greater the chance that businesses will cease to operate.”

We have always known more about the economics of this pandemic and less about the impossibly aggressive and mercurial virus itself. Yet, it is unclear if this pandemic will result in a multi-month recession or a multiyear depression. The Trump Administration’s daily press conferences in March squared off equally against both the economic policy response and the public health response to COVID-19, arguing that to attack one head of the chimera and not the other would have dire consequences. After the S&P 500 reached its March low and after passage of the CARES Act, April’s media coverage turned fully to the virus, which had already ravaged New York City and began to take lives in record numbers across the country despite social distancing, robust hygiene guidance, the gradual rise in testing capabilities, and quarantine protocols.

Despite it all, architects, like millions of other workers, still had jobs to perform. They still do, and as more and more firms have adopted telework policies—voluntarily or involuntarily—it raises questions about how the work of design itself will be affected by this pandemic. As the virus recedes, what will be the lasting impact on studio culture and the engine of architectural production?

(You May Now) Whistle While You Work

Bonstra|Haresign is a 32-person firm in Washington, D.C., whose principals Bill Bonstra, FAIA, and David Haresign, FAIA, reported to the office each day during the early days of the pandemic until the April 1 stay-home order issued by the District of Columbia. Their employees, however, began teleworking—from the couch, the kitchen table, and the basement—in mid-March without any interruption in their productivity, says Haresign, but with a big change in how work flowed.

“My portfolio is full right now, and I’m working on the design side, and the throughput is quick—sketching, talking, and working things out virtually,” he says. “But, I don’t have the benefit of watching the design process unfold in front of me. That interaction is gone, as connected as we all are now online. Now, something will just appear in front of me after several hours in development and I didn’t really have the benefit of seeing it evolve. It’s just led to a different rhythm in the day.”

That rhythm might well have some business advantages, however. “We’ve seen an increase in our staff utilization rate. It’s not a lot, but it’s noticeable,” says Raymond Manning, FAIA, CEO and president of Manning Architects, who runs offices in New Orleans and Dallas, and a storefront office in Baton Rouge. “Everybody reports every morning on what they’re doing, and it makes them more intentional about what they want to accomplish, and based on that, we can more easily direct and redirect them.”

Manning’s 20-person firm was more prepared than most to pivot to full-time teleworking during the pandemic. Hurricane Katrina made sure of it.

“When I evacuated New Orleans 15 years ago, I had three physical backup tapes of the server in my pocket. Now, everything is in the cloud,” Manning says.

“We had a fairly seamless transition, owing to our existing hurricane contingency plan,” says Manning Architects project manager Tighe Kirkland, Assoc. AIA. “Like so many companies are doing, you pivot,” she says. “You have to become peripatetic and nomadic, and you have to develop the ability to reestablish yourself easily. It’s a paradigm shift, but it’s an OK shift—so much so that we’re even now questioning the relative value of a physical office.”

What does this mean for the work, itself, though, if the work is a product of a specific studio environment?

Studio means individual designers working in concert and collaboratively with others to design a project under the leadership of a principal or manager. It is predicated on the balance between unstructured and open-ended experimentation and design inquiry. Conversely, it is also predicated on the highly structured divisions of labor that ensure profitability of the project and, by extension, of the firm as a whole. Studio means sketching with a Micron pen and the serendipity of juxtaposition. It’s chipboard, it’s glue, it’s the smell of printer ink, and it’s the flecks of CNC dust. It’s also precise measurements and merciless deadlines, change orders, and half-eaten salads.

To put it another way, the studio environment is fundamental to the profession’s pipeline as a way of working and as a tribal language, and it is the most visible quality that sets architecture apart from other majors in school and many other professions in practice.

In 2016, the American Institute of Architecture Students released a special report on the state of studio culture, what defines it, and why it matters based on interviews with faculty members and studios. One respondent said simply, “Studio culture holds the architecture world together, it gives everyone involved a mutual understanding of each other’s fundamental being.”

This mutual understanding is based, though, in an individual’s rite of passage: surviving and thriving in a shared space—day and, sometimes, night. “We lived and died by our studio projects—we didn’t leave and sometimes slept there at night—and I just can’t imagine to have be asked to go home, especially during my thesis year,” says Kirkland, who graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2005. “It would have been shattering to me.”

Tightening Up and Loosening Up

The psychological hurdle of remote working for circumspect employers has always been about productivity, which is as true for architecture firms as any other profession—and perhaps more so, when projects last years and involve dozens of contractors, subcontractors, and consultants. Loss of momentum or a slipped deadline are liabilities in the time-is-money model.

John Marx is the Chief Artistic Officer and a design principal at Form4 Architecture, a 42-person firm in San Francisco that switched to remote working on March 17. He says the transition has been relatively easy, but doesn’t quite replicate the camaraderie of the studio.

“What I miss most are my somewhat indulgent long lunches with employees and my partners, where relationships deepen,” Marx says.

Form4 specializes in, among other things, workplace architecture and interiors, and counts several Silicon Valley tech giants including Netflix, Facebook, and Google as clients whose own experiments with unconventional office culture are legendary. Smoothies, yoga, and foosball aside, these companies are nothing if not productive in how they maintain and evolve their platforms, data collection, and data analysis to maximize profits and minimize problems.

Like these companies, Marx’s team has also learned how to tighten up and loosen up, simultaneously.

“Everyone seems to be highly productive in my office now. Among the people I’m working with, they seem to be more efficient than before. On the other hand, video meetings have meant that even clients are letting go of the idea that you might see someone’s furniture at home or see their kids run by.”

Is this a sustainable productivity model for a re-imagined studio arrangement? The jury is still out.

“It’s not so bad from a pure design point, and I don’t see this taking down the creative side of things,” says Marx, who has been working on existing projects with his team with native digital files and hasn’t, yet, started a new project remotely. “Now, when we start something from scratch, I don’t know how we’ll work together. Normally, we’d all sit down in the beginning and I’d sketch out what will happen with this blank site. But, I have to do that on video now.”

Process aside, new work habits for all Americans will force programmatic change, which will, in turn, create new opportunities for architects to design for adaptation. Telemedicine, once a novel feature of health insurance plans, is ubiquitous and will make preventative health care more accessible (and probably more impersonal). Infectious diseases, and their unpredictability, suggest flexible health care facilities that can scale up or scale back with a day’s notice. How this will change the requirements for a health care project’s campus will be an area of growth for the industry and architects.

If modern sanitation came into its own in the late 19th century, modern sterilization will become an obsession for some at first and, eventually, an unremarkable social norm for all. But, how that figures into everyday public spaces and places will also provide new leads for design thinking. The line between public and private health will also shift, and collective welfare will drive personal habits, backed by policy and a sense of probity. Architects, too, have a hand to play at all levels of that debate.

Within design more broadly, the humble face mask will be elevated as art, artifice, and accoutrement suitable for any occasion. Automation and artificial intelligence will speed the inevitable transformation of the economic middle class, for better and for worse. They will also make post-disaster supply chains more efficient and recovery less hampered. Architects also have a hand to play at all levels of that debate.

Through remote working, architecture firms might well find new efficiencies, reduce their overhead, and increase their staff utilization rates. But firms are also advised to find new opportunities beyond a new way of working together in this health crisis. The next crisis could depend upon it.