June 22, 2020

Creating better quality of life after lockdown in Malta

It is evident that in the growing interconnectedness of today’s hyper-globalised cities, public health crises rarely fail to leave their mark on a metropolis, and consequently on the lives of its inhabitants. The impact of this mark on our life depends on how prepared we are to accommodate a new lifestyle. Whether the lifting of restrictions have restored your life to normal (or a new normal), or you are still apprehensive as to the extent of whether you should return to normal, it is inevitable that some adjustments need to be made and communities are wondering which of these adjustments will endure beyond the end of the pandemic, and what life might look like on the other side.

Those of us in the business of designing and developing buildings and neighbourhoods should now be thinking about how we can improve people’s lifestyle in the longer term. We need to address these questions now if we want to bring about effective change.

Engage the community and “keep it local”

Supporting local traders may have started from necessity, but it could continue as a lifestyle change, seeking out locally produced and sourced food and beverage, reducing shipping, air freight and packaging, but could go as far as with engaging local artists and artisans. There is obvious connection between supporting local business and improving local social and economic sustainability.

‘Hyperlocalism’ could easily trigger a new wave of creativity in the built environment – more self-sustained, mixed use architecture devised in collaboration with the local community. People will start opting for staycations (vacations within your current environment) which presents a huge opportunity for developers willing to think outside the box. With the increased dependency on technology brought about by home working, schooling, etc, the work-home life balance has become very blurred. People are and will be looking for a change of scenery, possibly also somewhere to digitally detox from it all.

Give people greater control

Building from the previous point, we need to help build newly revitalised communities and networks by listening to what local people want and need from projects in their area. Getting them involved early through local plans through meaningful consultation on developments and the widespread digitisation of the planning process on a macro-level, but also involve them on a micro-level in driving the narrative of the design. This has in part already started, with examples in the local scene of the re-development of the Chalet, Sliema and with the community involvement in the recent sustainable housing projects.

Promote healthy minds and bodies

We all know the benefits of sunlight and fresh air, but these have been particularly reinforced with restrictions on mobility over the last few months. Not all residents are fortunate enough to have their own outdoor space. The increase in smaller apartments by way of including as many units per square metre as possible has been the challenge for most designers whose sole intention was pushing more funds into the developers’ pockets. The repercussions of this is evident in the way people are reacting to the easement of the pandemic restrictions.

Designers should focus more on holistic residential projects that positively affect the mind, body and community. Our own houses should include outdoor spaces that encourage interaction with nature and reverse our focus on prevalent hermetic environments.

This mindset shift should be extended to our streets and general urban landscapes. Commercial signs should not add to the visual pollution of our cities. Signs have a strong psychological impact on our lifestyle, mood and general wellbeing. The design of commercial signage should consider the urban context, especially in historical cities. The relationship of environmental psychology, graphic design, architecture, planning and urban design concepts is tightly knit within this context and the recommended design principles should create commercial streetscapes that are evaluated positively by different users.

Invest in green infrastructure

While 2020 is the year that will be remembered for COVID-19, it will also be defined by the world waking up to climate change. Seeing the great improvements in pollution levels worldwide due to curtailment of transport and industries due to lockdowns, we should come out of this pandemic with a renewed desire to integrate green, sustainable design into our cities. Citizens could press governments worldwide to bring in stricter air pollution measures in the long term.

Positive recent initiatives by the Maltese Government were in funding a “green reform” and in organising urban green competitions. These are steps in the right direction to provide greener spaces in the re-thinking of our cities. Other similar initiatives are welcome and ought to be launched sooner rather than later to promote people’s wellness and social sustainability.

From a lifestyle and inclusivity point of view, the integration of green spaces in the urban fabric will improve access to nature for everyone. We often forget that not everyone’s situation is the same. Not everyone can drive or cycle to get to an outdoor space. Imbuing our towns with areas for truly local social engagement is essential. Designers have an obligation to prioritise people and active mobility, both in terms of play spaces for children and recreational areas for adults.

It is high time that we position ourselves in a situation where, when looking back on 2020 in say 20 years’ time, we will be proud of the advancement in lifestyle improvement and the positive impact on the built environment.

