Architect Shawn Basler on Designing for the Post-Pandemic | the Robert Benson Interview Series

September 09, 2021 - by commARCH
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Architect Shawn Basler on Designing for the Post-Pandemic | the Robert Benson Interview Series

For more coverage, browse our Digital Issues for highlights of the Robert Benson interview series, related articles, and much more.

cA: In the January-February and March-April 2021 issues of commARCH, we asked leading architect Robert Benson to interview key individuals about the transformations currently occurring and what we should expect in the future regarding the built environment. For a transcript of this conversation, more interviews from the project, and full digital issues of the commARCH magazine, please visit the commARCH website at www.commarch.com. 

This interview's conversation is with Shawn Basler. Basler is Co-CEO and Executive Director at Perkins Eastman. Basler is responsible for fostering Perkins Eastman's global growth. He leads internationally-recognized architectural and planning projects throughout North America, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, building relationships with clients and collaborators around the world. His portfolio spans design work for commercial mixed-use, corporate office, residential, and hospitality, as well as large scale urban design and planning developments.

Thank you for joining us - let's head into the Dialogue.

Robert Benson: I can't thank you enough for taking the time. I'm sure you're crazy crazy busy. This piece is an interesting one in that I'm talking to artists, architects, brokers, students... anthropologists, actually, and technologists and futurists, and really just trying to get a perspective for everybody from a post-pandemic sense. And when I say post-pandemic, I don't think we're necessarily going to go back to 2019. Whatever that new normal is going to be, that's the context of the question is -whenever we're back to whatever it is the new normal will be, that's really the point of it. And trying to focus on how we might change and adapt to improve the situation.

And I think there's going to be tons of change and I'm hopeful that it's positive change. But that's really - your opinion, positive, negative, doesn't matter - really just want to get an interesting sort of conversation going. So on that front, what technology do you think has the greatest impact post-pandemic?

Shawn Basler: I think there's multiple parts to that answer, because there's multiple platforms. I think that's gonna change the way that we do things. I mean, one: I think the there's the productivity tool part, right? It's and how we're using them and things like that. But this was happening well before the pandemic. I think what's interesting is the pandemic for firms to move towards much more collaborative modeling systems, if they weren't there already. Everybody was already using them, but the way they use it as a remote collaborating tool, I think - I think people had to adapt pretty quickly with their offices working remote. So I think that's good, but as a productivity and a building integrated system tool, it's just gonna keep getting pushed further. And it's kind of interesting - there's always a sort of struggle where the contractors - and I think the engineers - are really pushing it to be much more of the center of - on the larger jobs, these are much larger jobs, I think, that we're doing - we're seeing that the BIM model is really, it's not just the design and documentation tool anymore, but it's really getting integrated into what the building systems are going to be and how the building is going to be managed and run.

And I think that's just gonna, that's just gonna continue and allow people to collaborate much more real-time and things like that. So there's a whole productivity part, which was happening already, but I think to an extent has maybe been accelerated a little bit during the pandemic. And all of those tools that allow us to collaborate remotely, I think, are things that are going to be accelerated. So it's everything else that kind of supports that remote collaboration. From Zoom - like we're on now - to other things. So it's being able to work with teams anywhere around the world and individuals anywhere around the world, at any given time. And I think that's something that's going to continue.

But I think that the other part, which we're really interested in, is the data analytics part. And how we, we understand our buildings - or even how we understand our places before we create buildings - to create, buildings that are much, much more sensitive to the environment, much more responsive to the program and to the communities that they are. And so having those analytical tools early on to - whether it's for a hospital to understand the predictive analytics of what's going to be going into that hospital and how it's going to evolve over - what the community is going to need and how it's going to evolve over time. But then allowing those data analytics to live with the buildings, to allow buildings, to adapt and adjust as they go through the life cycle of the building.

