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Architecture Firm Leaders React to the COVID-19 Pandemic

Mark Beebe
Mark Beebe
Bill Browne
Bill Browne
Debra Kunce
Debra Kunce
Michael Gouloff
Michael Gouloff
Jenelle Smagala
As COVID-19 concerns interrupt the day-to-day operations of many businesses across Indiana, companies are implementing new safety measures to combat the spread of the virus. Firm leaders are adapting to new methods of doing business by embracing web-based meeting technology, enforcing physical distancing, and more. A few of these leaders talked to Building Excellence about how their firms are taking measures to ensure a safe working environment.
What steps has your company taken to ensure the safety of its employees amidst this global pandemic?
Mark Beebe, Partner,Lancer + Beebe, LLC
First and foremost, we have asked all employees to stay home and take care of their families’ wellbeing. Secondly, we have communicated to our staff that their jobs and paychecks are secure for the foreseeable future (hopefully the federal ‘Paycheck Protection’ program secures the vast majority of jobs in our sector). We were already configured to work remotely, and all of our staff have remote access to our server and files, so production can continue from home-based office spaces. We’re all getting pretty efficient with the variety of web-based meeting tools for uninterrupted communications. When a site visit or person-person meeting is required, we have communicated to all staff to maintain the precautions established by authorities, including maintaining safe separations and wearing personal protection equipment.

Finally, my partner and I have asked our staff to keep us up to date on any personal or family concerns regarding the virus and let us know if there is any way we can help provide items that may be in short supply due to temporary shutdowns.

Bill Browne, President,RATIO Architects
The first step we took was to create a Work from Home policy starting March 19th, where all of our five studios began working remotely from home. With our studios located in four different states, we are attempting to coordinate our closures and re-openings to align with the local jurisdiction’s orders. 

With the possible re-opening of studios, we have conducted firm-wide focus groups to discuss what the firm needs to do with our physical environs and our personal interactions when we come back to work. These protocols are still being finalized. We will be providing the requisite face masks, hand sanitizers, and wipes for all employees. The majority of our workstations are already located about 6 feet apart from one another. We will be formulating protocols for the primary interaction points of conference rooms, coffee stations, break areas, toilets, etc. We will also be developing strategies for handling of clients/guests who visit the office. We anticipate that we will create an initial approach to our protocols and then evolve them over time to refine them. 

The last thing to mention is that we have been routinely keeping our staff informed with written leadership updates. These updates cover a range of topics and are intended to keep us all connected as well as to give our staff the confidence that the leadership is looking out for their well being. Our greatest asset is our people and their health, and safety and welfare are our number one priority. 

Vogele
Your local Wirtgen America dealer
Brandeis Machinery

Michael Gouloff, Partner,Elevatus Architecture
Keeping our eyes on the issue, we had our last face-to-face session in early March to talk directly to the problem. We told everyone that we would not be able to continue to work in the office. We are fortunate enough to have a significant amount of work to be done for several months. We assured all of our people that they would not miss a paycheck, and that they had a lot of work to do.

We committed to all that we would be moving to a work from home environment. This was not a difficult decision because we have allowed work from home for several years. We committed to provide GoToMyPC accounts for everyone and if they did not have a sufficient computer at home, we provided whatever was necessary. We anticipated that our efficiency would decrease and hired additional staff to compensate. From a design and production perspective, this system works okay.

There is still no substitute for face-to-face meetings. Our Project Managers conference with our clients and utilize video teleconferencing, FaceTime, Zoom, and other platforms to communicate as well as we can.

We are architects, and our team relationships with clients, engineers, consultants, and contractors are very significant; our job is to design buildings, but our business is communication.

Debra Kunce, Managing Principal,CORE Planning Strategies, LLC
CORE Planning Strategies has been following recommendations from the CDC to protect both our staff and our clients. Our approach includes temporarily closing our physical office so our team members can work from home. From CORE’s inception eight years ago, we’ve been equipped to work from anywhere because – as a project management firm – we’re often on project sites or between meetings, so that has helped ease the transition.

Epiroc
Your local Atlas Copco CMT USA dealer
Brandeis Machinery

Jenelle Smagala, President,Synthesis, Inc.
The safety of our employees is our first and foremost concern. As information from City and State leaders became available, we evaluated technologies to best interface with and support those we currently use for design presentations and construction documents. As a result, our entire team has been successfully working remotely for several weeks now.

