Architects are a value-add today, and will create lasting value for you tomorrow if you’re a commercial or institutional owner-client.
When you consider that we spend 87 percent of our lives indoors, public health guidelines have taken on new urgency in light of the COVID-19 pandemic if you own or operate a multi-family building, factory, office complex, school, church, or retail shop.
To meet these guidelines, you might be employing short-term tactics or long-term strategies such as:
- planning to retrofit common areas for your residents
- completely renovating the Class A office spaces for your tenants
- rethinking how customers move through your aisles
- redoing circulation in and out of your properties
- upgrading the heating, cooling, and ventilation systems to handle greater demands or better filtration
- adding more outdoor spaces for occupants
Architects provide a range of services related to all of the above for which they may be contracted, and finding an architecture firm has never been easier. Architects are trained to think holistically and solve problems by applying a critical eye and balancing the whole against the parts. But where the rubber meets the road, so to speak, is the bottom line, which extends throughout the life cycle of a building.
This means designing for adaptivity, deconstruction, and reuse. It’s true that this might come with more upfront hard and soft costs compared to another kind of design. But there are well-documented cost savings to energy efficiencies, thoughtful plans and spatial arrangements that can adapt to future needs, and durable materials specified by a knowledgeable expert who is passionate about the tactility and tectonics of good design. All of these are areas where architects thrive.
Design is key to creating better health in buildings and communities and results in quicker recovery times in hospitals, better learning outcomes in schools, and lower incidence of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes in many other places. You could read reams of research supporting these claims, but it comes down to the fact that “better, quicker, lower” are about numbers and a more holistic conception of salutogenic design.
The relative value of design must center on health and wellness, and architects are vocal and demonstrative about the benefits of good design, not to mention the shared benefits of sustainable design. Health and well-being have been emerging global leadership and market differentiation opportunities for building and property development industries around the world for some time. In 2018, the World Bank detailed how real estate companies and investors have embraced environmental, social, and governance (ESG) considerations into business operations. ESG and corporate sustainability initiatives are familiar to architecture firms, many of which have long track records of designing for the benefit of future generations, not just today’s clients.
But considering today’s market conditions, architects need to address some of the acute concerns that COVID-19 raises about not just the eventual economic reopening, but the reopening of all spaces and places.
Creating lasting value
Even during times of economic uncertainty and shifting public health priorities, architects are still committed to delivering healthy, safe, and beautiful buildings and spaces. They are indispensable when building performance and the happiness of the people who will occupy your building matter to you as much as they matter to most commercial and institutional owner-clients. Architects are peerless partners when you face critical choices around budget, time, or changing circumstances.
There are different ways to calculate and establish actual fees associated with an architecture firm’s design leadership on a project based on shared expectations about timelines and shared goals.
Writing for the Los Angeles Times in April, Sam Lubell outlined broad opportunities for a post-pandemic architectural economy, such as modular construction, adaptive reuse, lightweight architecture, telecommuting and “small city” living, and what he called the “town square reconsidered.” But his commentary on negative air pressure, displacement ventilation, clean air ventilation, and various filtration and humidity systems offered the most concrete clues about the first battle lines for building owners, developers, and facilities managers as they begin to reevaluate existing buildings and their plans to build anew.
“These kinds of techniques will likely become standard in hospitals after the pandemic, but might they expand to wherever people congregate, like homes, offices, factories, warehouses and schools? They could save lives where occupants don’t have a choice about social distance: prisons, homeless shelters and refugee facilities,” writes Lubell. “Perhaps they could be complemented by germ-resistant strategies like antimicrobial polymer surfaces, copper alloy surfaces (which naturally kill germs and viruses) and flexible spatial designs to accommodate social distancing.”
We have entered an era when the cubicle versus open-plan debate is about more than taste, comfort, or even happiness. It is about health, privacy, and safety. Will the six-foot rule for social distancing become a standard for 21st century design? Whether it’s six feet or two feet, preparing for new standards will assuredly include a discussion about density and separation among residents, workers, customers, and shop owners, which is about physical spaces as much as it is about human behaviors.
In other words, beginning right now, there is a real need for architects to apply their problem-solving skills to the unique and pervasive problem of rethinking entire environments. Architects can help you with standardized or customized solutions to pathogenic risks. Above all, architects can design to meet the unique needs of your tenants, residents, students, parishioners, and customers today.
About the author: William Richards is a writer and architectural historian based in Washington, DC, and the author of Revolt and Reform in Architecture’s Academy: Urban Renewal, Race, and the Rise of Design in the Public Interest (Routledge, 2017).