So I think that there's going to be much how we use data in the design, or leading up to the design, to to get to the design program, as well as how we use data within our buildings to understand how they are performing and how they're - how well they're performing with people that are using the buildings too. So I think that's sort of an overlay, but it all will tie back to maybe a BIM model or something at one point.

What's kind of interesting - we're doing all of this work right now with a lot of higher-ed campuses. And so the whole thing is, "How do you sort of marry the-" now they've all gone virtual, right? So all these colleges are trying to figure out, well, how do they - it was all about creating these great campuses and the physical experience and the social interaction on the physical campus. That's what we were all doing before the pandemic. Now it's now they're all remote and they realize that a majority - some of their classes and things will continue to be remote, even when they all go back. So now how do you integrate the virtual experience with the physical experience? And so,I think that the tools that people will be studying to do that are important.

The other thing that I think that is going to be important with regard to building performance, which is interesting. We were always concerned before the pandemic about how buildings performed and how sustainable they were and how green they were and things like that. But I think that has shifted now a little bit to - which started before the pandemic - but how our buildings - well, for the users it doesn't mean it's great that a building can be the greenest building in the world, but what is the result of the people that are using that building? And all the tools that are kind of used now to do the analytical part on all the environmental factors as well as social factors, and marrying the two on the quantitative and qualitative part, I think is interesting. So I think that there's the productivity part. And then there's the research-analytical part. And those tools are just going to be even more important as we go forward.

RB: You just touched on a lot there. It's funny, you mentioned the digital-physical hybrid for education. I've put a group together to work on hybrid educational modalities. Not at the higher-ed level yet. More, more like K through 12, but working through some with physicians, educational theorists, et cetera, to try to figure out how to take the best of both and put something into - in together that's comprehensive and very adaptable.

The BIM side of things: there's no question that facilities, were absolutely looking for almost an as-built quality BIM model when a building's done, but now there's companies who are offering cities a digital twin. And I think as we move away from VR and toward AR this will be really interesting if every inch of the public fabric is modeled, and then the data is analyzed with some of the more advanced sensors. We really are going to get into something very different than any of us have ever experienced before. And I think you're right that the the pandemic can push that along which is really fascinating.

SB: There's an interesting group, I think, out of Chicago where you are, Cityzenith, have you ever seen those guys?

RB: Absolutely - that's who I was referring to. (Laughing)

SB: That's kind of interesting what they've been doing. Yeah, no, they're really interesting. I like what they're doing with the digital mapping of cities and stuff, and how they've been partnering with people.

RB: What's creepy is I Googled them, I had a conversation with somebody on the phone about them last, I don't know, last week - I Googled them once just to see what they're up to on a particular thing. And then I picked up my phone the next day and on Instagram, the first ad was Cityzenith. So creepy. I don't know that I can ever adjust to how I'm being listened to every minute of every day.

Anyway, on the second topic, which was social behavior: what social behavior do you think is impacted the most, post-pandemic. Just for starters. My cousin, who I mentioned, had come over - he had been tested twice plus antibodies and he's not had COVID - walked in the door and put his hand out to me to shake my hand, like he always does. And remember I was like, "Oh, it's probably the first hand I've shaken since March of last year." And I, I was really like, "Eugh..." there's the sort of personal social behavior, but there's also a much broader example of social behavior. What do you think is going to change the most?

SB: I have somewhat of a cynical view on this. I think that people will have amnesia on certain things. So there'll be certain social norms that we've adapted to get through the pandemic that's like that. Social distancing and, eventually, wearing masks and stuff like that, this'll go away. It's gone away in past pandemics too. But the part that won't go away after this is the awareness on wellness and our environment and how well that is for us. And I think that was something was really starting before the pandemic and that that's going to be accelerated.

