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Isolation | Ben Derbyshire

Friday 3 April 2020

I’m a self-isolating asthmatic, working from my pre-fabricated study in the garden and remote from colleagues, friends and family, apart from my wife. My commute is all of 20m and otherwise I find a morning bike ride a good way to exercise outdoors, suitably distant from fellow humans.


As I write, the four offices of my practice, HTA Design LLP, have been closed for some time and our team of 225 or so are either working from home, or in the case of a small number of support staff, furloughed. Sites are closing, projects postponed, though some new enquiries indicate optimism occasionally triumphs over adversity. Our server rooms are kept alive, receiving remote instructions throughout the day to keep big BIM files updated. Our 3D printers have been pressed into service to supply the NHS PPE Working Group.

The novelty, such as it was, has worn off. In its place there’s a powerful emotional readjustment going on under a portentous cloud of gloom, reinforced every day at 4.30, when I switch from Radio 3 to hear worsening bulletins from the briefing room at No. 10. I share the widely reported reconnection with nature – cats and foxes in the undergrowth, finches in the shrubbery, squirrels chattering in the tree canopies around me – even a woodpecker drumming in my neighbour’s ancient and mighty Chestnut – all the more evident now that the ambient background noise has fallen away so dramatically. Calls with friends and family, musical favourites and items of news on the radio, especially reflecting the human spirit or the emergence of spring around us, have suddenly become deeply affecting. I shall well up again this Thursday evening as we applaud the front-line workers from our balcony overlooking the street below.

Meeting with two of my partners from Edinburgh and London offices on MS Teams last night, we shared a longing to be back at our offices and able once again to benefit from nuance and detail now concealed by digital communication – glimpses of drawings or screens, overheard conversations, sceptical expressions caught in the corner of an eye – myriad minutiae - clues that help us to keep track of the thousands of technical and design decisions now being made invisibly from more than 200 remote workstations. This enforced distance from the means of production is stressful, and remote reviewing can’t completely compensate. Neither can Zoom substitute for the warmth and mutual understanding to be derived from weekly meetings in person of six partners who share respect that has grown over years. We miss each other at just the moment that the practice we have grown together needs our collective imagination as never before.

The end seems far in the distance. When it comes, it will bring with it a new appreciation of the commonplace and, we dare to hope, lasting change for the better. Amongst the commonplace, I shall cherish the clumsy dance around our office Gaggia machine as too many attempt the perfect latte in too little space, and the self-indulgent pint in welcoming Canonbury pubs on my bike ride home from the office. As for lasting change, my hope is that the sense of mutual support we are all experiencing as a result of the challenges of isolation will carry over into a lesson learned in business as much as in society. Will we learn lessons of partnership and shared problem solving from our responses to the pandemic? Nature is teaching us how we must behave out of respect for human life and for those whose job it is to preserve it. Let’s carry that with us for the future.

All the best, and stay safe.

Ben Derbyshire words and photo
The Architecture Club member