Published: Architect Magazine
On April 6, after days of calling and checking my bank’s website, I was finally able to submit my application for the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program under the CARES Act. The program is supposed to help small businesses retain their employees by giving them a loan that would cover two months of payroll. The loan would be forgiven if the staff remains employed and the money is used for this purpose. I called the bank to follow up on my submission, but no one was able to review or confirm that my application was complete or processed. For now, I can only wait and hope.
Like so many, I have been working from home for the last month, trying to keep my small architectural firm of four afloat under these strange circumstances. In early March, we had seven active projects in different phases of design, bidding, and construction. We were working on a multifamily apartment building, two apartment combinations, renovation plans for three synagogues, and a retirement home in the desert. But as of Friday, all but one are on hold as the states of New York and New Jersey shut down construction sites to mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite the rapid deceleration of our design work and billing, I have been working long hours. I’ve confirmed that calls to our office landline phones are being forwarded and that my staff’s remote desktop access is working. I’ve become adept at communicating with my clients and contractors on Zoom—and looking professional and optimistic from my bedroom.
I do not take my privilege for granted. I am deeply grateful to be healthy, sheltered, and able to work from home. I collaborate with many independent contractors, mostly immigrants, and there is little that a plumber, carpenter, or electrician can do—and get paid for—while at home.
But I also worry about my firm’s financial stability and my ability to retain and pay my staff. I obsess over spreadsheets with different financial scenarios, trying to estimate how long I can stretch my company’s reserves. I try to quell my frustration that the pandemic seemed to come just when I had amassed a talented team, wonderful clients, and exciting projects. At times—often around 3 a.m.—I wonder if the best thing to do in the face of a pandemic and likely recession is to close my office, hunker down, and focus on caring for my own family.
During these moments of anxiety, I take a deep breath and remind myself of the joys I still have: a homemade lunch with my family, an exercise class led by my tween daughter, a jog in the park, donating books and toys, and dropping off soup for a sick friend.
While these techniques are helpful on a personal level, they do not ease my stress about my business or my staff. For this reason, I am making a pledge, and I hope others will join. If I receive funding from the CARES Act PPP that allows me to keep my staff on payroll for the next two months, my firm will dedicate a significant portion of the additional work time toward architectural work that does good for the world.
How many times have you wanted to pursue a pro bono project, research a new sustainable material, or help a deserving person renovate their kitchen? Although we perform some pro bono work every year, we must unfortunately turn down worthy clients. Small firms often lack the financial ability to embark upon these projects. Paradoxically, this difficult and scary period may present the best opportunity to use our time and creativity for the greater good.
I plan to offer my firm’s services to some of our smaller, not-for-profit clients if they are able to think about capital planning at this time. Often these clients need a preliminary vision, a few floor plans and renderings, and an estimated budget. I want to research how this pandemic may inform our built environment to reduce contagion while making public spaces more inclusive and equitable. I’d also like to participate in less “marketable” and more discreet acts of kindness, such as helping our immigrant contractors fill out paperwork to receive governmental assistance.
I may be naïve in offering my firm’s services at such a precarious time for businesses, and I anticipate that the next several weeks will test us further. I also fear that while loans and grants may offer temporary reprieve, the following months will become even more difficult industry- and worldwide. But since I cannot control, or even fathom, what the summer is going to bring, I choose to focus on the very near future—the next eight to 10 weeks.
I hope other architects and firms that receive funding and can afford to retain their staff will join me in paying part of this loan—this gift—forward and help others who could not otherwise be our clients. During these uncertain times, the one thing I am confident about is that doing good will also help us feel good.