Several months into the COVID-19 pandemic, architecture and design firms have moved through unfathomable shifts in where and how they get things done. While the world continues to monitor—and hope for—the flattening of new infections, we checked in with firms in Brooklyn, Chicago, and Toronto to talk about 3-D printing, story-swapping, and the perils and pleasures of a glass of wine.
Sheela Søgaard and Bjarke Ingels, BIG, New York, U.S.
Sheela Søgaard: At its core, our business remains unchanged. We remain focused on producing and delivering for our clients on time and at a high quality. In terms of how we work, much has changed in that everything is now run remotely with a high reliance on digital competence and remote conferencing. With current tech-focused clients like Google, Terminus, and others, we have already been integrating a lot of their digital tools for remote-working and conferencing over the past [few] years, so our staff is very adept at this and as such we have maintained our productivity.
Bjarke Ingels: One thing that we find intriguing out of this situation is the idea of distributed just-in-time manufacturing capabilities. In response to the acute and escalating need for PPE here in New York City, we had the possibility to mobilize our 3-D printing and modelmaking capabilities to make nearly 5,000 face masks per week for the medical forces on the front lines at Mount Sinai Hospital and Weill Cornell Medicine…Perhaps manufacturing is in the process of moving from purpose-built factories to general capabilities and eventually to the maker-hub on the block or the PF Personal Fabricator.
Out of the massive urgency and shortcomings of the traditional provisions and supply chain during the COVID-19 outbreak, the silver lining here is perhaps in revealing the flexible making capacity that resides in so many places you don’t normally associate with the manufacturing industry—like architecture and design studios. Our BIG [Bjarke Ingels Group] NYC Model Shop has been spearheading our 3-D printing efforts these past days, adapting the open-source face-shield design by Erik Cederberg of 3DVerkstan to be optimized for high-volume print production. As with distributed computing, perhaps distributed manufacturing has potentials we haven’t even thought of yet.
SS: We are learning a new way of working—one that perhaps will reduce our need for frequent travel; one that will teach us to be efficient remotely. We are learning new styles of management that depend on the ability to disperse assignments efficiently across team members and rely on their deliverables without as much supervision or guidance as normal. We are approaching this situation as an opportunity for growth of our leadership and BIGsters alike. Whenever the immediate future is unpredictable it is natural to experience some concern and rightly so. Focus on those things you do control; plan the possible scenarios and remedies for each, as well as which triggers will alert you to the development of one scenario over others.
Christina Brown, Eastlake Studios, Chicago, U.S.
We were pretty well prepared going into this. Last year we spent a lot of time focusing on improving our internal processes, updating software, and enhancing communication. Everyone is outfitted with laptops and tablets and we already had a flexible remote working policy for all staff. In the corporate interiors world, some projects have gone on hold out of precaution but others are ramping up to take advantage of borrowing cheap money. Like everyone, we’re hoping for the best and planning for the worst.
Our studio is very social and that’s probably the biggest adjustment for us. Virtual wine and cheese gatherings on Zoom and project team meetings in Slack are helpful, but are no substitute for in-person meetings. We’ve seen working meetings become more productive as people are more engaged and paying attention, but the social meetings are a lot harder when only one person can be talking at a time and small groups cannot break out. That’d be an interesting sidebar feature in Zoom though. Add the technology limitation to a glass of wine and people that tend towards being more introverted are easily lost in the shuffle. When we come back to a traditional place, engaging everyone in their own unique ways will be a priority.
Meanwhile, we’ve been considering how to increase acceptance of remote working, which is the single biggest factor that will create a long-lasting impact on how we design space. We need better metrics and accountability, to track performance and success, because being at your desk in the office all day isn't good enough to know if you're actually being successful—along with more flexibility in ‘normal’ expectations for work and business hours, and boundaries for individual focus time vs. ‘available’ time. And we should allow for more personalization of workspaces, including comfortable task chairs and height adjustable desks, and allowances for remote employees to be properly equipped at home.
But I think the biggest challenge I’m grappling with right now is how to deal with the fear that hits us from all sides, all day. The media, my neighbors and friends, our clients. Everyone is worried about their families, their jobs, and businesses. It can’t be ignored, but it certainly isn’t healthy to be constantly immersed in that kind of anxiety either. Right now, we’re focusing on how we can put that energy into supporting our local communities. Working from home would probably be a lot tougher if I had children and I can’t imagine what that kind of juggling act must be. For me, I’d say it just feels different than before. I used to think of WFH as a tool for being more productive, a choice that I was lucky enough to have. It was a day I could get a lot of heads down work accomplished while also finishing a load of laundry, so I could relax the rest of the week. Now that it’s 100 percent of my reality I just can’t wait to get back to the studio!
Anwar Mekhayech, DesignAgency, Toronto, Canada
All things considered, we are doing okay. It’s a really emotional time for everyone, obviously, but I’m super proud of my teams and partners. We’ve worked globally with studios in Toronto, London, Barcelona, Los Angeles, and recently another in Washington, D.C., so we were set-up already to work remotely to some degree. But when COVID-19 landed, our studio still needed to mobilize with a huge momentum to get things organized and perfected quickly. Our biggest project right now is a full software and hardware audit, and we are exploring all kinds of different options, and taking the opportunity to switch to a new specification software program and plan our slow transition to REVIT. But the situation is challenging because things change from day-to-day, and because we really feel the pain of the hospitality industry, who are our family and friends.
Diversity and comradery are key to surviving. Staying engaged with different segments of the industry and being as global as possible really helps to mitigate negative impact. I can feel the energy of everyone thinking about what’s next and what will be the ‘new normal.’ No one knows what it will be. Environmentally, this will likely have a huge and positive impact. However, I am worried about the global economy and the less fortunate everywhere. Their situation has gone from bad to worse, so they really need to be looked after right now.
I’m seeing so much more sharing of information and ideas, and that’s really inspiring. I have been speaking weekly with other designers who own their businesses, and we’re all bouncing ideas off each other and swapping stories and knowledge. An increased political and humanitarian effort is paramount. All kinds of global touchpoints will change. The intersection of design, architecture, technology, public safety, and emergency management will coalesce in unprecedented ways. And it goes without saying that strict compliance with all public health guidelines is key.
There are aspects of design that can be done remotely and solo, but so much of it involves chemistry and requires interactive, team-based and collaborative exchange. I think there will be a new balance. I’m most surprised and horrified at how this situation will shift everything in hospitality. Having once operated a restaurant, it’s unfathomable to think about how abrupt this whole thing was. How do you even prepare for something like this? But the hospitality and design industries are full of warm and creative people, so I’ve been thinking about what we can do to restore connection and support. We hope for nothing more than an incredible bounce-back, but it will take hard work and it will take time. Design thinking will lead the way.
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.