Navigating Architecture During COVID-19

Sales and Marketing Insights

Architects need projects to survive. And projects need architects. It’s what can be called a symbiotic relationship. Since mid-March, nearly 60% of architecture practices have seen a downturn in workload, with a similar story for new business.[1]

Not only will architecture itself change (the way buildings are constructed and fortified against COVID-19), but the business of architecture will be dramatically altered.

According to Aleah Pullen, Architectural Designer at Apogee Consulting Group, “there will be an emphasis on the speed of planning and construction.” Currently, she wrote, “all design projects go through a strenuous process of design, budgeting, redesign, and drawn out construction.” COVID-19 could change that. [2]

The AIA offers resources to help architects. In “Business strategies that you can put to work now” by William Richards for AIA Architect, May 15, 2020, stated, “If your client is a school superintendent, what will it take to reopen schools in September?” We know what happened this September, don’t we?

Confusion.

What Richards wrote is relevant for all of us: “Clients will want to implement visible, convenient, and pervasive personal hygiene solutions that include hand-sanitizer stations and, for many, beyond.” In other words, you will have to adapt. One of the true adapters is Wendi Lau.

Wendi Lau, Erosion and Sediment Control Plan (ESCP) Coordinator, All Kinds Drafting Services, Honolulu, HI

I met Wendi Lau after she sent me an e-mail as a result of attending one of my online courses, Staying in Front of Your Customer: Strategic Planning in the COVID-19 World in August, 2020. After reading her e-mail[3], I interviewed her and learned about her father’s business.

In her role as Erosion and Sediment Control Plan Coordinator[4] and building plans Router in the family business, Wendi observed sales and customer service evolve unexpectedly.

For months, in-person contact dwindled as everyone tried to avoid each other. City and County of Honolulu Department of Planning and Permitting (DPP) employees usually worked from home.

But, that turned out to be a very good thing for All Kinds Drafting Services[5], her father’s company, and others in the building industry because DPP services, improved. DPP employees now communicate more clearly via email, respond more quickly to voice mail and e-mail, and are more efficient because the public doesn’t constantly interrupt them.

Clerks and plan examiners often work on computers next to the public access counters. Pre-COVID-19, people could walk up and ask about their projects any time. The staff’s accessibility interfered with their complicated assessments and processing of each building plan set.

“I’d hate to have my train of thought constantly interrupted like that,” Lau said.

“Communication is the new COVID-19 super power. I’ve only been doing customer care and handling prospects for a few months. And I probably dwell on each e-mail too long. But focusing on the recipient, what she needs to know, and how to address the issue simply and appropriately, has helped clients and prospects feel heard.”

“Even with masks, people seem to respond to honesty and genuine appreciation for their viewpoint.”

She adds, “Dad (Mike Lau) and I are lucky. With the support of Soleah Tirase, the Business Manager and my mom, and my teenage daughter who’s learning to measure sites and use AutoCAD®, we get to meet interesting people and work on unique projects every day.”

“Besides keeping the customer’s needs and concerns in mind, also consider treating city departmental employees and building crew with kindness and respect.”

Opening Up Architecture

Services such as Lau’s become increasingly important as the economy opens back up. As architecture shifts during opening up, services themselves will undergo more change. How the architect and services around architecture respond to post-COVID-19 will be a test of their flexibility as far as how they pursue, win and deliver capital projects.

SmithGroup is one of the many firms within this maelstrom. With 15 offices throughout the US and one in Shanghai, they boast a network of 1,300 people to leverage the right expertise for a specific project.

They pointed out in a May, 2020 article on their website some of the important points to consider as an architect during COVID-19[6]. They described architecture as a “People-Centered Process,” and that communication tools and tactics are a critical part of every procurement process.

“People are being more personalized and real in their communication,” observed Kelli McLeod a Director of Marketing at Commodore Builders, a construction management firm. “We are being more open with peers, partners and clients in ways that previously would not have been considered appropriate in the professional realm. Under physical constraints, we have accidentally become more human-centric, proximate, accessible to each other. Practicing procurement processes with more empathy and authenticity is a trend worth keeping.”[7]

Fees

The future of fees was another consideration in the SmithGroup discussion. The firm observed the erosion of a firms’ ability to procure certain work in low-bid environments, undoubtedly what COVID-19 created. In fact, the word “agility” is again one of the main thoughts that creeps into conversations around what to charge.

In such an environment, the entire marketplace competes for fewer project opportunities. Requirements change quickly (i.e., from hard copy to digital or as Lau pointed out, the way documentation moves through a process). Pools of prequalified experts are being lined up for procuring services quickly (the short list).