Photo by Eric Bartolo.
Youtube Channel - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kFszkO55gJI

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June 9, 2020

Are Architects & Civil Engineers essential personnel?

The current COVID-19 health crisis has brought about a different consciousness to our understanding of ‘normality’ which has affected all strata of society. And whereas most refer to it as a health, and consequently a financial crisis, it is worth tracing the etymological meaning of crisis which defines the word in a vaster sense and is certainly more applicable today than ever. Coming from the Latinized form of the Greek krisis, it refers to the decisive point or state of things in the progress of a disease, or a point at which change must come, for better or for worse. It is in such moments of crisis where the meaning of essential changes. But the question is, essential from whose perspective?

Historically, the built environment has never been separate from public health. For instance, the bubonic plague that began in China in 1855 and later on the cholera outbreak pushed urban planners to rethink the urban environment. This changed the design of more things that we can fathom; from drainpipes to door thresholds and building foundations, in the war against rodents. The aesthetic of modernism was partly a result of tuberculosis, with light-flooded sanatoriums inspiring an era of white-painted rooms, hygienic tiled bathrooms and the recognisable mid-century recliner chair. This also led to the modern street grid and prompted the introduction of sewage systems that required roads to be wider and straighter, along with the creation of new zoning laws to prevent inhabitant overcrowding.

Form has followed fear of infection, just as much as it has followed function.

In light of the above, it becomes clear that architects and engineers have been essential in reshaping the built environment in order to safeguard the health of citizens. What is essential here is to move away from the understanding that the city is static. Instead, we ought to perceive the ‘changing city’ as a serious unit of analysis. It is through such an analysis that crises can be addressed realistically and with creativity. Mobility trends will change due to the shift in work-life practices. Human patterns and minimum expectations of what dwellings should incorporate may also need to be re-analysed. Gone are the days where the home is just seen as the place of rest. More natural light, an increase in living and some outdoor space may now be deemed as basic necessities. Advancements in materials and paint coatings which will reduce surface transmission of bacteria and viruses will also be expected. Like societies, the built environment is never still and needs to adapt to a new normal.

The COVID-19 pandemic, like its kin pandemics, sparked a new consideration of what is ‘essential’. Malta, like other European countries, on partial lockdown since the beginning of March 2020, entered a debate on what services and professions are regarded as essential for the continued day-to-day life of society. To date, its understanding has been understood from a partial perspective and seems to have only considered public health and the market.

So where does the built environment stand in that debate? Are architects and civil engineers essential?

The history of our profession (both architects and civil engineers in Malta are embodied in one profession: that of the ‘Perit’) is to protect the health, safety and welfare of the public. It is not just the finished project which provides protection to the public. There are even more immediate considerations. For instance, the re-conceptualisation of infrastructure is central to the health strategy of containment and social distancing. Devising new circulation pathways and innovative structures can also be detrimental to the economy. From this perspective, architects and engineers become essential. Such significant input can also lead to more jobs as architects and engineers may re-train or create new opportunities in the job market.

All projects which are ongoing may pose safety issues to the general public. Additionally, ‘essential’ may also be seen with respect to the bigger picture: because ultimately, even as periti are duty-bound to protect the health, safety and welfare of the public, their own health, safety and welfare are just as essential .

It is in this spirit that the Kamra Tal-Periti (KTP), through consultancy with the Superintendence of Public Health, committed itself to keep the profession informed during this unprecedented period, giving clear instructions on how to implement social distancing measures while still maintaining productivity. For instance, KTP has been very prompt in issuing recommendations and guidelines on how best to deal with inspections of occupied third-party properties, both residential and commercial, as well as best practise on construction sites including inspections and meetings. This was essential.

It is impossible, however, to have a complete discussion without the acknowledgment that some construction projects have been delayed and some cancelled, as a result of the impacts of COVID-19 on the companies that commissioned them. Furthermore, possible supply chain bottlenecks of equipment and materials have caused project delays in ongoing projects, or reduced spending on future ones.

