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PM’s post-lockdown plan: What immediate difference will it make?

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Yesterday prime minister Boris Johnson set out the government’s ‘conditional plan’ to reopen society, urging people who could not work from home to return to the workplace

Johnson said construction sites and factories should restart immediately, though he told people to continue avoiding public transport. He also said the government was hoping primary schools would begin opening their doors early next month.

Further details about the phased shift from lockdown in England are due to be published in new guidance issued later today (11 May), while devolved governments are making separate announcements about lockdown measures in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. 

So, with practices having successfully managed the shift to home-working, what impact will the PM’s ’first careful steps to modify’ lockdown have on the profession?

Nick Hayhurst at Hayhurst & Co Architects said: ’For most architects, [this] announcement will make little immediate difference: we will be still be working at home, still be home-schooling and still be feeling totally “Zoomed” out at the end of the day. As office workers, I suspect we are going to be one of the last to go back to our work environments.

‘For us, the only change is that this week we’ll be doing real site visits, rather than being shown around via FaceTime. We’re going to be going at 4.30pm, after the trades have left, so as not to make the site managers’ lives any more difficult and [we] have to go there by car: both of which go against the grain.’  

Hayhurst added that the ‘big issue’ resulting from the PM’s announcement was the re-opening of English construction sites ‘that were never told to close’.

It will be some time before the sector returns to any form of sustainable normality

He said: ‘Before we can ask whether the sites are sufficiently safe or have enough materials on site, we need to know who is looking after the children and how are they supposed to get [to school or carers] with limited access to public transport? My sense is that, while construction workers have been given the mandate to go back to work, it will be some time before the sector returns to any form of sustainable normality.’

In Scotland, all non-essential construction work has been halted since 6 April and sites are still not allowed to reopen under rules issued by first minister Nicola Sturgeon. 

But the speed of returning to sites will be key to how architects respond and when they can remobilise their own staff.

Laurence Osborne, director at Grid Architects, said: ’In terms of bringing those furloughed back to work we will need to assess how quickly our clients respond to the PM’s announcement, particularly his encouragement for construction workers to return to work.

‘If the projects which were put on hold, or those projects where new instructions were anticipated materialise, this should be swift and painless. However, it is too early to tell. Nevertheless we have been encouraged over the past two weeks by many of our clients stating that, following lockdown, they intend to either resume activities or become even more active in bringing development forward.’

Adam Hall, managing director of Falconer Chester Hall Architects, added: ‘The PM is in a difficult position, balancing the public health and the economy. We have a number of projects on site which have ticked over during the past seven weeks and this has required us to maintain architectural resources to service those schemes and, in specific cases, we have brought colleagues out of furlough in order to maintain and even get ahead on production information.

’[This] announcement, promoting a return to work for the construction sector, will require us to review our project resourcing.’

However London-based Matt Blain, principal and regional leader of UK, Europe and Middle East at Hassell, was less hopeful, and feared that many practices who had furloughed staff would be making redundancies in the short term.

The PM did not say whether the government’s job retention scheme, under which furloughed staff can received 80 per cent of their salary, would be extended beyond 30 June. 

The lack of clarity on this and other issues, some of which may be partially resolved in parliament later today, concerned many. 

A lot of noise to give the impression of easing the lockdown

Kirsten Lees, managing partner at Grimshaw, described the PM’s statement as ‘a lot of noise to give the impression of easing the lockdown’ and ‘being impossibly vague’.

She said: ‘Those who cannot work from home are now encouraged to go to work – but this was part of government policy previously.

‘No clarity was given as to which specific industries should be opening, with just 12 hours’ notice, nor any guidance on the particular measures needed to maintain social distancing, public health and safety. I was particularly concerned that public transport appeared to be actively discouraged, with the private car being promoted as a viable means of travel. Walking and cycling did get a mention described as being ‘even better’ but this came across almost as an afterthought. This is a missed opportunity.’

Alan Wright, partner at BPTW, agreed: ‘Lockdown has given us a glimpse into a more sustainable future – but one that won’t be released by the PM blithely telling us to get back into our cars to drive to work. Now is the time for our political leaders to be brave, and boldly imagine how walking and cycling could be our new normal, and to transform our towns and cities by radically cutting back on private car use.

Melanie Leech, chief executive of the British Property Federation, also called for more substance and detail in the proposed plan. She said: ‘We urgently need the government to publish the detail in its back-to-work papers and what public health guidance will apply as more people return to their places of work and have more freedom to enjoy public spaces.

‘The overwhelming priority is to make sure that people are safe, but businesses will need time to prepare for and apply this guidance.’

Comments: Will your practice be going back to office working this week?

Ben Derbyshire, chair, HTA Design:
We’ve begun planning for a partial return to our studios when the time comes, with a survey of our team’s views. We envisage a rota system for those who prefer working in the studios and social distancing for those who can and wish to travel safely. Some aspects of the lockdown experience will certainly remain, supporting more sustainable practice, in particular reduced business travel and more remote meetings.

Jude Harris, director, Jestico + Whiles
On our part as architects it is very clear that as we have demonstrably been able to work from home effectively that we should continue to do so for some time to come. We look forward to updates from the chancellor during the course of the week to understand how support for architecture businesses might be extended in what are very challenging times for businesses across the country.’

Tom Gresford, founder, Gresford Architects
As a small practice we’ve adapted well to working from home, and most design and other meetings with clients – apart from site meetings – have worked well online. Design work itself has been the hardest to carry out, as sitting around a table with paper and pens is not easy to replicate, so we are looking forward to doing that again. A number of our projects have been put on hold due to the crisis, so we look forward to knowing where we are going with them.

We will be buying screens to separate desks

We’ve continued to meet new clients online during the lockdown, and look forward to it easing further so we can go to see some of our new projects for the first time, which will be great. We’re carefully considering how we will be able to maintain safety in our small office, and will be buying screens to separate desks, adapting the use of communal facilities, as well as implementing alternate work days so everyone has some days in the office and some days working at home. Luckily, virtually all our team can walk or cycle to work, so that will also help.

Laurence Osborne, director, Grid Architects
The government encourages those who can work from home to remain working from home so, until they publish their guidance on creating a ‘Covid-secure’ workplace, we will continue to do so.

In the longer term, we’re looking into how we can incorporate the good things we’ve learnt during lockdown into new work patterns to enable an element of social distancing to continue and foster a safe working environment. What the past months have shown us is that working from home, using technology can be more productive than we thought. For example, we foresee that project team meetings and DTM’s are likely to continue on ‘Teams’ along with some design workshops. In addition, the majority of production work can still happen at home.

However, there are downsides to working from home: how do younger members of staff learn effectively when working on their own? Mentoring is difficult without regular contact and they do not benefit from what they pick up in a studio environment.

Project teams will need to stagger their studio days to minimise the numbers in the office

We have also missed a physical collaborative studio environment and, if possible, are likely to introduce ‘studio’ days for those who can avoid using public transport. Each project team will likely need to stagger their studio days so that we minimise the numbers in the office. While in the studio their time will focus on design and technical reviews, model-making and tasks which have been more difficult to perform in lockdown. Fortunately, a large portion of our team cycle to work so for most this should be possible.

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