It’s going to be an epic recession

14 May, 2020

The British cabinet now meets on Zoom, court hearings have moved online and banks are shifting millions of pounds every day via home secure systems. Remote working has been a massive experiment that has more or less proved successful – even for architects.

So what comes next?  

For Joe Morris, whose 50 staff continue to work at home, the last two months have been a steep learning curve.

He has been walking into his Hoxton-based office, Morris + Company, every day.

“I have been watering the plants, fixing IT issues, I am the security man, maintenance man, taking deliveries and for the first time I know where things are in the cupboards which I’ve not known for a decade because everyone else has done it for me.”

But it’s also given him time to think about the office structure post-lockdown.

Although a high proportion of staff can walk or cycle to work, many of them are asking if they need to be there at all.

“It’s quite interesting.  We’ve gone from being an office of 50 to being 50 mini-offices overnight…. but as people get more and more comfortable with it, they are less and less keen to come back,” he says. 

And architects aren’t the only ones. Three out of five people would prefer to work from more often than they did before lockdown, according to a major survey this week.

His staff is dispersed around Europe. Only three are furloughed – which was out of choice because they have young children. Otherwise it has been work as normal.

“Once you get over the fact they’re not in the same room, it doesn’t really matter where people work from”.

The problem though, he says, is how you get them back safely, pointing out that if the rules were followed the current office layout could only accommodate 10 people out of 50.

“It’s almost impossible to observe the two metre distancing rule. 

“The desks are 1.5 metre long which means that everyone is a 1.5 apart but the widths of the aisles between desks are less than 2 metres and once you put the chairs in you can pretty much get one person a bay instead of ten.  You almost have to change everything – where do you even start?”

It’s a problem likely to  be repeated throughout the country, suggesting that practices will be slow to reopen.

But it could also be an opportunity to re-think the practice business model that architects have rigidly adopted for decades. Morris agrees. “We need to have a conversation which is not how do we deal with a crisis, with Covid, but how do we use this as an opportunity to really reflect and change how we practice.”

This was not a conversation architects were having after 2007. Many architects were made redundant and salaries went down. But the impetus was to go back to how things were before the recession.

This time it feels different with architects like Morris realising that collaboration with colleagues and clients can work remotely through technology, coupled with an awareness that cutting down on travel would have an environmental benefit – and that not having a large central London office could make architecture more profitable.

“Reducing overheads creates a better balance in how you can use your fees, for example, because at the moment a third of my fees goes on paying an office that is empty, another third goes on salaries for people who have to work in London and travel across London and a third of it is profit but we don’t see any of it, so the system just doesn’t work.

“If you could dial down on a lot of the expenditure and reduce the impact on the city – more walking, more cycling, simple things – we reduce the size of the office, we reduce our overheads, we can still carry out the same amount of work potentially …and the cash flow we have can work harder for the benefit of the staff rather than at the moment, literally trying to keep the cash flow hitting a mark which is all we’re able to do at the moment and all we’ve been able to do for a decade”.

There is also the question of how the inevitable post-Covid recession will affect architects and how to plan for that.  

The practice has thrown itself into research, both into how the workplace is going to evolve and temporary housing, the latter supported by a small grant from RIBA. But what’s important, he says, is that ideas are now shared collectively and then “pushed into the market”.

While generally optimistic that the profession can emerge stronger and fitter, Morris is under no illusion that the next few months will be tough.

“When the crisis first emerged we took a pessimistic view of how the workflow would work and we were alarmed. Each of these projects has the potential to stall given what’s happening, lots of things on site, planning committees slowing down and no new work coming in, the cliff edge normally six months away is now several weeks away.

“It’s going to be an epic recession…. but the big issue we have at the moment, when we come back, is what will work look like – who is commissioning projects in the future?”

This is a question all architects are asking. The only certainty, says Morris, is that the profession is in for a rocky ride but the Covid -19 pandemic has also offered an opportunity for it to come back stronger and importantly, more socially attuned than before.

 

Joe Morris is a founding director of Morris + Company. He is a judge for Best Newcomer, one of the categories in the Archiboo Awards which launch in May