Construction was one of the industries considered essential during the pandemic shutdown in spring 2020. That included architects and engineers, who social distanced, worked remotely and wore masks, but kept working.
That doesn’t mean the pandemic didn’t affect these industries. Both fields were already changing when COVID hit. Like it did for many industries, the pandemic simply accelerated changes and challenges.
Supply Chain Challenges
Supply chain issues stem from the pandemic, with changing demand and labor and material shortages, and it’s taking a toll on construction. From price increases and everyday materials becoming scarce, to projects facing delays or starting dates pushed back, construction has been impacted.
“To me, it’s just a change, not that much different from other changes that could happen,” said Eric Roberts, president and CEO, Knit Studios, a southern Nevada architecture firm.
“Right now it’s supply chain issues,” he said. “At different times prices fluctuate because we have natural disasters in certain parts of the country. Wood prices spiked for a period last year and for that period we were looking at doing buildings differently. The same building, but is there a different way we can do it that saves us money and time because wood is short? As far as the world of architecture goes, I think that’s life. There’s the aesthetic beauty and function of our buildings, but it’s really about partnering with an owner and getting the project done on time and on budget, and there’s always going to be challenges. Always.”
That being said, in December 2021 stainless steel became so difficult to get that kitchens in new developments were being delayed.
“There’s usually times for construction materials that lead times are delayed,” said Brent Wright, CEO, Wright Engineers, a southern Nevada structural engineering firm. “We get requests from our clients to look at alternative ways to frame buildings, for example, on big industrial buildings.”
Despite the most common and economical way being to use steel bar joists with wood framing in between, lead times are long, and clients have asked for more expensive but faster alternative methods.
However, supply chain delays don’t effect every company the same. For Steelman Partners, a southern Nevada architecture firm that designs entertainment properties, supply chain issues have delayed all of their projects, worldwide. They have also increased budgets 6 to 12 percent, resulting in layoffs in every office.
“We believe our owners need to take a very proactive stance in the budgeting of our buildings,” said Paul Steelman, CEO. “Too thin and they will not compete well. Too expensive and the ROI will not allow for reasonable financing. We are looking at more digital architecture solutions.”
Not everything can be changed out. Long lead times for ordering large equipment for electrical engineering have caused delays in getting the material to the jobsite, or installed.
“That’s for permanently installed equipment,” said Karen Purcell, president and CEO, PK Electrical, Inc., a Reno firm. “It’s really just about keeping the client informed about potential delays and alternative solutions that might not cause a delay.”
Recessions, equipment shortages, weather and natural disasters have caused delays and shortages before. “I just feel, this time, it’s to an extreme as opposed to in the past,” said Purcell. “It seems more intense. But maybe it’s just at the forefront of everyone’s mind.”
Architects and engineers are no strangers to technological changes. However, the change from in-person meetings to video conferencing took some getting used to.
“A lot of times you want to talk to someone across the table, at least I do, especially to review plans and that type of thing,” said Tom Gallagher, president and CEO, Summit Engineering Corporation, a Reno civil engineering firm.
“From our side, internally, it’s been a difficult adjustment in that there’s so much we can do, there are so many tools that allow us to communicate and share ideas through technology, but I think there is something lost in being completely at a distance from each other,” said Roberts.
Platforms like Zoom aren’t the only advances from technology. For a longtime there was no interface between architects who used computers and those who preferred paper and pencil. But tablets, touch screens and applications have made it possible to do actual drawings online – architect quality renderings, drawings and sketches – through digital apps. It’s a new way to communicate with clients, and a good one when there’s a need to show a client a sketch rather than re-rendering a model for them.
For architects themselves, the new generation coming into the field grew up with technology. They’re comfortable working with technology that allows them to show the project in navigable space rather than on blueprints.
“Technology is helping bring projects to life so people are able to see what it is our members are designing for them,” said Carlos Fernandez, Nevada executive director, American Institute of Architects (AIA).
Architects and engineers both use Building Information Modeling (BIM) software that allows creation and management of information regarding a built asset. It’s cloudbased, and can show the process of a building through lifecycle from design through construction and use.
“There’s continuous technology improvements. You’re always keeping your eye on what’s coming down,” said Purcell. “The majority of our projects are done using BIM.”
Surveying tech is advancing rapidly. The U.S. Geological Survey continues to add to their network with topographic maps.
“They’re more accurately done with satellites, and can almost be used for final design at some points, in the areas they have covered,” said Gallagher. “Where you used to have a two-man survey crew you can use a one-man survey crew, relying on satellite technology. It’s adequately accurate if your equipment is. Naturally you always have to check what you’re doing with other control points and points of reference that you know the elevations and coordinates. But they’re getting to the point where they’re extremely accurate.”
As the pandemic continues, building designs change. People have begun asking for more clarification on building mechanical systems and air turnover and on how possible it is to clean surfaces.
LEEDs was the buzzword in the building industry for more than a decade. Today, it’s WELL Building Standard. Roberts said it’s becoming increasingly important for, “people to be able to say, not just that we’re doing something, but that there’s a third party that has certified our building is healthier than the next one down the street, or somebody else’s office. People are just looking to get peace of mind for themselves, for their clients, for their customers, and for their employees,” he added.
