March 31, 2020

U.S. Designers Share Ways They’re Thinking Big During the Pandemic

As the pandemic continues, architects and designers are beginning another week of working from home, in and out of web meetings, with the hope that the situation will soon improve. Today, Interior Design checks in with members of the community in New York, Charleston, and California, who are still thinking big.

Editor’s note: This story is the fourth 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.

Primo Orpilla, Studio O+A, San Francisco, U.S. 

I was at a job site walk-through with a client, and somebody knew somebody who might have had the virus—this was in a building of 2,000 people. That was how it started. And then [Gavin] Newsom imposed “shelter in place” in California and it just took hold, so projects came to a grinding halt… We told people to start ordering up samples and taking things they needed, and now if they need anything they just call and it gets mailed to wherever they are. They’ve done the workaround by having a little stockpile ready. Only our IT consultants are going into our offices now.

I haven’t seen any cancellations of projects, but it depends on the industry. Companies tied to the retail sector are seeing store closures and have gone into hibernation mode. Tech companies are still up and operational, their revenue stream has not really changed; in fact, in some cases it has exploded, so they’re fighting hard to keep their projects going. Some building departments are evaluating which projects can be put on pause and are trying to keep them going even though their state [officials] have said no, like hospitals and broadcasting companies. We’re still finding out the rules and they are changing every day.

We are going to have to look at concentrated groups—is it better to have them more distributed? We just went to concentrated urban footprints, are we now going to look at the urban corridor being decentralized? What does that mean for shared workspace and the industry in general? Are we going to revisit proximity? Everybody has been asking, what’s the next version of open plan? We were heading towards more sequestering and giving people the ability to shut themselves off and have more visual privacy. This is going to make that more of an issue in the future. Open plan is not the culprit here (laughs), but it will get looked at. The next generation is looking for something different and testing a bunch of different things, and all that is still going to happen. This will just add a new wrinkle.

What we do is all about keeping humans in contact and the relationship-building that only happens when you’re face to face. I don’t think that’s going to change. I see my employees’ faces more than ever, right now. We are a resilient group and have weathered all kinds of economic things. I don’t believe this is going to topple the industry. It might enhance it. We are ingenious and inventive, and I believe we will get to experiment again and instigate new methods. Workplace was barely looked at 10 years ago, or not at the detail it is today, and now we demand so much from it. We’re going to be the ones who help fix it and find better methods to keep people safe and happy. The whole point of wellness is to make sure the industry reciprocates in that regard. To me, there’s an empathy and trust we all have and we are the tip of the spear. The spaces we make move people and help people and that’s not going to go away, whether it’s a workplace or public space.

Margaret Sullivan, Margaret Sullivan Studio, New York City, U.S. 

About 90 percent of our work is not in New York City, so day-to-day we typically function as an office with a flexible, remotely-connected workflow anyway. We don’t really have a home base anymore—we’re a network that touches on points in the places we’re working from—so the transition was pretty seamless. The biggest issue was really mine. I do not have Internet at home, because that was a choice I was making to try to stay sane and healthy as a business owner (laughs). So it turned out okay because my family lives in Greenville, South Carolina, so I flew down there and am in an Air BnB now, near my children. It’s a wonderful mid-size city, a model of downtown urban renewal. But there are way too many people still gathering. 

Our work is primarily focused on public institutions and libraries. Cultural non-profit government institutions don’t spend their money until they have it, so the work is not in jeopardy. In fact, I have more RFPs to do in the past two weeks than I have had all this year, which indicates there’s been some motivation in that sector to continue to do work. Their budget crisis will not occur until next year. Most of their annual budgets and capital budgets have already been approved and confirmed. What we are seeing from a pipeline standpoint is a slowdown while everybody is getting settled into this new normal. But the thing about working with public librarians is how aware and considerate they are; they are doing what’s right for people.

In this world of social impact, the role I play as inspirational leader and support system is to say: We can continue to do this work full steam ahead, but what do you need to be doing right now for your community? Let’s not just force something because we want to maintain the normal. Because they have the opportunity to lead crisis management in a different way, I want to be supportive of them in being relevant to their communities. So I’m asking that question to our clients and collaborators, giving them permission to not have to work in the same way they’ve always worked. But with our architectural partners that also has to be a shared value, because they are also trying to maintain their businesses and their revenues. There’s a surreal mix of trying to maintain order, but being genuine and authentic about designing spaces that generate social impact.

Do we need to stop designing the spaces so we can figure out the social impact right now? I kind of think: Yes. I know this is going to be a period where financially there’s going to be a fall in the revenue. I want to maintain my staff and continue to invest in their growth. I want to invest in the collaborative client partnerships in ways that are meaningful. I want to use the work that we have to answer these larger questions that we have about social impact in a time of crisis… This is a great opportunity for all of us to play and enjoy, if we can get there as a business owner. It’s all hard. You’ve got to let go of the capitalistic revenue generating model, at least I have to, and enjoy a time of pure playful wonderful R&D… In brainstorming with my staff, we are focused on placemaking as the catalyst for health and wellbeing. How do we continue to develop and investigate what place means when it might not be the traditional physical space?

Eran Chen, ODA, New York City, U.S. 

The first week [which involved] stabilizing this whole situation—the office, working from home—was about technology and the second week was about humanity, about the team: How do they feel, how are they holding on? I don’t know what’s going to happen the third week, but I predict, when things are a little more streamlined, it’s going to be about the opportunities, the things we can learn from all this. What are the new potential clients for us, where is the new frontier, what can we do to survive? It’s changing by the day as everybody is adapting to the situation. 

We have major construction projects underway, including one with about 1,200 employees per day. As that stops, what are the implications? Projects that are deep into design and in construction documents are for the most part moving along without interruption. Projects that have just begun, some are beginning and some are stopping. Clients have called and said investors want to wait and weather the storm. But the biggest problem is future projects. Every firm our size needs to ensure a consistent future output of work and that’s the biggest challenge…

We’ve been very lucky to be approached by private investors in cities around the country who are interested in creating some unique buildings. They don’t seem to be worried about the situation, they want to move forward, so we’re going to start concept design this week. Business people know that when everybody’s shying away from doing something, it’s the time to act. So for a lot of developers who have been sitting on cash, this is a good time to get loans and renegotiate while everybody is more available. Architects need to survive this and part of it is thinking smart and using what you’ve got to put your efforts where you can…

I’m inspired and intrigued by the videos of people singing from the balconies [in Italy]. Outdoor spaces for every apartment, so people can step out and breathe fresh air and feel the sun on their faces, are going to be huge going forward. Once we are over this shock, people will be thinking about this virus next time they buy an apartment and elements like outdoor space will be essential…

For a long time, we’ve said that architecture is not one of those fields where people can work remotely. It’s so collaborative and we’re used to sitting around a table and sketching and discussing ideas. But it’s possible, to some degree. I was always against this idea of working remotely, but this is going to resurface big time in our industry. People will say, ‘Hey it wasn’t that bad,’ especially when you’re not stuck in your apartment, in terms of our ability to exchange ideas. That will change the business model. 

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

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