We’re all aware of the recent unprecedented circumstances; the current global outbreak of Covid-19. It’s a weird and crazy time of unsettling emotions, where even writing this article feels quite surreal! Much like ourselves and our little photography business, this pandemic has had a huge impact on the companies and their employees that we work closely with across the UK.  It’s caused a surge of loss of profits and even cost some people their jobs. Within our concerns and interest, we decided to reach out to our clients, those within the Interior design and architectural industry, to identify what they have gone through, and find out their honest opinions of recent times.

So how are the Interior design and architectural Industries being impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic? What is business currently like? What does the future hold? And how will this affect our sector of architectural photography?

Before we get into it, below is a brief summary showing some of the similarities and differences between the two sectors:  

We reached out to our close clients and friends in the industry, asking them to answer some relative questions anonymously, in an effort to get a more honest, true response that best reflected the actual feelings of these people and businesses. In total we asked 3 designers and 3 architects for their views. Below is a selection of answers, one from each industry, to each question.

Architect A: Director – 4 employees
Architect B: Architect – 80 employees
Architect C: Director – 35 employees

Interior Designer A : Director – 5 employees
Interior Designer B : Director – 12 employees
Interior Designer C : Director – 5 employees

Q1: What are the major challenges have you had to overcome during the beginning stages of this pandemic?

Architect C: “We initiated a work from home scheme ahead of the government guidelines, principally because we could see that it was an inevitability and wanted to work through all of the teething problems early.  Despite this, we still face a number of fundamental challenges with a dispersed team, particularly on larger projects where large files and complex shared models are in use.  Within one week of working from home, we saw 80-90% of our work go on hold, initially due to the economic pressures of COVID-19 on the hospitality, retail and leisure sectors, and latterly due to building sites being closed down.  The challenges of dealing with major employment and HR decisions, deciphering government guidelines, rules and support and implementing significant structural changes to the business all within a very compressed timeframe was extremely challenging, especially given that the senior team were unable to meet face to face to thrash out some of the more complex matters.  Following the closure of the schools, individuals have faced additional pressures with home-schooling and a number of team members have moved to flexible work patterns to accommodate this.”

Interior Designer A: “Clearly, like everyone, the initial uncertainty was hugely problematic – what work was deemed possible to continue with; what was best practice for the health of employees; what exactly was on the horizon and how it would affect business. As the situation evolved and government advice firmed up there was a degree more certainty… but clearly challenges became even greater. How viable is working from home in a highly client-orientated service industry; lack of access to design libraries housed in an inaccessible studio; the continuing question of how long a “lockdown” would go on for with consequent impact on employment, rent, rates, work in progress, estimated work and whether it would be accepted; client reactions to the pandemic and their impact on current and future business; supplier reactions to the pandemic and their impact on business.”

Q2: How sustainable is ‘working from home’ In the long term for your business? And do you think working from home can play a larger part of day-to-day business after the recovery of the current situation?

Architect B: “We can function like this for the time being based on the strong team bonds that we have previously cultured in the studio environment. I do think there is something to be said for having a group of people in one room working toward a collective aim that is hard to replicate when you are physically removed from one another. However after things settle down I can see our practice moving toward a mix of working from home and studio time. At the end of the day it comes down to choice. Covid 19 has certainly sped this change up.”

Interior Designer B: “Definitely, But for some more than others. The retail and logistics side have to be location based, but the design team have flex. Although some have previously noted they like the routine of being at the studio and like to keep it separate to their home life.

We are a very sociable office, which is amazing, but sometimes it can hinder productivity. I think there may be less focus on attendance being a marker of success and more focus on what we actually produce at the end of a day. Personally, I feel the ‘noise’ of just getting in to the office can cloud some of my best thinking / problem solving time. I’ve always known sitting at my desk in an open plan office restricts my creativity.

We haven’t really used video calls for client meetings as instant reaction is very important to what we do, but I think this may change as people become more normalised to video as a method of communication. This could help us progress projects more quickly as coordinating meetings can be tricky with client schedules.”

Q3: Are government loans adequate to sustain staff employment and cashflow levels? What else do you feel the government can do to help?