“COVID itself posed to architects what the future of design looks like,” said Fernandez. Going forward, design will be concerned with how humans interact with things around them, whether that’s cars, homes or offices. More than anything, he said, the pandemic accelerated a future that was already coming. “Like working from home,” said Fernandez. “A lot of jobs say you can’t do this job from home, and then businesses had to adapt.”
The return of workers to offices also caused a need to adapt. Architects are becoming hyper aware of materials being used, because they’re part of the whole built environment. In addition to the type of materials used, spaces are being designed and created for a future that’s going to need more space. What can be made touchless? What can be cleaned?
Fernandez said it’s important, “to make sure the future of building is more prepared for another pandemic. We’re hoping we’re at the end of the tunnel here, but members are absorbed with what’s happening with the environment around them and design for the future.”
“COVID has affected, and will affect, design of our projects for the foreseeable future,” said Steelman. Because entertainment properties are designed to attract crowds, changes will include touchless bath fixtures and door hardware, and use of easy-to-clean materials. HVAC systems will circulate cleaner air through buildings and limit use of preconditioned interior air.
Not Every Challenge is Pandemic-Based
The biggest challenge facing both fields today seems to be that of finding qualified employees. And, it’s not just a Nevada problem, it’s nationwide.
Summit Engineering had an ad out for months, seeking qualified engineers, and got resumes from everywhere, including resumes that didn’t even relate to the job candidates were meant to fill.
A related issues is that, for a number of years, around the 2008 recession, architecture fell out of favor as a degree program. Nobody was graduating into the field.
“There’s a huge generational gap in our industry,” said Fernandez. “Literally we’re seeing gaps where members are fully retiring and there’s a gap where nobody was going to UNLV’s School of Architecture.” As Baby Boomers began retiring during the pandemic, there’s a double impact on both ends of the generational spectrum.
“As they leave the industry, we don’t have graduates at this point,” said Roberts. “They’d have seven to 10 years experience in the field. They’d be in the sweet spot of starting to build a career. They’d be job captains and project managers. [These candidates] don’t exist. There’s a gap in the industry that is nationwide and it’s going to become a real hunt for talent.”
It may be that current education isn’t adequate for the jobs that need to be filled. There’s also a need for hands on education, internships and mentor relationships.
“The main concern with designing things, and it’s hard to explain, is to look at it from the position of a contractor and decide if you could build it from these plans?” explained Gallagher. “Without having any field or hands on experience, to simply come out with a college degree, you really are lacking a lot of the tools needed to design something that’s buildable. It’s easy to design something you can’t build.”
Nevada requires an architect to either have a five-year professional bachelor’s degree in an architecture program, or a four-year degree plus a two-year master’s degree in order to be licensed.
Even attracting talent can be challenging. Part of the problem, in southern Nevada, is perception. There’s resistance from architects in other states to come to Las Vegas because they feel it’s a playground and they don’t want to design casinos.
“We’re doing rec centers and schools and office buildings,” said Roberts. “But our tourism board has one of the best messages ever out there and we wrestle with that.”
In an attempt to bridge some of these generational gaps in the industry, Truckee Meadows Community College (TMCC) is starting a five-year architecture program to train a new generation.
Beyond the talent issues, rising inflation is becoming an increasing concern for architects and engineers. Construction is tied directly into the economy so inflation feeds into the costs of construction. It’s currently difficult for contractors to guarantee a price on materials because they don’t know what prices will be by the time materials are delivered.
“There are always challenges,” said Wright. “People in the construction industry are problem solvers.”
On the Horizon
“I think it’s going to be rough seas in 2022 and 2023,” said Roberts. “There’s going to be big waves, depending on how we do with vaccinations and other variants that come through. Right now things are taking off like a rocket. We’re back to where we were pre-recession with talent shortages to keep up with work demand and people are wanting to get things built. There’s some pent up demand that we’re starting to see the effects of, both for public projects and for private developers,” he explained.
In general, people are more wary about moving forward with projects if another shutdown seems possible. “That could put the brakes on the building industry in a hurry,” Roberts said. “We could see things rocket up and, if we get a shutdown, plummet really quick.”
Many post-pandemic projects on the horizon involve retrofitting existing buildings to either maintain social distancing going forward as people return to buildings that are maintaining their original use, and changing existing buildings to adapt to new uses. Southern Nevada is short some 90,000 affordable housing units, said Fernandez.
“How do we take space that exists and retrofit to have second use for whatever sort of purpose?” he asked. “It’s something architects in the U.S. are working on, but Nevada hasn’t gotten there yet.”
Also on the horizon is a commitment from the industry to reduce carbon footprint. “That is part of the commitment our members have to the built environment,” said Fernandez. “Our members are looking for ways to adopt Zero Code and looking for ways to help the planet. Things our members care about: affordable housing and the environment, and we’re diversifying who we are on a national level. More women in architecture, more African Americans, more Hispanic, Latino architects. That’s important. Nevada is diverse as a state already. Now we’re very much looking for those diverse mindsets to be the change in the future that we need in order to help our planet.”