So there's going to be a conversation of healthy office spaces. So it's right now, it's, "How do you get people back into an office where you can keep them safe and socially distant?" But that's going to be turned upside down, or it already as now. And it's going to be about, "How is the office environments a well environment, and how does it make me healthier working for this company and being in this environment than somewhere else? How does this - why would I stay at this hotel? Why is this hotel... is it going to be healthier for me? Is it gonna have better food? Is it gonna, is there-" there's all of those things, I think that are just going to be accelerated, but this was happening before the pandemic. But now there's going to be an awareness to it. There'll be certain things that come back - I'm sure sports events and concerts and stuff like that - but there'll be the sort of the everyday stuff, our offices or our lifestyles and things like that, that there's going to be a huge and amplified awareness on healthy environments and healthy buildings.

I think additionally, I think the social impact of businesses and companies is going to be amplified. Through all of this, it's not just of the pandemic, but it's everything else that's arisen out of it. The social inequality and things like that. And that's - I think that's something that companies will have to take a stand for, and buildings and - we'll have to respond to too, for those companies. And so I think there's the wellness aspect, but I think that there's also the social aspect and what, what people are doing for their communities and their society, that's going to be much, much more important.

But again, these things were around before the pandemic, but I think it just amplified it during it. So whether you're a Fortune 500 company or a small little shop that's just starting out in some new industry. I think that those - what your moral compass and social stances on certain things and what are you doing, what are you giving back to your community, is going to be important. But what you're creating also and the work environments that you have and how they're creating healthy environments for the people that work for you.

RB: I'm curious about, when the Spanish flu - I did do some reading, and the Spanish flu came and went, and of course viruses tend to weaken as they mutate - so we haven't gotten that far with SARS-COV-2, but they do weaken and that's how they go away eventually. But nobody really understood how they were transmitted, when the Spanish flu hit, at all.

SB: Mhm.

RB: So they had some sort of anecdotal evidence as to what the problem was. So they were able to try to mask up, but in this case we know precisely - or will know precisely - how it was transmitted. So I'm imagining, I think you're right. People are dying to go back to concerts, and they're dying to go back to football stadiums and such, but I wonder... when you walk into a half-empty restaurant prior to the pandemic, we would always be hesitant to sit down because we were worried that it wasn't a good restaurant or that the food wouldn't be fresh because they didn't have enough people coming in. Now, going forward, I wonder if that's like, no, that's a positive thing because we're not jammed in next to each other. So I'm just curious of little cues. Or when someone sneezes. I think we're, everybody is more acutely aware of how the flu is transmitted now, or even a common cold.

SB: Mhm.

RB: And you know, I didn't - I just, I'm curious to see little things like that, that might change, whether people have complete amnesia and don't pay attention or not, should be an interesting thing. 
I've heard some people talk about- (Overlapping) -go ahead, sorry.

SB: No, go ahead. Sorry.

RB: I'm not supposed to be doing this much talking, go ahead.

SB: Oh! (Laughing) I was just saying, I think the restaurant thing is an interesting question because I do think that there are some positives that will come out of it and that may be more of a quality of experience thing. People are gonna say, "Wait a minute. I kind of liked going into a restaurant when it was comfortable. We could - we didn't have to sit shoulder to the next table and cramming everybody in there. And they're trying to get you out of there to get the next seating in. There was something nice about it, that we got to enjoy." We go out, still a lot, especially here in Texas where the restaurants are open and it's kinda nice, you know? The restaurants are not as crowded 'cause they spread them out a little bit. Texas has a very liberal definition of 50% occupancy, but you can tell, when you go somewhere, you're not slammed in and you're not rushed to get out of there.

You can actually have a really comfortable time. You can meet and you go out with family or friends and it's a very enjoyable experience. And I think that people will remember this and say, "Well, I remember, trying to fight for that table at 7:00 and I had to be out of there by 8:30, and I'm slammed with the next people, and then there's standing room only trying to get in there, also." I think that's a quality of experience, I think, that people won't want anymore. So I wonder if - that's the part I think people will remember, that I'm not going to pay all this money to go back to this restaurant, if I'm going to be slammed in there next to the people next to me.

