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Architects should use their skills to fight pandemic, health expert urges


Architects are failing to appreciate the enormity of Covid-19 and should use their problem-solving abilities to help fight the global pandemic, a prominent public health expert has told the AJ

John Ashton, a former regional director of public health for north-west England, criticised architect practices that were continuing to encourage or allow staff to work in the office, saying non-essential workers must stay at home.

Last week, the AJ revealed Sheppard Robson was facing questions after it emerged that more than 100 employees were working from its Camden headquarters as late as last Friday. Yesterday (March 23), an AHMM newsletter confirmed that a self-selecting number of staff ‘whose preference it is not to work from home’ were continuing to work at its London and Bristol offices alongside a small number of support staff.

However, the government is tightening restrictions on life in Britain by the day and last night prime minister Boris Johnson brought in sweeping new curbs, including stopping all travelling to and from work unless it ‘absolutely cannot be done from home’.

Sheppard Robson employees have lined up to criticise the AJ’s story, saying that no one had been forced to work in the office. But Ashton said: ‘The response of the company shows an inability to get to grips with the impending seriousness and reality of the situation together with elements of narcissism about the importance of their creative contribution being more important than the national emergency.

‘In one sense though what they have done is understandable because everyone has been slow on the uptake and the advice from the prime minister has not been clear enough’.

Ashton warned that the number of deaths was doubling every three days and said he feared hospitals would be inundated and would ‘fall over’ in several weeks’ time.

‘Economically, and in terms of construction, the situation will be like what we saw after the First and Second World Wars and lots of companies will have gone bankrupt,’ he said.

One might ask what such a collection of talented people should be doing now, rather than pressing on with projects that may never see the light of day

Returning to the role of architects, he said many schemes now being worked on would be cancelled and urged the profession to ‘reorientate itself for the social purpose’.

He added: ‘One might ask the question what such a collection of talented people should be doing now rather than pressing on with projects that may never see the light of day in the post-apocalyptic landscape that beckons.

‘Have they ideas about the designing out of coronavirus from the settings of our everyday lives now? Things people can do with their domestic settings and spatial arrangements that they find themselves in? Ventilation, space and sunlight all mitigate against the virus’.

Ashton also acknowledged much of the profession’s current focus on fighting the climate emergency but said both could be combatted at once. ‘We need utility design with eco-design,’ he said.

Speaking on this morning’s BBC Today programme, London mayor Sadiq Khan said only essential workers such as NHS staff or those in food production should still be travelling to work.

The RIBA, which declined to comment on the Sheppard Robson story, has been urging members to work from home ‘if it is possible to do so.’

Today, the institute’s chief executive Alan Vallance, said: ‘We strongly recommend all practice leaders make necessary working from home arrangements for their staff.

’The government has emphasised the crucial importance of social distancing and has been clear that businesses should support their staff’s welfare and encourage employees to work at home wherever possible.’ 


Readers' comments (7)

  • Health and resilience qualitative standards are inseparable. To address shortcomings in health and climate change a new synthesis has long been called for. What might the priorities be?
    My thoughts for starters.
    How about a big push now to ensure adoption of mandatory minimum space and storage standards, balconies for all flats, cross ventilated dual aspect dwellings with min. ceiling heights, limitations on numbers accessing dwellings from a single core, min. amenity space with more resilient water, energy, waste conservation, management and flood resistant installations, and national broadband over a single network.

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  • A great list, but we have to start by reversing the recent planning approval for flats without windows. Planners suggest there are many schemes of windowless basement flats which they seem powerless to prevent.

    Furthermore, the extensions to General Permitted Development Rights to convert unused office and the recent widening of those Rights must be reversed.

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  • Some really good ideas here — including consideration of volume and ventilation as well as area. This should be the start of a constructive discussion.

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  • For the here and now, it might be helpful if Professor Ashton could have a few words with the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government - Robert Jenrick - who wields enormous power but whose behaviour suggests a really damaging lack of regard for these issues.

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  • Surely the most pressing task for the design industry is to figure out how to re-purpose the mega-millions sq. ft. of obsolete office space which will be entirely redundant now that working from home is proved to be the trend of the future.

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  • Clare Richards

    John Ashton urges the profession to ‘reorientate itself for the social purpose’. I don’t think he just means finding healthy design solutions.

    ft’work and quite a few other practices are working hard to convince people of the importance of social sustainability – of projects that value their social context, of addressing the needs of local communities, of meaningful collaboration. Why? Because it works.

    Now all of a sudden - thanks to coronavirus - people’s spontaneous actions are speaking for themselves. So far this week I've witnessed in North London: strangers saying hello in the street; unacquainted neighbours chatting through open windows; students volunteering to shop and dog-walk; the effectiveness of the ’nextdoor’ app, (eg 23 people offering to deliver paracetamol to a doctor ill at home); retired nurses returning to work; lists made of vulnerable neighbours and a chat rota; community cooking; parents eating meals with their children; phone calls to elderly friends and relatives; offers of rooms for self-isolating; a hotel chain providing accommodation for the homeless; And it’s not just at home – listen to the change of tone of politicians, journalists, company bosses...

    So what should we make of this? Are these the innate responses that it takes a crisis to kick-start? Is it a genuine change of heart having been forced to focus on what’s important? Or just plain self-preservation? I’m not sure it matters. The key question is how do we sustain it once the pandemic is over?

    Only by our resolve not to return to where we were. Hopefully, having experienced the tangible benefits that our new-found social cohesion and mutual support have brought us, we won’t want to turn back.

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  • Light? Ventilation? Space? These are all things we think about on every project. Not sure there is an innovation waiting to be discovered here. I suppose an argument for suburbia could be made, try to avoid any interactions with other people. But I’m not sure that’s good for mental health. Loneliness in such a situation is probably a bigger factor long term than covid. What’s the point in surviving to only be depressed and isolated.

    Personally, I’ve put my efforts and mix of skills to use in setting up and running (now with an amazing team) my local mutual aid group. I had no idea it would take off so quickly, but within about 48 hours I found myself running an organisation of over 200 people. Quite remarkable.

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