Starting an architectural project during a global pandemic
As a dynamic practice operating in London’s premium residential market, managing projects remotely and conducting virtual meetings was a very familiar territory for us, long before the pandemic began and ‘working remotely’ became the norm.
Our clients have very busy lifestyles and may move between several different locations, both within the UK and beyond, during the lifecycle of a typical project.
To accommodate such client needs and enable us to run their projects smoothly we had all the technology and know-how associated with remote working in place for several years.
Has Scenario's process changed during the pandemic?
This means that, for us, the main changes that we had to implement during the lockdown was the requirement for our own team to work from home, an adaptation that we found relatively straight-forward.
Having said that, with all of our projects running, at least partially, remotely for the foreseeable future we thought that it would be useful to look briefly at the entire process, as experienced by our clients and note the key differences between the “old normal” and the “new normal”.
Whether you are already working with Scenario Architecture on your project or contemplating if this is the right time to make a start with your project, this article is for you.
When contacted by anyone who is considering working with us on their project or even seeking pre-purchasing advice, the first step is an initial phone conversation with one of our Project Directors.
The purpose of this phone call is to hear more about the requirements and assess if we are best suited for your project. Prior to this informal conversation we will look at the information available and during the call will provide preliminary advice with regards to feasibility of the scope in relation to planning restrictions and the target budget.
Having established mutual interest to consider working together, the next step is an introduction meeting with a typical project team.
This meeting was always available either at our practice, or online for our clients to choose based of their preference. During the pandemic lockdown these meetings are all virtual, and our experience confirmed by many potential clients is that this as effective as in-person.
The reason for this lies in the nature of the material presented, the technology used to communicate it and the conversation that follows.
Our (Virtual) Process
We start the introduction meeting with a short presentation by our Managing Director about us and the unique aspects of the process that we developed working with many clients over the years.
This is followed by an introduction to a typical full project team, which comprise three members (Project Director, Design Architect and Technical architect) each specialising in their respective roles.
Each team member describes what their role in the project will be, using illustrated and clear examples and answers any questions that potential clients may have.
We then move to look the particulars of the project, discuss with potential clients their requirements and aspirations and provide preliminary advice about all aspects of the project including design, planning, construction, budget and timeframe.
With the material presented well formatted for presentation on a shared screen, we do not feel that the virtual version is inferior in any way and believe that many clients will continue to select this option long after the pandemic will be behind us.
The next step is for us to issue a fee proposal, describing clearly the proposed scope and associated fees.
To provide potential clients with a broad and clear picture of the project ahead we include within the fee proposal a list of all the other consultants, which might be required with estimated costs as well as a preliminary project programme.
To complete the pre-appointment process we normally propose a visit to the site for the assigned project director to verify some of our assumptions, answer any questions about the fee proposal and most importantly meet face to face before both parties decide to embark together on the journey ahead.
Our visit to the site was always optional and some clients do choose to proceed without it. This is more common during lockdowns as some clients see this as an unnecessary risk and prefer to avoid it, or if coordination proves challenging.
Having said that, we have consulted on the mater with health and safety specialists who assured us that these meetings are considered an integral, enabling part of the construction process, which was never expected to stop in the UK.
As such, in accordance with government guidance, and subject to everyone taking all the required precautions, we can and even expected to proceed with these meetings, even during a full lockdown.
Initial Design & Planning
Once formally appointed, as part of our high definition briefing process, the full project team will visit the site to discuss our client’s thoughts and insights in context and gain a better understanding of the existing conditions of the site and its surroundings.
During the first lockdown, before clear guidance was issued, we did carry out successfully several virtual briefing meeting but since then in consultation with our health and safety advisors we concluded that these meetings can take place physically as normal, following all the recommended risk mitigating measures such as maintaining considerable distance, wearing face covering and having the conversation either outdoors or in a well ventilated part of the house.
Our standard scope allows for three design meetings during the initial design stage, these normally take place at our practice where we have suitable facilities to present on large screens within specious meeting rooms.
As our design process is uniquely interactive and collaborative, it involves frequent internal design brainstorming sessions and workshop style meetings with our clients. Therefore, being able to get back to at least partial physical presence at out practice was a key objective for us right from the start of the pandemic.
To achieve this, as soon as the first lockdown was released, we worked hard with our health and safety advisors to fulfil all the requirements and gained a certified COVID-19 Safe Workplace status for our practice.
This enabled us to work together in the practice again between the lockdowns and even carry out design meetings in the office with some clients who preferred a face-to-face meeting.
We hope to be able to come back to working together in the practice as soon as possible and to offer again clients the option to choose between a virtual and physical option.
Having said that, considering the content of these design meetings and the advanced technology used, it seems that in this case again, the virtual version is not necessarily inferior in any way and we constantly receive great feedback from clients to support this.
The entire design process takes place within an advanced design and visualisation virtual environment, which enables us to explore proposed designs together with our clients by navigating through 3D models with realistic materials and lighting conditions.
During any design meetings, be it face-to-face or virtual, we are essentially all look at a shred screen and discuss the proposals while we navigate together through the 3D model.
Therefore, while sitting together in the same room is always helpful, the virtual version is as effective and we find that our clients are as engaged and as excited to see their vision taking shape, as they normally would be during a face-to-face meeting.
During the planning stage, there are no client meetings regardless of the pandemic, and if a site visit with the planner is required we can attend as normal.
Detail Design & Tender
During the detail design process where the interior of the project is developed and technically resolved to the finest detail, we also conduct three meetings with our clients.
Unless we are in a national lockdown or equivalent local restrictions, these meetings can also take place at our COVID-19 Safe premises with all the risk mitigating measures in place or virtually if clients prefer.
The only difference from the initial design stage is that at this stage we will have physical material samples to complement their virtual representation on the screen.
If the meetings are virtual, we overcome this additional hurdle by sending the relevant samples to the clients who can interact with them during the virtual meeting exactly as they would in our practice.
Ironically, the one element of our standard process that we cannot easily recreate virtually is the Virtual Reality tours that we offer as a standard for all projects, as although virtual, these require use of special hardware and headsets that have available only in our practice.
Having said that, as mentioned above, unless we are under restrictions, which prevent any meetings, clients do have the option to visit the practice and make use of the VR facilities and are encouraged to do so at least at strategic points along the journey.
During the tender process meetings are not required as we are busy translating everything that was agreed during the previous stages into a comprehensive tender document for contractors to price from.
Depending on the exact scope we might wish to call another coordination meeting, but this meeting is also one that will work remotely as if not more efficiently than in the practice.
Construction, completion and beyond
Once the tendering process is completed and the main contractor is appointed, the project can commence on site as normal and regardless of any level of restriction we are able and in fact excepted and encouraged to carry out all our onsite duties as we would under normal circumstances.
Visiting construction sites regularly, providing support to contractors and clients and issuing any additional information required is absolutely essential for the construction industry to continue functioning as it is excepted during the pandemic in accordance with the government’s guidelines.
It is also worth mentioning that an integral part of our role inspecting construction sites is to oversee health and safety maters, flag up any risks and assist the contractor with compliance information.
This means that our team is well versed in all health and safety aspects of construction and well informed of all the particular requirements around COVID-19 and can guide all other parties with regards to best practice to minimise risk.
We hope that we managed to shade more light generally on our process and specifically on the challenges presented by the pandemic and the solutions implemented to ensure a seamless and enjoyable journey during these challenging times.
They key message is that a large proportion of the process can be done virtually, and these elements of our scope that can not be replicated successfully such as site visits and inspections can continue to take place as normal even during a full lockdown in accordance with the government guidelines.