The Midnight Lunch: My Favourite Blogs 2018

 Do you still read blogs or has instagram taken over all your free time?

Back in 2013 not long after I started this blog, I wrote a post on my favourite blogs.  It was pretty popular at the time, but when I went back and looked at it recently I realised it was pretty out of date – a lot of blogs don’t last 5 years.  Also in the meantime, insta has taken over as many designers first stop for inspiration.  Whilst there are great visuals out there on insta, I’m still a fan of blogs, I want to read the story behind the design and also read about other aspects of design –  the psychology, the business and the ideas.

So I thought it was time to update my list.  Many I still subscribe too via the old fashioned way of email while others are sites I just pop into from time to time.  Right now my problem is trying to make sure I don’t subscribe to more than I actually have time to look at. I never did find a replacement for google reader! (Any ideas?)

Yellowtrace
http://www.yellowtrace.com.au/
Yellowtrace remains one of my all time favourite blogs for interior design.  You get both the insta worthy images as well as the stories and interviews behind the scenes.  You also now get extensive coverage of Milan Design Week.  It doesn’t really matter what kind of design or architecture is your thing, yellowtrace covers everything beautiful from furniture to retail and hospo, workplace and residential.  Dana has worked really hard over years to make this an amazing daily dose of design all year round.  What more do you need?

Workplace Insight
http://workplaceinsight.net/
This site sits alongside yellowtrace as my favourite.  Completely different type of articles – the focus is articles on workplace design and psychology, real estate, facilities management and culture (as well as some UK real estate news) with a wide range of contributors.  Not just aimed at designers but a site for anyone managing or part of designing workspaces.  I was honoured this year when I was commissioned to write an article “I’m a designer and I job share with an AI” . As well as this site, the same editors are responsible for Work & Place, an excellent journal – well written and and researched for a similar audience.

Office Snapshots
http://officesnapshots.com
Office snapshots is a staple site for anyone working in corporate interiors – and now moving into healthcare and education too.  Get a weekly dose of new workplaces straight to your inbox, and then visit the site to search for thousands and thousands of images using a variety of product or feature search terms.  While you do get the story behind the design – the quality of the words is not always so good as the photos and can be very descriptive rather than telling the story of the design.

Dezeen
http://www.dezeen.com/
If you are into architecture and interiors then Dezeen covers all sectors.  With daily stories covering products, architecture and interiors arriving straight to your inbox you can keep track of all the big international projects, competitions and controversies, but also check out some little known designers and their work.  Its not just images either, usually there is  intelligent reporting- and an often humorous summary of the weekly reader comments.

FastCompany
https://www.fastcompany.com/
I do notice a bit of cross over between FastCompany and Dezeen.  FastCompany is more focused towards design generally – graphic and website design, product design and technology design. Again, a daily is of stories, I always find at least one that intrigues me enough to click through.

Workplace Unlimited
http://workplaceunlimited.blogspot.com.au/
Nigel Oseland’s blog is another long stayer.  Nigel is an Environmental Psychologist and Workplace Strategy Consultant.  It’s a blog I often stumble across new posts via social media. There is now the option to subscribe via email so hopefully now I’ll be reading more often!

Surviving the Design Studio
https://peterraisbeck.com/
Covering a wide range of topics from surviving the design studio, through to the Vencie architecture biennale, bias and competition in architecture, fees, design and  technology, I enjoy Peter’s style, sense of humour and wide variety of topics. This is probably one for anyone who is anti establishment architecture and it’s culture.

Workplace Design Magazine
http://workspacedesignmagazine.com/
An interior design magazine, as you can tell from the name focused on the workplace. Ideas, projects, products. This one is American and while it covers similar topics to Workplace Insight, I don’t seem to find as much captures my interest. I do like the around the web section for links to a wide range of other articles and sites.

ArchSmarter
https://archsmarter.com/
Once a week, Michael Kilkelly shares five topics that have interested him that week as well as his own writing and courses.  Starting with BIM, technology, automation but you could also find time management, architectural sketching and anything else that catches Michael’s interest.  (rather like this blog!)  Although there is plenty of content on the website, I think you only get the links if you subscribe to the emails.

Life of an Architect
http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com/
An American architect named Bob, blogs on all sorts of aspects of practicing as and just being an architect. Great writing and great sense of humour. Life of an Architect has now been going for a long time and I still pop in from time to time.

Parlour
http://archiparlour.org/
Parlour is another website that I both write for and visit from time to time.  Parlour’s focus is gender equity in architecture, but they publish a wide range of articles that effect this topic, from leadership and mentoring style articles, interviews with female architects, the impacts of gender and diversity on design outcomes to flexibility and fair work practices.

Since I first wrote this post I’ve also found I read more and more business focused blogs.

EntreArchitect and The Business of Architecture
https://entrearchitect.com/
https://www.businessofarchitecture.com/
In my mind these two blogs always go together.  They cover a lot of similar materials and are both blogs and podcasts aimed at small firm practitioners.  Covering topics from finances, making a profit, to proposals and marketing, hiring staff and managing a team – everything you need to know about running a practice that’s not the architecture part.

McKinsey
https://www.mckinsey.com/au/our-insights
If you are more interested in what’s impacting companies at the other end of the scale (be that your own or your clients), McKinsey is THE place to go.  Backed by reputable global research, you can learn about strategy, technology, HR, change and more.  With different format articles, spend just 5 minutes or 50 minutes to learn more about topics affecting business today.

ACA – Association of Consulting Architects
https://aca.org.au/
The ACA focuses on being the place to lead the discussion of business of architecture rather than talking all about design.  Another site I sometimes write for – you will find a mix of articles on fees, employment, HR issues, legislation and other matters affecting Australian architectural practice.

