3 Design Institutions Assess the Current State

Over the past weeks, Interior Design has travelled the world (from the safety of our isolated home desks and dining room tables) to ask architects and designers how they, their projects, and their business are coping with the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects on their worlds. We’ve also spoken with the institutions the design community relies upon for advocacy, resources, and honest assessments of the state of the world right now—and here’s what they’ve told us.

Editor's note: This story is the seventh installment in a series of conversations with designers, industry leaders, and architects around the globe, examining how our community is staying connected, inspired, and proactive about solutions during the current pandemic.

Adam Roberts, AIA New YorkNew York City, U.S.

Well, it’s been a brutal—a tough time for everyone, particularly small firms. They rely on just a few projects, so if they lose any of them, it’s everything.

Landlords, unfortunately, haven’t been too open to adjustments or deferrals of commercial rent. We’ve been calling our firm principals, and the thing we hear most often is that their landlords are being really tough on rent and not open to any sort of even temporary changes.

There are loan programs, which may be helpful, but what firms actually need is capital right now—to pay their employees and their rent and just to survive—especially the smaller firms. The larger firms are struggling but have projects in places that might not be completely shut down or may have funds in reserve. Smaller firms don’t work that way.

Our members need grants, not just loans. The city does offer a $75,000 loan at no interest, which is effectively a grant. That might not be a ton of money, but it could be the difference between your firm surviving and your employees being OK, and that not happening. Every little bit of capital helps.

Our focus has been helping our members understand that these resources exist, since it’s not easy to navigate the government. I would encourage firms and business owners who think a loan is too risky to keep looking, to pay close attention to what the government is offering, and to listen to what trade associations and unions are advising their members about what’s available for them.

Things are changing by the day. For instance, the government may now be offering to pay for part of employee salaries in some cases; the city was already doing it, but the government may now be doing it too. You may feel disheartened today but tomorrow there may be more options. 

We’re doing what we can to help ensure work can continue where it’s safe. A lot of firms relied on public sector work and unfortunately that’s no longer the case. Part of the long-term fear is that if this pause goes on for an extended time, a firm might go under or can no longer handle the project. Then it has to be rebid, and the question becomes will projects even get built if they have to go through the whole process again?

A lot of design professionals in urban areas rely on building and maintaining train systems, so we’re fighting to make sure that funding for those projects will exist. We can’t force private owners to allow an architect or interior designer or engineer to go into their buildings, but we still need subways and trains and buses to run. We still need infrastructure to function. Design professionals are the people who design these things, and so that work needs to exist. It helps the public and helps keep design professionals in business.

It’s not easy to say the least. This is a time when our members need us more than ever and I’ve never seen them more appreciative of what we’re doing, and that means a lot. Our members are the ones who keep us alive and funded, and they are not in a good place right now. Unfortunately, all advocacy groups and non-profits groups are facing a situation where the people who keep them afloat are the same constituencies the groups themselves work to keep afloat.

It’s obviously a very disheartening time, no doubt about that. But for young people just finishing school right now and wanting to be an architect or an engineer or an interior designer or go into another part of the field, stick with it. We need good, qualified, passionate, young people. Everyone will suffer if there’s a lack of design professionals. People will work in worse buildings and live in worse homes. We can’t have a situation where a whole chunk of a generation decides to skip this profession because of what’s happening to it right now.

Cheryl Durst, IIDAChicago, U.S.

IIDA is most definitely coping! We are working together to be as much of a resource and support to our headquarters team and to our chapters and membership. We are using all the appropriate and available technology to stay connected and we are always on the lookout for great productivity apps, and whatever others are using to make work and life happen.

Team IIDA is on mandatory WFH—which sounds ever so slightly like a swear phrase, but of course means we are keeping the business of IIDA moving as we work from home. Just like our members, chapters, and community, the team at IIDA is working hard to navigate through this time of uncertainty. Several projects have been postponed and we, like many, will need to be flexible with timing and logistics. Everyone’s priorities have shifted, and we need to be sensitive to that. However, when projects are postponed, it gives us an opportunity to re-think and re-calibrate and approach our offerings to the industry in different ways. Our culture has been shaken to its core, and we just all need to take a moment to adjust.

