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Is Architecture as we know it being demolished?

The world of business is about to change. Courtesy of the Coronavirus pandemic, some businesses are going to shut down, others are going to slow down, others shall experience tremendous growth while some new ones shall sprout, as it were, from nowhere. This is just the way it is when there is a seismic shift in the macro environment.

Moody’s, the global ratings agency, recently published a Global COVID-19 Impact-Heat Map. The document divides industries into three based on relative impact the pandemic shall have on their performance. The green zone is for those facing low exposure, orange for moderate exposure and red for high exposure. Construction sits in the low exposure zone. Architecture, while related to construction, is however one of those disciplines that is involved in virtually all sectors. For purposes of this article, we shall focus on architectural design work.

Based on Moody’s heat map, we can decipher where the opportunities for architectural work shall emerge because of Coronavirus. Moody’s takes a long term view, while in the developing world, the view is more likely to be no more than six to twelve months.

Medical and Pharmaceuticals: We have always known that medical field was critical. It is no wonder Moody’s has this in the green zone of low exposure. After coming out of a situation where we shall have had a loss of life akin to a military war, we’ll need to do everything to prevent this happening again.

Before that, we need to deal with the immediate situation. That may require architects to be part of the solution by helping design and set up quick facilities or retrofit existing ones to act as quarantine centres or wards.

Going into the future, this pandemic shall teach governments and private investors to inject more funds into healthcare. For architects, that means more hospitals to design, existing hospitals to expand and retrofit to allow humanity to manage another pandemic without having to scamper around like we are doing with Coronavirus. It also means coming up with innovative ways to build quickly. There is certainly plenty in this area and architects shall need to do some deep research and work with the healthcare industry to find solutions today, for that pandemic of tomorrow.

The Food Industry: After nearing COVID-19 inflicted starvation, food shall have somehow moved to an even more prominent place on Maslow’s hierarchy. Inspired or misguided, more entrepreneurs and opportunists shall flock the food industry at all levels, right from primary production to consolidation, wholesaling and retailing. The “discovery” of the farm to table model that is currently delivering so many food baskets to families shall mean the opportunity is in warehousing and processing facilities. As architects, we shall come in to design these facilities, working with the logistics experts to make sure they work efficiently and are flexible enough to be scaled.

Hospitality: The strange thing about hospitality is that, according to Moody’s, it sits quite high up among the industries hard hit by the pandemic. It is also one which offers most opportunity to architects after the pandemic. Let’s get back to that in a bit.

Physical distancing has made socializing, having meals together, corporate meetings and conventions impossible. What is left is the food and beverage delivery business. Countries closing borders means virtually no international travel and countries locking down means even no internal travel that grows demand for accommodation. “Stay at Home” also means “Don’t stay in hotels”. For these reasons hospitality has virtually ground to a halt.

Getting back to our earlier point, the question is: what is the opportunity post-COVID19 for architects? Well, the huge hospitality facilities are right there costing the owners money every day in rents, rates and maintenance costs. The real fear of going through another expensive period like shall mean owners thinking twice about what they own and what it can do for them. Does this expensive real estate require repurposing? Does it require flexibility in-built into the design? Do hospitality industry players need to downscale to ensure a return on investment? Whichever way the respective owner decisions go, architectural intervention is required.

Residential Real Estate: Did your home work for you during the lockdown period? How did you feel in the space? Home owners are asking themselves these questions during the crisis and shall want to take action as soon as the crisis is over. Real estate sits in the green zone as it is usually fairly stable in nature, being a long term game that is not immediately affected by blips in the macro environment.

Where the opportunity lies for architects is in serving clients who may wish to go as far a moving away from cities as the reality of the old urbanity stops being appealing, to building in a new neighborhood, to just repurposing existing spaces ready for the next lockdown. Many live in spaces where they don’t actually “live” due to their busy lives. Coronavirus gave them the “opportunity” to actually live in and experience their homes. Some shall be “shocked” into the action of engaging an architect to help them make their spaces work.

Discerning developers may also now do more mixed use developments to ensure that where people can live, work, go to school and shop are within close proximity. This would make lockdowns less disruptive to existing lifestyles.

Commercial Real Estate: This sector is likely to suffer from the developer’s point of view, but from the architect’s point of view, opportunities shall abound. Working from home has become a new reality that shall be incorporated into how we work post Coronavirus. That means offices may need to shrink or be repurposed. That is where the architect comes in, ensuring a return on investment for the space businesses occupy for their operations. Architects shall need new skills around auditing businesses and their optimized needs or partner with experts in the area so as to come up with the best solutions for clients. Commercial real estate may need to be convertible to other uses such as residential. That calls for different flexible architectural designs going forward.

Retail Real Estate: The “amazonification” of retail space means brick and mortar shops are in danger. We don’t think they shall go away but they shall have to shrink, they shall need to change, they shall need to be adaptable. So, enter the architect to repurpose space to enhance the retail experience while also shrinking or repurposing the space probably for more storage as more customers move to ordering online. With shopping going both online and to neighborhoods, malls are at risk. Existing ones may need architects to redesign them for purposes such as logistics hubs to take advantage of their suitable locations.

What ties together all the opportunities above is the need engage a professional architect to go beyond generating drawings to solving real strategic business challenges.

The word going around is that the earth needed a reset. No other profession can claim to shape the spaces we live, learn, work and socialize in more than architecture. How architects intervene in this new reset world shall be crucial to the quality of our lives everywhere.

Arch Felix Lati is a Registered Architect and the Managing Partner of Lexicon + Ion. Email: lati@lexicondesigns.co.ke

Arch Tom Sitati, is a Registered Architect and MCIM Chartered Marketer. Email: sitati@lexicondesigns.co.ke