As our collective experience with the effects of the pandemic have matured, area architects have weighed in about the reality of their experiences versus the expectations that they had at the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak.
Just how has inflation affected projects? What cost and supply constraints have the industry grappled with? And what has our present state of affairs meant for firms? How can architects partner with clients/owners? How have ongoing challenges driven innovations and improvements beyond the conventional, and across teams and partnerships?
Principal Jeffrey J. Dolezal, for one, isolated how inflation and higher interest rates have caused some of TACKarchitects’ clients to reduce the scope or construction quality of their projects as a means of bringing projects within initial construction budgets.
“This, of course, has made our jobs that much harder, as we now find ourselves redesigning projects more frequently,” he said. “Our clients’ buying power is just not what it used to be. The price of materials has lowered slightly across the board compared to six months ago, but it’s still challenging for us to navigate design with construction budgets that banks are willing to lend to.”
Furthermore, even contractors are unable to provide accurate construction pricing on projects.
“There are many suppliers, including roofing contractors and electricians, who can’t get pricing for materials until they are ‘order ready,’” he explained. “This means that most contractors are providing a markup or contingency on the construction estimates they give us.”
Notably, Dolezal said it also means that, more than ever, strong relationships with contractors are “critical to the success of material pricing and budget control.”
“Contractors don’t want to price your project 20 times to get it in budget,” he said. “So, these relationships really matter in order for us to ‘stick the landing’ when it comes to getting your project on budget.”
If ever there was a key takeaway, according to Dolezal, it would be this: “Almost every one of our projects in the office are moving forward into construction. We don’t really see anyone killing their construction projects. It comes down more to sharpening our pencils. Smart, efficient design with a creative use of materials is still the way we continue to operate and approach design at TACK.”
“The Omaha/metro area still remains insulated from much of the volatility surrounding the rest of the nation,” he stated.
Frequent discussions born from the pandemic about remote work and indoor air quality, have had an effect on design, according to Sheila J. Ireland, senior architect at Leo A Daly.
“In 2021, there was a lot of press about a post-pandemic surplus of office space and the potential to use that space for badly needed housing,” she said. “So far, at least in Omaha, we’ve not seen much of this. What we have seen are those employers with the flexibility to do so, searching for the right balance of remote and in-office work.”
Leo A Daly’s team has seen both extremes — all in-house versus all-remote as well as the “hybrid” solutions.
“It all depends on the employer and what their leadership and culture value,” Ireland said. “Some employers have remained laser-focused on getting their teams back into the office. Others are using remote work as an opportunity to recruit and reduce operating costs.”
As an example, the firm’s collaboration with Carson Group on a new Omaha headquarters resulted in a space that preserved and strengthened a culture of teamwork and in-person meetings with clients. Ireland also referenced how the design supports its competitiveness in a tight job market.
“The solution is a space with amenities that save employees time and money, provide unique experiences, and allow opportunities to reduce stress,” she said.
Amenities included a fitness room and fitness classes, as well as flexible seating (formal desks, informal couches) with better ergonomics and fewer distractions than the home office. Furthermore, its rooftop lounge facilitates outdoor conversations and minimizes stress via a pet-friendly policy.
“On the opposite end of the spectrum, Leo A Daly is assisting a client who has fully embraced the work-from-anywhere concept,” Ireland said. “This client is planning a renovation that will allow them to offset the cost of their lease by subletting the portion of their space no longer occupied by staff. This approach provides the support of a physical office when it’s needed and the operational cost-savings of remote staff. The pandemic taught them this solution works for their culture.”
She also referenced how indoor air quality remains top of mind, particularly for those organizations with a “no remote work” policy.
“Pre-pandemic, building owners and employers were content with code-required minimums and almost never asked about indoor air quality,” she explained. “Since the pandemic, owners continue to ask what they can do to reduce the spread of airborne viruses in their work and customer service areas, and manufacturers continue to innovate new products to meet this growing demand.”
Within the industry itself, Ireland emphasized the focus on addressing a lack of diversity and how clients are more frequently requiring their design partners to have a diversity, equity and inclusion policy in place as a condition of the contract.
“There is a lot of excitement in Omaha about the NE LB1024 Economic Recovery Act and its potential to create meaningful change in historically underserved neighborhoods,” she added. “Climate change, infrastructure and affordable housing are still topics of concern, becoming more urgent with each year of slow or no action.
“The profession seems torn between optimism, regarding the impact of the recently enacted Inflation Reduction Act and Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, and nervousness about the increase in interest rates and continuing labor and material supply shortages. Disasters, like the recent Hurricane Ian, will further stress material markets. It seems the design and building industry will continue to live in interesting times well into 2023.”
When asked about of-the-moment “trends” shaping the industry, Principal Albert Macchietto said Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture (APMA) is seeing a greater focus and attention on “brand integration” in the design process.
“We like to work hand in hand with the owner’s branding consultant or engage our own graphic designers to make sure our designs integrate the brand into the architecture,” he said. “Projects with successful brand integration seem to resonate with people.”
While brand elements present an opportunity, the availability of materials and equipment presents a persistent obstacle that demands attention and action.
“Many products are back-ordered and take two or three times longer than usual to acquire,” he stated. “Taking this into account, designing buildings is both challenging and an opportunity. We find that it is beneficial to have a general contractor engaged early in the design process as a resource, and so that they can order long lead items early.”
Despite such timeframes and hurdles, Macchietto said APMA feels that the health of the industry remains strong.
“I think everyone assumes there could be a slowdown, because of rising interest rates,” he said. “But, so far, we haven’t seen that happen.”
Eileen Korth, president of Jackson-Jackson & Associates, echoed such sentiments, saying the firm is “cautiously optimistic for continued good health.”
“There is a large need in many building sectors,” she said. “But owners are grappling with budget appropriations that cannot keep up with the current market cost escalations.”
Walking it back to “pre-COVID,” Korth said there was a shrinking labor force. Since then, the firm has seen the effects on materials production, shipping and onsite construction.
“In addition to the effects of the COVID pandemic on the workforce, the global demand for construction materials and struggle to meet energy needs have contributed to some of today’s construction market challenges,” she remarked. “We have seen over one-year lead times on some equipment and materials. This, coupled with some contractors and suppliers not holding bid prices, and construction cost increases of 40-50% in one year, has many owners taking a step back.”
Reinforcing the “big picture,” Korth said that historically architectural design trends surface from the current social, political and economic climate. Today is no exception.
“Several current design trends reflect who we are post-COVID pandemic,” she said. “Popularity of grays and dark colors are waning and being replaced with warm tones and color.
“Also, the time many people spent working from home has the workplace looking to reflect the comforts of home, and sometimes a refresh means going ‘old school’ on materials and finish — a simple reflection of [a] new embrace of life.”
In a familiar refrain, if not one of the biggest lessons taught since 2020, Korth spoke to the opportunities that are presented in the most trying of times.
“There are many opportunities for young people graduating from high school and college in the architectural, engineering and construction industry,” she said. “To be innovative, explore and develop clean energy, alternative or non-traditional materials and construction methods, and ultimately lead the industry forward.”