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Life after lockdown: an architect’s view from China

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Architect Chris Hardie heads the combined practice of Schmidt Hammer Lassen and Perkins & Will in Shanghai. He tells Will Ing about how the studio has come out the other side of a national coronavirus lockdown

Like the rest of China, the practice’s employees were celebrating New Year in early February when the coronavirus crisis exploded in Wuhan and triggered a government clampdown.

People were told to stay indoors during the two-week holiday, which was later extended by a week. And then work had to restart at home.

‘We were certainly not used to the entire office working from home; we simply had a home working strategy about hot desking and being flexible,’ says Hardie, who had previously worked at Haworth Tompkins and David Chipperfield Architects in London.

‘We had to invest in bandwidth for some of the staff because their internet was fine for Skype, but not for doing revisions of a 3D model on a server at the same time as three other people. We were quite lucky as everyone works on a powerful gaming laptop for BIM 360, with strong back-end access to servers and render engines.’

All staff worked remotely for two weeks and on the third and fourth weeks staff gradually returned to the studio, near Beijing West Road in central Shangai.

However, workers still have to wear masks to and from work and have their temperature tested when they enter the building. Travel around the country to visit sites or clients is still curtailed, while gyms and cafés are only starting to reopen.

‘We’re beginning to think this could change the way we work in the future,’ says Hardie. ‘Initially [our home-work strategy] was to allow us to be more flexible and resilient in how we work – whether that be from home or hot desking. We were testing this in a fairly mild way, but the current situation is allowing us to test this to the max.

‘This situation will certainly alter our thought process on whether we need to travel as much as we do; halving travel and replacing the other half with virtual working would be a positive outcome.

‘And if we see benefits to our staff work/life balance, to our creativity and efficiency… [then] we expect this to affect the options we have to work in the future.’

Hardie says his practice won’t take a big hit from the lockdown. ‘Revenue is down, but not down enough that we don’t think we can catch up to somewhere similar [to what it would have been],’ he says. ‘After the two-week holiday we were prepared for it to be quiet. Our targets were low anyway.’

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shanghai studio 05 marc goodwin 1838x974

Source: Marc Goodwin

Chris Hardie in the Shanghai studio of Perkins + Will and Schmidt Hammer Lassen

He says there has even been a mini-boom since restrictions were lifted, remarking: ‘The phones are ringing more than they normally would at this time of year. Private developers, in particular, are really keen to make up lost ground.’

Public workloads could rise to an unusual high if the government decides to jumpstart the economy with a stimulus package.

The swift action taken by the Chinese government means that the situation for architects in Shanghai is bound to be different from in the UK. ‘China didn’t dilly-dally,’ says Hardie. ‘It can be quite draconian, but there was a lot less questioning; it’s very much get on and do it’.

He adds: ‘Our lockdown was a really, really fast period. When we hear [UK-based architects could be home-working until the summer, that’s shocking to us.’

Hardie says UK architects should use the time away from the office to start writing their future manifestos. ‘We all need to use this situation to start planning how we can work better,’ he says. ‘Be prepared for [the mini-boom]. Use the downtime wisely: how are you going react when everyone wants to get back?’

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