Nearly four months have passed since I last spoke with six architects and design professionals from across the state about their experiences in the early days of the pandemic. The initial shock has worn off, and, despite the continued uncertainty, most have eased into a new normal, of sorts. What that normal looks like varies for each person. I caught up with these individuals again at the end of September to ask what life has been like and where they are now.
Sean Guess, AIA
Sean Guess, AIA, owner of Faye + Walker in Austin, returned to his physical office space in mid-July after one of his two employees put in their notice. His remaining employee has only been with the firm nine months, and they were finding the remote environment challenging for mentorship. He says the difference is “night and day” now that they are back in person. His employee is gaining skills at a better pace, and the ability for quick check-ins is making work more efficient. They are acclimating to the office complex feeling like a ghost town and to following strict sanitizing protocols. Their workload has also experienced a positive shift with new project inquiries picking up in late summer. Some projects that had previously gone on hold were recently revived. The firm is stable, and Guess is feeling busy.
He says the biggest change has been an adjustment to his focus. The health of his firm was a primary concern at the start of the pandemic. Now, the firm is in a good place, but additional challenges have arisen on the home front. His two elementary-age children are both learning virtually from home for the fall semester. After the chaos of the spring and summer, he and his wife decided to get help during the school year, hiring a part-time educator who helps the kids manage their afternoon school and post-school activities. “It seemed like at some point — when school was in session — we would fall into a rhythm and the complexity would diminish,” Guess says, “but it hasn’t, really.” The lack of normalcy and social interaction is taking a toll on the kids, requiring creative interventions and regular encouragement. Even with the extra help and carefully planned work shifts, each day presents new challenges that derail the constant rhythm he was hoping to achieve.
Regardless, he is making it to the office by lunch most days of the week and is reassured by the focused work time. He’s also feeling optimistic about his professional life. He’s become more involved at AIA Austin and is encouraged by the network of peers he has developed. The proliferation of Zoom webinars has resulted in speaking engagements, allowing Guess to reflect on his design process and tailor his brand. It’s starting to pay dividends in the types of clients seeking his services, a welcome development. He knows things will eventually work out at home but recognizes that his kids are in a tough period that requires more of his attention. Their school is implementing a phased return to campus in January, beginning with the lower grade levels. Guess is setting his sights on this new milestone, hoping the school doesn’t close before his fifth grader makes it back. “There is light at the end of the tunnel,” he says. “I just hope we can get back to some sense of normalcy.”
When Andrea Batarse and I last spoke, she had recently graduated from Texas A&M and moved from College Station to Dallas. The last four months have been a blur as she started a new job at BRW and acclimated to a new city. Despite being in the midst of a pandemic, she expressed the typical excitement of a recent graduate being immersed daily in new experiences. She gushed over her new firm, noting the technical training and strong female mentorship she was receiving there.
Batarse was able to start her new job in person, the firm operating at limited capacity to meet social distancing recommendations. When she decided she wanted to visit her parents, she was able to transition to working from home for two weeks while she quarantined. During that time, she got sick and, despite testing negative for COVID, opted to quarantine for an additional two weeks, since her father is high-risk. Finally able to go to Houston, she took her office setup along so she could stay for an extended time. Her family was nearby and also working from home, so they began having lunch together daily. This short-term ritual reminded her of childhood summers spent visiting family in El Salvador, where siesta is the norm. It was a time she says she will cherish and remember as a rare upside to the pandemic. She is physically back in the office now and grateful for the firm’s flexibility.
When asked what life is like as a 20-something during a pandemic, Batarse admits that she’s excited for it to end so she can go out and meet people. As a social person, she’s been surprised at how well she’s adjusted to being alone. “The last few months have been about personal development,” she says. “Now I have time to work out and eat healthy. A lot of my focus has been on family, which has dictated my social life.” Batarse hasn’t been sitting idle, though. She joined an AIA leadership program, is actively writing, and is collaborating on the design of an emergency shelter for a refugee camp in Matamoros.
Batarse’s outlook remains positive, and she now worries less about her classmates, most of whom have found jobs. Two of her best friends even landed in Dallas. She says she does still worry for her international friends from TAMU. Some were able to remain in the U.S. by finding work at the university, but one recently had to return home. “There should be better opportunities for people seeking a better life,” she says. “Your status in a space is determined by your place of birth, which you have no control over. He’s so talented, and it’s so unfair that he had to leave. He should have had the opportunity to prove himself.” She knows others are in difficult circumstances and says her only attitude can be one of gratitude.
Anastasia Calhoun, Assoc. AIA
I reached Anastasia Calhoun, Assoc. AIA, in her hometown of Norman, Oklahoma, where she had moved a few weeks back. Still without a full-time job and trying to tend to her new business, she decided to take advantage of a vacant rental property owned by a family member. She admits the move was not an easy decision, but the opportunity to live without a lease and to help her brother with his two children seemed like the right choice. She left most of her belongings in San Antonio and moved the necessities to her temporary residence. She hopes her stay will only last a couple of months, but admits the ongoing uncertainty gives her doubt that it will end that quickly.
Calhoun plans to put more energy into her new venture now that she is settled in Oklahoma. “I felt like I was treading water,” she says. “I needed to have an address on all of my product labels, and I wasn’t sure where I was going to be.” Her schedule has shifted to three days of full-time work on her wellness business and two days split between the business and childcare duties. Her search for a full-time position has continued in the background. Job openings for alternative architectural careers have dwindled, forcing Calhoun to consider a move to academia. She rode out the last recession while in graduate school but is not convinced the financial commitment for a Ph.D. is worth it. She says she is at a crossroads. She has fielded some job offers in the last few months, but they would require relocation. With everything so unstable, she says: “getting a job offer right now is really daunting. You don’t know if it will work out, and you’ll have uprooted your life again.”
When I asked if she still sees specialized roles as a sustainable career option, she expressed optimism that opportunities would resurge after the economy settles. The issues remain relevant, with designers positioned to play a leading role in their resolution. That may be even more true after society recovers from this global pandemic. Just recently, the AIA issued a request for proposal for a research grant that will fund consultants to review the organization’s policy platforms as they pertain to the pandemic, climate crisis, and racial injustice. Calhoun and two other women — all former employees of Overland’s sustainability department — responded to the RFP. The team was shortlisted — then formally awarded her the grant — days after we spoke. Calhoun was both excited and relieved. The research is in line with her interests, and the work will get her through the end of the year, when she can again take stock of her situation.
Cale Lancaster, AIA
Cale Lancaster, AIA, principal at Rhotenberry Wellen Architects in Midland, chatted with me while en route to a job site. The project — a house in Midland — shut down when the pandemic started, as the contractor scrambled to respond to a new reality. In limbo for several weeks, it recently kicked back into high gear. Lancaster drives by the site daily and notes the relief he feels seeing it active again. The workload in their office has also picked up, and they even interviewed a potential employee. Everyone is physically back in their office, and he says the extra safety protocols, like hand sanitizer and masks, have become second nature.
For Lancaster, one of the surreal experiences of the pandemic was closing out construction of a home in Austin remotely. The house had been under construction for several years and was entering its final phase when the pandemic hit. The office ceased travel, so Lancaster was left navigating a punch list via photo-sharing and FaceTime with the contractor, a process he described as “nerve-wracking.” He was finally able to see the finished house in person on a recent trip, four months after seeing it as a bustling construction site.
Around Midland, things seem to have normalized. “It’s like a switch has been flipped and people are back to doing their thing,” he says. The town seems busier. The schools are in a hybrid mode of remote and in-person learning, and most people have returned to their offices. Their daycare reopened, and after he waited three weeks for the daycare to work out any kinks, his two children returned. He and his wife, who both work at RWA, have returned to a pre-pandemic schedule. Things feel steady — even with curbside child pick-up and mask-wearing. He described a general attitude of getting back to life, just doing it smarter, saying that for Midlanders, “it comes down to common sense, not mandates.”
Looking toward the future, Lancaster is optimistic that things will pick up. The oil industry is in a holding pattern, sustaining itself but not booming. Though some clients who pulled projects months ago have not been ready to restart them, the firm has a diverse mix of active projects across the state. When asked about his current attitude, he says: “Let’s see how the year finishes out. It just feels like the energy in the office and around town is more positive than it was the last time we talked. It was very depressing then. I try to keep a positive attitude and be optimistic. People may be coping with the new norm. Everyone has the attitude that we’re going to make it out of this.”
Ron Stelmarski, AIA
Since I last spoke to Ron Stelmarski, AIA, design director and principal at Perkins & Will in Dallas, his youngest son graduated high school and moved to college. The family attended a COVID-era graduation ceremony in a sports field complete with barriers to ensure social distancing. When school began, father and son road-tripped to the University of Cincinnati for move-in. Five days later, his son contracted COVID-19 and had to quarantine on campus. Fortunately, he had mild symptoms and recovered quickly. Stelmarski chuckled, recalling how he pulled a Morphosis book from his library to help his son — freshly arrived to campus — navigate his quarantine dorm, a circa-2005 multiuse building by the firm. Though he and his wife had anticipated being empty-nesters this year, they kept their oldest son home from the University of Arizona due to underlying health conditions. He’s taking online classes and working instead. It’s allowed for bonding time as the two restore a car together.
Stelmarski continues to work, mostly from home, and says PW is still in Phase I of reopening, with only 15-20 people regularly in the office. He has begun going in, himself, for the occasional client meeting or design charette. For projects of a certain scale and complexity, they are finding it more efficient to collaborate in person. He is still taking the measure of the firm’s new mode of working, weighing the upsides and downsides. One challenge he sees with remote work is mentorship. Casual “walk-bys” to check in with staff have been replaced by purposeful phone calls and meetings, something that eats time and risks overwhelming the mentee. While remote work has been surprisingly seamless, he worries about the impact of rewired behaviors, things as simple as waking up and going to work. “You lose that extra muscle you had before,” he says. “I don’t know how we get that rhythm back. We are habit-based, and we’ve adapted to this new normal. When we first came home, we had to re-shift. It seems like there is some wasted time now.” He recognizes that the energy and intensity of a studio environment often yield more expediency. Recently, he’s been considering a hybrid model of remote work with frequent face-to-face check-ins.
While Stelmarski has stayed consistently busy since March, he concedes the firm can only look so far ahead. They are still interviewing for new projects, and he’s encouraged that clients are moving projects forward after an initial slowdown. He is working on a mix of project types ranging from a campus building, to a police station, to a medical center in a revitalized South Dallas mall. All have an embedded wellness component, a theme he sees extending well beyond basic health needs.
Stelmarski has also recently been revisiting art books in his library. “We are making architecture too systematic,” he says. “The science of design is great, but I see myself shaping design. There’s a point where we can overdo it and dehumanize architecture. Hyper-clean suddenly becomes hyper-boring.”
Jenny Thomason, AIA
When Jenny Thomason, AIA, and I connected over the phone recently, it was Friday, and the week had clearly taken its toll. Thomason had just returned home from one of many lunch meetings that week, and was debating aloud whether it was too early to pour a glass of wine. When we spoke in May, several of her studio’s multifamily projects had gone on hold, and she was assigned to a healthcare project in the interim. Her workload slowed down for a while, but a series of recent changes, including staff reductions and the return of the previously on-hold projects, has resulted in her feeling very busy of late.
Once her son went back to daycare in May, Thomason says, she acclimated well to her home office. However, her firm, Omniplan, began a phased return to work that is now in Phase II. They are targeting 50 percent occupancy by assigning project teams to “A” or “B” blocks of days (A comes in on Monday and Tuesday; B comes in on Wednesday and Thursday). Based on her project assignments, Thomason has found herself in the office most of the week. She’s been back for nearly a month now and is finally adjusting to the new routine.
Perhaps the most jarring experience for Thomason in recent months was flying for the first time after a long hiatus. As the pandemic began, she was forced to make a last-minute cancellation of a flight to San Diego to visit a project. In mid-August, the project was ready for an initial punch list, and she opted to do it in person instead of dealing with a virtual process — something she felt would be nearly impossible, given the scale of the project. Thomason recalls: “The airport was a bit frightening, because I went from quarantine in my back house to an airplane. I should have eased into it a bit.” She was uncomfortable in the crowd, and, to make matters worse, the flight had been oversold. By the time she arrived in San Diego and got into the taxi, she felt relieved. She remembers thinking: “I made it. That wasn’t as bad as I thought.” The trip turned out to be a refreshing mental reprieve after six months of being cooped up at home. She’s looking forward to the ocean views when she makes another trip next month.
Her recent travels and return to the office have made her more at ease with the current state of the pandemic. With projects coming back online and continued growth in the multifamily sector, she says the mood at the office has changed to a more optimistic outlook. While no one believes they have fully recovered, there is more confidence about getting through the year. At home, they’ve eased into a rhythm of sorts, albeit a busy one. On weekends, her three-year-old son streams cartoons on YouTube. The random order of the shows and episodes produces an occasional Christmas-themed episode, which Thomason says is sparking a longing for the traditional downtime at year’s end. “I can’t wait for Christmas,” she says. “I need time to veg out and listen to Christmas music. That sounds wonderful.”
Audrey Maxwell, AIA, is a partner at Malone Maxwell Dennehy Architects in Dallas and TxA’s 2020 president-elect.