What COVID-19 means for Canadian architects

Family walking at Macau’s Senado Square wearing protective face masks due to coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak. Photo by Macau Photo Agency on Unsplash

Less than a week ago, my nine-year-old niece rejoiced when she learned that March Break would be extended by two weeks, in a bid to stall the spread of COVID-19 in Ontario. It was a sentiment undoubtedly shared by many kids across the province, although perhaps not by their parents.

Since last Thursday, the seriousness of the situation has become clearer day by day. Announcements have been coming fast and furious: the cancellation of major league sports seasons, the closure of all City of Toronto daycares and community spaces, the postponement of major conferences, the shutting of bars in Quebec, the closure of schools and daycares in Alberta, the shut-down of borders to foreign visitors. This morning, Ontario declared a state of emergency, and the Prime Minister urged all Canadians to stay at home as much as possible.

From office to home

Architecture firms across the country have scrambled to make arrangements for their employees to work from home, quickly getting acquainted with remote access and collaboration tools like Zoom, Splashtop and BIM360. In some cases, employees have been asked to take desktop computers with them from the office. Many firms are used to some degree of remote work, so in these cases, it’s a matter of scaling things up to a daily way of operating, rather than establishing entirely new systems.

One of the biggest challenges, says Ottawa architect Toon Dreesen of Architects DCA, is “providing ways to keep people working in ways that maintain office security requirements”—in particular for federal government and military projects. Even with encrypted software, there is the risk of malware, adds Toronto architect Tania Bortolotto, whose firm was recently hit with ransomware.

Photo by Daria Nepriakhina on Unsplash

Keeping staff morale up is also a challenge, particularly as the period for social distancing seems likely to stretch out beyond—perhaps well beyond—early April. Some small studios are holding video conference staff meetings at the beginning and end of the day. Halifax and Toronto-based architect Omar Gandhi says that this functions “primarily as a morale boost, and as a way of sharing ideas—both on our projects and on how to make this new way of working collectively easier for the group.”

While remote working comes with challenges and inefficiencies, says Toronto architect Kevin Weiss of Weiss A+U, “I know my staff will rise to the occasion because they are thoughtful, keen and bright. That said, I already miss the office banter and joy.”

In the global architecture world, lectures, conferences, and events have been postponed or cancelled. A few organizations—including the Ontario Association of Architects, Society of Architectural Historians, and Architectural League of New York—are planning to move to online platforms for their events. A slender silver lining is the possibility that this could conceivably allow for greater participation and accessibility for those who may not have otherwise been able to attend an event, because of the time and cost of travel.

Cash flow

On the practical front, cash flow will be an issue for many firms, says architect Janna Levitt of LGA Architectural Partners. “The consequences to that will be felt quickly, particularly for small firms like ours. If the government doesn’t step up the plate in a meaningful way to support small businesses, their employees and owners are going to be hurting.”

Elaine Pantel of accounting firm Shimmerman Penn says that she sees a widespread issue of delayed payments among her AED clients. “120 days between billings and collections is not uncommon,” she notes, saying “you become the bank.” She says that there will be a need for a fast change in the payment cycle, and suggests that senior personnel, including principals, should become involved in developing strategies to encourage clients to pay online.

For firms that need to maintain cashflow immediately, Pantel says that one strategy for entities who pay taxes by installment (such as corporations and sole proprietors) is to change the amount of their upcoming installment payments, based on estimating lower profits for the year. “You will be charged interest if you are too conservative, so you have to be careful with your estimates,” she says, adding that firms should speak with their accountants. In Quebec, the date for the second quarterly installment is being delayed; Pantel excepts the Canada Revenue Agency to follow suit.

Pantel notes that firms need to prioritize filing payroll and GST/HST returns on time, since these are funds that firms hold on the government’s behalf.

School closures

For architects with young children, the closure of schools and daycares poses an additional layer of challenge. “A lot of people in our firm have kids in school—and they will be home full time for at least three weeks, probably longer,” says Winnipeg architect Lawrence Bird of Sputnik Architecture. “Working at home while kids are there—this is a real challenge, more so the younger they are.”

“I think that a paradigm shift is required,” says Toronto architect Christine Leu of Leu Webb Projects. “Employers cannot expect employees to work at the same degree of productivity as in a non-pandemic situation, regardless of working location. The stress—caring for loved ones, getting supplies, moving homes—is real.”

Alberta architect Cynthia Dovell of Avid Architecture says that some of her small firm’s staff have asked to be laid off, because of the parenting burden. “It’s understandable, but unfortunate, since we will miss them, and it’s not ideal for them either,” says Dovell.

To help parents with young children—and in anticipation of work starting to dry up—Toronto architect Christine Lolley of Solares Architecture is exploring the federal Work-Sharing program, which allows two employees to “share” a job, working half-time and receiving EI benefits. The government has introduced temporary special measures for the program to apply for a duration of up to 76 weeks—double its usual length. Applications must be submitted a minimum of 30 days before the requested start date, however, so “we have to decide immediately if it’s going to be of help to our employees,” says Lolley.

Photo by A R C H I G E R O S A on Unsplash

Existing work

As I write this piece, Toronto has just announced the suspension of non-core services, including municipal planning departments. It’s likely that other cities will not be far behind in scaling back or temporarily closing their planning departments. This puts owners and architects in the difficult position of either putting projects on hold, or choosing to proceed without a building permit.

It’s also possible that construction sites across North America may shut down in the near term.

Among architects, the most steady work at present seems to be long-horizon projects, with clients who can see past the end of the current crisis. The client’s particular situation matters too, though. “From an owners’ perspective, our hospital may soon stop all non-essential works, as external contractors and vendors will not be allowed in the facility,” says Kristi Judge, a facilities planner at Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre.

Remote collaboration also comes with its challenges. “You can’t hold up a curtain wall sample via Skype and say ‘do you want A or B?’” says Quebec architect Nicolas Demers-Stoddart of Provencher_Roy, “and those are big decisions.”

Photo by Daniel Tafjord on Unsplash

Lessons learned

What will we take away from the current crisis, when all is said and done? Says Vancouver architect Michael Green of MGA, “There’s a failure in our ability to deal with surge problems,” like a pandemic that puts an exponential degree of pressure on hospitals. “How can we build and design in a way that thinks about how to solve these problems when they happen?” he asks. For instance, can we find ways to build much faster in times of crisis, other than deploying the military? “As architects, we should be leading this conversation,” says Green.

There may also be larger implications for the design of public spaces. “What is post-pandemic city building and public transit going to look like?” asks Demers-Stoddart. “I’ve travelled in China where people wear masks all the time—going from A to B is a less gregarious activity than in a city like Toronto, where walking home is, in part, enjoyable. How is this going to affect urban habits and urban ways of living?”

He adds, “The same way that terrorism has defined how we design some places with bollards and security cameras, is coronavirus going to have a broader effect on the way we design cities?”

On an optimistic note, the unusual spatial practices demanded by the crisis may bring new awareness to the importance of design. “Being told to practice social distancing and isolation are extremely important in this crisis, but they have rendered some public spaces empty, others—especially those out of doors—better used than ever,” write architects Avery Guthrie and Wes Wilson of Teeple Architects. “At the same time, spaces such as healthcare environments and food and pharmaceutical retail are critical to our ability to survive this crisis. Finally, we are reminded of the importance of domestic space; for many, their homes will be the only spaces they experience for long periods, whether this is a family home, a student dorm room, or a shelter bed.”

“Fundamentally, this is a reminder of the importance of good design at all scales.”

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