Futurism
https://futurism.com/
On a totally different note from pretty much everything else I subscribe to is Futurism.  Want to know about future society, cutting edge medical research, blockchain, the latest robots and anything Elon Musk is up to? This is the place for a very wide range of short articles that can be your starting point to learn more about where in the world we are headed.

I do also pop into many Revit blogs, but for me this tends to be on as as needs basis to search for help rather than regularly reading any particular blogs.  What are your favorites? Perhaps some of you can help out with more suggestions – although I will then need to find more blog reading time…maybe after I finish my architectural registration interview!

Inside Out – Implementing Revit for Interior Design Teams

What is preventing interior designers from taking up Revit? We can’t just keep blaming a lack of content. Maybe we don’t need BIM but why should we use Revit for interior design? And why are interior designers so special anyway? At this year’s BILT ANZ event in Brisbane I presented a class aimed at teaching Interior Designers & BIM Managers how to transition or improve their interior design teams use of Revit.

Over the years that I have been using Revit and attending BILT and other technology and BIM events, I have frequently had conversations with BIM Managers or BIM savy interior designers about how their teams are really struggling to implement Revit for the interior design projects – even in large practices where the architecture team might be quite successfully utilizing Revit and BIM on many projects.  This has surprised me, because I’ve always found so many advantages in using Revit and across the last 5 years have been involved in a number of practice implementations training many interior designers.  So why is it that so many teams are struggling?

So how do you turn your Revit Inside Out (or should that be Outside In?)!Interior design teams have different needs to architects, your architecture template and library might need some work and the Revit essentials 2 or 3 day training courses don’t meet our needs. This class aimed at learning to understand the needs of interior design teams first , both from a technical and a change management perspective. Only once the interior design teams needs and reasons for using BIM have been considered, to then develop suitable content and a training program.

This class drew on my 20 years of experience as a lead interior designer managing projects from very small to very large, including commercial / workplace, education, multi residential and hospitality – for over 10 years working exclusively in Revit and working with 5 different practices to implement or improve their Revit from the Inside Out.  Its a class I have had developing in my head for some years now and drew upon previous popular posts on this blog, Do Revit and Interior Design go together? and Revit for Interiors – Its not perfect.  The content of this class is not advanced or complex.  And that is exactly the point.  You don’t have to have a team of Revit super gurus in order to use Revit for interior design.  What you need to do is understand what your team actually need to produce and focus upon the tools that are going to give them the most bang for their buck, the easy efficiencies – or as I call them quick wins.

You can check out my slide deck below.  Following the introduction, the class is based upon the 3 headings – People, Content & Training.  You can get a pretty good idea based upon the slide headings and my previous posts, but do feel free to get in touch via comments, LinkedIn or Twitter if you want to know more on any particular topic.

I believe the reason why many people are struggling with implementing Revit for Interior Design is too much focus on the availability of just the right furniture, 3D modelling and materials – which are great, necessary and useful – but are not the best place for beginners to start and can suck up a lot of design time and money.  Basic tools like keynotes, filters and furniture schedules can help super power you interior design Revit use and give teams an understanding of families and parameters before trying to create beautiful and amazing 3D models of every custom design.

Revit does ‘work’ for interiors.  Don’t get caught up with content and materials.  Think about the process first.  Consider the people, content and training and with the right support your interiors team can be just as advanced at BIM and Revit as your architecture team.

Thanks to everyone who attended my class, asked questions and came up to chat about it afterwards.  It’s always interesting to share some knowledge as well as hearing about other ways people are tackling the same problems.

Ceilidh Higgins

Images via unsplash.

Is regulation the answer to fee MADness?

Is reintroducing fee scales and further regulation the solution to fee slashing and ‘the race for the bottom’ among architects?  Is this really feasible in a world of increasing globalisation and diversification of service providers?  If not, what other options are there?

Recently I read this article by Shaun Carter, immediate past president of the NSW Chapter of the Institute of Architects and a principal architect at Carter Williamson Architects.  Its really great to see Shaun speaking out on the issues of fees – and what he describes as the ‘existential crisis’ of fee madness – the ‘mutually assured destruction’ of architecture as a profession.

Immediately after reading the article, I felt compelled to join the conversation and comment – and then realised I had the beginning of another article on fees forming in my mind.  Fees are a topic I have frequently written about over the five years I have been writing this blog (from The art(or is that science) of architecture fees to talking about fees and BIMonomics and more recently Architecture and Design Fees: Why Hours), and so Shaun’s article was of great interest to me.  Essentially he proposes that the solution is regulation across three platforms – minimum fees (essentially a return to fee scales), government as a model client and limiting architecture graduates.

Is regulation, restrictive trade practices or collective bargaining the right answer? While I used to think that maybe regulation could be a solution, I wonder how does regulation in NSW (or in any other Australian state) solve a problem which is national, but also potentially global? How can you regulate at the edges of architecture – for example in fields where architects and interior designers compete? Do we really believe we can regulate if your competition is Google or Amazon? (Right now in the USA I think its the other way around…Amazon are practically setting the regulations with the offers that came in from cities determined to win Amazon 2 HQ!)  So personally I don’t think regulation, in particular fee scales is the answer.

However that doesn’t mean there is not a place for advocacy and education – both of architects and of clients. I agree with Shaun that “Clients don’t recognize that their service is cut-priced, but have the same expectations as a good, fee-paying client.”  Fees have dropped so far, that many clients including project managers, would have no idea of the real cost of the work they are bidding, only ‘market rates’.  Many clients have no idea of the amount of hours that go into designing and documenting a building or a fitout – I’ve had more than one project manager assume that my job is done after concept design “don’t you just hand it over to the engineers then?”

I’d love to see both the Board of Architects and the AIA take leading roles on the issue of cut priced fees and client education, alongside of other organisations working in the design of buildings – the ACA, the DIA, Consult Australia, Engineers Australia and more. This isn’t just an issue for architects but for all design professionals.

