Architectural Trends in the Wake of COVID-19

the expert next door    blog cover 1

We interviewed Ian Ross McDonald, Partner Architect at Carscadden Stokes McDonald Architects via Zoom last week. Ian talked about some of the new architectural trends that are being influenced by COVID-19. Here is the full interview: 


Transcription of the Interview:

Bronwyn Bertles: [00:00:04] Hi, everybody, I'm Bronwyn. With the Next Door Group at Engel & Völkers  and today I have with me Ian Ross MacDonald. He is an architect from Carscadden Stokes McDonald. And you joined in 2007 and became a partner in 2013. His work with the firm includes the Lieutenant Governor, Medal winning Swalwell Kensington and Robert Burns Burnaby Park Washrooms. What I like about the firm is that they're located and live close to Strathcona. So for those that know it's Downtown Eastside Rail Town area and their projects happen to be big range. So anything from kind of public private sector. They include recreation, community centres, public spaces like parks. You have some residential homes, some multifamily residential, which would include some heritage conversions and then commercial spaces where people work. So one of the ones that popped up to me was five, six or Beatty, which is the home of Chambar. So is that a good kind of overview of what you guys do?


Ian Ross McDonald: [00:01:17] Yeah. So that's pretty good. The Chambar is, of course, near and dear to our hearts, too. Not the least of which because I lived down the street close to the Sun Tower for a number of years with my wife, and Chambar was our local. So we were rather spoiled both in their original location and then in particular when they moved there. And I think that covers kind of what the buildings of what we do. But I guess maybe I could add a little bit about, you know, kind of the why of what we do and how what we do. So our firm is our legacy partner, Bruce, THE Bruce, who is now retired actually. Retired last July is really the outgrowth of his interest in architecture. And he was always interested in how everyday things could come together in an unexpected way. So, much of what we do is, I guess, rooted in that interest in the kind of messy reality of construction and less with the the idea that architecture would be a kind of perfect, polished jewel that that nobody should occupy, that you should only look at. And then you mentioned Strathcona. We definitely consider ourselves a little bit east side. So we've been really interested in being a part of this community this way and have enjoyed the comparatively more casual nature of this side of Main Street, although we're not quite not quite downtown at Main and Hastings.


Bronwyn Bertles: [00:03:02] It has definitely a messy, creative vibe to it, which is, you know, not just perfect lines and perfect show homes. Right. Kind of at all. A real, real life places.


Bronwyn Bertles: [00:03:15] Yeah. I can see you've also been to our office.


Bronwyn Bertles: [00:03:19] It's awesome. OK. So today I wanted to kind of jump in. So we've had a series of other kind of professionals on here... Financial world medical world. And so I wanted to see how kind of COVID- 19 has affected your industry, you know, in general. And I know that construction is still moving on. So tell me a little bit about, you know, what that's looked like since mid-March for you.


Ian Ross McDonald: [00:03:47] Well, I should say, like everybody that we're you know, no industry is immune and we're all a little bit anxious about what the future holds. And we've talked about that a lot in our office about what what it means to deliver architecture in a architectural services in a time of uncertainty. And I would want to take a moment to like express my gratitude of being stressed out about what to do during my job, as opposed to being stressed out about not having a job. So I could not respect. I think you were very fortunate. Architecture and construction generally having been identified as an essential service, is really a part of what allows us to continue to operate. And obviously, other jurisdictions have had to encourage greater social distancing or more stringent economic shutdown measurements, which have been really challenging for people, friends and family of mine who lives in other places. As far as architecture is concerned, I guess. Well, we were speaking about this a little bit before you before we started recording is I think one of the real challenges is that architecture, like every kind of discipline, that involves a lot of coordination. But I think more than average, that requires like a real intimacy between people in the office. So we we rely on a kind of design methodology where we're talking to each other in short, five minute increments. So it's it's very possible that I will talk to one person fifteen separate times over the course of a morning. And I think the big challenge now is that the social distancing requirements, while made a little bit easier by the fact that we've got, you know, platforms like Zoom and Google Hangouts and all the rest is still not nearly as efficient as standing up and walking six feet and talking to somebody for 30 seconds about something. And so I think that's probably the biggest cultural challenge. And I would think firms that come out of this and probably any industry will find ways to negotiate that friction or inefficiency in a way that is productive. I mean, certainly we're having to rely on people working at home independently. And it's you know, we work with really good people. We're really fortunate to have a team that we're really proud of. But it is not the case that everybody can work alone and without input or interaction for eight hours at a stretch. So I think like I think that's through the lens of our personal firm. I also I'm on counsel with the ABC. So that's the Architectural Institute of British Columbia, the the regulatory body for architects. And this is also been a concern with battered organization because they're wrestling with the same office problems that everybody else is. People working from home and all the rest of it, but also having to be the authority that answers questions about how architecture should be delivered during times of crisis. And in this case, some of the real concerns have surrounded house site reviews work. So site reviews are obligated to be in person. You can't do it by phone. You can't do it. You can't rely on a contractors photos. You have to go out to site and whatever. That's kind of easy if you're just doing a TI that's downtown and maybe it's a bit of a nuisance normally, if you have to drive out to Langley, but if you have to fly up to check went well, 14, John and then drive to Chetwyn. That is a different animal. Managing those distance projects of which we have a few has been a challenge and both in terms of scheduling and arranging with the contractor. But, you know, managing people's expectations about how how that's going to work and how that's going to happen. 