RB: I even remember communal tables and a lot of the hot restaurants in New York and in Chicago and in LA and my wife and I sitting down and we'd be like, "Okay!" And then we would get 30 inches each at the communal table opposite each other. And we would literally have the conversations on either side inside our heads. I can't imagine that happening, you know, anymore. So we'll see. But it's a really good segue: as a restaurant, it's hard to imagine a restaurant not offering a takeout at this point. The best restaurant in Chicago is Alinea. And we've had take out from them twice in the pandemic, which is an absurd thing. Normally that's a $600, two person prix fixe. And now, they're doing $150 takeout options, which are spectacular. And Alinea's famous desserts are literally without a plate, they serve it on the table, there's a cover on the table and you just do a, almost like a Jackson Pollock in dessert, and then you just eat whatever you want. So when we did the takeout, we got a little acrylic sheet and we were - we made our own little paintings. It was hilarious. It was fantastic.

You know, that level of adaptability is certainly fun. So what other markets or typologies - and I don't necessarily just mean A&E markets, I just mean industries - do you see impacted the most post-pandemic, or adapting differently or uniquely?

SB: Clearly food and beverage. I think that is one of the things, I agree. That's been one of the silver linings of the pandemic, that all these great restaurants that you would have to fight to get a table to - or here in Austin, the barbecue places where you have to stand in line for two hours, you can just go online now and reserve your spot and then drive through, and the guy puts it in the back of your car. And you go home and you have a great dinner. It's like, "Wow, I didn't have to wait for two hours to do that."

Some of these restaurants we've done the same thing, even back in New York, and here - they have phenomenal takeout. And it's so civilized, and the food is great, and the presentation is wonderful. I think that will, I think - the restaurants that figure that out are gonna do well.

But, I think - I think almost every industry. The retail industry and how we shop - that was starting before the pandemic too. But now, when so many stores are closed and you couldn't get into them, what is the retail experience like? It's going to be much, much different. Maybe there's less inventory in stores and more of a, you go in there and you order and it shows up at your house the next day. And you don't actually have to leave the store with it, whether it's a piece of clothing or something like that. Everything's going to be turned upside down, which I think is a is a good thing.

In entertainment, I think these movie theaters, right? It's like, this is - I don't know who will ever want to go back to a movie theater because they were bad in the first place, you know? (Laughing) And so now it's like, you got all this stuff on the TV, you can have a better experience and the sound systems that people have at home now are pretty good. Why do I have to sit in a crappy theater and pay 10 bucks for a bowl of popcorn or something? So I think those things will have to be rethought and they'll have to be much more about when you go to them, it's a real experience. It's like going to a ballgame or something. There's a lot of other stuff that happens when you go to it. And there'll be rare events and... but that's a good thing. Change is okay.

I think that the hotel industry - which is near and dear to me - is definitely gonna change. And I think nobody knows yet, I think, what will happen. How many people will travel again? What will they travel for? And people are still going to travel for holiday, no question. I think that will come roaring back. There's still lots of people traveling for holiday now, taking advantage of cheap airline tickets to go to cities and everywhere else.

But what's the business traveler going to look like? Are we ever going to have all of these meetings, again, where we can have a call like this and it's much easier? What will happen to that's customer and what will the experience be like? So I think hotels are gonna really have to rethink their model a little bit. Rooms which kept getting smaller and smaller are going to have to get a little bit bigger now. Because you're going to want more things in your room. And some of them figured out this already beforehand, where they - they were having a little bit bigger room, so you could do yoga in your room or some sort of other exercise things. So a little bit bigger rooms, you'll be working in your room a little bit more if you're traveling for business.

But maybe you'll do a little bit more in-room dining rather than going downstairs. There'll be a lot of this stuff. I think. What's interesting - we've been working on too - is that hotels and realized "Wait a minute, we can take a part of this workshare community away from some of WeWorks and stuff like that." Because maybe they integrate more sort of day offices or things like that, where people can have an office there, have the amenities of the hotel. It's a place to have business and it's interesting.