We are consistently shifting and evolving with society and humankind. With the impact of this crisis yet to be fully understood, we continue to learn daily (if not hourly). The uncertainty of our new day-to-day, our new normal, reinforces the idea that design is the business of our very lives. We are strengthened by our common passion for design and our celebration of humanity. We are heartened by the strength of the extended design community and the commitment to supporting each other. While a lot is changing, we are also seeing a lot of generosity and sharing of information.

Now more than ever, the world requires what design so abundantly endows—grace, civility, compassion, clarity, connection, common sense, empathy, well-being, healing, and hope. We know that it’s a time for us all to pitch in and find ways to support causes beyond the needs of our organizations and companies.

Design thinking is critical to so many of the challenges ahead, and we will need to be open to the evolving needs of our communities: We will need to re-address how clients/end-users gather and convene; we will need to re-think how physical space can adapt or be adaptable to the rapid change that a global pandemic evinces; and we know that healthcare design thinking will be critical at this point in time.

It seems that just before this crisis, we are all talking about the epidemic of “loneliness” in our society. It, too, is viral, pervasive, and life-altering. The social distancing and mandatory isolation that is now required also has the unfortunate side effect of loneliness…and we are separated from friends, family, co-workers, colleagues, and peers. Human beings require a degree of comfort and certainty, that calm voice that tells us “this too shall pass.” Design can do that.

I think all the design disciplines (interiors, architecture, industrial, graphic, etc.) can find restorative ways to better connect us during times like this and whatever comes after. Seamless, intuitive technology that connects us; physical space that is agile and flexible and allows us to live, work, heal and learn (because right now that is all happening at home); materials and textiles that are “smart” and responsive and that not only can diagnose health, but promote good health and healing—it is imperative that design is at the forefront of the brave new world.

Randy Fiser, ASIDWashington, DC, U.S.

We’ve begun to pull together the community, meeting with some of our designers and small and mid-size firms. What we’ve heard is that people want to make sense of what the economic outlook is. So we hosted a webinar with an economist who gave, as best as we know today, a view of what we should expect for the remainder of the year. That’s available for anybody to listen to on our COVID-19 resource page.

People are also asking: From an economic perspective and from the perspective of the health and well-being of my staff working remotely now, whom should I be getting advice and counsel from on how to make the best of this? We’re trying to provide those resources for our teams and our community.

 As the quarantines and construction stoppages occur, our members are asking what does that mean, what’s the duration, how do we get people through this? So we have a resource page with links to everything on COVID-19, pointing people to the WHO, CDC, Chambers of Commerce, SBA, and information for people working from home. We have a webinar presenting contract and insurance information from legal sources. We’re offering help on small business loan assistance, pointing people to resources for loans and relief. And we’re looking at the government as these packages of support come out, to find out where to access them and what do members need to demonstrate in order to get them.

We’re also trying to offer some inspiration on how not to feel like the weight of the world is on you. When you get inspiration, you can give it back, supporting the local community within the built environment.

On the medical side, we’re looking at how our community can bring some of the tools and materials they might have and deploy them to hospitals in their local area. We’re part of the High Performance Building Coalition, which is made up of associations in the design and construction arena, and we’ve begun mobilizing to donate protective and construction equipment to medical and hospital facilities, including masks, safety goggles, and safety shields. Our firms often have these materials and so we’re creating a channel to donate those kinds of things. We’re also watching for calls for immediate construction of temporary facilities—how can we help to do that? How can we make them better than a tent in a parking lot? We’re looking for those opportunities to pass on to our members.

There is a real opportunity for us collectively to raise our voice about the power of design to solve problems. Health, wellness, and well-being in specifications could actually decrease the spread of a virus. In our home environments, where people are now spending all their time with their families, we can help them understand how to use the houses differently, how to design them for situations like the current one, in which you have multiple workplaces all under the same roof.

We are a community of problem solvers, of people who are resilient. We have come back from other catastrophic events like Hurricane Katrina and the 2001 and 2008 recessions. We’re already sharing knowledge and lessons learned and also coming together to creatively problem-solve for circumstances we haven’t even seen yet. We’re in a good position to handle this situation.

> See our full coverage of COVID-19 and its impact on the A&D industry

ThinkLab, the research division of SANDOW, is gathering information about our industry’s response to COVID-19. Click here if you’d like to participate.

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