Redesigning How Architectural Firms Operate

Oct 6, 2022 | Projects

Pandemic-related delays continue to affect the work of architects. It starts early with both new and existing clients expecting the same project schedules from pre-pandemic days, while contractor partners are pushing to have drawings out to bid earlier and earlier. Architects wind up squeezed in the middle.

Redesigning the Bidding Proces

“When owners learn about long lead times and pandemic-related shortages, they push designers to work even faster to get drawings out rather than accepting a reality where it may not be possible to complete a project when they want it to be,” says Megan Feenstra Wall, Architect at Mathison Architects.

“We work very hard to meet those demands while also creating realistic expectations for our clients. Clear, consistent, and early communication is required. Being on the front end of a project, sometimes we have to be the ones to lead our clients through the difficult process of accepting a reality that is not what we want it to be. When we cannot provide certainty, we provide clarity. We are honest. We don’t pretend, and we don’t exaggerate. But we certainly do empathize. This time is not easy for anyone!”

Feenstra Wall continued, “This sense of urgency is balanced by a sense that the inquiry or project could stop again at any moment. We’ve all grown accustomed to this feeling with the pandemic- that what is now, may not be tomorrow. That the trip we’ve been arranging for years may be stopped by a negative covid test or that cheesecake we were planning for Christmas may be stymied by an unexpected cream cheese shortage. That same sense of uncertainty seems to have infiltrated the market, and there’s less of a sense of stability than before, from beginning to end.”

“We are making material and product choices based on availability, even changing entire structural systems from what we’d first planned for a project. It means more time spent in research, in calls to suppliers and reps, in ordering samples. Sometimes we’ll have to make those re-selections during construction, with pressure from the contractor to work faster, even as our process of reviewing samples, checking for appropriateness of substitutions, and reviewing them with the owner has not changed. The earlier we get these substitution requests, the better we are able to fit them into our schedule, but we also understand that so many of the lead time issues come up unexpectedly.

Despite our warning about the sf costs we’re seeing in the market, many clients proceed as usual… until the first round of budgeting. We’ve experienced an unusual number of requests for full project re-scope or redesign, and sometimes, a pause for months as they reconsider their next steps. Some never start up again, but most come back saying full speed ahead despite months of silence.”

“Working in the healthcare, education, and commercial markets has been very busy,” says Zachary Verhulst, Architect at Pure Architects. 

“We’ve seen an influx of state and federal funds that are growing budgets and shrinking schedules. Our current projects are quite large, especially in the education sector, and we’re seeing that the projects that were budgeted in 2019 and 2020 are easily 30-40% below where the market and materials are today. We are consistently up against a volatile market and tight labor pool when putting projects out to bid resulting in some redesign and procurement issues. We have not seen many projects pause or cancel because of it, but we are proactively providing our clients with bid alternates and design options to mitigate their risk during bidding.”

Redesigning Talent Acquisition

“We have had a lot of success growing our team,” Verhulst mentioned, “and we have doubled our size already in 2022 and plan to double it again by the end of the year. We are seeing a massive shift in power position from employer to employee as the talent market is shrinking. People want to be at a place where they feel valued, fulfilled, and supported. Work life balance is a very individualized thing and when folks in leadership positions don’t spend the time to deeply understand their people, they lose them. We have seen a couple larger firms in town really struggle to keep their best people and it is almost exclusively a reflection of mediocre leadership. Ignoring the pandemic and the conditions it has created for people, their families, and their mental and physical health is irresponsible at best and dangerous at worst. People are the most valuable assets in a firm and referring to them as resources, labor, or light bulbs highlights a lack of compassion, empathy, and a significant disconnect from reality.” Feenstra-Wall commented, “as a result of the ever-changing material prices and construction schedules, appropriately allocating staff has been quite difficult, as any stability we were used to isn’t there in the same way anymore. As architects, we work very closely with our clients, working to understand them and their needs and almost taking on their project as our own, and it’s difficult to walk with them through this process! We’re finding our projects’ construction schedules are stretching out months beyond what we’d typically expect, which also extends our involvement in the project. Again, this creates difficulties in projecting staffing needs and creating enough capacity for the unexpected.”

Redesigning Innovation – Together 

“One joy we’ve found in this pandemic-driven instability is how resilient and forgiving our clients

and our construction partners can be,” Feenstra-Wall stated. “Appropriate, clear, and timely communication makes a big difference in how we all experience and deal with unexpected delays, and we are so grateful for the grace we’ve been granted and been able to give to our clients and partners! Sometimes it’s difficult to maintain this generosity of spirit, but it’s really what has been able to keep us all moving forward through these last few years.” Verhulst mentioned, “our team has been spending a lot of time testing, learning, tinkering, and calibrating our process, technology, and deliverables as we take on larger and more complicated projects. One of our core values that rings true through the pandemic is agility. We are spending time with each other and our consultants to build trust, have good conversations, and refine our workflow in the cloud. It has been great to bring on new perspectives in Libby, Heather, and Aaron. Each of them has a skillset and passion that pushes our current practice to a new place. I’m very excited and optimistic for our foreseeable future and extremely grateful for the environment I get to work in every day.”


This article was originally featured in The Source. Thank you to Zachary Verhulst and Megan Feenstra Wall for contributing to this article!

Zachary Verhulst, Architect | Pure Architects & Megan Feenstra Wall, Principal and Architect |Mathison Architects in Grand Rapids, Michigan

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