One of the “frequent offenders”clients guilty of this is our own government – at all levels across a wide variety of agencies and institutions. Cut throat fee bidding in government work where price is the only criteria has been a problem for years. Back in 2014 I published this piece on one architect who tried to take a stand against this practice, after uncovering one government agency who admitted they would have to accept a tender of zero if  pre-qualified firm chose to submit it.  (I also commented on this as ‘madness but without the great acronym!)

Maybe if you don’t work in the government sector, you believe that the fact these firms have been in business for long enough, with enough of a reputation and standing to be pre-qualified for government work, that they wouldn’t engage in such foolish business tactics. But when the work is low (or even often when it’s not), it’s such common practice as to be the norm. And then it’s paid for by the staff (even by the principals and directors) working long hours for free or by compromising the quality of documentation – thereby driving up construction costs and waste.  As mentioned in Shaun’s article, there is no way that low fees don’t equate to lowered quality of service. Even if a company is spending the same hours on the project – if many of those hours are unpaid overtime the quality of the work is lower. (There is so much evidence that working 50 or more hours a week compromises the quality of your work).

Shaun’s call for Government to lead the way as a model client is a fantastic idea (and while we are at it, perhaps some model client contracts from Government where risk is fairly distributed and copyright ownership retained?) I agree that if our government at all levels takes the lead in demonstrating the value of good design and the better outcomes that could be achieved, it is more likely more private companies would follow. Whilst I’ll admit, initially this is regulation, I’d perceive it more as leadership by Government, rather than purely a regulative measure.

Leadership needs education.  Everyone who designs needs to be part of educating our clients, but advocacy by the AIA or the boards around Australia could help make a difference. Not just for today’s clients, but by educating tomorrows clients to appreciate design. In Scandinavia, design education starts in primary school and an appreciation of design is a part of the culture. More recently, Australians too are coming to appreciate design, you see this in the quality of our newer cafes, restaurants and shopping centres and in our obsession with home renovation reality TV. But “clients need to understand that design excellence costs money” (and takes time). This is where the home renovation shows do professionals no favours.  Where are the shows about architects or interior designers? Other than Grand Designs, notably absent.

For too long design has been undervalued in Australia, and this is because we need real evidence to back up and underpin this education.  Evidence that will prove to everyone – clients, project managers, even builders and the architects/designers themselves that design really does add value.  To do this we need more research, research like the new RASP project, that sets out to prove the value of design through the question “Do architect designed renovations improve capital gains in the Melbourne residential property market?” Whilst this research relates purely to architects and residential design, there are so many possibilities for commercial, institutional and other sectors to benefit from similar projects. The retail sector already knows it, and has long invested in research to understand how design drives consumer behavior, and the payoff is clear and direct. In other sectors the questions and the payoff is not so straightforward. The problem is that individual clients or practices can’t afford to fund this research. At the University of Sydney around 100 workplaces have participated in the BOSSA project for post occupancy evaluations – how much more extensive would this dataset be if we have if every government workplace had a post occupancy evaluation? Again,this is another area where the Government could play a leading part. Why isn’t the CSIRO involved in this kind of research?  Improving the design of our workplaces could be a key means of improving our national productivity.

While good design does cost money, our professions need to also take responsibility for productivity and efficiency. While we might have BIM capable software, there is so much wasted human capital and time in most architecture practices. Our actual fees might be a lot lower if we invested more in technology and training. The whole of the construction industry is guilty of not investing in software, training or automation. Is this because of a lack of education at leadership level, a lack of understanding of how technology can benefit us or is it fear of change, a distrust of technology and of individually being left behind? Or are we now in a vicious cycle of low fees, with nothing to invest? Whatever the root cause, our industry will be left behind if we don’t invest in technology. I’ve written in the past about the coming wave of automation, (Will a Robot take my Job? and Is Disruptive Innovation Possible in the Construction Industry and more recently, I’m a designer and I job share with an AI) – if you didn’t know, it’s already here.  If you have not started to think about how you can automate routine parts of your practice you will be left behind. When our fees are so low already, how can we afford not to automate where practical? Why should we be calculating the space for fire stairs or toilets when a computer can do this so much more efficiently that we can.

We don’t just need to educate clients, but we also need to train young architects and designers more in business – and even more so, in innovation and entrepreneurship. Architects might not feel that traditional business and accounting is their thing – but innovative ways to develop new business could be more appealing.  Especially if we continue to train architects in such numbers – we need to train them to expect to be other things than a traditional architect, because there will not be nearly enough jobs.  Maybe we don’t need to limit the number of graduates, but to value architectural training as the background to many other avenues of design thinking.  If the next generation are nimble and accept change, and learn how to keep learning throughout their careers – maybe they will take their valuable design thinking into broader roles. I am constantly surprised at how architecture and interior design are creative professions but so many practitioners are so resistant to change (how many architecture practices do you know who have implemented activity based working…)

We can’t just expect the universities to teach business awareness though. For too long in too many practices, fees and charge out rates have been too secret – something that graduates are not expected or even often allowed to know about. Everyone at all levels should understand the fee budget and how their work contributes – just like when a client doesn’t tell us their budget, how can you expect someone to understand how their time contributes to the job cost if you never shares any information with them?

Finally, we need to think about how we charge. The world has moved on from dollars per hour. The ability to make money is no longer linked to human capital. This is the major lesson for all professions where we have historically charged by the hour. So I think we need to be thinking about value based fees, and about not fee scales. I’ve never worked in a time of fee scales, but I can’t see how fee scales in a time of globalisation and diversification are going to protect our jobs and fees. Fee scales won’t stop Amazon or WeWork from taking over the traditional roles of architects.

