Architecture is deeply embedded within the construction industry. If it has to stop, so will we, says Rab Bennetts
For an industry as fragmented and diverse as construction, unambiguous advice about coronavirus is impossible. But it’s only a matter of time before the UK government follows Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon by ordering all building sites to close. Except those that are essential. Except for health-and-safety-related repair work. Except emergencies. And other grey areas.
Whilst architects may feel remote from the construction industry (which ironically is a common complaint by contractors about the profession) we are in fact deeply embedded within it. Our futures are intertwined and, if they have to stop work, eventually so must we.
It’s tempting to imagine construction workers being able to practise social distancing in the open, but a lot of physical work requires close contact – and what about the changing areas, site canteens, washrooms, security gates and of course travel? The safest option by far is to stop construction activity and to hastily draw up which exceptions are essential, as the Construction Industry Council is attempting to do right now. Contractors need clarity just like their employees.
The need to service construction sites with information and answers to queries will dry up if the sites aren’t functioning.
It’s equally tempting to feel that architects are to some extent able to distance ourselves from the need to stop everything as most of us can work remotely. But it won’t be long before the inability to meet people starts having a serious impact. Lengthy periods of production are one thing, but the consultation phase of a major project going in for planning is quite another. Planning officers are not able to work properly, the public can’t attend exhibitions, and crowded debates at planning committees are off-limits. Projects have already stalled for lack of public contact. So the early stages of design may be short-lived unless clients feel it is possible to proceed at risk.
Similarly, production itself is hardly an isolated activity. Larger projects need the input of many, including those in the industry who design and supply specialist assemblies such as structure and cladding systems, lifts or services. Where these firms can operate remotely, it may be manageable; but many cannot function outside their factories, which means the information supply will soon be curtailed. Construction sites, too, need more-or-less continuous involvement by architects and others, so the need to service them with information and answers to queries will dry up if the sites themselves aren’t functioning.
With significant parts of the design and construction process curtailed through lack of human contact, cash flow will take a hit as fees cannot be fully invoiced. Architectural practices will have to rely on the government’s support schemes, from deferment of VAT and business rates to payment of actual salaries.
Looking for the upside, it is wondrous to behold how quite large groups are able to complete a substantial body of work without the need to congregate around the ‘team table’ at frequent intervals – something we thought was essential to the DNA of architectural collaboration. Even our bi-weekly office meeting this Monday took place almost like normal, with 70 people communicating via video-conferencing software. Those of us in a senior position are getting smarter than we were at our digital skills, as the sketch or the mentor’s chat is not so easy any more. (I might even start to tweet, something I’ve previously felt was more trouble than it was worth!)
The world of work has undoubtedly changed and it is already clear that less travel and more remote working holds out the prospect of a lower-carbon future. Maybe the time is right to redesign those vast server farms that support the ‘cloud’, or restrict the amount of useless information they store. And maybe communities around the world will realise what fresher air can mean and how it can be better protected in future.
Rab Bennetts is co-founder of Bennetts Associates