This has had a knock-on effect on local professional practices that have had to let go of some staff members in attempt to safeguard the legacy they have created over the years and which is now vulnerable to bankruptcy. Perhaps here, the issue is resistance to change. Maybe it is time to be creative and rethink the profession of the perit which has been under pressure for some time. After all, creativity is core to the discipline.

It is probably fair to say that the only constant in society is change; jobs become anachronistic over time.

A survey conducted by KTP has shown that as of April 2020, employers indicate that they are expecting a 28% reduction in their workforce, with the main reasons being the decrease in the number of projects, ongoing projects being put on hold by the clients and deteriorating profitability. The turnovers reported are also of significant concern, as nearly half of the respondents of the survey are expecting their April billing to be over 30% less than their 2019 average. A similar trend was noted in terms of ability to collect outstanding dues. As things stand, 50% of professional practices are expecting that more than 30% of their outstanding dues for 2020 will not be recovered immediately.

The most seasoned of professionals have likely been through at least one economic downturn before the one currently being caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, with the most recent significant recession having taken place just a little more than a decade ago. They, therefore, know what to expect and how to keep their focus on recovery. However, it may be time to shift from recovery and move into creative-action mode. How can this be achieved?

The younger members of the profession have most likely not been affected by such a crisis before since construction projects have been on the increase since the financial recession of 2007-2009. The best way young professionals can weather the current uncertainties would be to focus on their digital media skills. Hence, the younger generation may be crucial to industry success. Virtual space can also facilitate a ‘third’ space where design professionals can remain connected and be able to network and promote their professional development.

It is clear that the COVID-19 crisis has left the thirst of change in its wake. Besides the re-direction of the profession through a shift towards digital architecture and engineering, the key is for periti to take this serendipitous change seriously. Additionally, what will make a difference is how sensitively this change is incorporated at a disciplinary and professional level, but also at a national level through new customary legislation. Are periti willing to change their modus operandi in what is essentially an old-fashioned way of conducting their operations locally? This does not change our obligation to progress as a profession but enhances it. We are collectively faced with new obstacles in terms of working methodologies and patterns. Our default has been forcibly challenged and our circumstances drastically altered. This could be our point of departure.

We hope that the effects of this change will not only be merely reflected in the more spacious office desk layout, but may more professionals be interested in fully embracing the implementation of digital software such as BIM and VR into working practices and go as far as to replace hard copies of documents and drawings with the use of digital ones. Not only are these methods more environmentally friendly, they are more effective and well-rounded for presentations and discussions.

This change could also be taken to the next level by using technology enabling digital interaction with and that remotely facilitate a construction activity where a virtual replica of the physical world is created or the use of 360° cameras to digitally capture site conditions. Such technology provides a means that could transform the way physical industries operate.

Apart from the recognition of the damaging global impact of the current crisis, one hopes to incorporate issues like mitigation of climate change, as well as the impact of greenhouse gas emissions, within this newly inspired framework.

On a positive note, and on a global scale, it is enlightening to see stories emerge of nitrogen dioxide levels in China lowering and Venetian canals running clear. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic will most certainly have impacted the global Net Zero agenda and that had most likely been pushed down the list of priorities. We are faced with economic uncertainty but as professionals within the built environment and spatial planning we should ensure that decarbonisation remains a vital agenda item. When industries bounce back, let this be done with Net Zero Carbon at the forefront.

In order for professionals in the built environment to be able to shape the post-COVID-19 world, an inclusive collaboration of several professionals and inter-disciplinary research amongst scholars and the industry is of utmost importance. Academics, practitioners and even politicians must come together as limits are pushed in search of creative solutions. We need to use this time to reinvent the way we do economy. Buildings need to be reinstated back into the ecosystem.

We are all both students and catalysts of human behaviour; we want to understand it and to engage with it.

The author would like to thank Perit Simone Vella Lenicker and Perit Andre Pizzuto (President and Vice-President of the Kamra Tal-Periti) for their work on gathering local data on the status of the profession, as well as Dr Rachael M Scicluna for her valuable comments and thought-provoking discussions on the subject.

This article was originally published in the ECCE E-Journal 20.

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