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COVID-19: What's the bigger picture and what lies ahead?

Executive Director Professional Services, Adrian Dobson, takes a look at our COVID-19 survey findings and tries to deduce what lies ahead.

09 April 2020

A note from RIBA Executive Director of Professional Services, Adrian Dobson...

Earlier this week we published the findings of our first survey on the impact of COVID-19 on the profession. We received over one thousand responses, and rather like the world of known unknowns, as famously described by Donald Rumsfeld, the results paint a picture of a profession grappling with a vista of certain uncertainties.

The current situation is unprecedented in our lifetimes but many lessons we learnt during the last recession may be about to become very relevant.

The impact of coronavirus on the global economy is certainly going to be very different to that of sub-prime mortgage lending, but we do find ourselves at yet another moment of global financial crisis. It would take a brave soul to confidently make predictions at this juncture; how many of us truly foresaw the speed with which this pandemic would rush upon us and the scale of its impact?

In some areas we might see a much faster recovery than the long, slow road we travelled after 2008. As people return to their normal lives, or a new normality at least, many will continue to move forward work that may only have been rendered temporarily unviable or delayed by the need to self-isolate or by the Government’s edicts to work from home wherever possible.

Some things might be much harder to re-start though, and this might prompt quite significant existential challenges or accelerate change in parts of the economy – retail and hospitality spring to mind as obvious areas, but education and healthcare might struggle too. This will surely have an effect on expectations of the built environment and what architects will be asked to deliver.

The RIBA’s COVID-19 survey showed that the architecture sector is already under quite significant stress – 59% of people reported a reduction in their workload and 58% reported a drop in business inquiries. Those working for and leading smaller practices said that they are being hit by these changes with unnerving speed.

Many practitioners also report delays to projects. Some of this may be because of the instantaneous changes in working practices, great movement to work from home and some may be because meetings and communications with clients and planners have been cancelled or paused. This is clearly driving greater uncertainty across the sector. The RIBA’s Future Trends survey, the next iteration of which will be published next week, will uncover some of the broader economic consequences of these changes.

This Government was elected after making fairly significant promises on public investment across the country, and some of this money has now been earmarked to help businesses work their way through this period of uncertainty. We will continue to push the Government to extend financial support packages and use funds to develop a more flexible planning system.

The biggest and perhaps most unsurprising finding in our survey is that these winds of change are being felt most keenly at an individual, personal level. We are very concerned about reports of people struggling with their mental health – an issue for a fifth of our respondents. Those looking for support dealing with mental health and anxiety can find what we hope is useful information and links here

The survey hasn’t been the only way that architects have been letting us know what’s happening on the ground – we’ve received hundreds of emails and calls to our contact centre and lots of communication through the RIBA’s regional teams, who are working hard to support the profession across England, and from our colleagues in the other UK nations at the RIAS, RSAW and RSUA. I urge you to please keep in touch by emailing info@riba.org. The RIBA will continue to work to support you through this crisis.

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