Building Forward: What architects need from government to make it through COVID-19

Running a small business isn’t easy at the best of times. Payroll comes every two weeks. Rent and utility bills come every month. Tax submissions come every quarter. Today’s pandemic exacerbates the challenges that small businesses face: reserves are often minimal, allowing for, if they’re lucky, a month or two of emergency financial resources.

Due to the nature of tight budgets, small businesses rely on their clients to pay their bills regularly and keep revenue flowing. Sometimes this is within 30 days, but more often within 60, though some are 90 or longer. As long as it’s predictable, things flow smoothly. But when bills are submitted by mail, processed by in-house staff and cheques mailed out, this process can grind to a halt if everyone is working from home. Thankfully, many bigger organizations use direct deposit and accept invoices by email. Making sure bills are paid in a timely fashion helps everyone; it means payroll gets covered and rents get paid.

When staff have to work remotely, it means buying the necessary hardware to work remotely. It means setting up processes and systems to maintain file security and supporting staff with work from home options; that can mean subsidizing their home internet use, paying for their personal cell phone or giving them an office work chair so that their ergonomics at work (from home) are the same as when they are at work.

All these things cost money. A decent computer is over $3,000 alone, not to mention the set-up time, software and so on. Access to the office resources (building codes, reference material) is limited to what can be made available on-line. Many resources can’t be digitized and some projects have security protocols and can’t be worked on outside the office.

Then there is the social aspect. We work collaboratively on projects. That means getting up from your desk to talk to the other people on the project or getting an outside opinion on how to do something from someone down the hall. It might mean printing the drawing you’re working on and grabbing a coffee with someone to talk through the design problem. All this is possible when working from home, but not only is it different, it’s not what we’re used to. It takes time and technology, to make this happen.

Why do small businesses matter? Over 90% of architecture practices in the province employ fewer than 10 architects. Over 75% of Ontario architecture practices are very small businesses, with two architects or less, likely representing less than 20 employees. Yet, Ontario architects have an economic impact that represents 14% of the province’s GDP.

There are real steps cities and provincial governments can take, right now, that would make a difference. Immediate steps include:

  • Suspending commercial property taxes for the next 6 months. That could be tens of thousands of dollars.
  • Provide grant funding for hardware and software to keep employees working. Make this grant funding come directly out of quarterly HST submissions so that the revenue is recouped quickly instead of waiting until next year’s tax submission.

In the short- and medium-term, we need to look at how to stimulate the economy. Investing in buildings creates places for people, and we need better places more than ever before. We still have a housing crisis and can’t forget that sustainable investment in the built environment pays dividends.

Here are 4 ways City and provincial governments can take immediate steps, today:

  • Funding design competitions for deep energy retrofits, renovations and restorations to address the backlog of billions of dollars in infrastructure; holding ideas competitions creates opportunities for small- and medium-sized firms to showcase their talents and spur a public conversation on community investment, and set the stage for longer-range capital planning.
  • Create more small projects; ten $20 million modest housing projects can create opportunities for ten competent smaller firms, whereas one $200 million project creates 1 job opportunity (and very few firms can compete for it).
  • Expropriate vacant and derelict buildings where we desperately need good infill development; cities can hold onto this land, supporting design competitions and planning approvals to create sustainable infill and build them as city owned projects, or sell them with planning approvals and designs in place. Cities can carry the cost of the design and planning process, alleviating the high carrying cost of this process.
  • Reform planning: Accelerate planning approvals for as-of-right applications, defer development charges and provide brownfield grants to support the high-quality sustainable development our cities need more than ever.

The way we design our built environment is more important than ever. We need homes and public places where we can find solace, collect our thoughts, grieve, laugh, and form the social cohesion we need. Choosing to invest in architecture creates opportunities for a better place. When life returns to normal, as it inevitably will, we need to decide if we go back to the way things were, or if our design approach needs to change. If we want the design talent that will make a difference, we need to support small businesses today, so that they will be here to bring changes tomorrow. Design matters.


Architect Toon Dreessen is President of Architects DCA and former president of The Ontario Association of Architects. For samples of our previous work, explore our portfolio

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