Developments in Architecture | Transcript from M. David Lee

M. DAVID LEE, PResident, Stull & LEE | A Better City COnversation 

"No man is an island, entire of itself every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less..  Any man's death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

English poet, John Donne

Architects are by nature optimist, futurists, social, and in my opinion, the best of us are compassionate people persons.

How one thinks about practice today and the foreseeable future has to start with full recognition of the GLOBAL context in which we are living and working now.

While particularly at the firm's leadership level, we are concerned about the workplace and the work environment, at large, we have to care first about the people we work with and the clients we serve. We, as principals, have to care about our employee's immediate life circumstances and the unprecedented and inescapable pressures that all of us are dealing with right now.

From a business standpoint, many of the things we are worried about before the pandemic are still there!

  • Producing good work
  • Assembling the best staff and consultants
  • Working efficiently
  • Billing and getting paid promptly
  • Good service to our clients
  • Bringing in new work

These things are still vital but now we have to care more than ever about the health and wellbeing of those we work within and out of the office, far beyond previous norms.

Every individual's circumstance is unique and while a controlled office environment offers a certain amount of order and continuity, remote learning is another proposition. At both ends, it started with trying to find, as a principal, the right balance between reasonable work expectations and recognition of the major social and emotional upheavals in the lives of the persons we work with.

At Stull & Lee, we share space with two other firms in a loft environment. We each have access to common spaces, including conference rooms, the kitchen, and the dining area.

In the early weeks, before the impacts of the virus began to accelerate, all three firms continued to work in the office.

As the virus began to intensify we all switched to working from home. When the governor allowed the essential business to re-open, I gave staff the option to continue to work from home in a kind of hybrid model where there could be occasional in-house meetings.

This was a viable option because 90% of the staff of the other two firms (mainly with small children) continue to work remotely. That freed up parking spaces so no one needed to take the T.

And with fewer people, it allowed for easy social distancing and fewer in-person interactions.

While not ideal, working from home was also viable with upgraded technology and zoom client meetings.

And for better or worse, it forced some of the more seasoned of us to upgrade our technology chops - to a point.

Eventually, though our staff elected to come back and work in the office, some other adjustments have been made:

  • More flexible hours to allow for occasional home deliveries or accommodate for shared responsibilities with spouses or significant others.
  • Since everyone usually brings their own lunch, lunch breaks are shorter or people eat at their desks. As a result, depending on the workload, people are able to end the day earlier.
  • If anyone has traveled or inadvertently come in contact with someone who has tested positive, then that staff person has been tested, quarantined for two weeks, and worked from home.
  • Everyone has been prudent about masks and frequent handwashing and distance as much as possible.

Going forward:

I have had to reconsider the kinds of projects that are feasible to take on especially planning and urban design project which requires air travel and ideally some in-person meetings. Unless it is of a scale sufficient to partner with someone locally there.

In terms of local projects, we are continuing to explore and get comfortable with the tools and techniques best suited to communicate ideas to clients who are in the room and may not fully grasp what is being presented or may not have the necessary technology to receive the information.

Some other observations:

  • Presentations have to be a lot more scripted and without people in the same spaces. Nuance is often lost.
  • No matter how facile you are working remotely is not as efficient in a professional that requires dynamic interaction.
  • The kinds of answers that can be found in a ten-minute conversation at a person's desk can now require seven emails and three phone calls.

All of that said, I am not complaining. It is a new reality and ultimately we will adapt and find acceptable ways to work in this environment.

It is also not lost on me that these options are not available to many in vulnerable populations - particularly persons of color.

The pandemic has exposed major institutional and systemic failings and societal inequities that must be addressed. As planners and builders, we have many of the necessary tools to rethink how physical design can be instruments of equitable change.

We are in a profession though that in this recent gilded age has often been tone-deaf and self-indulgent. That has to change and our profession has to become more inclusive.

Unfortunately, the doubling down on the digital divide and the silos and necessary social distancing is making it harder to engage persons outside of our comfort zones. A time when gaining a greater understanding of our unique life experiences and perspectives is more important than ever.

This is an important moment! As a profession, as thought leaders, we should take this opportunity to re-think who we serve what our priorities are and how we can contribute to the reshaping of the proverbial "continent" from rural to the urban but with a more diverse group at the table than ever before

A few thoughts about cities

Cities will always endure. People have a visceral need to congregate. We will get through this but the question is how much are we prepared and willing to deal with?

We are all in this together! There is no place to go. The folly that this was an urban condition and not a rural threat has been exposed.

One place to start is to recognize the importance and ambition of intelligent regional planning and a robust taxpayer-supported public sector role.

Enough with counting on the private sector to fund public sector benefits including infrastructure and open space.

A Few more thoughts:

At the top of the list is an equitable well-dispersed health care delivery system. Design can play a role here with pop up and or portable clinics perhaps in dormant rentals or former restaurant spaces.

More physically accessible, re-imagined manufacturing jobs in the city or near the suburbs in repurposed shopping malls or department stores with on-site daycare and early grade education technology can play a role here too.

Creative transit solutions and new priority seating capacity routing. More flexible funding options for affordable housing to encourage design innovation not locked into fixed narrow guidelines. This should apply to both new construction and adaptive reuse. The virtual schoolroom identifies multiple venues for smaller classrooms and subsidized state of the art technology and HVAC systems.

The spare office building concept… a true mixed-use with equities, spatial distancing, housing, daycare, and manufacturing to initiatDeDe robustly funded inter-disciplinary ideas competitions perhaps.

"The building of cities is one of man's greatest achievements. The form of the city always has been and always will be a pitiless indicator of the state of his civilization." Edmund bacon former Philadelphia Planning Director

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