How One Toronto Architecture Firm is Reimagining its Method During COVID-19

Architecture
SvN Architects + Planners

This article was submitted by Drew Sinclair, Managing Principal, SvN Architects + Planners. Want to let people know how your work is coping with the coronavirus outbreak? Email info@torontostoreys.com with the subject line Working Through COVID.

I studied architecture at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Architecture Landscape and Design (now the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture Landscape and Design). The Architecture building and its studio spaces at 230 College Street (now 1 Spadina Crescent), have been the definition of the optimal creative environment since I completed my studies in 2006. At the time, we were packed in like sardines, chock-a-block, each student with 4-feet of creative workspace, tightly sandwiched between the 4-feet of two competitive neighbours’ workspaces. It was dense and electric.

Architecture
The John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design/Facebook

The profession of architecture is largely taught (although not necessarily learned) in studio environments, where groupings of eight to twelve students work on common architecture design ‘problems’ under the critical lens of an instructor/critic. The expectation that we would learn as much from our fellow students, and the commune of intrepid ideas filling the lofted space, was implicit. The entire environment was conceived in the École des Beaux Art of 18th-century Paris. The thinking was, perhaps, that the enterprise of mastering architecture would be aided by engrossing students in a climate of competition and surrounding them by the feverish production of their peers.

Elements of the way we work today in architecture and planning are residual from the way we learned. Again, not so much how we were taught, but the way we learned, surrounded by our peers in constant competition, never more that two desks away from discussion about the work. The work of others was always surrounding us. We learned from each other.

READ: How Toronto’s Real Estate Industry is Dealing with the Impact of Coronavirus

But today, that hive-like environment has been put on an indefinite hiatus. Forcing the entire industry to reimagine our method, in an entirely new way. On March 16, my Partners and I formally moved the collective of architects and planners we speak about as “our studio” out of our physical office at 110 Adelaide Street East and into a “WFH” environment.

Drew Sinclair
Drew Sinclair, Managing Principal, SvN Architects + Planners

Like many firms, our two greatest concerns going into the new set-up were the maintenance of studio culture to deliver project excellence, as well as, the acknowledgement of how fragile our professional economy is. Ultimately, when faced with financial insecurity, others may prioritize corporate survival over paying our bills.

At nearly two full weeks in, we’ve started to find our footing and it started with reaffirming our values, which I’ve listed below.

  • Listen First: We listen without dogma, because any idea could form part of a great solution. We seek to understand the context as a starting place.
  • Think Critically: Where there are no ready-made solutions, we test the limits of what is possible. Consider everything. It’s imperative.
  • Consider EVERYTHING: Even meanwhile spaces are meaningful places.
  • DYFB (Do Your F*cking Best): Give everything you have.
  • Be Human: Respect is universal. We are thoughtful at all times. We are all connected.
  • Finish Strong: The last minute is as important as the first. Finish strong.

As we reflected on them, it became abundantly clear that the values we poured ourselves into creating, hold true regardless of our environment. They truly define who we are. By reinforcing ‘DYFB’ and ‘Be Human’ in the early WFH days, our team dug in and creatively reimagined how to collaborate digitally, simulating the performative aspects of the physical environment to the best of their ability, while at home.

Is it working? In some ways, yes. We have found early success using Google hangouts for working sessions, Jamboard for collective drawing (while also sending trace paper and pens to staff who need it at home). We’ve implemented a communication rhythm, mimicking our typical office habits, starting with a Partner huddle every morning, immediately cascading into various project team huddles. We also brought our usual all-staff social and status meetings online from the Weekly Forum to ‘The Kitchen’ – a new digital environment that simulates the daily lunch crush in our office each day at noon.

Architecture
SvN Architects + Planners

But we are still finding our footing in other areas, presumably the same issues many creative workplaces are experiencing. We need to rely on the imperfect infrastructure of our homes. The situation in the world has disallowed us from addressing or changing the shortcomings of internet service or physical environment, so our key staff are having to make due. Sometimes with great impacts on productivity (and morale!!). Our methods of managing the work and flowing tasks from our project leads through to our professional teams, is evolving slowly as we figure out ways of reproducing the efficiency of a list written or pinned to the wall. There are digital tools to help with this but it’s hard transferring something that happens so naturally in our physical space to something we have to diligently monitor ourselves and translate into a set of digital behaviours. And lastly, the learning environment and constant exchange of ideas, described above, has not yet been perfectly replicated in the new online environment we’re working in, but we’re definitely ‘Doing our F*cking Best’.

There is a school of thought, or perhaps it has been proven, that it takes approximately 21 days for habit to set in; for a set of behaviours to hardwire themselves into our mental mainframe. We’re coming to the end of week two now: day 10 of the 21-day cycle. I am hopeful, we are hopeful, that the struggles in translating our ideal learning environment – our work environment (the studio) into this new indeterminate period of WFH, will be overcome.

We are working diligently to do so, learning as we did in school, from those around us and the stories they are telling.

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