Multifamily Architects, Contractors Deliver Services in New Ways to Keep Projects Moving, Say InterFace Panelists
By Taylor Williams
Like most members of the working world, professionals who design and build multifamily properties in Texas have had to adjust how they do business and service clients in response to COVID-19. But many of these companies and individuals have managed to do so in ways that haven’t significantly hindered workflow.
From conducting virtual meetings with staff or clients to using complex interfaces that allow for real-time illustrations to maintaining strict distancing and tracking protocols on job sites, architects and contractors are finding solutions that minimize pandemic-related disruptions.
Some delays in the design and building processes have been inevitable. Job sites sometimes have to be shut down when workers test positive. But these solutions, paired with Texas municipalities’ general recognition of construction as an essential industry, have limited the extent to which public health concerns have pushed projects behind schedule and/or over budget.
That’s according to design and construction panelists at the ninth annual InterFace Multifamily Texas conference. The two-day event was held virtually on Nov. 18-19. Rich Kelley, president of InterFace Conference Group, the division of Atlanta-based France Media that hosted the conference, moderated the panel.
Conducting Daily Work
The pivot to platforms such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams to communicate with employees and customers is perhaps the biggest shift in workplace routines that applies to hundreds of industries and may last well beyond the pandemic.
But much of the work in commercial design and construction centers on team interaction and collaboration, as well as being able to present physical blueprints and models to developers. Architects have turned to technological platforms to deliver visible, semi-tangible designs to clients while in many cases continuing to work from home.
“Most of our team is still working remotely, and the ways we used our software have definitely changed,” said panelist Evan Beattie, chairman and CEO of Dallas-based architecture firm GFF. “Microsoft Teams has allowed us to continue to collaborate, and we’ve been using Bluebeam [design software] a lot to draw on screens with clients and conduct site planning and density studies in interactive ways, even if we can’t be together.”
The efficacy and efficiency of technology has played a part in helping architects meet key deadlines in design schedules and project life cycles, Beattie added.
Moderator Kelley noted that the shift to virtual meetings has fundamentally changed the entitlement process. Most notably, the pivot to Zoom meetings has eliminated the human interaction that developers encounter when they go before city councils and zoning boards to get projects approved. Panelist Tom Brink, vice president at international design firm CallisonRTKL, addressed this particular change.
“Using Zoom and similar technologies has changed the entitlement process for the better,” said Brink. “It’s allowed the various parties to better focus, be more prepared and to make progress more quickly. Certainly you miss some of the personal interaction, but it also saves on operating costs for design professionals who need to travel to project sites.”
For Texas firms doing projects in out-of-state markets, replacing travel, lodging and in-person meetings with Zoom calls has made business less onerous and costly. But the ability to pitch projects to civic leaders and members of the community and field questions in person will remain an important part of the development process post-pandemic, the panel agreed.
Panelist James McCandless, director of business development and marketing at Martines Palmeiro Construction, walked the audience through the various systems that his firm has used to ensure wellness and safety on job sites.
“COVID forced our teams to immediately rethink how we develop and deliver projects,” he said. “We implemented an A/B structure where different teams would alternate days on site to minimize engagement. We limited the number of people on site, as did our trade partners, which helped keep everybody safe.”
“Even today, we still have temperature checks, daily recordkeeping of who’s on site for contact tracing and sanitation stations all over the site,” added McCandless. “Everybody is really doing their part.”
McCandless echoed the notion that municipalities have shown an understanding of just how serious the repercussions of shutting down construction can be.
“It seems like the industry learned from 2008 that when you shut down a job site, you lose momentum in terms of the project delivery timeline,” he said. “To lose that momentum is to have serious consequences in terms of anticipating demographic shifts and meeting demand two or three years down the road.”
He also cited the industry’s successful ability to bring architects, engineers, contractors and vendors together earlier in the project life cycle as a key factor in ensuring that new projects actually get done.
What Renters Get
The pandemic has caused multifamily designers and contractors to adjust numerous features with regard to both unit interiors and amenity spaces within apartment communities.
The creation of workspaces within units to accommodate a large work-from-home contingent, the splitting of business centers or clubhouses to allow for social distancing and revising of parking ratios are but a few examples of the design curveballs that COVID-19 has thrown. Beattie noted that his firm is designing apartment buildings with other, more advanced features like automatic doors, anti-microbial surfaces in units and common areas and destination dispatch elevators to reduce grouping of residents in elevator cars.
In some cases, these changes are implemented on the fly. In others, it’s more about determining how much staying power these new features have for future projects. But either way, planning for these broad shifts in how people live and work and what they value in their apartment buildings is a challenging task.
“We’ve had some projects under construction where we’ve had to go in and make changes like upgrading our air filtration systems and introducing materials with more cleanability,” said panelist Brett Rhode, director of Austin-based architecture firm Rhode Partners. “But most of the projects we’ve started recently are focused on post-COVID, with the exception of some common areas where they may be a bigger allocation for Zoom conferencing spaces or individual workspaces.”
Rhode said that his clients have generally been reluctant to drastically alter plans and incur additional costs based on trends that may or not still be in place in 18 to 24 months. Construction costs have not tapered off significantly in response to the pandemic, McCandless noted.