WME has had to tear up the manual in response to Covid-19 – so says director of MEP Nicholas Byczynski – but that doesn’t mean the firm isn’t optimistic about what the future holds.
Byczynski told MEP Middle East that WME has not reported a single positive coronavirus case among its workforce, and is continuing to demonstrate agility in the face of adversity.
“It’s been a very difficult period that has required us to completely reorganize how we deliver our work, deal with a global pandemic and deal with extremely difficult commercial situations with many clients requesting fee discounts and cash collection slowing dramatically,” he said.
“All of this puts pressure on people mentally and physically so wellbeing of staff is priority number one.
“We have a great number of engineers out on site and they have generally continued to attend through the entire period.
“They deserve enormous respect for doing so and I know it can’t have been easy for them. We have been fortunate to have not had any cases within the WME business which is a testament to the careful H&S procedures put in place across our sites.”
A major change that businesses across all sectors have been forced to embrace is remote working.
Byczynski says that at WME, work is already being undertaken to assess the long-term viability of home working, and whether a reshaping of the old business model is now a necessity.
“The obvious change has been a move to a work from home model across all of our offices,” he said.
“This was implemented at WME very early around mid-march as we were confident that we could make it work and to be honest I’ve been incredibly impressed with how quickly and well the team have adapted to this with multiple projects being delivered very successfully without the usual face to face collaboration we would expect.
“In some ways we had a head start as we were already using Microsoft Teams extensively to collaborate with our colleagues globally, in particular in our India office, and using BIM 360 for design development and review.
“There were a few technical bumps in the road at the start but these were quickly ironed out and it has been smooth sailing since then.
“WME MEP have also been pursuing a process of digitizing our design works to maximise the power of Revit and add on tools and self-developed scripts in Dynamo to streamline our workflows and reduce the need for intermediate steps such as paper engineering mark ups/design reviews so we’ve accelerated this process and it’s really now starting to show some great results and is certainly helpful where we have enforced physical separation.
“Looking outside of our office the interactions with our clients have obviously also moved digital which was a little patchy at first as everyone got to grips with the technology but is also now working well.
“For me personally I find this can be very helpful as I don’t need to plan travel into my days, which can be three hours or more if I need to travel to see clients in Abu Dhabi, and I can actually fit many more meetings into my days allowing me to stay closer to the projects and clients than I would have been able to before.”
While restrictions have eased, markets will need time to fully recover. And Byczynski does not believe it is just small firms that will suffer as a result.
“I wouldn’t necessarily limit it to smaller firms, this is a very tough period for everyone and it would be shortsighted and slightly arrogant of most firms to assume this is not serious enough to take them out,” he said.
“In the short term we saw a large contraction in cash which was compounded by the normal slow downs around Ramadan and Eid, but this will start to pick up in the coming months.
“Longer term we need to deal with reduced fees due to agreed project discounts and a number of projects that have been placed on hold and may or may not restart.
“This, coupled with major uncertainty about the possibility of a second wave later in the year and continuing high levels of Covid-19 cases globally, means we are not at the end of the road when it comes to the impacts of Covid-19 on the consultancy industry.”
Adding some perspective to the situation, Byczynski said that things could have played out so much worse than the current scenario.
“We are fortunate that this has happened when we have the tools to really work remotely, and I dread to think what the impacts may have been even 10 years ago on our ability to deliver,” he said.
“Now that all of the tools available to us have been tested under the most extreme conditions we now need to work out how we can take the best elements of traditional office based working and from this experience of 100% remote working to come up with a new balanced solution as we move into the “new normal” whatever that might be.”
Digitalisation will play a central role in the long road back from Covid-19’s impact.
Byczynski has some passionate views about the way we are heading and what to expect in the coming years.
“This is something I’m very passionate about and WME set up an R&D exercise in Q3 2019 to really focus on digital delivery and how we can integrate all of our workflows to use the project Revit model to a much greater extent.
The goal was to explore the capability of the tools we already had find the outer limits of what is currently possible.
“The team consists of around eight engineers across all grades, myself and Mechanical and Electrical Technical Directors, as well as the company BIM managers – it’s been a really exciting process with real deliverables that we are now starting to use across projects.
“We are now using Dynamo to push large quantities of information into our Revit models so that as the architects update the model through the stages our calculations automatically update to reflect the new areas, allowing us to produce updated calculations during the early stages of projects in seconds rather than hours.
“This same data, along with the physical layout of the building, can then be pushed from Revit in calculation tools to develop detailed design cooling load calculations which can save multiple man-weeks on large projects.
“This is just one a series of workflows we are developing with a view to have true digital design capabilities by the year end.
“One obvious challenge here is that it requires a: the BIM technicians have a good understanding of engineering; and b: the engineers to have good understanding of Revit.
“Generally ‘a’ is already in place but we are putting our engineers through internal training to create BIMgineers who really understand both sides of the coin.
“The first ‘graduates’ from this process have been key members of digitalisation team.
“I’ve been teaching myself Revit with the help of my BIM manager and to be honest wish I’d done it a couple of years ago as it has really helped me to see the possibilities and challenges.”
Enhanced MEP and HVAC systems have been touted as ways to prevent virus outbreaks in the future.
However, retrofitting will come at a cost and Byczynski predicts some obstacles to widespread adoption of the latest technologies. There has been a lot of talk about the need for improved Internal Air Quality and as the nature of Covid-19 becomes better understood, and other possible pandemic viruses that are definitively airborne are treated more seriously, it is possible that we could see a greater focus on IAQ elimination of “sick building syndrome” which will be a great benefit.
“The challenge will be that modification of existing building stock is extremely difficult, you only need to look at the slow pace of change associated with flammable external façade panels that have caused major fires both in the UAE and tragically in my home country of the UK.
“That said I would not be surprised at all to see new buildings to be required to provide better quality filtration either physical or with UV or other technologies in the future, particularly in projects which are looking to achieve sustainable certifications.”
If there is a positive to come from all this, it is in much closer collaboration between businesses, according to Byczynski.
“I’m think the industry was on a path to much better co-ordination and collaboration even before the Covid-19 pandemic so hopefully that will continue and commercial pressures won’t restrict innovation and the development of new collaborative techniques.”