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WBJ article features Gravity::Works regarding Covid-19 impact on architectural industry

Tuesday, June 23 2020 11:20 AM

Architectural firms ponder Covid-19's present, future


As with many sectors, architectual firms deemed essential businesses by county and state Covid-19 stay-at-home orders scrambled to overcome challenges of sending many employees home to continue their work.

    What they discovered about themselves in some cases revealed areas for improvement, while at the same time offering hope for innovations that could make firms stronger.

    "What we found is folks were able to be as productive as they were in the office," Said Jeff Weiford, one of the managing principals at GMLV Architecure, the second largest firm in the Wichita area according to this week's WBJ list of architectural firms.  "If anything, the level of communication increased between co-workers."

    GLMV, with headquarters in Wichita and additional offices in Kansas City and Houston, lists 21 architects and 78 employees in Wichita.  Weiford said weekly all-staff meetings before the pandemic consisted of employees gathering in conference rooms in the three cities.  Attendance was inconsistent.

    "But all employee meetings when working from home were off the charts with the number of (virtual) attendees we had," Weiford said.  "People could be that much more focused."

    At Gravity::Works Architecture in El Dorado, managing principal Vince Haines said they found the ability to work from home enabled many in the firm to work flexibly.  Time normally spent driving to work could be used to start work earlier, then free up a longer break during the day.

    "We didn't hold anyone accountable for being in a chair as much as touch base and make sure work was moving forward," Haines said.

    But for every positive, a spread-out and remote workforce created obstacles.  One of the biggest in the architectural profession is firms traditionally meet not only face-to-face with clients, but also with construction partners.  Those in-person occasions mostly gave way to pandemic precautions and virtual connections.

    "Being on the business development side of GLMV, it really knocked the wind out of us," Weiford said. "We are so incumbent on getting out and meeting folks face to face.  Not being able to travel and have lunches really put a damper on new work."

Smaller firm, similar challenges

Matt Cartwright, the principal of the four-person MJC Architecture in Andover, jokes he was a "Depression-era architect" when he started out on his own in 2007, a year before the Great Recession of 2008 and 2009.

    "The next two years was just a period for construction in Wichita of everybody trying to find the bottom," he said.  "I was fortunate to start at the bottom and come up."

    What Cartwright learned then, and in almost 30 years in architecture, is to keep overhead low during good times and bad, so that when something like a recession or Covid-19 decimates the economy, a firm's setbacks can be better controlled.

    "That way you can weather the storm," Cartwright said.  "You also keep the client base as diverse as possible."

    While all but one person was out of the office, MJC was able to finish up two retail projects and saw a small uptick in business.  That included more residential work, where clients finished their to-do lists while self-isolating and decided to begin building projects that needed professional direction.

Staying put while thinking ahead

While many architects worked remotely, or in their offices with most co-workers spread out or at home, they had time to think about the effect a pandemic had on their industry - in the present, in the short-term and in the long-term.

    The short term meant all offices, not just architects', needed quick fixes to allow employees to distance themselves from others and limit the amount of gathering places that could encourage the spread of viruses.

    But the long term could mean many things for architects thinking about the new future.  Designing new office space in the years ahead could run the gamut: Clients wanting larger spaces to accommodate extreme social distancing measures; clients wanting smaller spaces with plans to have more employees working remotely; and even clients wanting to eliminate all common areas.

    "We've started discussion on that," GLMV's Weiford said.  "Everything from what can we do to make everything more hands-free, to more of the same challenging aspects such as HVAC systems of the future.

    "What does that look like?  How much does Covid spread through transferring inside a facility?  How much of that is taken care of through enhanced filtration or UV sterilization?  It's going to have far-reaching effects.  It really is."

    GLMV has removed some interior doors at its offices to create fewer touch points.  Weiford said long-term innovations to office design could include more automatic-door openers and automatic plumbing fixtures, as well as audio activated elevator controls.

    But as future designs are contemplated, architects also note that Covid-19 precautions aren't over.  History will note this pandemic is the world's most serious since the Spanish flu 100 years ago, but how architects and clients include its ramifications in their thinking may vary.

    "To be honest, it'll be interesting to see how long it lasts as part of the conversation," Haines of Gravity::Works said.  "We've had plagues before.  It is in the conversation, but it will be interesting to see how long it stays there."


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