Bronwyn Bertles: [00:08:06] And how it can be done kind of safely.


Ian Ross McDonald: [00:08:09] Yeah, totally. Totally. Yeah.


Bronwyn Bertles: [00:08:12] I mean, I understand obviously you're in the creative process and that's what comes right. It's kind of the buzz of like try this, try that. And then it slowly goes to, you know, I mean, slowly but eventually gets to kind of what the best result would be. And that is hard to plan. It's hard to say Can I talk to you in five minutes for 30 seconds about something like it's just natural. We have that in our office. It's kind of the productive side of, the... what do you call it? The water tank discussion. Right. Right. Sure. The productive side of that and. That would be tricky, especially with design, which is supposed to be creative. So, like, now we see a little bit of, you know, how we're adapting. And obviously, this is kind of the acute side of it. Like let's just today and in the last six, six weeks. But do you see any like or are you. I mean, I've gotten my mind's been really future oriented, like, how is this going to change our industry? So for you, like, what do you think some maybe long term effects of COVID or COVID type pandemic or social distancing might mean to how we actually design these buildings, parks, social spaces and even community centres or buildings or, you know, what do you see for maybe like some possible changes that could arise?


Ian Ross McDonald: [00:09:41] You mean in terms of like the resultant product? You don't mean in terms of process. You mean like the building itself. Like the artifact. Yeah.


Bronwyn Bertles: [00:09:52] Not the process, but for me this is as more of like the end user. Right. Like what. What might you do that a building would look differently. I walk into you now.


Ian Ross McDonald: [00:10:02] Sure. It's funny. I was talking to my cousin Jamie, who's a lawyer, and this was in the early bits of the social distancing directive from the Provincial Health Authority. And so our office, which is in and which is currently running on a skeleton crew. My business partner and I, Glenn, we come in and we turn on all the computers and we wiggle the mice so that everybody else can work from home. And I was talking to Jamie and, you know, most of the lawyers were still in the office at the time, I think, or at least he was. And he began to regale me of the benefits of individual offices. So, you know, our office is an open studio. We are shoulder to shoulder. So I, I could imagine seeing a return to more discreet pods, as I don't know if that would show up is like a rule or a guideline, but it might show up as a trend, people being nervous about it, wanting to guard against having to empty their entire office. So I could see it as a kind of particular example. I could see that being one. I was musing with my wife, Jennifer, who is also an architect, as we were coming down the ten floors of our apartment building and passing other people who were ascending the ten floors of the apartment building as everybody was trying to avoid the elevator, that it was easy to imagine maybe  skipped stop landing being larger so that you could stand to the side and let somebody pass without having to, like, literally rub shoulders with somebody who might have COVID or something. And, you know, there is there is an ongoing trend of, say, generosity generally to people requiring people with mobility challenges. So accessibility, wheelchairs, people with strollers, because I have a young daughter come to mind and, you know, maybe wider corridors generally or, you know, other kind of other accoutrements of the kind of public components of an apartment building or something else. I could see all of that happening. But I think the more interesting conversation is probably what it means for public space. You know, parks. And, you know, as usual, I think architecture kind of gets the headline. But in many respects, landscape and urban design are the more dominant, if unsung heroes of how we live in the city. Right. So I think the bankers. Sorry. Go ahead.


