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Our Work Continues During COVID-19


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DBA's Monday Staff Meeting on Zoom.

By Dawn Kang, AIA, LEED AP

For those of you who have been to the DBA office in San Francisco, you know it was common to see material samples arrayed in the sunny courtyard, the conference room bustling with clients and consultants, and the latest renderings on the screen and diagrams scrawled on the whiteboard. An abundance of activity and dialogue energized our dense space. Right now, the office is quiet, but DBA is still doing what we’ve always done, with some variation and innovation. We have shifted smoothly to working from home for this extended period. Certain strengths of our practice that we’ve always had in place—our process, our firm culture, and being supportive of a flexible schedule—have been key to our adept transition to remote work.

Socially distanced meeting at the La Fénix at 1950 Mission jobsite in San Francisco. Shelby Joubert from Swinerton and Mitch Crispell from Bridge. Image: Erin Feeney

Process – New Ways to Get the Work Done

Architecture is unequivocally a collaborative undertaking, certainly not a solo endeavor, as many of us in the building industry know. It is dynamic in that we are in constant conversation and coordination with each other and with clients, contractors, consultants, and communities. You may wonder how we are continuing to interface with everyone at this time. Internally, one thing that has benefitted us greatly is that as one firm with three locations—San Francisco, Oakland, and Birmingham—we were already accustomed to remote collaboration. Whereas some large firms have regional offices that operate as separate worlds, DBA’s three offices function as one extended studio in workflow, feel, and fellowship. With projects all over the West Coast and Southeast, we build teams across our offices and have our architects and designers move between projects regularly, regardless of their location. We are used to collaborating projects with team members (us, clients, and consultants) spanning distances across the country.

Before 2020, employees from all three offices would see each other throughout the year, at our firm retreat—which we took at the Monterey Design Conference—our Solstice parties, or our yearly cookout. Often, colleagues would do a stint at another office for a week, or—for the nearby Bay Area offices—a few days a week. Even though we are all working remotely now, we are able to build on those shared, in-person experiences. We already had good, positive synergy going and we had the right tools in place: Video calls were commonplace, as were Slack messaging, Bluebeam sessions, Revit BIM 360, and shared cloud resources. So when the Stay at Home order went into effect, our process saw relatively minimal disruption, we were able to pivot adroitly. This isn’t to say that it hasn’t been challenging, only that we have had a great boost from both our camaraderie and our technology.

DBA folks gathering around the bonfire at the Monterey Design Conference 2019. Image: Will Bloomer

East Santa Clara Mixed Use and Sunnydale Block 3 make use of Survey Monkey and CoUrbanize to share design developments with their communities and to gather neighborhood feedback.

However, there are some aspects of architecture that have to—either traditionally or by their very nature—take place in person. Community meetings, permit submittals, and construction site visits come to mind, and each of these, while not taking place in their original form, are still moving forward. Community engagement has definitely had to readjust: We are learning to work with online platforms, such as CoUrbanize and Survey Monkey, to connect with the community and gather their input. Although this approach loses some of the personal connection, one positive is that it gives voice to a broader group, allowing people to participate at a time in their day that fits into their own schedule.

Community Meetings are now taking place online.

Mitch Crispell from Bridge in front of the Mexican rose colored K-door at La Fénix at 1950 Mission. Image: Erin Feeney

Submitting for permit has changed, perhaps for the better: While we used to have to tow big bundled sets of drawings to the building department, many municipalities have shifted to accepting electronic permit submissions and resubmittals online. Site visits are changing: Currently, DBA has seven projects under construction, with several about to break ground in the next few months. We have kept doing site visits, with limited staff following jurisdictions’ enhanced safety protocols (building affordable housing was deemed an essential service). As the industry—planning departments and other agencies—adjusts protocols, we are learning to adapt our process as well.

Socially distanced unit punch listing at the La Fénix at 1950 Mission job site in San Francisco. Image: Erin Feeney

Firm Culture—New Tools Help Keep the Dialogue Going

Here at DBA, we’ve always benefited from an abundance of knowledge shared across a robust portfolio, with a variety of great design ideas and influences. Our firm holds a couple regular weekly events—which we have found a way to continue remotely—that help us keep up our spirit of resourcefulness, curiosity, and exchange. At Office Lunch we welcome guest presenters—frequent collaborators, folks involved in all things housing related, past or current staff share everything from case studies to lessons learned, explanations of policy, creative works, or office standards and tutorials. These presentations take place on Zoom, with the plus that they are recorded and available for those who couldn’t attend.

