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Coronavirus: How are small practices coping with lockdown?


As architects adopt new ways of working through the lockdown, Kate Youde looks at how small practices are managing to keep designing and delivering their projects

With coronavirus interrupting usual ways of working, architect Lisa Raynes has turned to designing Lego houses. The founder of the Pride Road Franchise – a collective of small practices – uses the models to explain everything from planning rules to roof types via video calls to people looking to update their homes. ‘It’s a way of explaining concepts really clearly to clients,’ she says.

Used to meeting clients face-to-face in their own homes, the business’s three franchisees have switched to holding one-hour consultations online. ‘We get clients to show us around the house and then we can screen share and show clients what we would do,’ says Raynes, who is based in north Cheshire.

Img 9065

Img 9065

The architects are prototyping an online version of their usual concept design workshop on Zoom, drawing out a home’s existing layout based on a client’s measurements and then using tracing paper to overlay potential new designs. ‘We have found actually we can still work in the same way but just doing it online,’ says Raynes.

But how are other small practices adapting to the lockdown and could the country’s enforced confinement actually lead to an uptick in domestic projects when the restrictions are lifted?

Max Dewdney, founder of Max Dewdney Architects, thinks it is a possibility. ‘Homes have had to be adapted to workplaces and people are using different parts of the home than they might usually because of spending more time there,’ he says. ‘[They are] perhaps, therefore, realising the potential opportunities – and shortcomings – of the home.

He also thinks the lockdown will focus attention on neighbourhoods and allow us to ‘rethink our connection to the locality of where a home is’.

200409 dalston architecture collective collage high

His practice is part of the Dalston Architecture Collective (DAC), a collaborative group of 14 practices in east London which meets weekly – currently online – and shares knowledge, experience and staff.

In response to Covid-19, DAC is offering 45-minute online consultations to potential clients with two practices before supplying a sketch, drawing on different expertise including engineers, fabricators and architects from across the group.

Among those in the collective are Office S&M, Zector Architects, Paper House Project and Emil Eve Architects.

Dewdney says this approach helps ‘derisk’ and simplify what can seem like a complicated process to clients. ‘It’s trying to offer a one-stop shop,’ he says.

Fellow east London practice Hayhurst & Co has seen all its domestic projects that were at the design stage before the lockdown continue to progress. However, a number of projects for individual homes about to go on site are on hold. ‘It will be interesting to see whether contractors when we come out of this, whenever that is, keep to their tendered prices and how long it takes for them to remobilise,’ says director Nick Hayhurst.

It’s very difficult, if someone’s spending £500,000 on their home, to appoint an architect without having met them

Any new clients the practice has attracted in the last few weeks are people the team met before the lockdown. Hayhurst says much of its domestic business is based on the rapport built with clients. ‘It’s very difficult, especially if someone’s spending £500,000 or upwards on their home, to appoint someone without having met them,’ he says. ‘It’s quite a large ask.’

Meanwhile, Reigate practice Campbell & Co is ‘putting the brakes on’ plans to hold virtual design surgeries aimed at the domestic market because it feels people ‘are not in a place to want to commit to anything’ at the moment. ‘We have seen domestic enquiries actually drop off,’ says director Sophie Griffiths. ‘You might think people might have a little more time to think about it, but actually we have seen the opposite.’

Yet she says there could be opportunities in the future. ‘We have seen a few reports from places in Asia where practices have seen quite a quick return to working and new projects coming through the door fairly quickly when restrictions were lifted, so it may be we might see the same thing here,’ she says.

So what has the profession learned for when the work does return? RCKa director Russell Curtis says: ‘What the current situation has made apparent is we are tending to design housing extremely inflexibly and it tends to be based around a certain pattern of living, which isn’t necessarily suited to home-working. He suggests one outcome of the pandemic will be that home-working will be seen as ‘much more acceptable’.

As a result, architects may also take a new approach to designing their own studios. Curtis says RCKa is about to sign a lease on a new office and is going through the design process, but now thinking ‘are we designing it for a model of working that’s now slightly anachronistic?’

