BMA Studio on architectural firms and COVID-19: introducing a new normal

Published: 29 May 2020 - 7:23 a.m.
By: Jane O'Neill

Studio director Leila Asl tells us how her award-winning boutique firm is coping in times of COVID, from video conferencing to co-ordinating projects,

A graduate from Architectural Association School of Architecture (AA), London and IUST, Leila launched BMA Studio in 2014, armed with 18 years of experience in the MENA region.

Since then, the architectural, engineering and design practice has won several high-profile industry awards, including the 2016 Africa and Arabia Property Awards and a shortlist for the International Hotel & Property Awards in 2019.

Traditional work mechanisms in the old days

"Despite massive involvement of technology in the construction industry in recent years, the traditional modus operandi of architectural practices has largely remained unchanged.

"Advanced digital platforms and cutting-edge technologies have broadened the visual language of architecture and introduced new design and construction techniques.

"On the other hand, client relationship and communication between the various disciplines within the work environment have not altered.

"Traditionally, clients have preferred face-to-face negotiation and discussion of project-related matters in the architect’s office and this has been a routine practice for most architectural firms worldwide.

"Although the various disciplines are now able to hold meetings remotely, coordination meetings are still preferred to be done in person as information is exchanged faster.

"In our BMA Studio Dubai practice, most meetings with our local clients are conducted in person. For our international projects, however, we have been using video conferencing platforms for quite some time, which has made the transition into COVID-19 lockdown restrictions much smoother."

COVID-19

"With COVID-19 and the associated social distancing measures, suddenly the traditional mechanism of work ceased to function. The new measures that have been almost universally applied across various industries and sectors brought about empty offices and made working from home the new norm. This has put an enormous strain on most architectural practices around the world, forcing radical changes in the middle of a crisis.

"At the beginning of the virus outbreak and before the lockdown period we realized that we needed to think ahead of time and prepare for the upcoming situation. Our main concern was how to keep the staff safe while keeping the workflow uninterrupted.

"Shortly after that home office was imposed by authorities as the mandatory safety precaution. With that in mind we conducted a research about the potential alternatives to the traditional way of work. The primary objective was to find a solution for staff to be able to access the IT systems in the office from their homes

"In the beginning, we were forced to improvise with some of the remote working platforms already in use such as TeamViewer and Anydesk to access the system in the office. Shortly afterwards, we implemented a more comprehensive solution for remote access, sharing files and maintaining coordination between various disciplines.

"Our other priority was to maintain communication streams between various teams as well as with the clients. This is where our experience with partners abroad came in handy.

"Since we had implemented virtual interfacing and use of videoconferencing platforms before on our international projects, we decided to roll them out for our local clients and Dubai staff as well. The time had arrived, and we started the new way of work by working from our homes."


The New Normal

"After almost two months since the lockdown measures were introduced in the UAE we are getting used to the new normal – working from home, coordinating projects with the designers, engineers, contractors and clients.

"However, at the time of writing of this article there is no clarity as to how long these measures will stay in effect and when we will be able to go back to normal. The possibility of recurrence of the virus outbreak and repeated lockdowns lead us to believe that this way of working might stay with us for a while.

"It is therefore important to stay alert, develop the right mindset, apply strategic forward thinking and translate it into operational procedures around some of the following areas:

"Shifting values and preferences. At a time like this some matters that were important before are now moving down the priority list, being replaced by new, more pressing needs. Certain expenditures may not be critically important anymore and should be avoided. Investments in digitalisation, IT infrastructure, software and digital marketing should be prioritised over expenditures on fancy upmarket office space and traditional marketing methods.

"The importance of safeguarding employees cannot be overemphasiaed; they are the most valuable asset. Their mental well-being, job preservation and sense of compassion is critically important.

"It is an investment that will pay off not only during the crisis but also when the pandemics is over, and companies wake up to the new post-COVID 19 era. Those who can 'hit the ground running,' with skilled, loyal employees and resilient systems will be the winners.

"Strengthening resilience. In this crisis architects and designers need to flexibly plan new strategies while running on a crisis mode. Those who reorient their strategy will thrive.

"The immediate focus should be on IT systems resilience built-up, data security, virtual reality/augmented reality software and interactive virtual communication platforms. The worldwide trend now is to increase telecommuting, which comes hand in hand with additional requirements in terms of work-sharing and communication platforms.

"Digitalisation is key in adapting at the necessary speed and, therefore, will be the main driver of resilience in this new era. Your business plan must be able to cope with the unexpected. Nobody could have predicted the full extent of COVID-19 and the resulting impacts on our business but those who had a flexible plan have proved more resilient than the others."

Looking forward

"There will be positive externalities in the aftermath, this crisis will help us be more responsible, more appreciative of the human factor in the business relationships and more nimble about the way we conduct business.

"Today’s challenges should be seen as an opportunity to revolutionise the way we manage our projects and make us stronger at times when the world throws us a curveball. Necessity is the mother of invention. The ability to reinvent what you do is vital to staying competitive. Unfortunately, sometimes it takes a crisis to put the creativity and innovation into action."

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