DBA Pin Ups now use Miro, an online app that allows multiple users to sketch and share images in real time online. Here is one of our pin up boards for the new location of the DBA_BHM office, in the works in Birmingham.

Our office Pin Ups are design charrettes where we get together to brainstorm and sketch ideas on an aspect of a project that could use a bit more finessing or thought. While Pin Up used to take place in our conference room, we’ve since introduced a virtual whiteboard, Miro, to our digital toolkit. It’s proved to be useful in that we can recreate a charette environment by giving each of us a “board” to sketch on in the program, with all boards arranged together and visible side-by-side, much like how we used to have pin up with trace paper and markers. When in-person Pin Ups return, we will likely keep this online collaboration as another way to participate.

Creative endeavors of the kids of a few of our DBA staff. Brett Randall Jones’s daughter Ida, Pedram Farashbandi’s daughters Jade and Ruby, and Katie Ackerly’s daughter Zoe Images: Brett Randall Jones, Pedram Farashbandi, and Katie Ackerly

Flexibility and Support

Even before COVID-19, DBA had a family-friendly (and teaching friendly) work policy, because we acknowledge that employees who have a good work-life balance and are able to put energy into all aspects of their lives that are important to them, are in the long run happier, healthier, and more productive. Giving a parent the ability to get off work early to pick up their kid from daycare, and continue their work at home is a logistical win for everyone. We had our technology set up so that work from home was feasible for someone looking to get a few hours or a day of work in, outside of the standard in-office 9-5. With more responsibilities for child care, home schooling, grocery shopping, and assistance for family members needed in response to COVID-19, we have been even more supportive of flexible work hours that are clearly communicated and coordinated with our team members.

DBA pets adopted during shelter in place. Sally Roth’s puppy Scout, Brad Leibin’s cat Leonardo Jingletown Leibin-Chan, and Stephen Doherty’s puppy, River.

In March, virtually all construction aside from housing was halted in the Bay Area. My colleague Anne Riggs noted that this exception reinforced how important the work we do is, and how critical the need for housing has been and continues to be.

Today, as we all shelter in place, we are more acutely aware than ever that the quality of our housing—pleasant access to light, air, and one’s small slice of private open space—makes a huge difference in our day-to-day existence and our physical and emotional well-being.

Although DBA is working remotely, we continue to design, build, and advocate for dense, humane housing. We have more than two dozen projects currently under the care of our architects, designers, and fabricators. Working may look a little different right now, and this time may be considered a “pause” by some, but we have in no way hit pause on our desire to keep learning, keep designing, and keep improving on the work we do to make safe, healthy, supportive homes and robust urban spaces for our communities, which are needed now more than ever. As we approach the topic of returning to in-office work, DBA has been reevaluating our new workflow. The pandemic may have prompted operational changes, but we are embracing them. We are excited to explore more creative opportunities and everyday flexibility as we strive to create both beneficial work and beneficial work environments.

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Dawn Kang, AIA, LEED AP, is an Associate at DBA. Dawn considers architecture "art that needs to work" and enjoys the challenge of bringing together the necessary confluence of design considerations and disciplines. You can contact Dawn here.

DBA's Monday Staff Meeting on Zoom.

DBA folks gathering around the bonfire at the Monterey Design Conference 2019. Image: Will Bloomer

Community Meetings are now taking place online.

East Santa Clara Mixed Use and Sunnydale Block 3 make use of Survey Monkey and CoUrbanize to share design developments with their communities and to gather neighborhood feedback.

Socially distanced unit punch listing at the La Fénix at 1950 Mission job site in San Francisco. Image: Erin Feeney

Socially distanced meeting at the La Fénix at 1950 Mission jobsite in San Francisco. Shelby Joubert from Swinerton and Mitch Crispell from Bridge. Image: Erin Feeney

Mitch Crispell from Bridge in front of the Mexican rose colored K-door at La Fénix at 1950 Mission. Image: Erin Feeney

DBA Pin Ups now use Miro, an online app that allows multiple users to sketch and share images in real time online. Here is one of our pin up boards for the new location of the DBA_BHM office, in the works in Birmingham.

Creative endeavors of the kids of a few of our DBA staff. Brett Randall Jones’s daughter Ida, Pedram Farashbandi’s daughters Jade and Ruby, and Katie Ackerly’s daughter Zoe Images: Brett Randall Jones, Pedram Farashbandi, and Katie Ackerly

DBA pets adopted during shelter in place. Sally Roth’s puppy Scout, Brad Leibin’s cat Leonardo Jingletown Leibin-Chan, and Stephen Doherty’s puppy, River.