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Covid-19 and architecture

There is plenty of information on Covid out there, so I am going to stay in my lane and talk specifically about architecture/construction, what I am seeing, and where this might all be heading. Starting with some practicalities: I speak with lots of consultants, contractors, and manufacturers/suppliers. Most of the people I deal with are keeping fairly busy, actually surprisingly busy, considering the circumstances. However, the people at the front end of the building process (architects, engineers, realtors) are noting a distinct lack of new work coming along. There may be things brewing, but owners are slow to commit to anything right now. There is a lot of ‘wait-and-see’ happening. Because the front end design work is slow, there likely will be a ripple effect through to the construction phase, but it may be delayed by 6-18 months until the full effects are felt. There are a few areas which are keeping quite busy—basically anything backstopped by the government, and especially healthcare (hospitals, clinics, etc). These are shovel in the ground projects that keep the economy moving, but everything else seem to be moving at a glacial pace.

It is also possible that there is a lot of pent up demand for projects that will suddenly come online once the ‘all clear’ is given (ie when a vaccine is imminent). If that happens, we can expect a logjam of development and building permit applications. At the best of times it is difficult to get permits in a timely way, and that is not likely to get any better. And then there will be another logjam to actually get things built, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

We can also expect some turbulence with supplies of materials and manufactured goods. Canada is good at producing raw materials but less good at manufactured goods, a lot of which comes from Asia, Europe, or the US. And the manufacturers in most countries are grappling with some challenging working conditions with social distancing and sickness/staffing issues, so delays can be expected. In building terms, this may translate into delays on items such as lighting, doors/windows, mechanical equipment, etc. And the strange state of the economy is going to impact many companies in unexpected ways. Caution is recommended when giving large deposits up front for any imported manufactured goods.

There will be plenty of long term fallout as well. Noboby can really predict where it is all leading, but there are some definite trends that are shaping up. There is plenty of talk about the pandemic being a warm up for the main act, which is climate change. Both are global in scale, devastating in impact, and difficult for our puny little brains to fully comprehend. Climate change has been described as humanity’s ‘long emergency’ and Covid has given us a much better idea of the scale of global action required to deal with it. We need to have everyone aboard in all countries, as viruses and climate don’t care much about borders. The extent of the effort to combat climate change has until now been considered nearly impossible to implement in short order. But China’s C02 emissions dropped by about 18% in February/March, while global emissions in total are down about 8% so far this year.  And the air quality in most of the world’s biggest cities has improved—in some cases very dramatically. So, it is entirely possible to implement sweeping changes quickly, as long as there is collective will.

At a building level, we already have the know-how to do net zero energy/water buildings and low carbon buildings, and there is hopefully more momentum to make them more and more common. Buildings are also likely to become more resilient—ie not rely so heavily on huge inputs of energy and water to function, and be able to accommodate a wider range of activities and uses. For example, during the Covid lockdown, most housing has had to adapt to being used as office space. And there may be more ‘localization’, using resources that can be found nearby, rather than shipping stone in from South America, windows from Poland, and heat pumps from Japan.

Another trend that may amplify is that Canada has always been considered a global ‘safe harbour’, as it is wealthy, has good health care/ education, a stable government and a healthy environment. Basically, it is looks like a good place to sit out an epidemic, escape from some of the worst impacts of climate change, or park investment money. How this plays out in the built environment is a bit unknown, but there is a smaller scale historical example: in 1999 there was a large exodus of people and capital from Hong Kong to Canada, and specifically to Vancouver. It lead to a substantial building boom, especially for new homes on the west side of the city.

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