Communication is such a vital aspect of our business to ensure the success of our projects. Therefore, we established intentional communication plans that may appear to over communicate with clients, consultants, and vendors but instead, have ensured that deadlines and expectations have been met on our active projects.

It has been really rewarding to our leadership team to see how our studio has reacted and persevered in these unprecedented circumstances and continue to provide the level of service our clients have come to expect from us.

How do you feel about the industry's response to the outbreak?

Beebe

My sense is the design industry has been situated for remote work for quite some time due to the various web-based meeting tools, cloud-based servers, etc. On the construction side, we see most of our construction trade partners being willing to continue to move forward as folks want to work and meet their deadlines. However, we’re starting to hear comments about supply-chain disruptions coming later this summer or perhaps this fall due to the global aspects of the issue. This may cause us to think locally regarding design choices or reach out more directly and regularly to manufacturer and supplier reps on all product selections. In the past, there was a general awareness of which products tended to have longer lead times and we could schedule around those decisions. Schedule uncertainty is creeping into all kinds of spec sections now, and longer lead times may become the norm across the board.

Sennebogen LLC
Your local Sennebogen LLC dealer
Brandeis Machinery

Browne

RATIO has been a member of a nationwide roundtable for the past 23 years. As such, we have access to a group of firms from across the nation to share information. This past week, we had consecutive 2.5-hour sessions over two days to discuss our responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. The firms are largely taking similar approaches to addressing both safety and business strategies. The national professional organization, the American Institute of Architects, has been also conducting webinars to inform the membership on the various aspects of the COVID-19 response. Overall, I feel that the profession is handling this rather successfully, notwithstanding the impact of the loss of business.

Gouloff

Overall, I think the industry is handling the socialization issues pretty well. The amount of time required to coordinate will certainly increase project duration. Supply line issues have not been encountered yet, but I suspect this will happen. Currently we have only been in this for max 60 days. Our normal project cycle time is minimum of one year to in a few cases two to three years. I am certain that other issues will pop up and our teams will handle them.

Kunce

Kleemann
Your local Wirtgen America dealer
Brandeis Machinery

In Indiana, construction has been deemed an essential business, so for the projects that were already under construction, most have continued. The Indiana construction industry is striking a balance of moving forward and keeping people busy while taking precautions for health and safety. Like ours, many firms with office staff are working from home and embracing virtual meetings; for example, we recently participated in a virtual project interview and participated in a virtual pre-bid meeting. On job sites, we’re seeing use of masks and gloves, more hand-washing stations, limitations on how many people can be in construction trailers, and smaller meetings that occur outside only, with the appropriate amount of social distancing.

Smagala

It is always impressive to me how humanity reacts to tragedy. Staunch competitors can come together to brainstorm for solutions and rally to create a better outcome. I think specifically about the healthcare industry and the need for a quick response to meet the increased demands of the pandemic. Whether it is reconfiguring space to take care of sick patients, fabricating gear to protect staff, or manufacturing medical equipment for life support, there have been countless companies coming together to improve the circumstances.

This experience, I believe, will lead to lasting questions and hopefully creative ways that future such issues can be mitigated. For instance, it leads me to think about how we might rethink our approaches to the design of large social gathering spaces like stadiums, and convention centers.

Has this crisis motivated you to change aspects of your business that you would not have thought to otherwise? 
Beebe

From a design standpoint, it causes us to think critically about how we can alleviate issues to our clients in the future should something like this occur again. Building resilience and flexibility into our design process will certainly help our clients. From a business standpoint, it definitely causes us to think about emergency preparedness in general, regardless of the type of emergency or issue.

Takeuchi Mfg Ltd
Your local Takeuchi Mfg Ltd dealer
Brandeis Machinery

Browne

Without a doubt, our firm will be changing how we work in the future. We have been pleasantly surprised with our ability to work completely remotely. This is not something we would have tried but for this situation. We will be more comfortable knowing that a remote working policy can, in fact, be effective. This will hopefully give people confidence that if they have a personal situation or if they feel ill on a particular day, they can stay at home and still work. This should create a healthier environment at the office, as we often have individuals who might have a cold or the start of a flu coming into the office to work. Additionally, I believe that we will be much more mindful of maintaining a cleaner and safer environment in our studios. 