So there may be some of these hybrid models that start to pop up after this, where you're really integrating the the hotel and short-term business model together, in a way. But I think that industry is going to definitely be turned upside down.

RB: Yeah, coworking in general is probably very concerned, you know, given their pay-to-play nature about how this - how adaptation post-pandemic happens. My hotel client actually, halfway through, doubled down, increased the number of keys and want to contribute more funds cause the performer would work better and they're anticipating travel for recreation to be huge once the pandemic has subsided. So they want to be just opening the hotel right when that hits. Let's cross our fingers there.

But I think you're right, the hybrid models are very interesting. And it makes me wonder how much space companies are going to take and whether they want to have more of a flex space. Do you have multiple companies that have some sort of hub in the middle and they can flex when they need to and retract when they don't? And you don't have to take a hundred thousand square feet for 15 years and that's it. You might - maybe you're doing more of a coworking model, but on a different scale.

SB: Mhm.

RB: And there's a couple of partnering companies that are there too. So I think it should be very interesting to see how that shakes out.

SB: Yeah, and we've kind of experienced a little bit of this over the past 10 months too. We opened two offices and both of them we opened in coworking spaces. So our Raleigh office, which we opened back in October, we took in a co-working space because we had the flexibility, we could get in there, you know, in a short-term lease and have the ability to see where things go and then to scale up within the system if we wanted. And we're we're we worked with Industrious, they're pretty good coworking, national coworking company. And so in Austin here, we did the same thing with Industrious and took a space.

And so it was kind of like, hey, can we have a a dot on the map and have the five-six people that are going to be working there able to hit the ground running? We don't have to invest in all the infrastructure yet, in a long-term lease and, yeah, it's a little bit more on a cost per square foot basis, but it gets us in there and we have a lot more flexibility and we'll see where it goes over the next two or five years, before we would we would have to make another decision on something. So I think that's been really good. It's interesting, our Pittsburgh office - we're moving our office in Pittsburgh and we've been in the same space for 25 years. We're in the old train station. It's right off the main hall. I mean, it's this absolutely gorgeous place, but after 25 years, it's really - we'd have to do a massive renovation. It's condos up above and every time someone, you know, would flush the toilet there'll be a leak. So it's like we, we did a whole-

RB: I don't mean to laugh. (Laughing)

SB: -year and a half ago, (Laughing) like a year and a half ago, before the pandemic, we did a whole analysis and we said, "All right, do we renovate here?" With the new lease, our lease is up in April this year. We decided let's move. There's just fatigue. And we ended up selecting a space in a building that we had repositioned to downtown Pittsburgh and literally we had the lease ready to sign the first week in March. And then the pandemic hit and we hadn't signed the lease. And so we're like, "Ooh, maybe we should think about this." And the landlord's like, "Hey let's get the lease going." And so we said, "Let's hit the brakes." And we, we asked them, we said, "Look, give us a couple months. We need to rethink this. We've gotta be honest. We don't know where things are going. Is this a short term thing? Is it something that's going to be long-term but we, we need to rethink what life is gonna look like for us in our offices when we actually come back."

So we took about two or three months and we did a sort of deep dive. We were doing this for our own clients already, we ended up having to do it for ourself. And we kind looked at different models. We said, "Let's just take a WeWork place and put-" we have 85 people in Pittsburgh. And we said, "Let's just take a space for 10-15 people, everybody else works at home, and it's great! Nobody'd want to be in an office and we'll just hire people all over, scattered all over the place." Option two was to do just take the space as we had originally planned. And option three was somewhere in the middle.

And we actually ended up, somewhere in the middle, but we totally redesigned the space. Out of -we have 85 people, but we only have 45 fixed workstations. And we have a lot of other sort of flexible spaces in there. So we have movable desks, we have a lot of lounge seating. We have cafe tables and things like that. So, in fact, we actually. 1.75 "seats" per person in the office. So there's a lot of - there's a lot of choice and how we would use the office is much, much different. So we completely rethought it. And then signed the lease and now we're in construction.