So what is a value based fee? The value of your work, the value of your ideas.  I’ve written in a lot more detail previously on this topic in the article Architecture and Design Fees: Why Hours.  If we start to think and talk about fees in terms of our value, and the value of our work – can we continue to justify cut throat fees in our own minds?  Aren’t we devaluing our own work that way?  Of course when clients don’t value our work and our profession doesn’t value our work – we have a problem. So thats why proving our value to others is also a key part of the solution.

I agree with Shaun – three things need to change – although my three are different:

  1. We need to value ourselves;
  2. We need to invest in the future; and
  3. Our clients and those who occupy our buildings & spaces need to value us
 Maybe I’ll add number four – we need to envision a future where being an architect or an interior  designer doesn’t always mean working in a traditional practice alongside only other architects and design professionals. Whilst Bjarke Ingels is a talented designer, BIG is a successful mutlinational firm because the CEO, Sheela Maini Søgaard comes from business not architecture. A lot of architects I know would be quite scared by that notion.

Ceilidh Higgins

Image Credits:

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

I’m a designer and I job share with an AI

Thomas Edison is credited with the phrase Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration” and I believe there is no field where this applies more than architecture and design. So often people assume that interior design is such a fun, creative job – that it’s all about drawing, colours and furniture, something like being paid to colour in and shop – when today being a designer is just as much about people management, psychology, project management, documentation, checking codes and standards and managing contracts.  It’s also often about a culture that expects long hours and being always available to the job. “It’s not work when you are passionate about it?” is common. But what if instead we could all work less hours and job share with our computers?

This is my latest article, which you can continue reading on Workplace Insight.  Workplace Insight is one of my favourite blogs and I was really excited to be asked to write this piece for them.

If yu enjoyed the article, you might enjoy attending BILT.  BILT ANZ will run in Brisbane this year from 24-26 May and will have sessions across a whole spectrum of technologies for architects, designers, engineers, contractors, estimators, quantity surveyors, project managers, building and asset owners and managers.  Buildings Infrastructure Lifecyle  supported by Technology – with over 100 classes to chose from over three days, if you work across these fields BILT has classes for you.  Its not all about technology either, with classes in leadership, change management and strategy, BILT supports the fact that a wide range of skills are need to understand, implement and deliver projects in this complex and technology driven world we now work in.

Personally, I will be presenting a class “Inside Out: Implementing Revit for Interior Design Teams” in Session 1.3.  I’d love to see you there!

You can register and find the full schedule at our website.  (Disclaimer: In one of my other roles I am the BILT ANZ Communications & Marketing Manager) If you are not in ANZ, you will also find BILT in Aisa, North America and Europe.

Ceilidh Higgins

What does creativity mean to you?

 

Does technology kill creativity? Or do we need to think “outside the box” as to what creativity means in a world of coding, automation and technology driven innovation?

Recently I was lucky enough to be invited to Steelcase and Microsoft’s “Creative Spaces” launch with a panel of speakers specially flown in for the event – Julia Atalla (Microsoft), Chris Congdon (Steelcase) and John Ravitch (IDEO) (As a sidenote – Great to see a panel with two female panelists out of three!)

It’s not often you get the chance to participate in a session run by people of the caliber of IDEO – although only a couple of months ago, I was also lucky to participate in an amazing project based session with Cat Burgess from Frost Collective!  I always find these kinds of workshops inspiring, even though there is still that school kid part inside of me that groans at the idea of group work! I also find I can get my own ideas and inspiration as to how to run strategy and design workshops.  Clients are so often very busy people or just unenthusiastic about the prospect of spending 2 hours in a design workshop, and it takes a lot of knowledge and skill to get the best out of participants when you are running such workshops.

While the Steelcase / Microsoft event was more panel than workshop, there was a workshop element included at the beginning – asking us to define what creativity meant to us and come up with a shared definition with a partner (and one you didn’t already know) A number of audience ideas were shared and we then heard views and further discussion from the panel.

As an architect, designer and writer, creativity is clearly a topic of interest to me.  It’s one that has any different viewpoints and definitions. When you think of creativity do you think of artists and designers or is creativity today more broad than this definition? Are “concept designers” the only creative people in a design studio? Or is a software programmer creative? Can a computer be creative? In an age where it is likely a combination of our softer “human” skills and our ability to program the machines, are going to become more valuable, these are important questions, particularly for designers of any kind.

Is being defined as a creative a compliment or potentially an insult? Why do so many people see creative and organised as opposites? Or more recently –  being creative and able to use a computer as mutually exclusive? Creativity is not just about someone’s ability to sketch. Sketching in itself is not necessarily creative either – its just one method of communicating creative ideas. It has the benefit of being a quick and emotive one though. In our profession people who are good at sketching have always had the advantage. Not necessarily because they are any more creative but because they are able to better communicate their creative ideas.  However today, communicating creative ideas though software is becoming easier and easier.  Creativity isn’t just about the tool.

I frequently read or hear people criticising software, particularly BIM software for creating boring architecture or killing design and creativity. Software is not what is killing creativity in our industry. Low fees and a lack of community or government appreciation for what we do is what is killing design. Low fees alongside a university system that does not prepare graduates for actual jobs, have also created a huge gap between those who know software and those who know buildings. Many practices have not invested in training, or encouraged experienced staff to learn or sometimes even to understand new sortware and technologies (I’ve seen them be actively discouraged). I”m not talking about staff that are about to retire either, I’m talking about people have 20 years or more before retirement (as if any of us will retire at 65 anyway!)

For me, technology has always been a path to improving creativity. Whether it’s though the automation of the boring bits of our job to free our time up for design, or the abilities of generative design to help create thousands of options to quickly optimise the functionality or buildability of design, I believe technology can be used to enable creativity. For me personally, technology has become an essential component of my design process and a communication tool both to my team and to clients.  My definition of creativity is in fact that it is something that comes out of the intersection of ideas or people from different disciplines.  For me this has been a combination of technology, architecture and design and multidisciplinary ways of working.

