Study: The pandemic’s impact on firms’ business

New research details opportunities for architects

A new study from AIA and Oldcastle BuildingEnvelope explores how the pandemic impacted firm activity and productivity, as well as whether it is shifting attitudes and efforts for sustainable building practices.

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The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020 slowed the construction industry’s 10 years of growth, but the impact didn’t hit all firms in the same ways. A new study by AIA and Oldcastle BuildingEnvelope, “Business Opportunities & Sustainability Trends Amidst a Pandemic” sought to provide deeper insight into the effects of the pandemic within the industry and help firms identify new business opportunities. The report also examines how the pandemic influenced sustainable projects and the role architects play in sustainable design.

“The report uncovers an uncertain landscape with some sectors being impacted more than others, concerns for our industry’s resilience, and projections of a mixed recovery ahead,” said Liz Haggerty, President of Oldcastle BuildingEnvelope. “It also highlights optimism and, more important, a continued commitment to sustainability from clients willing to invest in design that leads to better occupant health and productivity.”

Here are some of the key findings from the study.

Existing work

The pandemic accelerated a shift toward existing building work already underway. With the impact of COVID-19 and the recession, the opportunities for architects will likely continue to be centered mainly around existing building projects in 2021. Health care, higher education, and K-12 education are expected to have the greatest opportunities for growth in existing buildings this year.

But architects are facing challenges with existing buildings, especially with budget/cost constraints (73%) and field discovery that leads to scope creep (72%). The shift to existing buildings also has revealed gaps in knowledge and available resources compared to existing building content, respondents indicated.

“While many challenges remain, the data in this report reveal opportunities for firms as demand continues to shift toward existing building projects,” said Robert Ivy, FAIA, EVP and Chief Executive Officer of AIA. “Growing concerns over building design from the pandemic and public awareness of public health risks will continue to drive the refurbishment, expansion, and remodeling markets throughout 2021.”


After an initial decline in billings at the beginning of the pandemic, residential firms saw strong growth in Q2 and Q3 of 2020, and project backlogs increased. Most non-residential firms saw declines. Looking ahead, “With growing concerns over building design from the pandemic, awareness of public health risks, and the continued need to work from home, we expect short-term opportunities for architects to be centered mainly around residential construction and existing building projects (e.g., refurbishments, expansions, remodels),” the report stated.

Productivity challenges

Architects reported increased challenges with productivity during the pandemic, including with contractors and consultants (55%), finding new projects (51%), and with colleagues and employees (47%).

Construction activity

The pandemic shifted construction activity away from those projects most likely to invest in sustainability—owner-occupied and -operated buildings, such as offices, higher education, and government-owned buildings. But the pandemic did not hinder architects’ efforts to design sustainably or to innovate. Twenty-seven percent consider themselves proactive, integrating health and sustainability considerations into projects regardless of client interest level. Still, 32% act as passive advisors, leaving the final decision to the client. “One of the encouraging findings is that while the pandemic has shifted construction activity away from the most sustainable project types, architects remain optimistic about the future of Sustainability,” said Ivy. “In fact, most architects denied the pandemic had negatively impacted their ability to innovate, design sustainably, or find more sustainable solutions or products.

Respondents were particularly upbeat about sustainable design as it relates to health and well-being. Seventy-eight percent reported that clients are increasingly willing to invest in design that leads to better occupant health and productivity (78%) and are willing to pay for design and materials that reduce disease transmission (61%).

“Our clients—mostly corporations—are surprisingly proactive about responses to climate change,” said a respondent. “This is driven by employees’ interests and corporate social/environmental responsibility values.”

Product specification

Sixty-three percent of respondents indicated that sustainability is increasingly important in product specification. Unsurprisingly, energy efficiency (77%) and durability (68%) topped the list. But notable at 32% were products with lower embodied carbon.

To see many more findings, trends, and opportunities from the study, download the full copy of the report here.