But it really made us think. We took about 25% less real estate than what we were originally going to take. But the office layout is completely, it was a complete change. Hopefully it works. You know, everyone's going to have a locker and there's hot desks everywhere. It'd be interesting. The staff love it. Some people will have fixed desks, but we'll see. But the idea was that we probably won't always have 100% of the people in an office. Maybe it's going to be more like 60% of the people in that office or 70% at the max.

RB: Are you going to initiate a work from home policy where every week somebody can do one day or two days a week at home, or...?

SB: We actually implemented that before the pandemic.

RB: Oh, you're just trendsetting left and right!

SB: We've always been a very flexible company, so we've always told people, "Look, you got things in life that you can't be in the office every day, and we'll work with you." And we had people that would come in early, leave early, work four days a week and take Fridays off and whatever we always had, but it was a sort of unwritten rule. And we said last year we needed to - or a year and a half ago - that we needed to put it in writing and have a real flex work policy. And we did that in November 2019. And, well, there was some of the - let's just say, some of the old guard, were the ones saying, "This is never gonna work ,three months from now is going to be a disaster. This thing is going to cost the company more than you can imagine-"

RB: If you only knew. (Laughing)

SB: Yeah. We looked like geniuses. We pushed it through, we rolled it out, at the end of 2019. And then, the whole company is remote now. So yeah, that we had that in place, but we think that we - only 10% really used it before, we think it's going to be more now. So at any given time, we don't think more than 60, 70% of the people in our office will physically be there. And that just because people - first of all, people are traveling. Somebody like me, I was on the road all the time. There's a lot of other people that are constantly traveling. There's other people that will work four days and be off on Friday because they got something to do with the family or kids or something like that. So there'll be people that'll come in early, there's going to be all kinds of stuff. And once you add that all up, at any given time, the whole office is not there, so.

RB: All right. That's outstanding. Anything else that you - any markets or any other typologies or anything in general about adaptability that you want to mention?

SB: I think adaptability is changing. (Laughing) It has a different definition on which country you're into, because some of the stuff - we're talking about so much of this here in the US, in North America right now on how the pandemic is going to change us. But I think in some of our other markets, like in Asia and the Middle East it's - they got roaring back months and months ago. And there's not the same conversation that we're having here in the US or in Europe. And it's almost like business as usual in a way. And we're really busy overseas right now - which is good - but it's not the same level of discussions that we're having with our clients here about how will your business model change or what will this mean on your institution? It's kind of... there's a feeling, in other places, that things will get back to what the normal was.

RB: Oh, really?

SB: It's sort of weird. It's a very different conversation, I think, with our US clients than some of our foreign clients right now.

RB: Do you think that's just simply because there's a difference in individuality? Where in a lot of cultures there's a inherent thought of sort of the collective or the entire society as opposed to Western individualism or is that oversimplifying?

SB: Maybe. I think a lot of the projects overseas are state-run too. So the momentum's not going to change, it's still a need that they have. I think they're still dealing, they're dealing with other things. They still have a need, there's still a lack of healthcare systems in a lot of countries and they have to build things out. There's still much of the need of education. And so they're not having the same conversations that we are here, I think with a lot of our clients.

RB: Interesting. Interesting. Okay. Anything else?

SB: No, I think it's definitely an interesting time. There's never a dull moment. I'm ready for some dull moments, though.

RB: I can give you a Domo and a cigar and a scotch and: presto, you have 30 minutes of boredom, wonderful boredom, to experience. It's definitely not boring. It is absolutely fascinating and tragic and exciting and horrible. All wrapped into one complicated sandwich.

cA: Thank you for joining us for this episode of the Robert Benson Interview Series in commARCH Dialogues. To stay up to date with commARCH content, please subscribe to our YouTube channel and follow us on your favorite podcast platform. For more content like this, including a full transcript of this interview, other interviews in the series, digital issues, and more, please visit the commARCH website at www.commarch.com. Thanks for watching.

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