When the economy starts to decline, architects often feel it before anyone else. Economic uncertainty tends to put major investments on hold, and for the multiyear process of designing and constructing a building, looming recessions are like poison.
“Architecture is tied to the economy. In fact, it is one of the first industries that is affected when there’s a dip in the economy or a recession,” says architect Victor Body-Lawson. He runs a 12-person architecture firm in Harlem and has weathered several economic storms since opening shop in 1993. “We had a lot of projects in the pipeline in the proposal stage before the pandemic, and some of those projects have actually been put on hold. I’m hoping that they’ll come back around.”
The current economic downturn has meant that many development projects have hit the skids. According to a June survey of 31 design, planning, and development companies by Appleseed Strategy, a slowdown is coming to the business of building. More than 70% of firms saw their billings drop in the second quarter of 2020, and more than 85% expected them to drop in the third quarter.
But that doesn’t mean everything is coming to a halt. According to leaders of architecture firms across the country, while some projects are undeniably hurt by the pandemic, other types of buildings are seeing even more demand than before the pandemic hit.
Down: Offices and Hospitality
Lockdowns and quarantines have left many offices and hotels around the world nearly empty, and that has drained developers’ appetites for new ones. “The issue of who is going to need office space is a big question,” says Nancy Ruddy, cofounder of the New York-based firm CetraRuddy. Her firm has one large office project nearing completion, but she says they have no plans to take on other new offices for the time being.
New hotel projects are not likely to see much interest in the coming months, either. Three-quarters of respondents to Appleseed Strategy’s survey express low confidence about the health of the hospitality sector by the end of 2020.
Body-Lawson says one perhaps surprising building type has managed to survive the pandemic, at least in New York: affordable housing. But given the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on lower-income people, maybe it shouldn’t be surprising at all. “They are considered to be essential projects,” he says. “They were funded before the pandemic, so they are continuing.” He says other affordable housing projects that haven’t yet gotten city funding are likely to, later this year or early the next.
Ruddy has also seen more work in affordable housing, as well as projects that offer a mix of affordable and market-rate rentals.
Another building type that has persevered is suburban housing. But it’s not the cookie-cutter tract homes of the past, according to Ruddy. Her firm has taken on several medium-density housing projects at or near suburban rail stations, so-called transit-oriented development. “People see there’s maybe another kind of typology for suburban housing,” she says. “It gives you all of the benefits, what we all love about urban cities, culture and great food and activities and things like that, but maybe in a slightly less dense environment.” These kinds of developments may see an added boost of interest as some people have opted to leave the city for the suburbs during the pandemic—though this exodus may be more hype than reality.
Evolving: Higher Education
More than half of the companies surveyed by Appleseed Strategy have seen projects in higher education dry up. Despite the uncertainty about the coming school year, some firms have seen this work actually increase.
“Higher education and other learning environments seem to be holding strong, despite the slight dip in forecasted spending for this year and next,” says Mark Ripple, principal of the New Orleans-based firm Eskew Dumez Ripple, in an email. He says there’s particular demand in the more “resource-intensive” parts of universities, such as science and technology departments and medical schools. “While it may be quite easy for students to ‘virtually’ attend group lectures from the comfort of their dorms, the hands-on resource-focused learning still requires a physical presence in laboratories and the like.”
The overall uncertainty about the near future of education has led to more strategic planning work for CO Architects, a 122-person firm based in Los Angeles. Colleges and universities are seeing their revenue drop, and they’re beginning to look around their campuses to see whether any of their existing spaces can be adapted or reconfigured for new uses that might otherwise be built from the ground up, according to Scott Kelsey, the firm’s managing principal. “They need to take stock, literally, of what they have and what works and what doesn’t,” he says. “There’s a lot of assessing going on right now.”
For projects still moving forward in one form or another, designs are being adjusted to account for the new demands and conditions created by the pandemic. “Everything that is not fully under construction, we’re re-looking at with our clients,” Ruddy says. “We’re making sure that we’re building things that are for, and I don’t want to call it post-COVID, but for the next chapter of all of our lives.” That means adding more cross-ventilation, natural light, outdoor access, and spaces in residential projects for people to work from home.
Body-Lawson says his firm has also had more time to revise designs and focus on smaller details. “The mad rush to get projects out is not there,” he says. It’s one bright side for architects of the current downturn. “They were a source of frustration in the past, but I’ve come to learn how to manage them,” he says. “Eventually things even out.”