Architect Nurur Rahman Khan, a renowned educator and practicing architect, speaks with Context team about challenges brought by COVID 19 pandemic to the built environment professionals in Bangladesh. Architect Khan is a Partner of Tanya Karim N R Khan and Associates and has taught in various universities like BUET, BRAC University, UAP, NSU, Stamford University, Bangladesh University, and IUAV in Venice in different capacities. He has also given talks in MIT, RISD, YALE, NUS, IUAV, CEPT, and many other international platforms.
Q. To cope with COVID 19 outbreaks and as a measure of social distancing, many architecture offices have already moved to the home office scheme. Considering the uncertainty of the outbreak and its duration, do you think working from home is a feasible alternative to keep the business running?
Yes, architects can develop the design and show ideas on a virtual platform, but our work at the end of the day is a physical work, it is on site. So, our real concern has to be that when things are start locking down, and it will, the work will not progress on site. As we know most of our payments are connected to the progress of work, contracts or tender being awarded. And there is a high probability that our payments will get stuck at one point. Working from home may let us to progress with developing design and drawings, but outbreaks will significantly disrupt the work on site which in turn leads to partial payment or no payment at all. If the work does not proceed, tender doesn’t proceed, contracts do not proceed, the client will eventually stop payment. And that will be the real challenge. We have not stepped into this scenario yet but that is about to come.
Secondly, a lot of us may be in the project stage and the project actually requires that we still interact with the client, or we still need to go to the site. In some cases, we still need to meet with clients and visit the site. We are not so equipped to handle the site virtually. Neither that all clients meeting that can be handled virtually. And even the client may go into quarantine. Then the project will not proceed. So, for architectural firms, extremely difficult time is about to come, and this is a matter of serious concern.
Collectively architects need to build awareness and put civic pressure to start the containment as soon as possible. If we fail to bring back some kind of normality, ‘work from home’ is going to be a myth for us.
Q. As we’ve seen under an economic downturn, which is anticipated to follow COVID 19 pandemic, it is the employee who is most at risk of job termination. Do you think, architects might have to face similar faith? Do you see any difference in capacity between the big offices and small offices to adapt to this crisis?
Frankly speaking, it is the employees who are at a high risk of not getting paid. Many offices will not be able to sustain payment if the situation goes for long. Employers will also be hit hard because they will have to dig into their savings.
The big office has a huge liability to its lots of employees. The rent is higher, costs are higher, everything is higher. When things will come to a stop, it will be difficult even for the big office to manage the running cost. On the other hand, small offices with one or two employees might be able to survive the situation as they have less liability. In other words, it depends on what fallback options are available for the offices. The ability of the offices to fall back onto some kind of savings is going to be the real issue here. However, their structure may differ between big and small offices. For instance, big offices may have good savings but at the same time its liability also high. On the other hand, small offices usually have less liability, but it may have small savings.
Q. In response to this crisis, do you think, the architect community as a collective body has a role to play?
Organizations like the Institute of Architects or Alumni Associations also have a role to play. Such organizations can come forward by organizing competitions for designing containment shelter or makeshift emergency treatment facility. In fact, the BUET alumni association of engineers has already stepped forward with various initiatives. I think, to tackle this unprecedented challenge, a lot of design-related brainstorming is necessary now. Architects have already come forward in helping to fund or co-ordinate emergency equipment like PPE and face shield. Members of ArcAAB have also been very active in this matter. I feel extremely proud to see so many architects already helping out in so many ways. But I also think we can contribute to giving retrofitting places to work as emergency isolation and treatment facilities and also ideas isolation and treatment facilities. We are a huge community with a lot of creative power that we can put into motion in different aspects like coordination, fundraising, development of products, and design of facilities. These are difficult and worrying times and I think if we put our minds to work, we not only can contribute but also stay active and positive.
Q. Do you have any message for your colleagues and the architect community in general?
We all need to be well prepared for total lockdown; protective measures won’t be enough at some point. Perhaps it’d be wise to do it phase by phase rather sudden closure. Offices that are still operating should keep in mind that every employer is responsible for every employee, every employee is responsible for their colleague, and we are all responsible for our family and friends.
Besides our own professional crisis, we have to also understand that it is much bigger than our work and our self-sustenance. We have to be selfless and start to care about our whole country and help out in this crisis every way possible.
At the end we are also an intellectual body, can guide, inspire and set examples by our actions, and as responsible citizens, we have a duty to do so.
May Almighty help us all get through this.
Saimum Kabir is the founding editor of ContextBD and PhD fellow at the University of Melbourne in the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning.