The new (comfort) normal: WFH employees will want more than basic desk, chair upon return

When an architect talks about someone feeling comfortable enough to come back to the office setting … they’re not always referring to whether all the COVID-19 precaution boxes are checked.

These professionals have every possible way of defining comfort in mind when thinking about how to successfully reintegrate interior spaces into everyday life.

“When people were at home, they were working on sofas or even from their beds,” said longtime architect and industry leader Joshua Zinder. “How does that translate to people sitting back down on an office chair in a cubicle again?”

It’s one of the many questions — issues both small and large — that architects such as Zinder, who was this year named president of the New Jersey chapter of the American Institute of Architects, are largely responsible with coming up with the right answers for.

He and the 2,000-some local architects whom his trade organization serves are the ones turning hypotheticals about the future of once-vacated buildings in a post-pandemic world into something concrete.

“Everyone’s biggest wonder is what’s going to happen with these spaces broadly, because there are issues for every different typology,” he said. “For example, hospitality businesses have had great stresses on them … and there’s been discussions that may or may not come to fruition about doing things like adding additional hand-washing stations in hotels or restaurants. There’s a question of how much focus on that sort of thing will continue now that things are reopening.”

A lot of that’s going to be decided in a new influx of projects that are landing on architectural firms’ desks. Zinder, who also runs Princeton-based Joshua Zinder Architecture + Design, said his office has seen a massive uptick in proposals from companies and organizations in the past few months.

Ted Osborne. (PS&S)

Ted Osborne, executive vice president of architecture and engineering at Warren-based PS&S Architecture and Engineering P.C., said that, even if the projects aren’t coming from all sectors in the economy — with the industries more hard-hit by the pandemic still standing on the sidelines — there is a lot of work to go around.

“Everyone is going to be — if they haven’t already — rethinking their interior spaces and how people are going to be working together,” he said, adding that, due that that, “I’ve been in this industry for a long time, and right now I’m busy as I’ve ever been.”

For PS&S, a Warren-based architecture, engineering and environmental firm, the projects involving corporate office spaces are rolling in slowly as people are brought back into workplaces. Projects involving other structures are piling up almost faster than a firm can take, Osborne said.

Working to diversify

Jackie Mierkowski, project manager at Ignarri-Lummis Architects, has been in her industry for 15 years. And it didn’t always feel like her industry.

She recalls the quizzical looks she’d get from men in the office when she might announce she had to leave early to take care of a sick kid. When she thinks of the architecture industry in those days, well, it’s a lot of older, white male faces she recalls.

It never really got her down.

“I had a loud mouth, I guess,” she said. “I always voice my opinion maybe more than I should.”

Things are a little different these days, she says. At her firm now, she’s one of five or six women architects — instead of just being the one.

Joshua Zinder, president of the New Jersey chapter of the American Institute of Architects, said he graduated in an architecture class of less than 10% women when he was entering the profession. His alma mater boasts classes of 50-60% women these days.

There’s a massive lack of people of color in the industry that persists, however.

“So, we’re reaching out to people of color within the industry and encouraging them to get active within our organization as leaders,” Zinder said. “Young people often don’t want to become professionals in an industry unless they see others like them. And we have great program for architects go into schools say to talk about what they do. So, we’re really focused on that.”

“There’s a lot of opportunities out there, and you don’t like to turn anything down,” he said, “but at a certain point, there’s a sort of critical mass in terms of the amount of people you have taking on work.”

Among the projects the firm is eyeing is a redesign of a building for Sanofi. The global biopharma company is one of the many businesses sprucing up facilities and modernizing them for a major return to offices in the fall. The firm is also offering architectural services to multinational healthcare company Roche.

“We’ve got a lot of interesting projects excited lined up in the life science industry,” he said, adding that architects didn’t find health care organizations in the spirit of capital expenditures on anything non-pandemic-related a year ago, “but now a lot of them are starting up projects and we’re seeing a lot of new opportunities there.”

The architecture work is marching forward despite some detrimental trends that stand in the way. For one thing, there’s a lot of real estate that’s being vacated or subleased as companies go completely remote, said Jackie Mierkowski of Ignarri-Lummis Architects.

The local architect, a project manager for the Cherry Hill architectural firm, which is soon to rebrand as Vissi Architecture + Design, watched a structure in Voorhees that housed Comcast become a ghost town for that reason recently.

On top of the reluctance to invest in enclosed office spaces, there’s the fact that the basic building blocks that architects play with — namely, lumber and steel — have been subjected to quadrupled prices over the past year. And that does have a big impact on what these firms are able to do with businesses and developers on a budget.

Jackie Mierkowski. (Ignarri-Lummis Architects)

“The price of steel and lumber is both insanely expensive, and who knows when that’s going to change,” Mierkowski said. “At some point, that bubble bursts and the price goes down, but we’re still waiting on that.”

There was even a Plexiglas shortage, kicked off by the amount of partitions added inside buildings.

In spite of the recent mania for materials, architects are being called on to reengineer buildings and design new ones at a fast rate. It’s an interesting time for architects — as they take on this workload while also being asked to innovate for a post-pandemic modus operandi.

In any case, they’re up for the task.

“The world is going to change,” Mierkowski said. “What’s really important is to stay ahead of the game.”