April 14, 2020

Designers and Architects Find New Ways to Adapt

As life under the COVID-19 becomes an experience measured in months, designers and architects are finding new ways to adapt. Interior Design, as part of our continuing series of dispatches documenting our communities’ resilience under unmeasurable stress, checks in with three designers who have found ways to keep themselves and their industry as healthy as possible.

Editor’s note: This story is the eighth installment in a series of conversations with designers, industry leaders, and architects around the globe, examining how our community is staying connected, inspired, and proactive about solutions during the current pandemic.

Hagy Belzberg, Belzberg Architects, Los Angeles, U.S.

The office is doing really well, considering the situation. I’m saying that with a tremendous amount of apprehension, humility, and empathy. It’s not doing well in the sense of this is a great time to be an architect. Given those circumstances, I’ve been really blessed to work with a group of professionals who have come around and helped each other to really make this transition. It’s been extraordinary, the energy we get from each other.

We are thirty architects and designers who normally work in one large space, and now we’re constantly on conference calls and video chats. The excitement of physically solving a problem together is very different even with the best cameras and all the funny things we try to do to make it seem more natural. You miss that connection and I’ve never known how much I’ve relied on it until now.

We’ve tried a few ways to help foster community. The first one is a virtual happy hour, which everyone is trying. It’s been fun, we’ve played games. It lightens up the mood for people who feel disconnected. And it helps people who have families, who normally find relief in work, to have more focus when they’re juggling a lot of things. It’s an outlet.

Another thing we’ve tried we’ve dubbed BANTER (B.A.-nter). Once a week we all get on a call and all we talk about are problems. The cocktail hour is about having fun, but this is an hour or two just to talk about problems and there’s no limit. It doesn’t have to be about technology or projects or clients or construction; it can be any kind of problem. It’s basically group therapy and it works really well. I’ve noticed that people are forced to listen attentively and there’s very little interruption.

What’s come out of BANTER has been about strengthening our community and providing opportunities for problem-solving ideas to emerge—including sharing ideas they’ve heard from partners and family members. That kind of therapy really helps out. And it’s been gut-wrenching. Some people look at the camera and say: “I’ve never worked so hard in my life. I don’t understand, it’s supposed to be work-from-home and yet I can’t do anything but this.” You hear them really struggle, and you hear somebody give them encouraging words of advice about what they’ve been able to do, and it becomes a somber, very quiet, but supportive place. I’ve got to tell you, it’s really interesting.

Overnight, we’ve transformed from thinking of the phrase “our industry” to “our community.” It’s not an industry, though it was. The division between manufactured and design has been removed. We are all part of the same community. I am not saying that optimistically, I’m saying that with quite a bit of assurance. It feels like we are doing this together versus being competitive about getting rates, etc.

Everyone’s starting their conversations with: Are you safe? Are you healthy? We start our emails with asking if everything is OK, and if it is, then we can move forward. We are a community now and it happened overnight and I love it. The recovery is not only going to be dependent on this, the recovery is not going to happen without it. I don’t think we can go back to the way things were. This is our way of reimagining a humanity that should always be there.

Julio Braga, IA Interior Architects, New York City, U.S.

We’re coping pretty well, with a few minor technical glitches due to the abrupt transition to “total virtual work.” Our teams were already working “partially virtually” for a while, so the transition to 100 percent remote was smooth. But among the hardest activities to transition were the brainstorming sessions. No software can match the experience of everyone in a room full of white boards to sketch on, and material samples to touch and smell.

A very small number of projects have been put on hold, but many of our clients are looking at the current environment as one in which to increase the volume of design work awarded to design firms, since the development of those phases can be easily monitored and directed virtually by the clients with their architects and designers. Everything seems a bit volatile. It will take some time for everything to even out.

Events of this nature highlight what our profession does, because so much is interconnected within the built environment and this is something that can be often underestimated. It’s critical to consider how different the world will be. How are architects and urban planners going to think about how people move through indoor and outdoor spaces? This is going to impact tremendously the way places are shared and designed to be shared, not just in terms of cleaning processes but also air filtration, for example.

This is an inflection point in how companies use office space. We are going to have to design in ways that are conducive to including virtual participants in much more holistic ways. We are going to have to create a space for in-person interactions that are traditionally the center of the industry, and imagine environments, protocols, systems, and procedures by which we can still enjoy each other’s company in person as we did before the pandemic.

Our firm has been increasing our own virtual connections, and our offices have more frequent touchpoints which we feel give a greater sense of engagement. We participate in many charitable causes as a group, notably DIFFA, and this will be crucial to our psychological support—continuing our tradition of community-giving throughout this crisis and beyond. There is something in the nature of most architects and designers that makes us positive thinkers, even in the most difficult, scary, and unknown contexts.

Jun Aizaki, Crème/Jun Aizaki Architecture & Design, Brooklyn, U.S.

Our offices are closed temporarily, the team is working remotely, and we are all relying heavily on technology to stay connected with our clients and friends who have been affected the most. I see there is a communal effort to get things going in the design world. And yes, of course, we rely on video meetings, morning calls (and even night calls since we’re working with Asia), and we’re submerged by texting. Ultimately, we’re using Zoom to organize office Happy Hour and give ourselves a moment of fun. 

Since most of our clients are in the restaurant and hospitality industry, they have been deeply affected by the crisis. I do think it may take some time, but I have faith we will be able to recover when this is all over. From a long-term perspective, this moment is going to really challenge us to reconsider the way to live, travel, and eat, which is tied into every aspect of our work. I think we should be ready for drastic changes and to create new patterns, but with change comes innovation.

I’ve been so proud of everyone who has come together to help support each other during this difficult time, from sewing masks, 3D-printing face shields, and donating resources and time, to hotels that are partnering with local government officials in the more affected COVID-19 locations to offer a place for those on the front lines to stay. We are grateful to technology for being able to stay this connected in a time where we are physically isolated from one another. 

Even during a pandemic, the design world doesn’t stop. Companies are even rethinking their logos to convey messages that encourage people to stay home. I’m seeing that a lot of solutions to our current issues come out of the design industry, like shipping container hospitals and self-inflating isolation pods for coronavirus patients. 3D printing has also been a godsend. This whole experience has definitely given me more of an appreciation for the moments we share in person but, at the same time, we are actively learning to communicate in new ways and do our work without the ability to work as closely with materials as we normally would. In certain ways, we now feel closer as we’re paying more attention to accurate communication. We can see things from a different vantage point.

> See our full coverage of COVID-19 and its impact on the A&D industry

ThinkLab, the research division of SANDOW, is gathering information about our industry’s response to COVID-19. Click here if you’d like to participate.

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