Which is why I loved John Ravitch’s definition of creativity:

Curiosity plus progress = creativity

Isn’t that awesome! The panel went onto a discussion about how creativity today is about problem solving, not about what discipline you work in. A data scientist may not consider their work to be creative, but interpreting and communicating the data to others, is a creative task. I’m sure lawyers, accountants and doctors – all professions we don’t traditionally think of as creative – or in our own industry, even project managers and documenters – know that the best people in the fields do something differently to the most average. To me that is creativity, it’s thinking differently about whatever the problem is you set out to solve.

One thing that we do know is that creativity is not just about inspiration. Creativity (and design thinking) can be taught. Creativity can also be trained. By writing, drawing or doing whatever it is every day or every week, you will get better and you will be more creative. Not everything you do will be your best creative work, the idea of the creative genius is actually very rare (great article on this recently from Aureon’s Just Imagine blog). Meditation can also help you to rewire your brain and be more creative. By coincidence, a few days after I’d written this paragraph, I started reading about these same topics this week in Manage your day to day: Build your routine, find your focus and sharpen your creative mind from 99u.

You don’t have to be inspired to start being creative. But I think being creative is what makes you feel more inspired about whatever it is you do.   So after months of feeling uninspired (and somewhat cranky with our industry – but that’s another story), reflecting on this Creative Space event and thinking about creativity has got me writing again. Hopefully this article inspires you to do whatever it is that makes you feel creative, inspired and excited about your work and life.

Ceilidh Higgins

Image Credits:
Mervyn Chan

Is your work flexible, agile or autonomous? (and what is the difference anyway)


What does flexible mean to you? Is it the hours you work? Or the place? Is activity based working the same as flexible working? And what does agile working really mean?

These days companies are frequently talking about offering flexible and agile working conditions or environments but what that means in reality can vary widely between different organisations.  If you google “flexible work” in Australia you will find the top links are to the government Fair Work Australia website. Fair Work defines flexible work as “Examples of flexible working arrangements include changes to: hours of work (eg. changes to start and finish times), patterns of work (eg. split shifts or job sharing),locations of work (eg. working from home).” However, one of the key items of note in Fair Works requirements for defining and flexible working arrangements is that everything is documented and approved – essentially it is a contractual definition of flexible.  Definitions from government bodies in the UK and USA are similar.  Is this what you thought flexible working was? I only discovered this definition when I was returning to work part time after maternity leave and I found it very surprising – for years I thought I’d had flexible working arrangements but it hadn’t been this. This contractual or legal definition of ‘flexible work’ does not allow the flexibility of varying hours day to day or with little notice.  It’s not about trust or performance based outcomes, it’s still about watching and clocking the hours.  I was used to travelling, working from home if I had a tradesman coming (or needed to write a submission), taking time off if I worked a weekend or even just arriving at a different time because I chose to fit a yoga class in before work. I would have thought for many people having to contractually defining flexible is almost the opposite – it wouldn’t meet the needs of many people looking for more flexibility in the workplace – such as the ability to attend children’s school events or to care for a sick child while still working. So if flexible isn’t what I thought it was – what is the right terminology to clearly define this way of working, based upon trust and the ability to change the plan? Could this be activity based working (ABW) or agile working?

While ABW is a way of working, it is a way of working which has been very much linked to physical environments.  Often the term agile working is also used to define these types of working environments. But what is the difference between agile working and activity based working?

ABW is based upon the premise that staff choose where to work in order to best perform the task required.  The choice may be in a variety of work settings within the workplace, or somewhere else all together. It’s is generally acknowledged that for ABW to be successful, a different style of management with a higher level of trust is required. If a supportive management culture exists this would therefore seem to lend itself to people also chosing the time at which the work is performed?  But the definition of activity based working is also dependant upon the premise that staff don’t have an allocated desk. So what kind of work is it if you do have an allocated desk but you can choose when and where to work?

I recently started researching agile working and what this term really means, and discovered that agile working is a lot bigger than just a way of working or an environment.  Agile working begins with how you run your business “you allow the established routines within your business to quickly and seamlessly adapt to the quickly changing marketplace.” While agile working does involve the flexibility of time and place, it is also about the flexibility of management, structures and the ability for an organisation to respond and transform itself. (You notice this articl doesn’t use the government/contractual definition of flexibility but the more commonly accepted notion).

It’s also important to understand that agile working is not the same as agile development – it’s not about the post it notes.  Agile development is a project management methodology developed in software development in the 1990’s which in recent years has become very popular across various sectors.  One of the most popular methods is known as Scrum.  Scrum is best known for the daily scrum and scrum task board of post it notes. (Kanban is also similar).  One of the limitations of Scrum is that is works less well for teams whose members are geographically dispersed or part-time – whereas agile working should not be limited by this. Paul Allsop of the Agile Organisation defines “Agile working [as] bringing people, processes, connectivity and technology, time and place together to find the most appropriate and effective way of working to carry out a particular task. It is working within guidelines (of the task) but without boundaries (of how you achieve it).” 

In this article, John Eary discusses he differences between flexible and agile working, and the concept of work-life integration. Work life integration allows staff to choose when and where to work to suit their personal lives, and as long as performance outcomes are achieved.  John notes that “Managing this trade-off is a challenge for employers and employees. For employees the trade-off for more flexibility in working time is accepting greater responsibility in meeting work commitments. For employers the trade-off for staff becoming more responsible and responsive is adopting a relaxed attitude to their staff’ working practices, particularly to when staff choose to work. ”

To me, this says that agile working is really about giving everyone autonomy to chose how, when and where they work. Numerous studies have been published to verify that autonomy is one of the single biggest predictors of workplace satisfaction. Whether it is control of your place and time of work or of your environment, autonomy helps both attract and retain the best and brightest staff. And according to Gensler, autonomy also increases your chances of innovation.

