Event Recap: A Better City Conversations: Adaptations and New Developments in Architecture

WRITTEN BY Turner Skenderian, Marketing, Membership, and Communications Manager

On Tuesday, August 18th, A Better City hosted a dialogue around Adaptations and New Developments in Architecture. The purpose of this program was to discuss the industry, how firms have adapted, and the future of cities. We welcomed presentations from M. David Lee, President of Stull & Lee, David Manfredi, CEO & Founding Principal of Elkus Manfredi, and Mark Walsh-Cooke of Principal, ARUP. While each firm brought different perspectives to how they’ve navigated the COVID-19 pandemic, there were strong themes of opportunity in diversifying projects, strengthening of their work through technology, and designing projects to meet lifestyles and functionalities responsibly.

Rick Dimino welcomed colleagues and presenters over the Zoom meeting shortly before introducing our guest speakers. M. David Lee began his powerful and insightful presentation with a quote from the English Poet, John Donne. When looking into the future of Architecture, Lee said “Architects are by nature, optimists, futurists, social, and in my opinion the best of us are compassionate people persons.” How one thinks about practice today and in the foreseeable future has to start with full recognition of a global context in which we are living and in working now.

Stull & Lee share their office space with three other firms and continued to go into the office before the virus accelerated. Since then, they have worked remotely and began reopening their office with the rest of the Commonwealth earlier this summer. They have a hybrid working model in place because while much remains the same in terms of business, they care more than ever about the well-being of their employees and clients. They have set reasonable work expectations in the balance of social and mental safety acknowledging flexibility is essential in this new reality. When looking at their national projects, Stull & Lee have limited travel and implemented necessary health and safety measures when travel is unavoidable. Mr. Lee went on to stress the importance of recognizing the institutional and systematic failures of how the pandemic has inequitably impacted communities of color. These failures are further exacerbated as the dependency of technology grows and the digital divide widens. To his earlier sentiment, Mr. Lee believes cities will always endure, but much of that is dependent on how much change we are willing and prepared to deal with. Cities will need to meet the demand of public spaces, creative transit solutions, and more feasible options for affordable housing wither it is through new construction or adaptive reuse projects.

David Manfredi of Elkus Manfredi also implemented a hybrid approach of office/remote work following the reopening of offices. In the past five years, the firm had begun to transition to a heavier reliance on technology, which resulted in a seamless shift to remote work back in March. Elkus Manfredi’s firm has been encouraging employees returning to their Design Center offices to travel in single-occupancy vehicles while trying to reduce commuter friction on public transportation. Mr. Manfredi, along with his other presenters touched on national jobs that require travel and in-person meetings. They follow the recommended protocol of masks, physical distancing, quarantining, and testing following those occurrences. While the majority of the firm’s workforce remains at home, they convene virtually once a week to discuss community and industry-wide updates and concerns—with a core focus on Elkus Manfredi’s diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. Looking ahead, Mr. Manfredi stated, “planning is multi-disciplinary, it is collaborative, it dependent on intense interaction that proximity drives collaboration and innovation.” In terms of the future of the office space, Mr. Manfredi believes the workplace has to be a magnet, not a mandate for people to seek out, collaborate, and create a sense of community.

Mark Walsh-Cooke of ARUP provided an engineer’s perspective and spoke of ARUP international response to COVID-19 from The US to Europe to Wuhan, China. While the firm has relied on technology, given the expansive reach of the firm, they did find themselves in a digital transformation as the workforces moved remote earlier this year. Mr. Walsh-Cooke sighted there had already been the infrastructure in place in their buildings to avoid high contact zones, such as electronic hand dryers, carbon filters, and regularly maintained and monitors HVAC systems. ARUP continues to leverage its technological strengths for meetings with virtual reality (VR) headsets. Clients and team members can tour to spaces for projects, provide live feedback all without stepping foot into the literal space. When looking ahead, Mr. Walsh-Cooke believes those who can avoid cities, will continue to do even after it is safe to return. However, he feels optimistic about the opportunities spreading to smaller cities especially if the current prioritization of open and outdoor spaces becomes permanent. “Cities thrive when usages are mixed.” He went on to stress the importance of creating responsible and healthy environments within the buildings.

Robert Brown of Perkins + Will contributed to the programing commending the industry on how efficient firms had become, exceeding what they imagined possible to do when meeting in person was no longer an option. Their firm meets weekly and respective teams conduct vision sessions, partner check-ins efficiently and democratically. Their Shanghai and Copenhagen offices have returned at full capacity while the Miami and Dallas offices reopened and had to close again in response to infection spikes in those areas. Perkins has been centering their works around living design, resilience, and social diversity, as well as sustainability.

All of our presenters agree that there is tremendous opportunity at hand to reimagine the built environment. Firms have the well-researched influence to determine where buildings go next. With that direction, they can prioritize equal and affordable housing, hybrid modality, flexible work and lifestyles, and the enhancement of the attractiveness of the city buildings for all those who live there. They also believe design codes will shift to prioritize sustainable environments and wellness. From childcare and/or fitness accommodations to the HVAC systems. Planners and designers will have to ensure buildings are responsible and responsive to the lifestyle of their occupants because people will want to know they are going into a healthy building.

In closing of the event, there was an emphasis on answering the call for economically and socially diverse projects, creating a more equitable and open city, and a responsible return of transportation to ensure the repopulation of cities and workspaces. Our presenters agreed that the care, wellbeing, communication with their clients, staff, and partners will remain paramount and firms must remain flexible as we continue to navigate our new and continually changing realities.

To review Elkus Manfredi's slides, click here

For a recording of our A Better City Conversation, click herePassword: q6R3*P*8

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