Are Architects & Civil Engineers essential personnel?

8 min read

The current COVID-19 health crisis has brought about a different consciousness to our understanding of ‘normality’ which has affected all strata of society. And whereas most refer to it as a health, and consequently a financial crisis, it is worth tracing the etymological meaning of crisis which defines the word in a vaster sense and is certainly more applicable today than ever. Coming from the Latinized form of the Greek krisis, it refers to the decisive point or state of things in the progress of a disease, or a point at which change must come, for better or for worse. It is in such moments of crisis where the meaning of essential changes. But the question is, essential from whose perspective?

Historically, the built environment has never been separate from public health. For instance, the bubonic plague that began in China in 1855 and later on the cholera outbreak pushed urban planners to rethink the urban environment. This changed the design of more things that we can fathom; from drainpipes to door thresholds and building foundations, in the war against rodents. The aesthetic of modernism was partly a result of tuberculosis, with light-flooded sanatoriums inspiring an era of white-painted rooms, hygienic tiled bathrooms and the recognisable mid-century recliner chair. This also led to the modern street grid and prompted the introduction of sewage systems that required roads to be wider and straighter, along with the creation of new zoning laws to prevent inhabitant overcrowding.

Form has followed fear of infection, just as much as it has followed function.

In light of the above, it becomes clear that architects and engineers have been essential in reshaping the built environment in order to safeguard the health of citizens. What is essential here is to move away from the understanding that the city is static. Instead, we ought to perceive the ‘changing city’ as a serious unit of analysis. It is through such an analysis that crises can be addressed realistically and with creativity. Mobility trends will change due to the shift in work-life practices. Human patterns and minimum expectations of what dwellings should incorporate may also need to be re-analysed. Gone are the days where the home is just seen as the place of rest. More natural light, an increase in living and some outdoor space may now be deemed as basic necessities. Advancements in materials and paint coatings which will reduce surface transmission of bacteria and viruses will also be expected. Like societies, the built environment is never still and needs to adapt to a new normal.

The COVID-19 pandemic, like its kin pandemics, sparked a new consideration of what is ‘essential’. Malta, like other European countries, on partial lockdown since the beginning of March 2020, entered a debate on what services and professions are regarded as essential for the continued day-to-day life of society. To date, its understanding has been understood from a partial perspective and seems to have only considered public health and the market.

So where does the built environment stand in that debate? Are architects and civil engineers essential?

The history of our profession (both architects and civil engineers in Malta are embodied in one profession: that of the ‘Perit’) is to protect the health, safety and welfare of the public. It is not just the finished project which provides protection to the public. There are even more immediate considerations. For instance, the re-conceptualisation of infrastructure is central to the health strategy of containment and social distancing. Devising new circulation pathways and innovative structures can also be detrimental to the economy. From this perspective, architects and engineers become essential. Such significant input can also lead to more jobs as architects and engineers may re-train or create new opportunities in the job market.

All projects which are ongoing may pose safety issues to the general public. Additionally, ‘essential’ may also be seen with respect to the bigger picture: because ultimately, even as periti are duty-bound to protect the health, safety and welfare of the public, their own health, safety and welfare are just as essential.

It is in this spirit that the Kamra Tal-Periti (KTP), through consultancy with the Superintendence of Public Health, committed itself to keep the profession informed during this unprecedented period, giving clear instructions on how to implement social distancing measures while still maintaining productivity. For instance, KTP has been very prompt in issuing recommendations and guidelines on how best to deal with inspections of occupied third-party properties, both residential and commercial, as well as best practise on construction sites including inspections and meetings. This was essential.

It is impossible, however, to have a complete discussion without the acknowledgment that some construction projects have been delayed and some cancelled, as a result of the impacts of COVID-19 on the companies that commissioned them. Furthermore, possible supply chain bottlenecks of equipment and materials have caused project delays in ongoing projects, or reduced spending on future ones.