Architect A: Govt schemes are adequate however the finances won’t actually come through for some time (they are claimed back after) so cash flow is still needed. Also, when furloughed, an employee cannot technically work, irony is you need them to do the work to release fee…”

Interior Designer A: “Loans are not always the answer – they can simply kick the can further down the road and result in financial difficulty in the near future compounding a period of reduced sales. When companies are faced with the “tap being turned off” in a single day through no fault of their own and at the Governments behest there should be a duty of the Government to provide sustainable, low cost solutions. The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme is one such solution and there are grants available at the local level. However, it will not be enough for many companies and the speed of funnelling money through to those who need it is vital. The banks appear to being slower to respond to the need for financial assistance than they were to ask for it themselves in 2008. Perhaps cancellation (rather than deferment) of VAT and PAYE for a period would be helpful – especially when businesses are able to return to “normal”. That will be a difficult period for those businesses that survive – the last thing you need when you have just about managed to hold your breath under water for an age is to resurface and be presented with a large concrete block…”

Q4: Should this scenario play out for the long term, how will you fill your time? Expanding to online tutoring and mentoring for example?

Architect C: “We’re working to keep a small number of people on the team who will be fully occupied.  For those who are furloughed, there has been a lot of discussion around training and professional development, but also personal growth around health, wellbeing and the home.  Ideally these people wouldn’t lose contact with the practice over this time, and lots of them want to continue to contribute in some non-commercial ways, but we’re still working to understand what is and isn’t permissible under the furlough rules.” 

Interior Designer C: “Painting, sketching, gardening, it’s early days. It’s good to not be running at 200 miles an hour”

Q5: How do you feel the Industry will fair in the upcoming months.

Architect A: “It’s hard to say. Everything changes by the day at the moment so it’s impossible to understand where we are going. For instance you won’t have had any of these questions 2/3 weeks ago. We are in unprecedented times.”

Interior Designer B: ”I think it has the potential to do very well. No one should profiteer off a crisis, and no one should be putting people at unnecessary risk right now buying non essential products from companies that are putting bottom line over their employees working conditions.

However, I think many people stopped prioritising their immediate surroundings. It’s often the thing that falls to The bottom of the list. After spending so long confined to your home, I think there will be a new appreciation for good design. It’s more than just changing the colour of your scatter cushions, it’s actually making the best use of your space, and improves quality of life.”

Q6: What are the positive outcomes you feel can rise out of an otherwise negative situation?

Architect B: There’s something quite relaxing about knowing you don’t have to be anywhere or that you are missing out. I think it has given people time to slow down, reconnect and re-evaluate their relationship to others and themselves. I believe a lot of creativity and new ways of thinking will come out of this. Its a blank canvas, a reset, the likes of which we have never seen. Hopefully we will start to think more locally, reduce unneeded travel, buy food from local producers and products from local makers. This article by Dezeen sums it up much more succinctly than I could.  Then there are the environmental benefits of grounding flights, reducing road travel and consumption. The NASA satellite imagery capturing the change in air quality above china is very telling.” “We initiated a work from home scheme ahead of the government guidelines, principally because we could see that it was an inevitability and wanted to work through all of the teething problems early.  Despite this, we still face a number of fundamental challenges with a dispersed team, particularly on larger projects where large files and complex shared models are in use.  Within one week of working from home, we saw 80-90% of our work go on hold, initially due to the economic pressures of COVID-19 on the hospitality, retail and leisure sectors, and latterly due to building sites being closed down.  The challenges of dealing with major employment and HR decisions, deciphering government guidelines, rules and support and implementing significant structural changes to the business all within a very compressed timeframe was extremely challenging, especially given that the senior team were unable to meet face to face to thrash out some of the more complex matters.  Following the closure of the schools, individuals have faced additional pressures with home-schooling and a number of team members have moved to flexible work patterns to accommodate this.”

Interior Designer C: Consideration for others, a realisation of how small the world is and how we all need to pull together, not apart. “BREXIT” !!!”

Q7: What Impact will the current situation have on your commissioning of photographic and video marketing?

Architect C: “It’s unlikely that we will be commissioning any video or photography until at least the lock down is lifted, but even then, projects which were due to be completed later this year now won’t realistically be complete until the year after.  We are, however, conscious that marketing and communication is extremely important at times like this.  We don’t want to fall off the face of the planet.“

Interior Designer B: “There’s been more pressure on trying to get shoots done in the short term so we have enough content to keep ourselves in view. We have always held portfolio photography in high regard – it’s key to our business. But if we can’t install projects, we don’t have anything to photograph for the time being.”

Q8: A clear beneficiary from this pandemic is the natural world, as global lockdowns have greatly reduced pollution levels and improved the environment. Does this encourage you to improve any aspects of your business’s environmental ethics moving forward?

Architect B: “Prior to Covid-19 we have had a limit on air travel, we have also allowed 2 days extra holiday if you decide to take the train on your trip. We are also one of the first architectural practices to use ‘Science based targets’ to reduce our carbon impact.”

Interior Designer C: “Its not always the answer. Countries like China have terrible human rights but we deal with them and are as guilty as their government in exploitation. We might just think more and if we do so, the environment might just improve.”