While everyone these days claims to offer flexibility, how many organsisations are truly offering autonomy? When we ask for flexiblity should we be asking for autonomy instead?

Ceilidh Higgins

PS. I’m currently looking for a new role as a lead/senior workplace designer – in an organisation that offers flexibility (3 days per week) and autonomy.  Get in touch with me via the links at the bottom of the about page you are hiring! (no recruiters please)

What’s so critical – why the long hours?

School Memories by lehman_11, on Flickr
Is it really necessary for us to accept a long hours culture in order for architecture or design practices to thrive, or for us to succeed as individuals?

Earlier this year I started a new role.  I’m a senior associate in an award winning interior design studio. In my last practice I managed a major workplace fitout project of close to 8,500m2.  I also work 3 days per week.  A lot of people are surprised at the last sentence.  Whilst it is not uncommon for women in our industry to work part time after having children – what is uncommon is that I changed jobs and managed a major project without switching to a full time role.  Numerous women, both in design and other industries have told me that my job change is inspiring them to start seriously job hunting and not putting it off, “until they are ready to go full time again”. If you are a man thinking this post isn’t for you – think twice. Would you like your evenings and weekends back too? It’s all part of the same problem.

There seems to be a belief across our industry, from architects and interior designers through to project managers and clients that you have to work more than full time hours to lead a project.  That part time won’t work.  That you should be available to answer questions from clients and contractors at least during all business hours, but preferably during any hours they chose to work.   This isn’t just an issue for women – I know plenty of men sick of the hours and the pressure too.

Why has our industry culture developed this way? Sorry to say – but what we do isn’t all that critical.  We are not emergency services – no one’s life is at risk.  To be really brutally honest – not even that much money is at risk.  Your clients payroll for a week is much much larger than a week’s corporate rent.  So why have we developed this crazy notion that everything is super urgent, that a reply can’t wait a day and that everyone has to be working all the time?

Mobile phones and email are part of the problem.  In days gone by, contractors might have had to wait for us to come to site, or even send a letter – that could take days!  Somehow even a fax was never as urgent as email has now become.  It sat in the office until you returned.  The pace of things has changed for everyone, but why do we let it drive us? If we are part of the problem, we are all a part of the solution.  As long as we all accept the status quo, nothing changes.  But what if we push back, if we look at alternative ways of working and managing our teams and our clients? Why shouldn’t everyone work part time?  Especially if automation is going to mean less work for everyone.

My choice to work part time is partly about the fact I have a toddler, but its not just that.  Working part time also gives me more time for other things – to write, to be part of the BILT ANZ event committee, to meditate and to try to fit in some exercise.  I had already spent some time working more flexible hours a couple of years ago and had realised that working less hours makes me more productive, more creative and better at my job and my life.  Especially in a creative role, sitting at your desk for 40 hours plus a week doesn’t help you do a better job, it just gives you repetitive strain injury or a mental health problem.

Right now, we have a shortage of senior interior designers in Australia.  Why? Partly because so many young designers dropped out of the industry during the GFC but also because many senior designers are women with children who just don’t want the stress of feeling that they can’t meet the hours and workload expected of a senior design role.  Architecture has a similar problem with a shortage of senior women, particularly in mid to large size practices.

It doesn’t help that many part timers are forced into roles that undermine their confidence and capability.  Being a senior associate given the same work as the part time student is pretty demeaning (and it has happened to me, along with many others I know).  Just because you are part time doesn’t mean you can’t be client facing.  If you chose not to be – there are plenty of tasks in every studio that can really benefit from the knowledge of part time senior staff.  Quality reviews are a really easy start.  Internal staff training and mentoring.  Partnering a part time senior staff member with a more junior team member can be a great way for a junior to get more client exposure and more responsibility.

Its true that looking for a new role as a part timer is harder – one practice told me they wouldn’t hire a part timer for a senior role – it’s too hard to manage.  It’s different to manage – it is only harder because it’s not what we are used to.  I know this as a manager, I’ve managed remote teams and I have managed a team in which I was the only full timer.  Both of these kinds of management are different to managing a team who sit right in front of you, available every day of the week.  The secret is being organsied, communicating and setting expectations.  It takes adjustment on both sides.  Managers have to realise that staff are not there at their beck and call.  Micromanagement won’t work.  This applies as much to other kinds of flexible and agile working as it does to part time.  As an individual you have to take control of your role, your tasks and your relationship with email.  Team members have to learn to balance taking initiative with when something is truly urgent and worth bothering someone on their day off.  Finally, clients have to learn to respect boundaries too.  Most of our client organisations have part time staff (and many of them work shorter hours than your typical design studio anyway). Given the knowledge and the chance, most clients seem to respect the fact that I’m not in the studio every day.  Usually things are not so complex or critical that they can’t be solved by another team member, or wait a day or two.  More often than the client having a problem with part timers, its our own industry perceptions that assume a client will have a problem.  It is not unusual for a senior staff member to be regularly unviable several days per week due to existing project commitments or travel – why is the fact they are at home rather than in another client office that day any different? For some reason our culture seems to think it is.

