Editorial: Post-pandemic Futures

Photo by Brayden Law on Unsplash

As we look to the end of 2020, many architects are breathing a sigh of relief at having navigated, with more or less success, a harrowing year. While office tower and luxury condo design are now on effective hold, other sectors such as suburban and ex-urban custom house commissions thrive as never before. Vancouver firms specializing in woodsy retreats on the Island and in the Interior are swamped with work. 

But what is most dangerous to architects right now is a false sense of security—extrapolating into next year and beyond the limited impact the coronavirus has had to-date on their practices and billings. Less than a year since the crisis began, it is too soon for the pandemic to have had deep impact on the perception of space needs and investment confidence—key factors that lead to building commitments. Flywheels can protect, but they can also crush.

The virus’s first wave confounded many with its fairly soft impacts on the profession, initially limited to a slight slowdown in construction and inconvenience to staff and clients. The second wave—and in particular, the economic hangover it engenders even after the virus is conquered—will stagger many more with deep, hard and long-lasting changes.

Here are some scenario speculations:

  • Government supports to businesses and individuals have been quite effective in tempering the economic impact of the first wave, but cannot be sustained indefinitely. The resulting Himalayas of debt will block increased public and private spending for a decade or more. Unlike the post-1945 boom, there is little prospect of strong economic growth to melt down this public debt. Our situation will be more like the 1950s in Britain than in California.
  • The sheer size of public debt will limit the traditional response to downturns: turning up the fiscal taps further to fund infrastructure or housing initiatives. Looking at the long list of pandemic-prompted investments from the Canadian government, it is striking how low a ratio of spending to-date is dedicated to infrastructure and housing. By definition, these are the biggest ticket items governments can contemplate, and the ones that most involve architects.
  • Economists are divided on whether the economic impact in the medium term (three to six years) of this unprecedented peacetime level of public debt will be inflation or deflation, but there is high confidence it will be one or the other. This is dismal news for architects, because either one is injurious to the confidence that allows businesses, institutions and individuals to sink huge capital costs into the construction of buildings.
  • We have been living in a bubble—a continuous building boom powered by low interest rates and ongoing demand for the natural resources that still power our economy. A need for ever-more new buildings and consumer goods will reduce with an aging population (even accounting for a complete rebuild of our heinous care homes), plus a global switch away from the oil and gas that still power Canada’s economy much more than most of us would admit. Inevitably, interest rates will rise, putting a semi-permanent lid on growth in construction and consumption. In terms of public investment and new construction, most of us would wish for a Danish future, but we are more likely to get an Italian one.

This list may come across as unduly pessimistic, but in my experience, all effective optimists begin as realists. The rainbow above these dark clouds is the prospect that this is the last, best chance for architects to make a case for how their skills can empower better lives. Both as individuals—and especially through their professional organizations—architects have done a dismal job of making a positive case of what we can do for society. Telling sad tales of laying off staff or reductions in billings will evoke little public sympathy: not when others are suffering more, and a million have died of Covid-19 so far. No-one can advocate for positive rebuilding better than architects: and the time to start is now, before the worst hits.

The single word that every architect needs to broadcast now is “public,” because it could be the foundation of rebuilding. Architects must own and advance the new narrative of the public—public buildings, public space, public housing—because it will resonate broadly while representing the best of what they can do.  There will come a time when our ensconced fellow citizens will emerge from the caves of their partial and complete lockdowns with a renewed curiosity in the whole idea of the public. We need be standing ready outside the entrances of those caves, smiling in the sunshine, and holding out speculative scale models, manifestos, city plans and energy audits showing what the new world could be.

Guest editorial writer Trevor Boddy is part of a multi-disciplinary group undertaking a formal post-pandemic scenario planning process for Vancouver, addressing a two-to-five year timeframe. Feedback is welcomed at trevor@trevorboddy.ca.