This has had a knock-on effect on local professional practices that have had to let go of some staff members in attempt to safeguard the legacy they have created over the years and which is now vulnerable to bankruptcy. Perhaps here, the issue is resistance to change. Maybe it is time to be creative and rethink the profession of the perit which has been under pressure for some time. After all, creativity is core to the discipline.

It is probably fair to say that the only constant in society is change; jobs become anachronistic over time.

A survey conducted by KTP has shown that as of April 2020, employers indicate that they are expecting a 28% reduction in their workforce, with the main reasons being the decrease in the number of projects, ongoing projects being put on hold by the clients and deteriorating profitability. The turnovers reported are also of significant concern, as nearly half of the respondents of the survey are expecting their April billing to be over 30% less than their 2019 average. A similar trend was noted in terms of ability to collect outstanding dues. As things stand, 50% of professional practices are expecting that more than 30% of their outstanding dues for 2020 will not be recovered immediately.

The most seasoned of professionals have likely been through at least one economic downturn before the one currently being caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, with the most recent significant recession having taken place just a little more than a decade ago. They, therefore, know what to expect and how to keep their focus on recovery. However, it may be time to shift from recovery and move into creative-action mode. How can this be achieved?

The younger members of the profession have most likely not been affected by such a crisis before since construction projects have been on the increase since the financial recession of 2007-2009. The best way young professionals can weather the current uncertainties would be to focus on their digital media skills. Hence, the younger generation may be crucial to industry success. Virtual space can also facilitate a ‘third’ space where design professionals can remain connected and be able to network and promote their professional development.

It is clear that the COVID-19 crisis has left the thirst of change in its wake. Besides the re-direction of the profession through a shift towards digital architecture and engineering, the key is for periti to take this serendipitous change seriously. Additionally, what will make a difference is how sensitively this change is incorporated at a disciplinary and professional level, but also at a national level through new customary legislation. Are periti willing to change their modus operandi in what is essentially an old-fashioned way of conducting their operations locally? This does not change our obligation to progress as a profession but enhances it. We are collectively faced with new obstacles in terms of working methodologies and patterns. Our default has been forcibly challenged and our circumstances drastically altered. This could be our point of departure.

We hope that the effects of this change will not only be merely reflected in the more spacious office desk layout, but may more professionals be interested in fully embracing the implementation of digital software such as BIM and VR into working practices and go as far as to replace hard copies of documents and drawings with the use of digital ones. Not only are these methods more environmentally friendly, they are more effective and well-rounded for presentations and discussions.

This change could also be taken to the next level by using technology enabling digital interaction with and that remotely facilitate a construction activity where a virtual replica of the physical world is created or the use of 360° cameras to digitally capture site conditions. Such technology provides a means that could transform the way physical industries operate.

Apart from the recognition of the damaging global impact of the current crisis, one hopes to incorporate issues like mitigation of climate change, as well as the impact of greenhouse gas emissions, within this newly inspired framework.

On a positive note, and on a global scale, it is enlightening to see stories emerge of nitrogen dioxide levels in China lowering and Venetian canals running clear. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic will most certainly have impacted the global Net Zero agenda and that had most likely been pushed down the list of priorities. We are faced with economic uncertainty but as professionals within the built environment and spatial planning we should ensure that decarbonisation remains a vital agenda item. When industries bounce back, let this be done with Net Zero Carbon at the forefront.

In order for professionals in the built environment to be able to shape the post-COVID-19 world, an inclusive collaboration of several professionals and inter-disciplinary research amongst scholars and the industry is of utmost importance. Academics, practitioners and even politicians must come together as limits are pushed in search of creative solutions. We need to use this time to reinvent the way we do economy. Buildings need to be reinstated back into the ecosystem.

We are all both students and catalysts of human behaviour; we want to understand it and to engage with it.

The author would like to thank Perit Simone Vella Lenicker and Perit Andre Pizzuto (President and Vice-President of the Kamra Tal-Periti) for their work on gathering local data on the status of the profession, as well as Dr Rachael M Scicluna for her valuable comments and thought-provoking discussions on the subject.

This article was originally published in the ECCE E-Journal 20.

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