The Offices: Everything Changes

With regular business upended by the novel coronavirus, landscape architecture principals plot, wait, and wonder.

By Bradford McKee

There was a moment on Friday, March 13, when the novel coronavirus changed everything at the office, says Annette Wilkus, FASLA, the founding partner of SiteWorks in Manhattan. “I walked in on Friday, and one of the staff who’s usually solid had this look in her eye and said, ‘Annette, it’s getting really crazy.’” By Monday the 16th, everyone at SiteWorks was working from home, the day that schools, businesses, and Broadway were closing and the S&P 500 fell by 12 percent, the Dow by 13. New York City was bracing for what would swell into the country’s largest wave of COVID-19 cases.

Around the country at the same time, principals of landscape architecture firms were hurrying to get people home to work safely while they sorted out office logistics, took the pulses of clients and their projects, and mentally packed for a weekend that could last months—just as spring was arriving to cold climates where construction otherwise would be firing up.

“We do a check-in twice a day,” Wilkus says of her firm’s 12-person staff. “One at 10:30 [a.m.] and [one at] 3:00,” using various web conferencing platforms such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom, and GoToMeeting. She says her team is weighing whether to buy more “seats” on the platforms, or perhaps to buy one for GoToMeeting and one for Zoom. “With GoTo, you can draw and see people draw,” she says.

As of the week of March 16, Wilkus says, no clients were backing down from deadlines but were waiting to see what happens. “That’s fine,” she says. “If that stops, we’re screwed. We’re not going to be able to invoice.” SiteWorks employees are marking any technical delays or other forced down periods as “COVID” on their time sheets, in case losses later require proof to receive small-business aid.

OJB Landscape Architecture, with 93 employees in five offices around the country, has had three clients put projects on hold, says Jim Burnett, FASLA, the firm’s president. “They weren’t big surprises,” he adds. Other clients “see this dip as full steam ahead,” Burnett says. “They figure, ‘I will risk that because I want to be the first in line when we are ready to get going again’—October? November? Those kinds of clients have been through this and will be OK.”

The OJB partners have been looking hard at the firm’s few dozen top clients to assess the relative risk with each. The firm’s chief operating officer, Meg Levy, “is way ahead of all this,” Burnett says. “Six weeks ago, she started hounding the team to find out why we’re not getting paid for this or that bill. We have done our best to bring in cash and have a decent runway.” The firm, he says, has more public-sector clients in the past decade, and three large public parks are under way. “They say, ‘We have the cash. The bond money is here, and we’re not going anywhere.’” The higher risk comes with mixed-use projects that rely on a vigorous economy. “Those are the ones that are going to pause,” Burnett says. “There’s guys who are using a lot of other people’s money.”

In Washington, D.C., Glenn LaRue Smith, ASLA, the founding principal of PUSH Studio, says he has seen no disruption in existing projects so far, including a project at Howard University, where students have been sent home. However, he is watching for economic impacts on developer clients who depend heavily on bank financing to continue working. “As a firm of less than five staff, we are able to hold on a bit longer than larger firms due to our low overhead,” Smith says. “Beyond four months, there may be a major salary and benefits disruption, which even lines of credit will not be able to support.”

The review process for projects is “slowing down a lot,” says Laura Starr, FASLA, a principal of Starr Whitehouse Landscape Architects and Planners, with a staff of 25 in New York. “So far, all of our clients are busy and are all working remotely, especially our developer clients—they want to push stuff forward,” Starr says. “Public meetings and feedback for zoning changes and design commission reviews will start to have a lag effect that will not be good for people with construction loans, not to mention what’s going to happen with the economy. But fingers crossed.”

This week, Governor Jay Inslee of Washington State ordered construction halted along with most everything else. The order applies to almost all general and specialty contractors, including foresters and arborists. Exceptions include work on critical public safety infrastructure, including health care and utilities. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo also stopped most construction in that state. In Boston, Mayor Marty Walsh this week declared that the city’s moratorium on construction in the city is indefinite, having at first ordered a two-week shutdown. The neighboring cities of Cambridge and Somerville stopped construction similarly. The governor of Massachusetts, Charlie Baker, ordered all the cities to allow construction to avert “economic disruption,” though the governor’s jurisdiction for such an order is unclear and the mayors aren’t backing down. Walsh said worker health and safety is his first priority. So far, widespread construction halts haven’t occurred.

Bonnie Roy, ASLA, a partner at SWT Design in St. Louis, says most feedback from the firm’s clients has been about schedules, not spending. “Unfortunately, we have already seen project delays as a result of municipal governments unable to meet to approve budgets, contracts, permits, etc.,” Roy says. Projects involving public engagement have slowed until meetings can be rescheduled. “We have considered digital tools, but have been concerned about attendance and supporting communities focusing on other priorities now.”

In San Diego, Glen Schmidt, FASLA, was glad to see an order by California Governor Gavin Newsom to allow state and local agencies to hold public meetings by videoconference. “The city of San Diego is being proactive about managing permitting,” says Schmidt, the founder of Schmidt Design Group, with 30 people in three locations. “The private sector is going to want to keep advancing their projects, the approvals and entitlements by public agencies. How they’re going to keep up, we’re wondering.”

In Brooklyn, at Elizabeth Kennedy Landscape Architect, the founder, Elizabeth Kennedy, ASLA, has been through earlier shocks. “We are a New York firm that watched 9/11 from our office windows, and weathered Superstorm Sandy on my kitchen table,” Kennedy says. “We are a larger firm now, working on bigger, more complex projects…. I hope the needs of MBE, WBE, DBE, and SBE firms, who are already at their most vulnerable, are remembered. While we have been spared so far, many of my friends have had contracts canceled and now have no work.”

Faye Harwell, FASLA, of RHI in Alexandria, Virginia, says that in the past, if there were the need to cut expenses, “The partners have shared the pain with the staff. We have never asked them to bear the full burden.” RHI works a lot for the State Department in other countries, which has brought slowdowns but no stopping. “It’s amazing how much you can accomplish with a FaceTime site walk-through,” Harwell says, “but it’s still no substitute for actual human contact.”

SWA has 260 people in nine offices. Nearly all of them are working remotely, says Gerdo Aquino, FASLA, SWA’s firm-wide CEO. “We continue to operate as fully functional offices,” Aquino says. “It’s a challenge, but everyone in the firm is adapting quickly.” The IT director of the firm has given everyone access to the file servers. Public- and private-sector clients so far seem upbeat, though private-sector clients are more nervous about the economy. “We have already experienced a few smaller projects go on hold or [be] canceled entirely,” Aquino says.

Up to now, Aquino says, having a diversified global portfolio has helped SWA, which is now in its seventh decade. “COVID-19 presents a different kind of recession, because every corner of the Earth is affected.”

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