But, there has always been a short list. In What End Users Want (from Architects and Engineers), AIM (Accountability Information Management, Inc., a leading B2B research firm), found that “in the selection of a firm, 51% said they do not have a ‘short list.’ But more important, it really doesn’t matter whether the end user had or didn’t have a short list: The factors they used for selecting architects and engineers were virtually the same in terms of importance whether they had the list or not! And ‘personal relationship’ was almost at the bottom of the list!”[8]

COVID-19 has changed that. For example, in other reports by AIM, “If a manufacturer is not on a firm’s ‘short list,’ it is almost impossible to be listed in a project’s specifications.”[9] And what dictates getting on that list is the personal relationship the firm develops with the client.

Collaboration

Collaboration has always been important in developing these relationships, and construction (as in any business) and COVID-19 has brought this to the forefront of key effects from the virus.

But, it is collaboration in a different way. After all, if everyone knows what I know because I have achieved true collaboration, how do I: 1) differentiate myself and my business, 2) gain a competitive advantage, and 3) make a profit? If everyone knows what I know and how I do things, how do I make money? The answer is of course, service.

Someone once said you make money on information no one else has, not on information everyone else has. If everyone has the same information, the only differentiation is speed. If everyone makes what I make, or knows what I know, I’m in the commodity business, and that’s a tough business for anyone. So what does collaboration really mean?

Posted in 2012, an article What are we talking about? noted, “Current wisdom states that winners in such an environment [going traditional channels into what is being called the disruptive multi-channel areas] have to be above everything else, resistant to disruption. What are we talking about?”[10] Back then a cited report said: “They argue that ‘the experience’ is now the critical differentiator between companies, and that people are the most important component of that strategy.” That was true then, and it is more true today.

You can’t be resistant to disruption, but you can learn to use disruption to your advantage.

If you Google “leadership in today’s world,” you’ll find my blog listed on the page one results. It is one of the most-read articles I’ve written since its publication in May, 2019. In it, I wrote:

“The example I always use to explain this concept involves a rubber band. If you and I take each end of a rubber band and begin pulling, eventually the rubber band will break. We created enough tension to do that. However, if you start pulling and I let myself be pulled (or vice versa), the rubber band will never break. In this case, someone is leading, and someone is following. A relationship is created. The question is, of course, who is leading and who is following? It’s a question of who is in control?”[11]

Architects, their related services, are affected like any other industry as a result of the COVID-19 onslaught – with disruption. Like the pre-COVID-19 world, one law applies: adapt, change or disappear. Architects and their related services will certainly survive because there will always be the need for construction. How they survive will be determined on an ongoing basis determined by their agility.

And their hustle.

______________________________________________

[1] What is Covid-19 doing to your business? Eleanor Young in the RIBA Journal, April 6, 2020. Also, More than 70% of architecture firms saw their billings drop in the second quarter of 2020—but some building types are actually more in-demand than they were before the pandemic as noted in COVID-19 is crushing the architecture industry—but not in the ways you’d expect by Nate Berg, August 14, 2020, Fast Company.

[2] THE EFFECTS OF COVID-19 ON ARCHITECTURE: PREDICTIONS FROM TOMORROW’S DESIGNERS, by Meg Whalen, The UNC Charlotte Urban Institute.

[3] When someone writes, “I really like Jim’s webinars. He speaks from experience and an awareness of the big picture. I can tell he never takes clients for granted and earnestly speaks to those with a meaningful connection to their companies. He respects his webinar viewers and himself. (People’s lack of self-respect has become increasingly obvious during the pandemic.) Jim doesn’t pander to fears or popular virus-response phrases; instead, he addresses the client’s concerns head-on. I appreciate Jim’s communication style and book references in the webinars. Some webinars I can just tune out, but both Interline webinars I attended (also How to Target and Hit the Right Customers Special COVID-19 Edition) each gave me two action steps for my dad’s small architecture business–things that will help with referrals and customer satisfaction.” Well, you have to find out more about them! It was a pleasure interviewing Wendi Lau.

[4] An Erosion and Sediment Control Plan (ESCP) is a requirement for most construction projects in Hawaii. The ESCP is approved by the Stormwater Branch and requires the consumer to designate a Certified Coordinator before they approve your ESCP. In other words, you must designate your Coordinator before construction begins.

[5] All Kinds Drafting Services provides services like design and draft plans and details required to get a building permit from the Department of Planning and Permitting of Honolulu, sketches and drawings necessary to develop a concept and idea, site visit assistance with determining work – remodel/alteration/addition – to new or existing home, and more.

[6] HOW WILL COVID-19 CHANGE THE PROCUREMENT OF PROFESSIONAL DESIGN SERVICES? by Erin Miller, May 2, 2020, www.smithgroup.com.

[7] Ibid.

[8] What End Users Want (from Architects and Engineers,That Is), on www.a-i-m.com.

[9] Opening the Door to Metal and Steel Door Specification Preference July 3, 2019, on www.a-i-m.com.

[10] “What are we talking about?” by Jim Nowakowski, August 2012, on www.interlinegroup.com.

[11] Leadership in Today’s World by Jim Nowakowski, May 2019, on www.interlinegroup.com.

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