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Ammar Al Assam

What does the future of long-term design look like for architects?

Ammar Al Assam, CEO of Dewan Architects, speaks to Cityscape Intelligence about what the return to office and the future of long-term design will look like for architects

​​​​​​What has been the greater impact of the current pandemic across the field of architecture?

The initial shock of the pandemic led us to ask how can we act and respond effectively both from a commercial and business standpoint, and also from the perspective of protecting employees and our staff?

We took solace in the fact that we were all in this together – globally, I am generally an optimist in business, and of the mindset that whenever there are challenges there is always away to adjust and maneuver in order to move forward. As a professional services business we are lucky as we are not asset-heavy or reliant on bank credit, which allows us to be quite nimble and reactive

We have learned a lot from the crash of 2008, of course that was also a great shock but for the most part we came out of it stronger, better prepared and more resilient. This allowed us to be better able to manage the current crisis effectively.

What do you see being the short vs long term impact on the industry?

Historically, architecture has always developed, adapted and adjusted after pandemics. If you look back at the great plagues or the Spanish Flu, they have all shaped how cities are built. The reaction was incredible in terms of transforming urban planning to create the modern cities that we see today. Unfortunately, urban planning of cities has not always gone right and segregation of cities across rich/poor divides or race divides has created some terrible long term social and planning problems. We hope that the current crisis creates positive city planning outcomes and it is the responsibility of architects, city planners, and government to work together to ensure this happens.

In terms of this pandemic, in the beginning we saw quick fear-based reactions and design solutions focussed around isolation, creating bubbles, shelters and distance. But in reality, people can’t live like that and humans are social creatures that strive for social interactions and relationship building. Although I believe it is too soon to predict the long-term changes, I think there are a few that we can expect.

The combination of flexible working from home, businesses needing less physical space and people exploring a move to the suburbs and away from cities will lead to a less dense urban context. This in itself is a partial solution to protecting from future pandemics as well as reducing traffic, waste and physical costs.

At the heart of future city planning will be the people, they will be the main drivers as their values shift to prioritising nature, family and space. Knowing they can have a happier existence away from cities will lead to the natural progression of design driven by human demand affecting planning of the future city and urban and sub-urban context.

We are already seeing more immediate short-term designs that are incorporating innovative solutions around waste management, ventilation and air quality. We have a current retail mega mall project in Abu Dhabi, where the client is already exploring different ways of operating the mall to reduce physical interaction and integrate smart technologies at payment and parking delivery for example.  

What are the innovative solutions and approaches from architects in response to the pandemic?

It is human nature that we want to be safe, but we also want to be with people. The fear-based designs that happened immediately are less prevalent now, and architects are realising we can kill two birds with one stone. By designing buildings and cities that keep people happy and at home as well as reduce business costs and with positive environmental repercussions. Through revamping offices, creating hot desks, integrating greater flexibility we will see a transformation in how offices are designed and used.

The reality is every industry was moving towards shifting business onto the cloud, so as much as possible the pandemic has come at an opportune time where we have the resources to respond productively and continue business from home.

We are also seeing other innovations and solutions across hospitality as they move towards a low touch economy consisting of less interaction and greater integration of technology. The same trends have been introduced in schools and education, as clients are reconsidering how they design and operate.

The most exciting innovations will be in the urban development of entire cities. This will be driven by how businesses work. If we are allowed to work in a more relaxed environment, with greater flexibility we can expect much less densification and more spread out rural areas. There will be an increase in demand for outdoor areas, nature and more space per person. Transportation will be critical in the solution towards reducing pollution and congestion. We will see new modes of transport, flexible hours, cloud way of working. These things will allow us to design and build better cities.

Every country will have a different reaction and solution, which will be interesting to see. Hopefully, designs will be less driven by just commercial return and more focus will be put on the integration of happiness indices and wellbeing.

Do have any advice for architects or firms struggling with the situation?

Entry-level architects are coming into the market at a very difficult time; however, they are far more tech-savvy than past generations. This can be a great advantage as the world opens up to working remotely. The next generation of architects could potentially work anywhere in the world.

Their focus should be on gaining the right experience at the best firms that view them as a long-term investment.  This coupled with taking advantage of prestigious design competitions will help raise their profiles and put them in good stead to build their experience and reputation. 

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