We have all read the emails and social media posts from residential architects and custom builders explaining how they will run their companies as the country copes with the crisis of COVID-19. This is a business condition most of us never expected, but must scramble to address head-on with ingenuity and flexibility.
In the middle of March, I took what is likely my last airplane trip for quite awhile to host the jury for Residential Design magazine’s first national architecture competition. I sat in a room with six architects from across the country for two solid days as they winnowed a large pool of entries to a small collection of winners. (More on that to come in the next issue of the magazine.) During breaks in the judging, we discussed the measures they were taking to keep their workers safe as the virus and its physical and looming financial toll escalated by the hour. The jury was comprised of primarily small and medium-sized firms, with one partner from a large practice.
After safety, everyone’s chief concern was ensuring that each staff member had the equipment and infrastructure to work remotely. This was the big hurdle, and each firm was busy stress testing their systems to make sure they could do what they needed to do through the workday.
Our Northern California architect had a jump on all of us, because of measures already taken for sheltering in place during the wildfires. She, her colleagues, and friends all have provisions to last weeks, N95 masks to filter particulates from the smoke, and equipment to deal with rolling, extended power outages.
We should all be so well prepared.
In some ways, architects are fortunate. Their work is largely portable, and firms have learned a great deal over the years about how to manage long distance clients and projects that they can now apply to their local commissions as well. Some firms already have remote employees, or employees who split their time between the office and working from home. These firms have learned important lessons about how to collaborate effectively and creatively from afar. Here are a few tips we ran in the magazine from John DeForest, AIA, in Seattle, who has a remote employee and projects out of his immediate area.
If all of this had happened just 10 years ago, architects and builders would be in much more dire straits. Nowadays, there are multiple file sharing programs, off-site cyber storage solutions, and faster home internet connections available to all of us in major metropolitan areas. Video conferencing can help you keep in touch with colleagues, clients, and other project team members and is the next best thing to sitting down at a table together.
What’s more, everyone now has a video camera and high definition still camera in their pocket with immediate access to the internet or cell service. It’s incredibly easy to share information and images on the fly. We don’t need to be closer than 6 feet from each other to keep informed and on task.
Custom builders, their supers, and subs have another set of problems to contend with, because their work entails presence on the site. They will need to set jobsite protocols for hygiene and physical distancing for their staff and issue advisories to their subs. They must insist on only healthy workers showing up for duty.
Builders should always be leaving a clean site at the end of the day, but now it’s vital to sanitize to the best extent possible the common surfaces others are likely to touch. That one set of plans left on the job that everyone touches may no longer be viable.
Builders who do remodeling work, especially if the client remains on site, must be scrupulous in monitoring workers’ health and holding outside subs to the same standards. Develop a set of guidelines and get everyone on a conference call to go over them. Communicate with your clients about what makes them uneasy or uncomfortable and address it immediately. If you can winnow the team to a smaller dedicated group for the project, that’s preferable. You will limit your clients’ exposure to a smaller network of humans and build their trust that you are looking out for them. Appoint one team member to sanitize every area at the end of the day. This is not a job to burden (or trust) your client with, unless they insist. Ask them how they would like it done but take care of it for them. Keep up with the latest wisdom on cleaning practices.
Architects have to visit sites, too, of course. And if you must come to a clients’ home, be sure to wash your hands in front of them—properly. If meeting onsite with builders or other trades, maintain your distance. We all have to build these measures and the time they take into our day. It’s tedious, but necessary.
Architects and custom builders are expert problem solvers, and I have no doubts that when this terrible situation abates, you will have learned entirely new ways of working together that will have application for the future. There’s a tremendous amount of entrepreneurial thinking going on right now that will yield valuable results.
The Boston Society of Architects recently held a webinar on working remotely. Here’s a link to the PowerPoint prepared by their presenters. And here are relevant messages from Robert Ivy, FAIA, at the American Institute of Architects and Dean Mon, chair of the National Association of Home Builders.
It’s extremely important that we support each other right now and through the aftermath of this terrible crisis. To help as we can, Residential Design magazine will relaunch its LinkedIn group to foster communication among members of our audience. If you would like to join the conversation, join our community with this link. Come share your stories; come share your solutions.