Architecture Firms Report Both Frustration and Success with Payroll Protection Program
New York–based Mapos was firming up a wave of new design commissions when the city became the epicenter of America’s coronavirus pandemic last month. That prospective work has since evaporated. A longer-standing hospitality client who came down with a mild case of COVID-19 has also slowed work on his restaurant, and another client, a private developer, plans to suspend a mixed-use project in Long Island City after Mapos submits 50 percent construction drawings later today. The design studio has enough cash on hand to pay reduced salaries for the seven-person staff for the next month.
The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) could keep this team together. As part of the $2.2 trillion CARES Act signed into law last month, PPP made $349 billion in loans available to small businesses (through private banks, though administered by the U.S. Small Business Administration, or SBA) as of last Friday, April 3. If approved for the loan, business owners who keep employees on payroll for eight weeks will receive loan forgiveness.
But the launch of PPP has been plagued by technical problems, confusion over eligibility, and other barriers to access. Indeed, Mapos has not even submitted its loan application: the firm is a customer of Citibank, which only began accepting PPP applications earlier this week; the bank’s website now says it will process applications in phases. Co-founders Colin Brice and Caleb Mulvena are awaiting the email notifying them that their phase has commenced, which Mulvena describes as “a horrible purgatory kind of state to be in.”
In Portland, Oregon, Beebe Skidmore namesakes Heidi Beebe and Doug Skidmore have confronted a similar hurdle, even though their firm is working with Umpqua, a smaller financial institution. This past Saturday the partners “gathered all the information necessary for the application and then went to apply, and the bank in the meantime posted a notice that applications were no longer being accepted,” Beebe explained to RECORD via email. A bank representative told the architects that it would reopen its application portal “in the near future.”
Back in New York, Desai Chia Architecture founding principal Kathy Chia likens her PPP experience to “a bit of a nail biter.” Chase began accepting applications midday on April 3, which Chia discovered by continually refreshing her web browser. A glitch forced her to submit a partial application that Friday, which she later completed online after receiving an unexpected email at dinnertime on Monday. Chia received a confirmation email the following morning—as well as a copy of the previous night’s email later on Tuesday—and she has been sending out inquiries to confirm that her paperwork is in queue. As to whether Desai Chia is approved for the relief, “’You will either see the money come into your account or you won’t’” is as much assurance as Chia has been given.
Some architects’ PPP application experiences have been comparably seamless. After San Francisco architects Emily Huang and Gregory Iboshi learned on April 2 that their bank, First Republic, had decided to participate in PPP, the pair readied application materials in earnest. “At the last minute on Friday we got solid information on calculating your maximum loan amount,” Iboshi says, and their Monday submission was followed almost immediately by a confirmation email. “Submitting the application was smooth enough,” Bruner/Cott principal Dana Kelly reports of the Boston-based firm’s submission through Cambridge Savings Bank. And Architect Ted Porter submitted PPP information for his eponymous New York firm through his hometown Mississippi bank, which completed the application on his behalf. “They may come back and ask for more paperwork, but so far I was surprised at the relative ease of the process,” Porter says, “I’m hoping the money will come with the same ease.”
Although some sources had heard of peers whose PPP applications were approved through SBA’s E-Tran platform, none of the subjects interviewed for this story had yet received loan approval or actual funding.
A small number of firms have expressed discouragement over PPP’s rollout, or lack of interest in the program due to a robust workload. Responding to that pushback, the AIA’s chief economist Kermit Baker observes, “From what I’ve heard, having as much on hand as possible is generally a priority for small businesses in times like these. Though not taking money away from people who might need it more is a noble sentiment, we discovered in the last recession that projects can disappear very quickly as economic conditions change. And a five-to-six-month backlog might get substantially reduced in very short order, leaving a firm cash-strapped.”
Meanwhile, Mulvena is trying to stay optimistic, envisioning how his studio can use its hoped-for PPP relief to research post-pandemic urban and rural planning. Moreover, Mapos had begun its own development work in 2017—a venture that contributed to the company’s slim financial reserves—including a warehouse conversion in Newburgh, New York, that is nearing completion in spite of supply-chain interruptions. “If every one of our clients went away, we would still have these projects,” Mulvena says of the adaptive reuse endeavor and of another, nascent project located in the Catskills. “We’re still the client and we know these are great investments, particularly in light of what’s happening now.”