How Covid-19 will change the way architecture is conducted

20 May, 2020

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, only 5% of the UK labour force worked mainly from home.

Post-lockdown, 60% of people say they would like to work from home more often than they did previously.

Architects are among this figure but not simply out of choice as practices start to work out how to reconfigure desks to comply with social distancing rules.

The work-from-home trend is likely to be boosted by financial practicalities. Getting rid of empty desks seems like an easy way to save money as the economy falters .

For many practices the answer lies in staggered shifts, or staff working alternate days – known as ‘blended working’.

Stiff + Trevillion’s PR Manager, Rebecca Snow says:

“We currently have about 12% of our team working in the office as of Monday 18 May and these are people who have asked to come back.

“From the beginning of June – subject to any changes in government advice – the office will be open and we anticipate more people will start coming in but not for five days a week, with staggered start and finish times and ideally, in project teams. It’s quite a balancing act.”

For most practices, working from home has been successful.

All of HOK ‘s London studio is continuing to work from home it confirmed this week, while a spokeswoman for Fosters and Partners said “pretty much all our staff are still working from home still but there could be a few that return from June 1 as we modify our office spaces over the next two weeks”.

Architects with projects on the go have found it easier than expected to adapt to remote working but with confidence in future workloads at rock bottom, according to the RIBA, practices say that winning new work during lockdown is proving harder.

During lockdown clients, including Southwark Council, Stanhope and the Crown Estate have held competitive pitches online but the challenges will come later, predicts London-based residential based developer, HUB. Its managing director, Damien Sharkey says:

“Architects are telling us that working remotely is extremely challenging. It’s just not the same as rolling out a piece of trace on the table and coming up with concepts and ideas  – and that’s where I think most architects must be struggling. If you’re looking at a masterplan for the big idea concept, doing that in isolation and then presenting it on Zoom, I think is very challenging.”

HUB has already considered how it might work when people return to the office but says the old days of having 20 people in its board room, including junior members of the architect’s team are over.

“When we go back to the office, our meeting rooms can’t hold more than five to 10 people with social distancing measures so there’s got to be this idea that only core people come to the meeting and the rest call in or connect via Zoom.”

Other architects agree.

One practice director, who asked not be named, said: “We’re all at fault but with our heart in the right place. The fault is once you take your entire team to a meeting, it’s time out of the office, it’s time clogging up the arteries of the city and you’re paying for people’s time to travel to and from a meeting where they’re generally not saying very much.

So you can streamline quite a bit. You can take your core team and people can dial in remotely and still be part of the process.”

While the days of rolling out trace paper may be numbered, at least for the foreseeable future, junior architects might wonder if being excluded from meetings isn’t depriving them of the most important thing about a being in a practice –  the physical proximity to more experienced colleagues. And that, so far, is something that even technology can’t replace.