Bronwyn Bertles: [00:12:45] You have quite a bit of experience in landscape architecture as well.


Ian Ross McDonald: [00:12:50] Yeah, it's an occupational hazard. I think every architect thinks that they make just a fine landscape architect. Thank you very much. But it's probably not true. Yeah, A lot of our work does take place in parks and field reviews and stuff like that, although we're usually responsible for the kind of the building component.


Bronwyn Bertles: [00:13:12] So how do you think this will affect the park's social spaces places?


Ian Ross McDonald: [00:13:19] Good question. Well, like the rec component, I think is huge. So, like, as you know, well just as just about anybody who's half paying attention. The challenge right now is cabin fever and providing relief for people to get outside. And it's you know, it's funny because it's not so different a conversation than people had when Central Park was developed, which was described as the lungs of New York City when it was first. And so I can imagine cities and Vancouver is not Vancouver is maybe not the greatest city to test this out on because we have lots of open space. We can go lots of places. You can you can hop into your car and drive from Richmond to Cyprus and stomp around and not really being near somebody. You can do the same and get to Seymour. You can find places that are not too far. That would give you that connection to nature and the outside. There's probably other cities that are that benefit less from the intelligent and frankly fortunate circumstance of like our where we are and how we've chosen to build the city.


Bronwyn Bertles: [00:14:34] Totally. I mean, that's one of the best things about. Like I'm originally from Alberta. It's a little different. We've got lots of space. But this ocean and mountain and they think, you know, we've gotten a lot of questions lately. Well, when the Vancouver market crashes and even in living, I'm living in a condo, I still feel great being able to get outside and safe. So I don't think we're gonna crash and that's a whole other part. But it it really is just the geographically where we're located. You can still get out and get outside and stuff, but it'll be interesting to see if all these little things are accounted for and kind of mandated from government on. Now making little changes to say keep the distance or have these social distancing measures a little bit easier to implement than it would be now, right? 


Ian Ross McDonald: [00:15:29] Yeah, I think so. Do you mind if I follow up? Cool. Certainly. You and I benefit, of course from being you know, while you're younger than I am, in my case, relatively youthful urban professionals. And so we have means and the ability to get around. I think the obviously the population and groups that will that go with it feel this the most are, you know, my kind of local neighborhoods relative to my office in the Downtown Eastside. So we're in Strathcona. But we are adjacent to Canada's poorest postal code. And we can't we kind of bear witness to that. And with it's complicated for them because, of course, there aren't the same opportunities to get out. So I can actually where I could see a lot more traction for improvement where like where the Delta would be greater would be in providing services and amenities for people who frankly don't have that access. Like there's the idea of getting into a car and driving to the mountains is just not possible for them. And frankly, the idea of going to the bathroom in a in a safe place where they can rely on, you know, putting their bag down and not have it having it being being picked up by somebody else wouldn't be an issue. My dad was homeless for a long time in central Ontario and that was in speaking with him that was always like one of his big concerns was like, what do I do with my backpack if I'm going to go to a particular shelter? So it's like he had a real aversion to that. And I can see similar challenges for the people that live in the Downtown Eastside made worse, of course, by addiction and mental health challenges.


Bronwyn Bertles: [00:17:23] Well, that yeah, that's so true. It's like taking a walk in somebody else's shoes. Right. All this different things we're thinking about. Which reminds me just before we kind of leave the COVID stuff, you mentioned some of the areas that were hit hardest with COVID are obviously senior centres. So, yeah, any I know you said you're having an upcoming discussion on that, but, you know, do you have any little insights into how that might change? I know that different population.


