Experts: Sustainable design critical for 2021

Pandemic taught architecture industry many lessons that need to be addressed moving forward.
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Zach Verhulst, managing principal of PURE Architects, said education is one of the industries that needs to update its design needs based on what was learned during COVID-19. Courtesy PURE Architects

In many ways, architecture was well positioned to weather 2020. But the COVID-19 pandemic emphasized the importance of sustainable design in future projects.

Through 2020, architecture was just one of many industries suffering from the effects of a lack of innovation and adaptation in other industries, said Zach Verhulst, founder and managing principal of recently formed PURE Architects. Preexisting issues like material prices, labor volatility, immigration issues and supply chain instability were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, and Verhulst predicted construction will be forced to automate to overcome these issues.

“I think some of the challenges are going to be with construction or architecture in general — how do we start to deal with labor pricing, supply chain instability?” Verhulst said. “Sourcing materials from all over the world turned into a real hurdle in completing projects this year.”

Verhulst said the sustainable design community has been pushing for localized supply chain integration for a couple decades now, and this will become much more viable as supply chains search for stabilization.

Verhulst added another hurdle will be the lack of digital infrastructure and individualized construction standards. This industry will have to continue to adapt to forthcoming regulations in a post-COVID construction environment.

Technologically speaking, architecture was in a good position to transition to remote working. Matthew Christie, project architect at Ghafari Associates and the AIA Grand Rapids 2020 president, said firms have for some time prior utilized design and web-based tools for real-time communication and file sharing.

Many firms used these tools to share work across several remote office locations, Christie added. Even for smaller offices that didn’t previously use these tools, there at least was an industry standard in place they could adopt and deploy as COVID-19 necessitated remote working.

“In my opinion, the biggest hurdle we as an architectural community have faced is how to overcome the lost benefits of social interaction within the workplace,” Christie said. “How do you continue to build team culture, inclusiveness, mentorship and internship programs while being remote? How do you make sure your emerging professionals continue to grow and feel supported?”

Zoom, for example, was a huge boost to AIAGR, Christie said. It allowed the association to expand its continuing education courses’ effectiveness and continue to offer virtual attendance alongside in-person continuing education courses. Similar web-based applications also were used for planning/historic department reviews and project OAC (owner, architect, contractor) meetings, as well.

COVID-19 also exposed how architecture affects the end user, Verhulst said. Meeting this challenge will require a shift from traditional design teams to what Verhulst called interdisciplinary teams. The pandemic exposed disparities in both communities and the architecture profession, and Verhulst suggested future project teams must consist of outside players who are sensitive to matters of social equity.

“The traditional design team, typically headed by a principal, then a project manager, and a staff of designers from various disciplines thereafter, cannot continue to suggest that we have all of the answers — it’s irresponsible,” he said. “We are looking to bring on DEI consultants, software developers and even doctors and social workers to deepen our understanding of who we are serving, in lieu of the generalist mindset of ‘what is the service you want us to provide?’”

PURE Architects services clients in education, health care and multifamily housing, and of all those sectors, education has innovated the least in the last century in terms of design, Verhulst said.

“What happens to school buildings if hybrid academic schedules become more common? What happens to people’s homes if learning is going to occur there more often?” Verhulst asked rhetorically. “I think we will see some investigation into progressive ways of learning and working in a post-COVID, highly technological world.”

Christie predicted architecture will never be able to fully prevent future pandemics, but architects have long been proponents of sustainable design, which promotes indoor environmental air quality, use of daylight and many other design guidelines focused on personal and environmental health.

“These practices must be our design baseline, no longer treated as an add-on to a project,” Christie said. “Maybe the pandemic will change the conversation on what really is a must when designing the environments we live and work in. From a workplace perspective, I do see an inevitable design shift, one that has already occurred in many cities around the country.

“No longer is it ‘I want butts in seats’ to validate workplace productivity,” he continued. “Design of the future workplace will provide for purposeful, in-person engagement and collaboration, with flexible heads-down space throughout the office. If I can work from home, I will. If I need to meet with my colleagues at the office, I am there.”

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