It’s up to individuals and their practices to figure out what will work for you.  How do I manage my part time week? I chose to spread my work days out, working Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday so I am only ever out of the office for one day at a time.  This won’t work for everyone. I also keep an eye on emails on my days off, again this is my choice, and it can lead to difficult conversations around boundaries.  The challenge is to be able to see an email and not freak out or feel you have to respond straight away, as well as for others to respect that you won’t respond to everything. If you and your team can’t do that, then maybe checking email on your day off won’t work for you (but maybe you want to train yourself to try to be less affected by email bombs – its something I am getting better at by practicing).  If things are urgent, I might contact team members via email or on slack.  The team know they can contact me if its urgent too.  I don’t respond to client emails on my days off.  My email signature tells people the days I am in the studio and I find most people respect this and don’t call my mobile on my days off.  When I’m running a project, I make sure all the team members are fully briefed on the priorities for the days I am away and we have a shared to do list (I have been testing out trello) for when anyone finishes up all their allocated tasks.  For my teams, its working.  In my previous role, I delivered tender documentation on time for a fast paced 8,500m2 fitout project, thanks to the help of a great team working alongside me.

Its highly unlikely anyone else will ever tell you to go home, or not to respond to emails on your day off.  Its true some clients, team members or managers will always be difficult and expect everyone to always be available.  But rather than expecting this to be the case, expecting organisations not to hire part time staff – why don’t we all start expecting the opposite?  That’s how change will come about. Once we start accepting that part time works we will also realise that no-one needs to work 24/7 and we can all get our lives back.

 

Ceilidh Higgins

Image credits: “School Memories” (CC BY 2.0) by lehman_11

PS. Are you coming to BILT ANZ in Adelaide in May? I’m really excited that we have a great range of presentations lined up this year, particularly of interest for anyone interested in Interior Design and Technology – Daniel Davis from WeWork will be presenting.  See more on the RTC Events blog.  You can register as well as enter our competition to win a free Golden Ticket here.

What will the workplace look like in an automated world?

How will automation impact upon the design of our workplaces?  Is it really likely that our workplaces will cease to exist?

2016 became the year that automation of the workforce went mainstream, with the question “Will a Robot take my job?” becoming common across a wide swath of media and the internet, no longer the subject of only futurism and innovation blogs.  In fact, the changing nature of work, automation and the possible significant job losses associated with it are now considered one of the biggest challenges facing us globally in the next 10 years.  So how will this impact on the workplace and interior design?

For a seriously dystopian view, this video from the Guardian, paints a very different picture from the world we inhabit now – somewhat 1984 meets the Jetson’s – and like both of these, it’s probably a bit too far fetched to be real.  Whilst its true that many jobs or parts of jobs could be automated, the reality is that automation is likely to be slower to take over than we imagine, and that a world without work (and the workplace) isn’t likely to be coming any time soon.  There are a number of reasons for this, reasons that are less about technology than they are social, political and psychological.  We just don’t trust machines.  Our societies are not set up to function in a world of no work – we need to get paid to live.  Its likely that ‘busy work’ will continue for some time after many jobs could have been automated.  Already we see this in architecture, interior design and engineering.  We have students, but not the latest software.  Possibly no-one in the office even knows what the latest software can do, or maybe no-one has had time to learn it yet. Perhaps managers insist that it needs to be done the way it always was, the other way won’t work (or they are scared it will and that they will become irrelevant).  So still the students do the manual repetitive tasks that could already be done by software.  I imagine its the same to some extent in all industries – although construction is one of the worst (see my posts on disruptive innovation and the future of architecture).   Linked to the Guardian video is a great article about how we need to change society before we can get rid of work.  My belief then, is that the workplace will continue to exist for some time to come.

Perhaps it is more likely we will see more co-working spaces to provide both individual and corporate tenants flexibility to cater for the changing nature of work. We are already seeing the idea of the freelance ‘gig economy’ (although in Australia at least casual employment has apparently remained at a steady percentage since the nineties). The accompanying growth in co-working spaces caters for both these freelancers and smaller startups.  However it’s unlikely we will all become freelance entrepreneurs. But that’s not to say there won’t be more of us using co-working spaces.

While some predictions suggest that automation could take 30-50% of jobs, more likely scenario is that automation takes parts of jobs – many jobs are a mix of repetitive and non-repetitive cognitive tasks. My job as an interior designer still exists, but certain tasks won’t.  The choices will be to either have less staff or retain a similar numbers of staff but everyone becomes part time (and we all supplement our incomes selling stuff on Etsy…)  Possibly different organisations may make different choices – but with more and more staff sick of working long hours and wanting better work life balance (or perhaps time to make money online) the chances of a larger part time workforce would seem to be high.  Perhaps we won’t just work in one job or place but in several.  Either way we would see workplaces either shrinking or more people working out of co-working spaces part or all of the time.  To some extent, this would mean that current trends of activity based working with its more flexible approach to space per person and co-working will continue.

The very development of co-working spaces highlights the reason why the workplace will continue to exist. It’s social. From my own experience I’ve always found one of the biggest barriers to a remotely distributed team is the random connections and conversations, often referred to these days as the ‘bump’ factor (although they happen just as much sitting at a desk as at a corridor). Neil Usher sums it up really well in this blog “Only when technology begins to absorb unscheduled, occasional, distracted, interrupted and uninvited multi-participant conversation will it begin to scratch the surface. In this respect, forget the cloud, technology needs to be in the crowd.”

Neil also talks about the change in the design of what we consider to be a workplace and the influence of other spheres of design. Our offices are already starting to merge into spaces less dominated by cubicles and computers, with more in common with residential or hospitality spaces. The co-working and activity based working models also bring to this the concept of office-as-a-service, with ideas of hotel style concierges, retail style IT genius bars and perhaps food and beverage options. I agree with Neil, that this trend will continue (although maybe the Genius Bar will be staffed by robots?), and this presents another challenge to those designing (and even more so paying) for the workplace – design trends in hospitality and retail change a lot faster than a traditional ten year commercial lease!