Ian Ross McDonald: [00:17:52] Well, I think as it relates to social distancing, it might not be all that complicated. Even though people will add a lot of words to it to make it sound profound. I think some of it is just about providing space and distance and separation. And, you know, architecture is really good at that.You can achieve space by giving space and you can achieve separation by building walls. You know, the more interesting component... So I can I can see that. And it might mean a move away from communal washrooms. I was thinking about this recently as it related to some of our residential work. We were recently championing shared laundry facilities because, you know, there are developments in Australia that have, you know, saved costs by not building ensuite laundry, and then they've turned the laundry into a bit of a spa like experience. So it's not it's not the thing in the basement that you like to hunker down to get into and duck your head. It's more like it's on the roof and it's next to the amenity room and it's well appointed with tiles and it's got windows and nice light. And you can go up there and and hang out with people in your building. But but obviously, when there's this kind of shelter in place requirement, as you're seeing in California or, you know, requirements to stay indoors, it's not really as much of an option. You might be disinclined to do your bedsheets in the same laundry machine as somebody from down the hall in the present circumstances. So all that said, I can see in seniors homes, which occasionally do share amenities like an increasing predisposition to private and dedicated washroom facilities and cleaning facilities. So there's somebody did need to stay in their room and in particular, like a vulnerable group of people, you know, might be sick who might be suffering some level of dementia, who certainly don't have that kind of a youthful constitution the way that somebody in their 20s or 30s might. And it would be therefore more vulnerable to a novel virus if they can just stay in their room and they would be sick. The safer choice probably. Probably I'll have to take back everything I've ever said about private balconies not being very useful. And I can see those being new requirements in developments like Seniors' homes. So the discussion that I was speaking to when we spoke earlier was a developer and and general contractor. I know that, who's looking for ways to kind of break that model and has been for a long time and has been probably championing some of these things, but has not been able to mount a convincing enough argument for why why some of those choices might be worth considering. And certainly the current context might provide that.


Bronwyn Bertles: [00:20:57] It's interesting, too, because, you know, you've seen a few memes or videos where it's like the only way that a family member can see their loved one. And of course, you know, it might be in a vulnerable situation is like really like the actual exterior window. Maybe there be some ways to interact inside as well with out... You know, and we're lucky in Vancouver, where it's relatively nice weather. It's somewhere where it's really cold or really hot. Right. What might that look like?


Ian Ross McDonald: [00:21:27] Yeah, I think there's probably also public we're big fans of public transportation. I think that's just going to take a huge hit for the next for the next, I don't know, many years as people are anxious and nervous about germs on the bus. And that's that's unfortunate because that's got a lot of other rattle on effects, like if everybody's really focused on COVID and it's, of course, the thing to focus on. But there are other even bigger challenges to wrestle with: climate change, no public health and wellness more broadly. That would be negatively impacted if we all bought cars and drove everywhere. So smart public policy will and we brave politicians are required for sure.


Bronwyn Bertles: [00:22:20] I didn't even I wasn't even really thinking into that totally. I hope we just keep biking. And I hope and I hope some people keep working from home and we can reduce the amount of need for a trip to transit. Right. In transit to work in all areas


Ian Ross McDonald: [00:22:44] We're moving the office in theory in two months to a place that's bigger to accommodate what has been a growing staff over the course of the last 10 years. And when we look around the office now, we think, oh, well, the new space might be about 20 percent. Do it. Pardon me. Twenty times bigger than we actually need for the next eight months or so. But I guess we're we're committed at this point.


Bronwyn Bertles: [00:23:05] We'll see. OK. So kind of a lighter note or just quickly to wrap up. You know, as an architect, I mean, in in real estate or constantly, you know, and especially in Vancouver, I think generally has a really good eye and wants to be kind of, you know, ahead of things and keeping things really unique and interesting. So what kinds of just general trends do you see? For, I mean.. probably, you know, most of our viewers and most people watching would be sort of residential interested. But what kind of cool trends do you see in the next three to five years? Obviously, you're planning ahead in architecture or innovations, I guess would be really cool.


