Architects deploy remote tech amid coronavirus

The Covid-19 pandemic, which is testing firms’ agility, will disrupt development and the design process and encourage firms to adopt more sophisticated remote working practices, architects said.

Ewen Miller, managing director of Calderpeel, which has given staff the choice of coming into the office or working from home this week, said he was hopeful that the problems caused by the virus would be short term but that his employees were well versed in working remotely should the need arise.

“It could be catastrophic and I’m sure it will have an impact but I am hopeful this is a temporary blip but it doesn’t take long for a temporary blip to become more embedded.”

Miller also expressed concerns over the impact closing schools could have on business saying that around 50% of Calderpeel’s workforce had children of school age and that working from home and entertaining children was not “conducive to workflow.”

Ernst ter Horst, associate architect at Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, said the virus outbreak could cause delays to project decisions and implementation and Matt Smithhurst, creative director at Preston-based Rockhunter, agreed.

He said: “Due to the uncertainty, nobody really knows what the coming weeks will entail and therefore there is a reluctance to move anything forward at a pace, or at all, for the time being, which internally has its own production problems.”

Communicating with clients at an uncertain time is key, he added.

Another challenge for some architects is remote working, noted Chris Bolland, managing partner at Brock Carmichael.

He said the firm was trying to be as flexible and pragmatic as possible but that reliance on certain building design and modelling technologies, such as CAD and BIM, made working from home difficult for architects.

“When you’re an SME that needs high power hardware and very expensive software and your business culture is based on team collaboration, best done around a table, this is a difficult time,” he said.

The high cost of licences for such software is often a “massive financial burden” and meant it is not possible for all architects to install the software on their home computers while working remotely.

FCB’s ter Horst agreed. “As professionals it is possible to work remotely but it is a very collaborative job and to be physically around people is very helpful, thankfully we are equipped and can work remotely so this can be mitigated,” he said.

However, with homeworking initiatives being rolled out nationwide to limit the spread of the virus, one firm said that a period of enforced homeworking could provoke a positive culture shift within the development industry.

Ernst ter Horst, Leisure Update

Ernst tor Horst has warned of the impact coronavirus could have on the industry

“Not all meetings need to be face-to-face,” said a spokesperson for Liverpool-based Studio MUTT.

“[Meetings] are often travelled to at great expense, both in time and environmental impact. Perhaps this difficult period will mark a positive culture shift for the industry and the country as a whole.”

ter Horst agreed, saying it would be a “silver lining” if one result of widespread homeworking during the outbreak was a reduction in the number of unnecessary meetings. He said: “I am a massive advocate of only going to meetings when necessary, but often architects don’t get the final say on that.”

Studio MUTT said it was prepared for a prolonged period of homeworking. “We remain very much open for business, but are changing the way we operate to act responsibly with the safety of our colleagues, clients and communities in mind.

“Our cloud-based server setup allows us to work remotely with minimal impact on the running of the practice.”

Staff at Rockhunter, like many other firms in architecture and across the rest of the development industry, will be working from home as of today.

Smithurst said: “Because we have an office in London and Preston we already have a robust understanding of remote operations and as such our productivity and communication will not be affected in any way.”

BDP, which has 10 offices and employs 1,000 staff across the UK and Ireland, said it was similarly prepared for the crisis in a statement to reassure stakeholders that work can continue as normal away from the office.

“Around 70% of BDP staff have access to a company laptop that provides direct access to the BDP network and associated software licences, allowing a significant proportion of our project activities – including BIM – to be carried out remotely,” the company statement said.

“We also provide remote desktop access for the remainder of our staff, ensuring that powerful workstations are available for advanced modelling and visualisation activities remote from BDP’s studios using personal equipment to access BDP networks securely.”

Place North West reported yesterday that property consultants had instructed staff to work from home and either closed offices temporarily, or scaled them down, with only meeting rooms and reception desks open in some cases.

While the current constraints on social interaction and travel are likely to impact the vast majority of the population in the short term, the long term effects of the coronavirus on the construction industry could be significant, according to ter Horst.

“It is all well and good working off Zoom and Skype, we can work from home and on screens, but it is the wider supply chain and site staff we have to worry about,” he said.

“We are still trying to understand what the implications will be. The construction industry is cyclical and we may be reaching the end of a cycle.”

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