A ‘silver lining’ of the lockdown for Keith Carver, director of Studio Carver, is that a client for whom the London-based practice was about to do design work will now have time to live in their home. ‘We feel their brief is going to be much more important because of that time,’ he says.

The four-strong practice still has one residential project on site, with four different tradespeople each working in different rooms to maintain social distancing, although getting materials is ‘the biggest struggle’.

Tim Gibbons, co-founder of emerging practice Fieldwork, has found he has hit ‘a bit of a brick wall’ on the technical side of work when trying to access support from companies, for example with glazing, whether because people are not returning calls or have been furloughed.

Annabelle Tugby, founder of Annabelle Tugby Architect

Annabelle Tugby, founder of Annabelle Tugby Architect

Annabelle Tugby, founder of Annabelle Tugby Architects

Meanwhile, Annabelle Tugby, director of Cheshire-based Annabelle Tugby Architects, shortlisted for this year’s AJ Small Projects award, says there are ‘blockages’ on projects due to an inability to get input from consultants and structural surveys. ‘Some of our clients are really worried and don’t really have the headspace at the moment, which is understandable, to work on their projects,’ she adds.

The practice had found business ‘quite tough’ since last August, in part due to uncertainty over Brexit, and made two of its six employees redundant in anticipation of the impact of coronavirus.

Tugby says the practice is using time it did not previously have to invest in marketing, online advertising and social media to try and attract new clients, as well as using email marketing service Mailchimp to tell its own stories of its work ‘quite personally’.

With everyone living, working and schooling from home, she thinks the lockdown might focus people’s minds on their homes. ‘I’d really hope that people are looking to commission brilliant pieces of architecture after this because they understand their value,’ she says.

Of course how much domestic work there is for architects when the pandemic passes will much depend on the state of the economy. ‘The domestic market has so many conflicting issues all at play,’ says Hayhurst. ‘If house prices start to come down then it’s likely to slow down the domestic market for us.’

People are going to think long and hard about what they do with their money

There is also the impact of job losses and income cuts on potential clients to consider. ‘My concern is right now I think people are going to think long and hard about what they are going to do with their money,’ says Carver.

The outlook for practices who design domestic architecture much depends on how long restrictions last, with some furloughing staff. ‘I think the furlough scheme ensures longevity for practices but we are going to have to work harder and harder – longer hours – to keep running,’ says Tugby. ‘But it’s not something architects are not used to. If it was difficult until the end of the year I think we [at Annabelle Tugby Architects] could see that through.’


Readers' comments (2)

  • Great to hear about so many talented young practices and the collectives that they have organized to share labour, reduce costs and share insights and experience.

    It goes to show the ingenuity required just to be a Architect wanting the freedom tor expess, away from the large company structure.

    I hope they can largely survive and become cantankerous enough, forged through banking crisis, recession, epidemic, depression and come out the other side to challenge some status quo positions for the next generation.

    Such as why get on the wasteful competition treadmill, why let the market define practice by trying to catch a trend, why let our regulators and their policy burden, affect our competitiveness without protecting function and title.

    Why listen to calls to discard our, "Moral an Aesthetic code" or our means of practice, the arbitrary nature of BIM lobbying or any other such formulaic process requirements.

    We need collective insight more than ever. Musn't there be a better a more free and equitable way to be an Architect?

    Clearly nobody rides in to help in times of trouble, where are those: who regulate, those who build their businesses on the backs of the specifications, designs and innovations of Architects, and those who readily scape goat Architects in the public and political realms without
    being regulated themselves.

    Architect have for too long carried many along and we need the ability to shed these shackles in order to survive an thrive, we need to collectivise and take more control in this time of seeming helplessness!

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  • Simon Devlin

    We have noted a lack of confidence in the market but we as a practice are still busy even with the adjustment to the work/life pattern and placement. It is a challenge and we will be making two of our staff furloughed to try and reduce our costs from wages, we are committed to ensuring these are paid 100% though and they have been very supportive and engaged with how to keep the business moving. We will see this through but do hope the market picks up after the lockdown.

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