Another aspect that is likely to change is the amount of our business travel.  With clients getting comfortable having virtual meetings, we may find that our face-to-face meetings are reduced, which will actually increase the efficiency of our services to them.

Gouloff

I have been in this business since 1967 when I was a student intern, and have seen several political, economic, international, and local events that have changed the landscape. This is the first global pandemic that I have seen. As I said, we are in the business of communication and social distancing cramps our style. However, we will adapt. Fortunately, we have technology platforms that allow us to very quickly adapt on a new normal. I am sure there will be a new normal and we will continually invent it. I do not know what exactly it will be, but we will figure it out.

Komatsu Dealer Program
Your local Komatsu America Corp dealer
Brandeis Machinery

Kunce

CORE uses Microsoft 365, so we’ve always had access to teams software, but never really took advantage of it. Working remotely has forced us to learn about and get comfortable with virtual tools – both our own and the six or seven other platforms we’ve experienced, depending on what our clients and consultants use. Video conferencing has become a regular part of work life, which makes it easier to collaborate while we’re physically distant.

Smagala

Yes and no. I love that our team hasn’t missed a beat as we transitioned to a remote workforce as mandated by our government officials, but we’re eager to return to our offices. As great as technology is, it doesn’t replace the unique collegial interactions that happen when we are in our studio.

That said, I think aspects of our business will be forever changed. While the personal interaction is important to the collaboration needed to craft a building design and produce the documents from which it will be built, there are plenty of other tasks we perform that would be well suited to execute remotely. I believe travel for presentations and meetings will be forever changed. The simplicity and efficiency of a virtual meeting is hard to surpass.

Sennebogen LLC
Your local Sennebogen LLC dealer
Brandeis Machinery


What is the most critical message you want to get across to your company's stakeholders during the pandemic?
Beebe

Take care of family first and communicate early and often with company principals and design teams.

Browne

We certainly want our clients to know that we are conducting business as usual, now within the limits of the work from home policy. Our business is such that we were already conducting many virtual meetings with our clients spread across the country, as well as our studios being located remotely from one another. We have had full video capability for several years now and our studios are fully connected such that we can have individuals from different locations/studios working in the same computer model simultaneously. Moving into a full remote mode I suspect has been easier for us than some businesses may be encountering. We will also be adapting to the “new normal” for our clients. We are unsure of all the ramifications as yet for our clients, but our profession is filled with problem solvers and we will find an effective way to ultimately solve this problem so that we can service our clients appropriately.

Gouloff

Kleemann
Your local Wirtgen America dealer
Brandeis Machinery

Our company is closely held, and we take our social and business responsibility seriously. We are of a like mind when it comes to our culture. We always do the right thing. We always are truthful. We are very engaged with our clients. And we always tell everyone (clients, employees, contactors) what they each need to know, not what they want to hear. That is who we are. If a company does not know “Who It Is” and just sees this as another business cycle in “What They Do,” they will have problems surviving.

Kunce

These are unprecedented times, so for all of us, it’s important to be flexible and stay positive. At CORE, we’re embracing flexibility by helping owners think differently about how they can continue to advance projects in a way that reduces risk. From a positivity perspective, our CORE team is participating in weekly video chats that are purely social. If we were in the office, we would have serendipitous moments of connection and laughter, so we have to introduce those opportunities. By being both flexible and positive, it helps us be more resilient, which is critical for moving forward.

Smagala

First, gratitude, to our dedicated team of professionals and to our clients for trusting us to make it happen for them. Then, to all of those on the frontlines battling this virus. We have clients in healthcare and in senior living and appreciate that they are risking their lives to save lives – a child, a parent, a grandparent, an aunt or uncle, brother or sister, or spouse or significant other. They are true heroes.

Wirtgen America Inc
Your local Wirtgen America dealer
Brandeis Machinery

Second, one of our Core Values is to Be Intentional. We want to honor the safety precautions that our medical professionals are recommending, but we also want our clients and colleagues to know that we are poised and ready to accommodate their requests. We understand the pressures they are experiencing as the shift in the economy creates financial burdens and demands on their businesses. Some situations will require a slow, methodical approach while others will have us hitting the go button. We must remain nimble and ready to accommodate a wide variety of needs from our clients.

