Tech keeping SA architects productive, but pandemic stalling projects

By   – Reporter, San Antonio Business Journal

Much of the conversation in the commercial real estate sector amid the coronavirus pandemic has revolved around those involved in the late stages of projects, such as construction firms, brokerages and property management.

The unprecedented situation has also changed what the workplace looks like for those involved in the planning and design of development. Now forced out of the office, San Antonio’s architectural firms are coming into remote work with different perspectives.

Overland Partners – the third-largest architectural firm in San Antonio with $14.6 million in 2018 local architectural billings, according to Business Journal research – already knows what it means to work remotely.

The company has a presence with projects not only in Texas and across the country, but also in Mexico and China. Because of this, the firm already had experience with working with associates, architects and clients via videoconferences before many others were forced to adopt this technology.

“For years, we have been investing in the ability to collaborate across time, space and distance. It is something that is built into our DNA already,” said Bob Shemwell, principal for Overland Partners.

Even for a firm equipped and comfortable with all its technological capabilities, the system wasn’t built for the entire company to shift to remote work, so Overland initiated a test run with employees working from home weeks before it was mandatory to be sure things would keep working smoothly. Shemwell said that ensuring everyone – not just those who regularly worked remotely before the pandemic – have all the software and security features they need was the firm’s priority.

Now, Overland regularly hosts everything from 70-person meetings with its entire office to small teams working diligently on models and sketches over videoconferences.

Similarly, Stephen J. Kramer Architecture + Design Inc. – which ranked No. 20 among the city’s top architectural firms with $1.36 million in local billings – has had to move its team of six to working remotely, but it was already accustomed to holding many of its meetings with consultants, architects and engineering firms over the phone.

The firm exclusively works on commercial projects, such as medical offices and retail stores, primarily in the San Antonio area. With such a small team, Stephen Kramer, president and owner, didn’t turn to remote work until it was mandated by the city.

In terms of preparation, Kramer worked out all the technological hurdles with his team just a day before starting remote work, and things have gone smoothly, he told the Business Journal.

Collaboration, but immersive

Shemwell said Overland’s virtual reality technology, already implemented into its daily process, solves what he calls one of the essential problems of the human condition, even without the pandemic – communication.

“You can say one thing, and I will hear it and understand it differently,” he said. “It’s especially hard in our business, because you’re talking about things that are three-dimensional.”

With Overland’s VR technology, up to 12 people can virtually walk around three-dimensional models with a virtual pen and take notes. Although it is much  more immersive with a headset, anyone can view models on their computer screens.

Overland’s virtual reality headsets enable its staff and clients to virtually walk through models of projects. OVERLAND PARTNERS

“It’s common courtesy, the closest thing where you’re making sure the person on the other end is seeing things as you are,” Shemwell said.

Just like the entire concept of working remotely, Shemwell said that while initially intimidating, virtual reality – if curated and implemented correctly – can be accessible and welcoming.

“I think our job as creatives and leaders is to provide inspiration and ideas,” he said. “The thing with VR is that it’s actually fun.”

Navigating business in a pandemic

Even though local architects easily switched to working from home and the process remains intact, the industry remains in a tight spot as money for commercial developments is not as easily accessible and available.

As lenders and capital markets start to pull back, that has a ripple effect on all types of private development, Shemwell said, noting that an oil market rebound would also signal stability for developers and architects.

“We’re trying to be proactive and plan,” Shemwell said. “I think everyone is waiting to see how things play out.”

Kramer said his firm has already seen about a half-dozen projects go on hold, and he anticipates a sizable drop-off in workload due to clients closing, laying off employees or postponing developments.

Even as the industry falters and Kramer turns to government relief programs for help keeping his staff employed, he said he has been excited and encouraged that even in this time, he is getting calls about new projects.

“We’ll do what we can to make sure we’re still here when it’s all over,” Kramer said.

Read the original article from the San Antonio Business Journal here.

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