Q9: Is there any other points you feel are Important to mention in relation to your line of work and this pandemic?

Architect C: “The economy will eventually recover, and the work will come back, but I hope and expect that everything won’t go back to business as usual.  The situation has offered a rare opportunity to implement experiments in how people live and work and how countries are run and I think understanding and implementing the lessons learnt is where a lot of the interesting work will be in the coming years.  Governments have shown that the scale of intervention required to tackle the most significant problem we face, climate change, is actually possible outside of wartime.  I hope that this helps us on that journey rather than hinders us.” 

Interior Designer A: “Clearly interior design is a luxury product and as such it appears of little relevance to many who are struggling with health and work in the current environment. However, like the vast number of such businesses interior design is a thread in the overall tapestry that is the UK economy: connecting thousands of manufacturers, suppliers, raw materials suppliers, workshops, weavers and mills, delivery companies, tradesmen, magazines, photographers, computer software suppliers – and the many thousands of people employed in each and every one of these both directly and indirectly. Each of those people in part rely on the industry for their livelihoods and the income that they then spend on mortgages, eating out, clothes, groceries; and the taxes that they pay to support healthcare, education etc. Everything is interconnected. I am not sure how well understood this is or  how much of an impact the effects of a lengthy lockdown will have – it is, after all, the success of these many thousands of businesses and individuals that pays for the health service that we are so keen to support. So it is vital that there is a clear and realistic exist strategy aimed at getting all businesses back to work. As they say, if you are a milliner, making hats is essential work!”

The full answered questions by each participant can be viewed here. 

From the industry response there is clear state uncertainty resulting in a mix bag of opinions. For the most part companies seem to be operating in a reduced capacity from home, communicating via video conference apps such as Zoom, Google Hangouts or Skype… etc. Even the PM Boris Johnson has been using the Zoom app to conduct remote Cabinet meetings during this pandemic.

The governments financial aid is being received well on the most part for now, however, there are clearly concerns with current cashflow, as grants won’t be issued for 3 months, and furloughed employees who are required to utilise there skills in order to complete specific jobs can’t be called upon. The other main concern is the unknown of how long the pandemic will restrict business from some kind of “normality” beyond the government aid period. Nobody knows what will happen after the three month pledge… Will restrictions gradually be lifted so business can start to increase their operations before funding ends? Will companies be able to financially sustain the return of furloughed employees? Is there going to be a second round of financial aid? How long can businesses sustain this lower level operation?

Interior design isn’t an essential service with Interior designer C stating, “It’s interior design, it can wait.” But still, with everyone being homebound due to lockdowns, people are confined to a small environment for a prolonged period of time. This has made it evident that although the role of an interior designer isn’t essential, it’s still an important service in providing our homes with warmth and comfort. The aspect of design does hold relevance to those who may not even be interested in design itself as their environment can play both a conscious and subconscious role in their mood and wellbeing. A suggestion by Architectural Digest in an interesting article entitled, How Previous Epidemics Impacted Home Design, predicts we will redesign our homes entrance hall to include sinks by the front door. That way home owners and guests can protect interiors from unwelcome germs from outside.

Architecture has a more fundamental role in society by simply designing a roof over our heads for a start, but also building and restoring important buildings such as schools, industry, places of worship, and more vital to recent days: hospitals, health care homes, and pharmaceutical factories to name a few. Architects have provided us with buildings of beauty, purpose, and identity; structures that offer meaning and delve into the connection of countries through culture and travel. According to an article by Arch Daily although architects are having to work from home “many countries have deemed construction services as essential, which means that sites are still being built” this really sheds some light at the end of the tunnel, as work can go on.

From our view as architectural photographers, there is currently little photographic work being sought out, as one would expect. The feedback from both interior designers and architects shows they’re aware of the importance of marketing and “being seen”. This brings some comfort for us and our industry as businesses do need to represent themselves in the public domain, with photography and video content being a clear and simple vessel to do this effectively. Jack Pringle, Principal of Perkins+Will Architects once stated: “The identity of a piece of work is often created by the photograph as 99% of people don’t actually get to see the real thing.” SO as long as these industries stay alive, there is hope for us too

It’s clear that most believe their industry will recover at some point in time. To what extend nobody really knows. Whilst relying on a varied network of other job types and specialist industries from engineers to construction workers, and furniture suppliers to photographers, there are so many variables that will need to re-align to get things back to where they were. But maybe they never will go back to the way they were, and these business types like others, will embrace a new type of work, one where employees work less, work more from home, indulge less, source locally and consider the environment more? Or maybe that’s just wishful thinking?

Photo Credit: @cottonbro