Ian Ross McDonald: [00:23:52] Good ones. And of course, I'm going to be wrong for about 80 percent of what I'm about to say, because, like, I can't actually predict the future. But so certain things that I think maybe people watching this woods will start to see. And it's not so much that I can predict the future is that I can just tell you  what's on the boards. And because architecture is like so slow, nobody is actually going to see it for five years. So I think there's the trend to building all wood, so-called tall wood. And there are firms that do a really good job of this, including Michael Green, the office of McFarlin Bigger and Act. Austria and the Park House have made made great strides in the Canadian seams in doing so. I think you'll start to see that up here. More commonly, it will appear in more straightforward towers for for a while. And then I think it will, as the industry gets more used to how those assemblies work and as they begin to understand the merits of building with wood. I looked, you know, a B.C. local product that can be, you know, grown here. Harvest is harvested here, machined and fabricated here with like modern tooling techniques that CNS e-mails, etc. You'll see a lot of that kind of economic advantage happen within the province, which is awesome. And I think once that happens, it's possible you might see it in more typical residential construction first and select little bits and then more, more expansively. And then I can see that also perhaps coming into play if the city of Vancouver, for instance, really ratcheted down its carbon neutral ambitions because, of course, Wood acts as a carbon sink for greenhouse gases well for carbon, whereas things like concrete do not. So I could see that I could see that happening quite easily on a more kind of. What you actually kind of touch and experience, I think people will, as a result of COVID, probably start to see a lot more ideas about light and air and in office spaces, probably more kind of cellular discrete things, maybe not individual offices for everybody, but like pods. And we've been witnessing for a long time a kind of steady, calming of like architectural style. So I like looking around my office for kind of examples that I might pull but like simpler materials that are more natural. I think we're we're moving away from the 1980s big hair idea and lots of kind of things that are gratuitous for the sake of being gratuitous as opposed to projects that might appear gratuitous, but have a sort of sly logic to them. And I think that that, you know, the Vancouver house would be a good example that you're the people watching would be familiar with. I mean, it looks like it's conceit and folly run amok, but it's it's actually a response to a series of very kind of precise requirements. And people can feel one way or the other about it. But it's kind of a miracle of a building. What else? I think possibly some additional requirements would be with a really good one. So the city of Vancouver for rezoning applications basically demands that you build to a particular energy standard. Normally, you could loosely think of it as passive house, although there is a secondary option you could choose. And that basically means a building that is so well insulated that you that you barely have to heat it up. You have to heat it passively. There are advantages to it in and above the the obvious energy savings. They typically have better acoustic requirements from the outside to the inside. So it's quieter. Generally it's less. Well, they're supposed to be less drafty, which is also an advantage. An advantage. But a curious result is that there aren't a lot of windows that perform to that standard and they're certainly not a lot of curtain wall that performs to that standard. So what it will do, what it may mean, and this is a little bit harder to predict, is that there will be an increasing number of buildings for a little while that have less of the sort of floor to ceiling feeling of glass that you do downtown in the building since like kind of post expo in and around the concert lands and more kind of New York style punched windows. And I think that will look different in the first instance, but also will have a different urban feel to it. So I live across  my wife and I we live on the 10th floor with our daughter. We look across the street to a similar, you know, ceiling to floor, kind of glazed building. And we can see everybody there's you know, there's the couple that we imagine are the Greek immigrants. They have dinner on the patio every night. They drink wine. There's there's a couple that wear an uncomfortably low amount of clothing. Sometimes there's lots of kids and everything. And we see them move from room to room quite frequently. And I think in that kind of passive house model where it's just like little windows or punch windows through the walls, you won't get the same sense of connection. It will feel like your experience of living in a building will be different. And I think that might be. I'm not sure if that would be a long term thing. Presumably, will you develop windows that are, you know, whatever quintuple pane that do the the passive house standard, that there might be a blip of Vancouver architecture that doesn't look like the normal architecture. And that's OK. I think that would be interesting.


Bronwyn Bertles: [00:30:08] Yeah, well, it's all like I think just like everything there's this constant pull from different directions at all times. It's, you know, privacy like to where, you know, Sheared area to make it more efficient. But then, you know, wanting safety with being by yourself or safe, you know, distancing. So it'll just be interesting to see how it goes. But that's really interesting. Thank you so much for your time. Yeah. Really appreciated having you with us today. And if people want to get a hold of you, what's the best way? Web sites?


Ian Ross McDonald: [00:30:44] Well, I'd say drop by the office, but absolutely do not do that. You can go to our Web site,


Bronwyn Bertles: [00:31:04] Thank you again and we'll see you next time. We can see people in real life.


Ian Ross McDonald: [00:31:12] Yeah. Stay safe out there. Bronwyn. Thank you.