Do you think COVID-19 will have any lasting effects on the industry? If so, what are they?
Beebe

Yes. There may be a tendency to think locally regarding product suppliers and manufacturers given the global nature of this pandemic. There may also be a tendency to use web-based meeting tools more often as teams become more comfortable with them and find out how they can drive efficiency.

Browne

Yes, I do believe there will be a number of lasting effects. In addition to those I already outlined above, the design of buildings will certainly be changing. Similar to the reaction to 9/11 on buildings with heightened security, we will likely see temperature sensors installed at building entry points and airport security points. We will probably see many more automatic devises with motion sensors on various items, like doors, cabinets, windows, plumbing fixtures, etc. Door handles may be made of bronze or copper instead of stainless steel as these metals can keep viruses from living on them. We most certainly will be seeing additional fresh air quantities being introduced into building and probably greater air changes per hour. There could even be a push to have less items placed on desk surfaces and worktables so that they can be wiped down and cleaned regularly. We are already seeing glass or acrylic partition separations at points of sale in retail stores. 

The point is that the physical environmental changes will be significant and lasting.  Much like when building codes were written to avoid more massive building fires, we will see building codes starting to address how to avoid viruses being passed from one person to another. 

Leeboy - Pavers/Asphalt
Your local LeeBoy dealer
Brandeis Machinery

Gouloff

This pandemic will certainly have long-lasting effects on business. Our global society has survived world wars and other world events. We came out better in the end. This kind of international, business, social, and economic crisis rattles us to our core. But humankind will respond and get it back together. This too will pass.

Kunce

Design and construction firms will eventually feel a financial impact, because business development for new clients has slowed, and most owners aren’t in a mindset to go under new contracts right now. Projects that will be impacted will largely be based on the market types that are suffering right now – hospitality, restaurants, retail, entertainment, and some types of institutional entities. The pandemic will also likely cause us to rethink aspects of design as it relates to physical distancing; corporations are already thinking about changes to their space when it’s time for employees to come back to the office. From an operations perspective, now that most of us have gotten more comfortable with video technology, we’ll probably see more virtual meetings in the future.

Smagala

Komatsu Dealer Program
Your local Komatsu America Corp dealer
Brandeis Machinery

Yes, as I mentioned before, events like this have tremendous impact. Our industry will be changed. How much and how quickly remains to be seen, but we know that it will. Conversations have already changed and introduced new terms like social distancing, which wasn’t even in our vocabulary six months ago.

For me, the most prevalent shift will be the way architects plan new facilities such as convention centers, sports venues, hospitality, and other social/community gathering spaces. If you think about the variety of tragedies our country has experienced in recent history, they typically end up with a need to care for people in a safe environment on a large scale. Hurricanes, tornadoes, and now pandemics create varying capacity issues for healthcare, housing, and even simple things like food distribution.

Healthcare facilities contain some of the most costly real estate to operate due to the amount of technology and infrastructure required to provide even the basic levels of patient care. Therefore, managing surplus space for a periodic need is cost prohibitive and not a sustainable business model. We must seek solutions to maximize the flexibility of our collective community assets to accommodate peak need when it arises, but then allow these spaces to easily return to their standard operating model once the crisis has subsided. This and many other conversations will impact design strategies as we initiate new projects for years to come.


Additional thoughts on COVID-19?
Browne

Without a doubt, the COVID-19 situation will push the country, if not the world, into a business recession. We all knew that we were reaching the limit of business growth over a decade, but no one had any idea this would be the cause of a recession. Our profession will take a hit, much like it did in the Great Recession of 2008, but we are resilient, and we will climb back out of this just like we did before. With each recession, we learn new methods of service and how to adapt and be more effective on the other side. I continue to have great confidence in the future of architecture and design and look forward to the outcomes and opportunities ahead. 

Vogele
Your local Wirtgen America dealer
Brandeis Machinery

Kunce

It’s also important to show your team members you appreciate their efforts. For example, at CORE, we’re giving team members a food “bonus” they can use to order carryout or delivery. In addition to providing a small perk for our team, it helps them support our local restaurants.


Leeboy - Pavers/Asphalt
Your local LeeBoy dealer
Brandeis Machinery
Sennebogen LLC
Your local Sennebogen LLC dealer
Brandeis Machinery
Kleemann
Your local Wirtgen America dealer
Brandeis Machinery