Editorial: Pandemic Pulse

Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash

How are architects faring as we head into the second wave of the pandemic? Two surveys in late August—one by the Ontario Association of Architects, the other by the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada—took the pulse of the profession.

401 members responded to the OAA’s survey, 79 percent of whom work in practices of two or more people. The survey found that 38 percent of practices were able to take advantage of government programs to maintain staff levels during the first months of the pandemic. Many respondents saw an initial drop in work, but business picked up over the summer. Overall, 34 percent experienced a decline in business, 28 percent saw no overall impact, and 15 percent had more work than usual—particularly in healthcare projects.

In Quebec, Nicolas Demers-Stoddart of Provencher_Roy says that healthcare work allowed his firm to avoid layoffs. “We’ve taken on projects that helped us push through, like rapid and temporary hospitals,” he says. “It speaks to the resilience and the capacity of the firm,” adds colleague Caroline Jerabek. “It’s satisfying to be helping out the first responders in the health sector.”

Ex-urban home design is another area that is faring well. “In some ways, we’re busier than before,” says Omar Gandhi, who heads offices in Halifax and Toronto. “People have become faster and bigger dreamers,” he says, noting that house clients have moved long-term projects to a shorter-term horizon.

At the end of August, 65 percent of the Ontario architects surveyed were working partially or fully from home, and 19 percent had returned to the office. 38 percent anticipated that remote working, at least part-time, will become a permanent option for some staff. Many participants cited coordinating staff efforts, designing remotely, and issues with building departments as key challenges of working remotely.

“In terms of having enough work, things are fortunately fine,” says Sasa Radulovic of Winnipeg practice 5468796. “In terms of how we do work, everything has changed.” With most staff working remotely, “we’ve lost all serendipity,” he says, noting that there are few occasions for “challenging ideas, pushing each other, having an argument.”

Janna Levitt of Toronto-based LGA Architectural Partners agrees. “Architecture is material and tactile—working with a stylus on a screen, I don’t find it as successful as a process.”

The shift to virtual meetings has brought some potentially paradigm-shifting changes. A group of BC architects noted that there’s been a shift in power from room-occupiers—historically men. “Online meetings give preference to a different skill set than traditional in-person meetings,” they note.

The RAIC has been running surveys since the beginning of the pandemic; their most recent one, in August, received 167 responses from across Canada. 82 percent of respondents are part of a practice with two or more people.

23 percent of the RAIC’s respondents were able to access the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy, 10 percent benefitted from the Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance program, and another 10 percent claimed provincial or territorial benefits. Notwithstanding, 37 percent of individuals saw their income reduced over the course of the pandemic so far, and 41 percent of organizations experienced a loss in revenue. 25 percent said that they were not yet back to “business as usual” in their service delivery.

Looking forward, firms need to consider their overall finances in a comprehensive manner, says CPA Elaine Pantel of ShimmermanPenn—a challenge in an uncertain environment. “Cash flow planning and management is a higher priority than ever,” she says. Areas to consider include banking relationships heading into the fiscal year-end, staffing needs, and long-term physical space requirements.

17 percent of RAIC survey respondents continue to have reduced work hours, while another 11 percent had an initial reduction, but have now returned to normal work hours.

An employee from a practice in a mid-sized Ontario city reported she was initially cut back to a four-day work week, but has recently returned to full hours. “With a small firm, it’s easier to be flexible, but trust has been required on all sides,” she says—the owner has trusted staff to manage their time, and she and her colleagues have trusted that they will be compensated for overtime.

On the positive side, some architects say the slowdown has allowed them to rethink their business strategy and improve their office culture. “We’ve made a huge effort to prioritize well-being and safe connection in our team,” says Cynthia Dovell, principal of a seven-person Edmonton firm. “And because it’s a priority, we’re doing it more.”