Not Business as Usual in the AEC Industry

COVID-19 will change the course of workplace design and spark new AEC industry innovation as McKissack’s architects and construction managers make jobsites more effective and resilient.
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A presidential inauguration is an inflexible deadline. Only a change in the Constitution can stop the parade along Pennsylvania Avenue. So though COVID-19 is keeping McKissack’s design team out of the studio, we’re marching along—revising design plans for the 2021 presidential inauguration pavilions as the project stakeholders countdown the days till the swearing-in ceremony. But as we make changes, we’re aware that doing business in the present means anticipating the future.

The COVID-19 crisis is changing the course of architecture, design and engineering in the workplace and beyond.  Many of these changes, if not all, will be permanent. Workers at an office or a job-site won’t hang out at the water cooler—they’ll hang out at the hand-washing station.  An extended period of social distancing will test the role of the open office-style design studio in creativity. The pandemic’s toll will spark substantial innovation and change in the architecture, engineering and construction industry, from how to accommodate stadium and airport crowds to how to bring voice activation to high-touch controls like faucet handles or elevator buttons.  

Here are five areas where we see a new normal emerging in architecture and design:

Architects and Designers Must Rethink Group Settings  

After seeing students sent home from university residence halls for fear of contagion, architects and interior designers can’t help but rethink designing for close quarters. Improving indoor air quality played a huge role in China’s COVID-19 response, just as it did in our response in the U.S. to Legionnaires’ disease in the 1970s. Our team of architects and interior designers and our engineering consultants will need to consider a range of solutions,from high quality ventilation and air filtration systems to antimicrobial flooring, furniture, surface materials and fabrics. We must design for wellness not only in hospital emergency rooms, but also in nursing homes, schools, student and multifamily housing lounges or even landmarks on the National Mall.

As the economy starts to recover, flexibility will take a huge role in construction management. Demands to meet seating requests for the presidential inauguration project—which involves three substantial pavilions—show that client needs are fluid and complex. The three structures have specific and highly technical needs, given their space constraints and security requirements. And while they have one client (the D.C. Department of General Services), there are many design stakeholders, from the National Park Service to the Secret Service.

Relationships Fill Gaps in Online Collaboration

For the inaugural pavilions, all the design stakeholders have a say; as we count seats, all are concerned that no one close to the president is slighted. How do you respond to each of their needs appropriately? It’s inevitable that we’ll make provisions as the COVID-19 crisis plays out, but we can’t stop working and wait for clarity. Construction of the pavilions will have to begin this fall.

We’ve had several meetings with the key participants in the room—all 40 of them—before the pandemic hit our nation. Since the lock down, we’ve managed to get 36 of them on a Microsoft Teams video conference. Advanced technology allows us to cover the same ground. For instance, Bluebeam Revu integration lets us mark up our drawings during an online presentation. Still, getting input in a large online meeting is a challenge with so few social cues. It’s harder to read faces. Even pausing a presentation for feedback is tricky.

If everyone understands the design and construction management processes, doing business online is easier. The real challenge is getting to know the client. For somebody to entrust you with, say, a $50 million project, they need to look you in the eye. The human element of the process still requires face-to-face communication. Ultimately,before we can build, architects and designers need to build good relationships—something not easy to do virtually.

Construction Management Must Stay Ahead of the Flattening Curve

The 2008 recession created a lot of problems for design and construction management, but you could anticipate how recovery would look. COVID-19 presents a tougher challenge, with no precedence or clear pattern for what comes next. McKissack’s work has stayed on schedule, but construction delays are inevitable. To compensate, our design studio is working with our safety, project control and construction management teams to head off roadblocks and make job-sites more sustainable and efficient.

Besides the presidential inauguration pavilions, the design team is also working on 620,000 square feet of interiors. In multifamily construction, permit delays are already setting back contractor schedules. Yet an energy client is accelerating its deadline for interiors because when permitting does begin again, the firm wants its project to get the go-ahead as quickly as possible.  

Sourcing will be a challenge as well. Many materials, fixtures and furnishings originate in China, Italy, Spain and other countries affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Global manufacturers like Herman Miller have shifted some capacity to medical equipment, and the component stockpiles many companies have on hand should allow them to catch up when the crisis has passed. However,delays may spur more local sourcing solutions—just as it may spur new innovation and creation among local sources.

Trust Sets Model for Design Team Approach

Telecommuting won’t replace the face-to-face activity of a design studio. Software doesn’t really change the conceptual process. Whether you’re talking, writing or drawing, the solutions come from your brain, not the machines. Architects and interior designers draw energy from one another. If you’d prefer not to see your colleagues, that’s a problem.

Working remotely has given the 15 people in our design practice new insight into collaboration. As the design lead, I would talk to people working on a different project every 15 minutes. As telecommuters, our online conversations are longer, as architects and interior designers spend more time thinking through tough questions.  Yet as the crisis began to unfold and we started daily conference calls, people seemed nicer to each other after not seeing each other in-person. Now I’m more aware that we have to trust each other to working as efficiently as we can to meet deadlines.

Small Group Workspaces Replace Open Office Plans

Once our team returns to the design studio, we’ll be more creative in our workplace solutions. We moved into our new office six years ago, and thanks to this experience it’s clear we’d definitely do it totally differently today since we sit close together at benches or smaller workstations—so close we can touch each other.  

Clearly, we would rethink that approach now, along with the whole open office plan, which can deter instead of encourage collaboration, research shows. Instead, groups are collaborating in smaller spaces that actually have four walls and a door. In the future, workstations will likely get bigger, and will certainly be farther apart.

We operate in multiple cities–McKissack’s Chicago office will be providing construction management on office buildings and fleet garages designed from our Washington studio—but the COVID-19 experiment is making people understand how to truly collaborate from a distance. It will be good to physically go to the office, but the planning for a post-pandemic world starts now. There’s plenty of work to be done.

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