When the COVID-19 pandemic escalated across the world earlier this year, Darling Associates were midway through a wide range of projects all at different work stages, including several that were on-site.
Katharine Bracey was one of the project architects who worked throughout lockdown to successfully deliver on site a highly exclusive luxury residential development in Mayfair. Here is her story.
Tell us a little bit about the project.
Darling Associates have been working on this high-end residential project for four years now, so it has been a long time in the making. The development is an ultra-luxury 6,000 sqft penthouse in central London for a private client. The design team has been a combination of DAA in collaboration with a highly reputable European interior designer.
What stage was the project when the pandemic hit?
It was eight weeks prior to practical completion, so we were very close to getting it over the line. We were at that exciting period where you are really starting to see tangible progress on site. It is a pivotal point where decorative materials are all being applied, but sadly that was swiftly halted when we had to shut up shop.
What was the initial response from the design team just in relation to the pandemic? How did everyone react when it was announced?
I think we reacted as everyone else did, with a mixture of confusion, frustration and disappointment. None of us knew how the pandemic was going to play out, but our response was to come together even more.
We were quite honest with each other and said “well, we are all going into the unknown. How do we make this work?”
Essentially, we cracked on with our regular progress meetings over the phone and Zoom calls, making sure that everyone who needed to be involved was included and that the client was kept regularly up to date.
I think at this point you realise the importance of your client relationship. On this occasion, we have a very good relationship with the client which helped to smooth the transition.
Throughout this whole pandemic we have been thrust into situations where we are presenting from our homes and personal spaces, which aren’t specifically work environments. Do you think that relationships with the client and the project team shifted because all of a sudden, you are discussing important design decisions from your kitchen table?
I think it actually humanises the team a lot more. Everyone is in the same boat and you must embrace the humour of the situation. When your client is suddenly being interrupted by their children demanding attention, you just laugh about it as a team and try to get them involved.
We all headed into such uncharted territory and nobody really knew what the outcome was going to be. In terms of the design team coming together, what were the efforts that were made to ensure that kind of continuity of service being so close to the completion?
I would only say it was not just a continuity of service, it was an enhancement of the service.
The client was understandably disappointed and frustrated that after four years they had to wait even longer to be able to enjoy their beautiful new home. In this moment, we felt like we need to go even further above and beyond our already sky high standards.
Another challenge was having our interior designers based outside of the UK. They were hugely crucial to the aesthetic direction of the design, but due to travel restrictions they could not attend site visits, and initially neither could we. Once we were able to get back on site, we absorbed some of their role and this is where technology really played its part. We embraced it wholeheartedly and would carry out video chats, walking around the site and focusing in on important little details, trying to convey as much as we could and explore any scope for improvement.
One of the great challenges is how the lighting changes throughout the day and with a project of this calibre a particular shade of lacquer could be deemed acceptable or unacceptable depending on how the morning light hits it, and how the client is going to see that when they step out of bed. These miniscule details are so important on a project of this magnitude and even more so to our interior designer. Trying to convey light on a video chat is not ideal, but it needed to be done so we had to get stuck in.
It did mean that our presence on site ramped up and with this came the duty to ensure that we were very well protected.
When you returned to site, how did you still get to and from site initially?
Due to restrictions on public transport, I would cycle to and from site. I have never used Satander Cycles more in my entire life than during this period!
It seems strange to say, but I really enjoyed it. I really enjoyed getting out of the house, which felt a little bit taboo at the time. The roads were so clear, so it was a pleasant experience and I relished the opportunity to get out and see the fruits of the team’s labour.
What was your response to the government guidance as the project progressed?
We had to be very flexible and I would say that for Ellmer (the contractor) this was the most crucial aspect. They were both proactive and reactive because the guidance changed almost daily. At one point, we would be socially distancing with two metres, this then evolved to one metre and finally when we could not socially distance, we would be limited to short sessions, breaking every 15 minutes to sanitise.
The guidelines change so often that we just had to be flexible and embrace the ever-changing logistical landscape. For example, we had spent months designing these highly decorative detailed doors that were immensely heavy. The joiners had worked for months to get them absolutely spot on and the result was stunning. However, they required four people to lift them to install them, so that took a bit of rethinking and eventually the programme had to shift to accommodate them at a later stage.
In terms of the relationship with the contractor Ellmer Construction, would you say that you work together efficiently and effectively?
We always had a really strong relationship with Ellmer, and we were lucky that both parties had the same end goal in mind; we both wanted to deliver an absolutely stunning residence.
It was a pleasure to work with a contractor who really valued the design as much as they did.
It required quite a lot of adaptation from them, but we were fully on board with it and wanted to cooperate as much as we could.
Do you think the outcome of the project was affected in any way, either for better or worse? Did you end up with a better result?
In an odd way, I would argue that we absolutely benefited and ended up with a stronger, higher quality project.
When it comes to designing any building, you have the three barriers of variables which are cost, quality and time. On this occasion, cost and time were negatively affected because of the pandemic. Clearly this was unfortunate, but it was out of everyone’s control. However, the quality was significantly improved because we were given the gift of time to take a step back and reassess some of our design decisions; we were able to take the extra time to critique or comment at such a crucial stage of delivery.
We even saw a few little untapped opportunities within this extra body of time. On a project of this scale, you often have an enormous amount of M&E kit, which creates little pockets of space throughout the accommodation. We decide to transform one of the empty hollows of the mansard roof into a space for a removable drinks bar, which the client thought was a little gem and a hugely enjoyable addition to the penthouse.
In hindsight, if we did not have these extra two months, we would have missed some of these opportunities. Who knows if we will ever get that opportunity again?
How has this experience affected the way that you approach your work?
I think to be prepared for anything.
This project was a massive undertaking anyway and then the pandemic was just the cherry on top.
The main thing this situation reinforces is the importance of establishing and maintaining a positive relationship with your client and your contractor. When difficult times are faced by all, that is when you really come together and if you are already working cohesively as a team, it just makes the process so much easier.
In a few months’ time we will be reminiscing over these challenging times over a socially distanced pint, I am sure.
Fundamentally, it shows the strength of the team; if we can deliver this stunning residence in the middle of a global pandemic and arguably make it better than our original aspiration, then that is something to be celebrated amongst the entire development team.
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