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Coronavirus hits architecture as firms send staff home

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Practices have begun shutting their offices, construction sites have been hit and universities have cancelled face-to-face tuition in a bid to stop the spread of the coronavirus

Camden-based David Kohn Architects told the AJ it had closed its studio for a fortnight from today (16 March) with its entire staff working from home to reduce the chances of contagion.

Kohn said that while locally based employees would check daily on the premises, he was confident the company could deliver with a remote workforce. ‘Over the past few weeks we have trialled everyone working from home and feel comfortable that we can deliver for all our clients through the processes we have set up,’ he said.

The UK’s largest architectural practice Foster + Partners said half its staff were now working from home and it had already banned its staff from overseas travel. Fellow AJ100 big hitter Grimshaw said that a ‘majority’ of its employees had worked from home last week to test out its ‘preparedness for any potential future suspension of public transport systems’. Nottingham-based practice Maber also said it was getting ready for ‘full-scale’ working from home.

Some firms, however, have said they would struggle with home working. Chris Darling, managing director of Darling Associates, said: ‘[We have] staff off work self-isolating and unable to work productively.

‘[Our] ethos is to work collaboratively in teams, and home-working does not work well for us.’

Last week at King’s Cross, developer and contractor Lendlease temporarily stopped worked on the new Google UK headquarters, which is being designed by Heatherwick Studio and delivered by BDP, after a worker tested positive for Covid-19. The site is set to re-open today after a ‘deep clean’.

Meanwhile, the Bartlett School of Architecture has stopped all face-to-face tuition until the end of the academic year. From today the University of Greenwich has said it is switching to online teaching for its students.

The RIBA has suspended judging for both its UK-based awards – the first steps towards the annual Stirling Prize – and its international prize. An institute spokesperson said: ‘The RIBA has been closely monitoring expert advice regarding the coronavirus outbreak and assessing its implications on all of the organisation’s activities.

‘We take the safety of all of those involved in the awards programme very seriously and, after careful consideration, taking into account the significant concern about the spread of illness, have decided to postpone all judging for this year’s programme. We have informed all entrants.

‘An updated timeline for the awards programme will be published in due course.’

Earlier this month, the 2020 Venice Biennale, scheduled for May, was put back until August due to fears over the virus. This year’s MIPIM property fair in Cannes, France, which was set to take place last week, was also postponed till early June.

How has your practice been affected by the coronavirus? What have your experiences been of home working? Email richard.waite@emap.com

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David Kohn of David Kohn Architects

As one colleague put it, ’There’s this strange buzz in the office today. It feels a bit like when school was closed due to snow.’ We are shutting the office from Monday for a fortnight. Over the past few weeks we have trialled everyone working from home and feel comfortable that we can deliver for all our clients through the processes we have set up. Clients and collaborators have been informed and have been supportive. The home bursar at New College, our largest ongoing project, replied quite directly, ‘Thank you for being proactive in your planning for this pandemic.’

David kohn architects team crop

Winner of the £1.5 billion Birmingham Smithfield regeneration: David Kohn Architects with Eastside Projects, Todd Longstaffe-Gowan, Mark El-khatib, Charcoalblue, Price & Myers, Max Fordham, WSP, Urban Space Management and Plan A Consultants

Winner of the £1.5 billion Birmingham Smithfield regeneration: David Kohn Architects with Eastside Projects, Todd Longstaffe-Gowan, Mark El-khatib, Charcoalblue, Price & Myers, Max Fordham, WSP, Urban Space Management and Plan A Consultants

We have always been interested in how technology might support flexible working, historically adopting web-based options for all project management, finance and HR platforms. We have particularly trialled using Google Meet and Slack over the past fortnight to speed up communication, while relying more heavily on feedback and QA processes through a combination of CMAP reporting, Dropbox and Adobe Creative Cloud.

All of our regular internal meetings will continue as usual, but online, and we have an 11am tea break online together every day. You have to be more punctual than in the office, and leave time to address tech glitches, but you also have to spend a lot less time travelling.

If we can all learn to work in different ways, it will make us more flexible for the future

While no one wants a pandemic, it is important to see a positive side to such dreadful situations. If we can all learn to work in different ways, it will make us more flexible for the future and allow us to be more radical in how we move between different ways of working. These changes might also contribute to addressing some aspects of climate change, like reducing travel, but also show how we can make significant changes to how we work when we have to. Most of all though, maintaining a strong collaborative ethos is how we want to approach all our work and the current situation is no different.

Tarek Merlin of Feix & Merlin 

Smaller practices like ours tend to be more nimble in situations like this, simply by virtue of the fact that there are fewer people so it can be easier logistically to set up home-working, which basically would involve sending everyone home in an Uber with their iMacs under their arms if it comes to that!

We use an online server so don’t need to be physically next to any bulky servers or hardware. We would, of course, miss the natural collaborative design conversations that happen, sometimes without noticing, when you’re next to each other in the studio. We would, for example, switch to Skype which, although has its limitations and can be glitchy, does allow for screen sharing and other features to enable more informal chats.

In our early days, Julia [Feix] and I worked remotely from each other – for a few years actually – sometimes in different times zones. But we made it work. It’s a bit more difficult now with our bigger team, but working remotely with all our online systems and Cloud-based software would be fine for the short term if we had to.

Working remotely with all our online systems and Cloud-based software would be fine for the short term 

On the flip side, smaller practices are more vulnerable. If one or two people need to rest up due to illness – and if you are ill you should be resting, not working from home – that can have a significant effect on the business. We are carefully reviewing our options, and we have planned our very own F&M Cobra meeting this week to discuss and review. The simplest idea for now is that anyone who has a long commute might be better off staying at home, most of us live and work in Peckham but there are a few with an hour or so on crowded tubes and trains, so we might trial a working from home solution for them and see how that goes.

We are not making any judgement calls just yet; keeping our eyes on the situation as it develops, and following advice: lots of gels, washing of hands, Dettol cleaning wipes, and of course the now obligatory elbow bumps instead of handshakes, when clients come over. 

  

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