This week’s top stories reviewed by the AJ’s Simon Aldous: Coronavirus enforces changes in the way we work • Housing secretary blocks mayor’s London Plan • Grimshaw redundancies • Fears over indemnity insurance
Life can come at you pretty fast when there’s a global pandemic about. Only seven days ago, I was discussing whether architects would be able to work from home. Now, it would seem, most are doing just that.
Last week’s Weekend Roundup poll asked whether readers would be able to work effectively from home. Overall, 80 per cent said they would, with the figure slightly higher (82 per cent) for those working as architects, contrary to fears that the profession was particularly ill-suited to home-working.
An AJ survey showed 82 per cent of respondents had introduced at least a degree of home-working, with 21 per cent saying all staff had moved away from the office.
This week has also seen the AJ team decamp to our individual homes. We are currently in the process of sending a print edition to press with no one in our office. If you keep designing the buildings, we’ll keep writing about them.
But, as Bell Phillips director Hari Phillips suggested last week, might this be the future?
China, where the virus started, appears to be coming out of the viral tunnel, and this week we heard from Chris Hardie, who heads the Shanghai office of Schmidt Hammer Lassen and Perkins & Will. There, all staff worked remotely for two weeks before gradually returning to the studio, though travel restrictions still apply.
‘We’re beginning to think this could change the way we work in the future,’ he told the AJ. ‘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.’
The main lesson from China may, however, be that a drastic lockdown is the most effective way of stopping the virus’s spread. Boris Johnson, who seemed at least a week behind the rest of Europe in most measures, is suggesting at least 12 weeks of social distancing. And while most architects may be able to do their work, a general slowdown in construction work will inevitably have repercussions.
Hopefully, the government’s package of financial support for businesses will prevent practices from having to lay off staff or from going to the wall completely.
Meanwhile, I won’t be the first to make the point that the coronavirus has led to some of the drastic changes in behaviour required to tackle the climate emergency, particularly a drastic reduction in air travel and journeys generally.
Many thought it was too radical a change to be made; now we’re seeing that when the threat is immediate and tangible, we can make those kinds of changes. The question is to what degree things will simply snap back to the way they were once the virus is vanquished.
Poll: Where have you been working this week?
• In the office
• At home
• A mixture of both home and office
• I have not been able to work
Jenrick and sadiq
Housing secretary Robert Jenrick has blocked Sadiq Khan’s London plan. He says he is deeply disappointed by the mayor’s housing delivery strategy, saying the plan is set to deliver only 52,000 homes a year rather than the 60,000 needed.
Exactly how blocking the entire plan improves this situation is not entirely clear.
A spokesperson for the mayor did not address the numbers issue head-on, but suggested that the plan’s focus was on achieving the right kind of housing, specifically ‘genuinely affordable housing’.
Since Jenrick’s department has so far been happy for schemes such as low-quality office-to-resi schemes to proceed without going through the planning process, the spokesperson may well have a point.
Is it possible that the housing secretary’s action was partly an ill-timed attempt to damage Khan’s prospects of re-election this May – ill-timed because the same day he announced he was blocking the plan, all mayoral elections were postponed for a year.
In any case, you do wonder what the point of local democracy is if Londoners can have the intentions of their elected mayor overturned in this way.
But then it would appear that Jenrick isn’t a great fan of some other forms of democracy – namely the mayor’s introduction of mandatory estate ballots, whereby residents must vote to approve estate regeneration plans before they can be implemented.
Jenrick described the ballots as ‘onerous’ and jeopardising housing delivery. This is despite the fact that every ballot so far has resulted in the proposed scheme being approved.
This isn’t to say the ballots are pointless. It is highly likely that those behind the regeneration schemes had to modify their proposals, knowing that they needed to win the backing of those affected.
Grimshaw plans redundancies after Heathrow job scuppered
Grimshaw has begun redundancy talks with staff after the Court of Appeal blocked the £14 billion expansion of Heathrow Airport. It is understood that around 100 of its 268-strong UK workforce were working on the scheme before it was deemed unlawful for ignoring the government’s climate change commitments made under the 2016 Paris agreement. It is understood that more than 20 jobs at the practice will go.
Indemnity insurance no longer covers fire risk, architect claims
The profession could face a professional indemnity insurance ‘horror story’ an architect has claimed, saying it is impossible to find a policy that covers fire risk. Leeds-based sole practitioner Mark Hide told the AJ that he had been insured via the RIBA Insurance Agency for the past 13 years but had been recently told that his policy would not cover claims relating to inflammable walls, doors, cladding or glazing. Hawkins\Brown boss Roger Hawkins, who chairs the RIBA Insurance Agency, described the insurance market as ‘in a bit of turmoil‘ following around a dozen devastating – though non-fatal – fires last summer.