How Schuler Shook Adapted to the Pandemic

by | Feb 11, 2021 | News

“We are not hearing people say they won’t hire a lighting designer, they may say we have less money to hire a lighting designer, but they still want the design.” – Jim Baney

Jim Baney and Emily Klingensmith, both Partners at Schuler Shook, granted me an interview to learn how their design practice has adapted during the pandemic. Jim has been with the firm since 1994, and Emily since 1996. The company has two service offerings: Theatre Planning and Lighting Design. Both have remained busy during the pandemic, thanks to a broad range of markets for their services. Schuler Shook began in Chicago and Minneapolis in 1986, and has since expanded to Dallas, San Francisco, New York and Melbourne.

Wintrust Financial Corporation Architect: Stantec (formerly VOA) | Photographer: Tom Harris

Before the pandemic, Schuler Shook’s staff was using Microsoft Teams and VoIP communication tools for several years. Most designers also had laptops and remote server access. Last March, when their staff shifted to working from home, the transition was fairly smooth since they already had the necessary tools, training, and internal IT support. Jim stated, “We are grateful that before the pandemic started, we had taken steps to get the software needed to be able to communicate remotely in a pretty clear and efficient way.”

Adapting to a work from home model meant finding new ways to make use of existing tools for communication. Office field trips are one example of a successful conversion for remote access.

One of the ways that Schuler Shook educates and develops its designers is touring recently completed projects. When in-person visits were no longer safe, their team transitioned to virtual site visits using Microsoft Teams. Designers use photos and virtual walkthrough software, such as Matterport models, to tour a project with their whole team, including those in other offices. Pre-pandemic, it was difficult to include designers from other offices since these were in-person tours. Jim said that they have adapted well to the virtual environment. He explained, “This is how we all learn. We learn from things we did well, and we learn from mistakes that were made.” They start their virtual project tours late in the day, which enables their Melbourne designers to participate, too, given the 15+ hour time difference. Emily explained the importance of these tours, “We have been very intentional about trying to continue these so the learning continues and everybody is together as a team.” Schuler Shook also conducts some punch list reviews virtually.

Hyatt Global Headquarters Architect: Gensler | Photographer:  Rafael Gamo

Emily and Jim explained that everyone has been working from home since March, except for the San Francisco team, which always worked remotely. I asked if they were still paying rent on their six offices, which they are. Emily said that leadership is talking about the future workspace, post-COVID, and no decisions have been made yet. She elaborated, “I can potentially see a hybrid model where some people may work from home, perhaps one or two days week, because we’ve seen that it can work.”

On the flip side, she pointed out that it is more difficult to mentor newer designers and build camaraderie virtually, so in-person time together is important, too. I asked about the traditional sales model with manufacturers and their reps conducting in-person training. Both Emily and Jim agreed that these product meetings are better in-person. Emily suggested their new model might have designers in the office on certain days of the week so they can attend manufacturer presentations and collaborate with one another in-person. She explained, “There are so many nuances to seeing how fixtures perform and a camera only gets you so far. You can’t necessarily see striations in a beam of light, and you can’t physically touch the fixture and see how well it’s made.”

There is one area of concern they have not been able to improve, and that is an initial design meeting. Jim explained that ten years ago, clients seemed to have a greater desire to get together at the beginning of a project to talk about lighting. He expanded by saying a meeting would be set with the architect and the owner to discuss the architect’s vision and how lighting could improve that vision. Today that does not happen as often. Jim said, “Over the years we have to fight more and more for that time, that straight design time, where we’re not talking about REVIT or the budget or deadlines. A lot of opportunities for the creative process can be missed.”

Jim explained their design tools have changed during COVID. Their designers used to sit around a table and hand sketch, or gather around a screen and model something onscreen together. That has moved online to sharing images and digital sketches on screens with each person in their own remote work area. COVID has changed not only how they interact, but also how they share ideas with one another. Jim emphasized that the design process still needs to be followed, or the project will suffer.

One important step in Schuler Shook’s lighting design process is studio meetings. At the beginning of a project, their designers gather to brainstorm various design ideas. The team assigned to the project shares information about its design, goals, location, constraints, and other pertinent factors that may influence the lighting. Everyone is encouraged to share ideas in these “green light” sessions, from Interns to founders. Jim explained, “Somebody will come up with an idea, and that idea perhaps isn’t the one used, but it could lead to another idea, and that sometimes leads to a third idea. We build on those and find the best, regardless of who originated it.” These sessions typically lead to the ideas that become the basis for the overall lighting concept. Jim explained this approach gets the best ideas on the table at the beginning of the project. Similar to completed project tours, studio sessions are held virtually now, which means multiple offices can participate. The client benefits from their level of experience and diversity of thought. He clarified that not all projects begin with a team-wide design studio; factors such as project complexity, budget, and schedule need to be considered.

Emily stated that the ratio of outdoor vs. indoor projects has not shifted lately. Some market segments such as hospitality have slowed, while others like healthcare are more active. Jim explained that there was a move before COVID to integrate more outdoor space into projects. Many hospitality and office projects are including outdoor amenity spaces. They commented that COVID is probably pushing that trend further.

Jim said that COVID hasn’t stopped people from wanting a lighting designer on their project. The environment has led to downward fee pressures and more competition. He stated, “We are not hearing people say they won’t hire a lighting designer, they may say we have less money to hire a lighting designer, but they still want the design.”

Emily explained they have unfortunately seen some layoffs throughout the industry within architecture firms, lighting design firms, MEP firms, and manufacturers. She stated, “We are grateful that we have been able to retain all of our staff, but we don’t yet know how strongly things will continue throughout 2021. In lighting design, we typically feel an economic downturn six or nine months after architects experience a slowdown.” She remains cautiously optimistic.

We discussed technology and the emphasis to push a lot of light out of small apertures, which can be an obstacle due to glare and visual discomfort. Emily likes the new, small form factors as they are easier to incorporate and integrate into architecture.

Recently Schuler Shook has designed a few offices with health or non-visual effects of light in mind, and designed an architect’s office where circadian-friendly lighting was a primary goal. They were also working on a similar project with PNNL for local government offices, but the project is temporarily on hold. Jim explained, “One group of city employees would work under the existing lighting, while another group would work under the Schuler Shook/PNNL lighting design. PNNL would conduct research on how the lighting affects occupants.”

This could be a fascinating study; let’s hope the project resumes.

This article originally appeared in the February issue of designing lighting