How has COVID-19 impacted each of the regions in Colorado?
That was the question posed to the 2020 AIA Colorado Section Directors during a virtual panel on April 8.
While each of the directors spoke about the impacts unique to their region, they also found that a global health crisis hits all four corners of the state in much the same way. The capacity and long-term ramifications may vary by section, but architects in each area are all impacted by a shift to remote work, new construction site guidelines, potential loss in revenue and the impending recession.
Changes in Colorado communities
“You wouldn’t know we are in the middle of a pandemic for the amount of people you see out in the parks and trails,” said Rob Pyatt, AIA, North Director, principal at Pyatt Studio.
South Director, Sheva Willoughby, AIA and architect at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo agreed, saying that it’s nearly impossible to social distance while exercising outside in Colorado Springs.
But in Pitkin County, one of the state’s early virus hotspots, things look a little different.
“The governor did us a huge favor by closing the ski resorts on March 15,” said Sarah Broughton, AIA, West Director and principal of Rowland + Broughton Architecture and Urban Design. “It was hard for the economy, but it was important for containing the spread.” For an area that is reliant upon the revenue that winter sports tourism brings in, Colorado’s mountain towns will be hit hard. But as Broughton mentioned, the hospital in Aspen has only four ventilators total.
“It will be detrimental on our local economy, but everyone realizes the importance of staying healthy and taking care of themselves because our hospital just can’t handle it,” said Broughton.
Denver Director, Ignacio Correa-Ortiz, AIA and Senior Architect at RTD has not seen as many community changes, simply because he’s been confined to his home. After displaying Coronavirus symptoms, his doctors recommended that he self-quarantine.
Each of the section directors’ workplaces have transitioned to remote-only offices.
Broughton’s employees already had the technology and were equipped to work from home. But the majority of her staff are parents, especially since 55% are women, so the team has had to shift their idea of what a normal 40-hour work week looks like.
It also means delivering work to clients remotely. Broughton’s team has started putting together process portfolios to give clients insight into their design process, even through a computer screen. They’re focused on delivering a great client experience, no matter how that may look in this unprecedented time.
Pyatt’s studio was also equipped to work remotely prior to the pandemic. His team, which is intentionally small, often works remotely onsite.
“We’re trying to make working together remotely a fun experience,” said Pyatt. “It doesn’t replace in-person meetings long-term, though. We may need to begin delivering our projects virtually.”
Willoughby, who recently changed jobs, is in a little different camp. As an employee of a zoo—an organization that relies on in-person visitors—remote work is more challenging. The zoo is looking into ways to deliver the guest experience through virtual reality or a drive-through zoo, but nothing can replace the real life experience.
According to the section directors, construction site guidelines and slow downs are dependent on the project typology.
For Willoughby, the upside to having no visitors to the zoo is that construction can continue at an even faster pace than before. But they are following strict social distancing and safety guidelines.
“The projects that had started before all of this are still in full-force,” said Pyatt. “But with the exception of high-end residential, sole practitioners [in the Boulder-area] have started to see residential projects go on hold.”
Meanwhile, all RTD projects which had funds pending have been put on hold.
In Aspen, all construction was put on hold from April 1 through April 30. “It’s had a detrimental effect on architects in our community,” said Broughton. “So, we’re working with politicians to work on recovery and help guide them to figure out safe job sites. Health is the number one concern right now and it’s driving a lot of decisions, as it should.”
Potential loss in revenue
“Folks are starting to realize there may be a slow-down headed our way, regardless of the typology,” said Pyatt, a statement that the other three section directors quickly agreed with.
Pyatt explained that although his firm has intentionally diversified its funding steams, this is a very different recession than those of the past.
“If you aren’t able to be on-site, the funding for government projects stops,” he said.
With some extra time and without the crunch of numerous deadlines, Pyatt’s team has shifted to strategic planning to help them survive this crisis and pick back up with clients when it ends.
“We’re trying to talk to and share information with other businesses, and we’re realizing that everyone is in the same position,” Pyatt said. “I hope that through this commonality we can become more resilient as a profession.”
The Cheyenne Mountain Zoo makes its money by having guests. But fortunately for Willoughby, the zoo is in a good financial position so far. They have yet to lay anyone off and even gave employees early bonuses to boost morale. The zoo is pushing forward with major construction processes, but they have yet to adjust deadlines.
Rowland + Broughton has already done staff-wide salary reductions. They have tried to be incredibly transparent with their staff and to exemplify their desire to stay in business and keep everyone on the payroll. As client work slows down, Broughton has gotten more focused on marketing her firm. By adjusting SEO and targeting new markets, she hopes her firm will rebound quickly when this ends.
Each of the directors agree that now is the time for all-hands on deck and to find new, creative ways to use their staff’s skills. Broughton suggests using employees who may not be billable right now to help with business development efforts so they feel part of the solution.
“I probably won’t get called in to feed the lions, but I need to be ready to do any job at any time,” said Willoughby. “Leaning into your team’s other skills and passions right now and putting them to work will make us better together.
Is there a silver lining?
Correa-Ortiz is a big proponent of density, which may actually be contributing to the pace of Coronavirus’ spread in major metropolitan cities. Still, he thinks this will give the profession an opportunity to revisit and reimagine density done-well, and how we create more resilient communities.
Pyatt envisions better balance and a more resilient profession as possible outcomes.
“A positive change could be a healthier balance of life and deadlines for architects,” he said. “As a profession, we have to exist tomorrow, and I don’t think this will force us into becoming irrelevant. I think we can figure this out and become more important.”
Broughton and Willoughby agree that the best thing to come out of this pandemic is a sense of compassion and togetherness.
“We need to stop pretending this is business as usual, because it’s just not” said Willoughby. “We need to remember that we are all humans in this together. We need to give each other more grace and be more transparent about how things are shifting.”
Though the specifics may be different, each Colorado community has been abruptly confronted with COVID-19. Architects are one of many professions who have been significantly impacted by the global pandemic and must work together to come out of it stronger than ever.