VLK Architects CEO | Partner, Sloan Harris, Provides Comments for ENR Top 500 Story

Interview with Sloan Harris, CEO | Partner - ENR Magazine Spring 2020 Issue

Do you see any change in your specific markets in the near term?

“We are seeing no changes in the public sector with education projects. We are, however, seeing some slowdown in the private sector with commercial and automotive projects. With the volatility of the market, many projects that have institutional debt requirements, as well as those that are retail-oriented have been placed on a temporary hold for the foreseeable future awaiting stronger confidence in market stability. For those private sector clients who are in better funding positions, there will be an opportunity to move projects forward more aggressively due to expected reductions in construction costs. Overall, I feel that once we get through the peak of the virus and the market stabilizes, we will see most, if not all, of those private sector client projects return and begin to move forward again.”

What are your strategies for succeeding in the current market?

“We immediately developed and implemented virtual work processes that were intended to replace face-to-face client and committee-oriented meetings. By doing so, we were able to continue to move forward with our project schedules as originally planned without any delays. In addition, we are working with our public sector clients that were beginning their planning for future bond propositions and for future projects to make sure they take advantage of the increase in the labor force due to private sector project holds.”

“We aren’t seeing a necessity to change our business model or strategies to be successful during this time. It’s mostly business as usual except for transitioning many of our processes into the virtual world for the time being.”

Are you seeing any impact of the COVID-19 crisis on your projects or markets? If so, what impact?

“We have only seen an impact on some projects for the auto-dealership industry which have been placed on hold. Even though those types of projects are paused, the increase in the labor force and potential reduction in construction cost can allow clients to capitalize on a great opportunity to move forward on projects more swiftly and reduce costs.”

Has your firm taken any specific steps in your internal processes to address the COVID-19 impact on your employees, clients or partners? Can you explain these steps?

“We immediately implemented a ‘work-from-home’ policy as we saw the crisis begin to unfold. We also have been diligent in communicating with all employees information regarding the extensions to the FMLA and CARE Acts to ensure that they know resources available if they or any family members contract the virus. We have also been able to provide hardware and software to all employees so that they can fulfill their job responsibilities remotely.”

“Knowing that VLK is a family and that this situation is evolving constantly, we also implemented weekly virtual fireside chats, with nearly 200 employees participating online, so that we can inform our employees of latest events and also allow us to connect on a personal level through video.”

Are you seeing any changes in project delivery or methods of procurement for design services? If so, what are your reactions to these changes?

“No, with the exception of transitioning our processes to the virtual world, we are seeing no changes to our design services.”

How are relations with clients and contractors?

“Because we realize our clients have crucial work with their transitions due to the pandemic, we have noticed that the implementation of our virtual meetings has allowed all involved to have a greater focus so that decisions can be made more expeditiously and in a shorter amount of time.”

Do you see any trends facing engineers and/or architects that are affecting the markets, the design profession, or the industry as a whole? Are you seeing staff shortages in the design profession and what, if anything, are you doing to address these shortages? (The answer below applies to both questions)

“The outcome of the COVID-19 pandemic might have a similar impact as the 2008 recession. During that time, some firms in certain practice areas were radically affected and forced to lay off. As a result, many architects left the profession and never came back. Once the market rebounded, there was a lack of midlevel management experience available. Considering the market sectors VLK thrives in, VLK is continuing to find opportunities to add talent and expertise to our teams to enhance the service we provide our clients during this time.”

Do you see any existing or new techniques or technologies that are helping change the design or construction process?

“Fortunately, VLK was already being proactive and innovative in our thinking regarding conducting our work remotely prior to the pandemic through a wide array of software packages. If VLK hadn’t already moved in that direction, we could have potentially lost production time and some project schedules could have been impacted.”

“Overall, there is no technology or technique we are using that is new, but we are relying more heavily on every opportunity available to execute our work virtually and there are many technologies that are helping us do so. Almost everything we do is in a web or cloud-based application.”

Are there any developments at your company that you consider a game-changer for your firm?

“It might have unveiled that there are more opportunities for people to work remotely at times rather than having to be in the office, which might allow us to reduce our real estate footprint in our offices and save on overhead. It’s premature to know for sure but it is something we will explore as a firm once everything returns to normal.”

“We are a resourceful firm and have moved quickly to further develop and transition branded services such as VLK|Launch and VLK|Curation to be conducted virtually for the benefit of our clients. We are pleased to find that our virtual services are just as effective and collaborative and foster a similarly high level of creativity among the participants.”

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