To me though, one of the most exciting trends in workplace design will be the ability to create simulations during the design stages and post occupancy evaluations in real time. The ability to test our designs and how people interact with them creates an opportunity for architects and designers never seen before. Particularly as the workplace becomes a consumer choice (as we can work from anywhere), the ability to create evidence based designs that we can prove are attracting people to use the workplace gives workplace designers so much more relevance than being seen as someone who pretties up the space. Not only that, we can start to generate evidence as to how workplace design contributes to productivity, teamwork, collaboration and wellbeing. I wrote an article on this use of simulations and data several years ago, and now the idea is starting to go mainstream – co-working space WeWork are starting to actually do it, and software giant Autodesk are predicting it to be one of the big industry changing trends.

None of this means that the workplace will look so different after all – except maybe a robot will deliver your coffee. Trends in design and furniture will continue to come and go. Wellbeing, biophilla and plants might still be important design criteria – maybe you might kneel instead of standing or sitting – but probably you will still go to work in an office that has some kind of work surface (I’m hoping for the giant tablet bringing a return to the drawing board), coffee (maybe your coffee robot is not just bringing it, but also the barista) and at least some co-workers.  Maybe some of you would rather Alice’s world…

Ceilidh Higgins

Ps. In my own future of work, next week I am looking forwards to joining the team at Futurespace!

Architecture and Design Fees: Why hours?

money by fedee P, on FlickrWhy is it, that in an age where the value of a company is no longer based on assets or staff numbers, but on ideas – that architects still charge by the hour?

Once upon a time, the value of a company and the number of staff it employed had some correlation, but today this is no longer the case. In 1979, GM employed 853,000 people and had a turnover of $66 billion, today Google turns over a similar amount but with only 60,000 people.  The stories for Microsoft, Apple, Facebook and many other companies are the same.  Making money is no longer tethered to staff and hours.

In architecture, interior design and engineering however, hourly rates are still the norm. “When they choose to strike out on their own, architects tend to follow the outdated model of trading hours for dollars. One of the consequences of this mindset is the fact that clients continue to perceive architectural services as a cost rather than a value.” (Quote from Architizer) Even if, as is commonly the case, a lump sum fee is being generated, this is usually based upon hourly charge out rates of staff multiplied by a guess (educated or otherwise) as to how many hours a task will take. (I’ve written about traditional fee methods previously here) Clients commonly expect a detailed breakdown of the number of hours allocated to each staff member across different project phases. Why are we charging this way when it both limits our ability to increase profit as well as our flexibility in how we deliver services? If I can reduce my hours either by the selection of staff or by automating part of the process, shouldn’t I as the business owner be able to chose if I pass this saving onto my customers (clients) or if I achieve a higher margin? Why is is that clients seem to think that architects and designers are trying to rip them off with higher margins.  Architectural margins are  very low, and in some sectors fees have effectively shrunk over the last 15 years.  We need to make money where we can in order to stay in business.

Obviously at some point there is a minimum fee a company with employees has to charge in order to pay costs, overheads and salaries – although perhaps salaries also need not reflect hours. If architects don’t charge by the hour, what could the alternatives be?

Charging by  the deliverable

In some senses we already charge by deliverable – the lump sum fee essentially considers the building to be the deliverable. While it’s important we don’t lose sight of this fact, the truth is that not every building requires the same amount of work. A great article on this topic is the story of 3 bike sheds by Dimase Architects  which clearly explains that architectural services are not just about building types or construction budgets but about desired outcomes.

Outside if the residential sector, it is also very common for client organisations to dictate deliverables, meeting schedules, required reviews and documentation standards. Frequently these requirements have very little to do with delivery of the building, but are to meet the client’s managers or user group expectations. Sometimes they come with extensive time and cost impacts. How do we charge for a video walk through? The hours in producing the video itself might be very low, but should the cost of software licenses necessarily be considered an office overhead if only used on some projects? Maybe only 1 or 2 people in the office are capable of this work. Should the fee structure for this work take these factors into account?  This leads to the idea of value based fees.

Value based fees

How valuable is your service to your client?  This is a concept I find really interesting, the idea that you change a client based upon the value they place on your services or even the value you create for them. A residential complex is the most obvious example, if you can design to fit in an extra apartment, the developer client makes additional profit, so why should the architect not benefit from this via some kind of bonus? Some would suggest that the architect might compromise design quality at the expense of profit, but I’d say if you are working for a developer – you probably already feel like you are doing this but not getting paid anything for it. In some ways this would be align the architects and the developers interests better.  Most architects would still value good design and their own names and developers would realise that at the point when the architect said no more apartments would fit, they really had reached the sensible limit.

I can see how this kind of fee structure could apply to many kinds of development – car parks, childcare centres or nett lettable area of office buildings. The challenge would be how to apply value to the more difficult to measure or immeasurables like productivity in an office or the positives such as mental wellbeing coming out of good quality design.

I can also see the potential that this fee structure could perhaps backfire – some clients would only want to pay based upon achieving targets or would impose fee penalties for not meeting targets.  But possibly they are the types of clients who already try to get free work or push fees down that we would all rather not work for anyway!

Architect as developer

If you search the Internet for blogs about architect entrepreneurs, the architect as developer is the most common model. Instead of working for the developers, why not become one yourself? So far, the examples I have seen generally relate to small to medium scale residential developments or small commercial premises (you can find lots of examples at Archipreneur). It’s certainly true that the profit margins are higher in development than architecture, although the risks are obviously greater too. However, this model will only ever work for certain project types.

A similar model that has recently emerged is architect as one investor rather than as developer.  This model seems to be emerging in non-traditional development sectors such as The Commons in Melbourne or SWARM in the UK. What both these two initiatives have in common, is the idea of quality development for the good of the community.  Again, this is a potentially higher risk model than traditional architectural practice, but could allow architects interested in working on projects with a social conscience a lot more scope for both work and potential income.  Again, this model won’t apply to projects where there is no development to invest in (eg an educational facility or a client workspace).

Creating proprietary products

Architects often create designs as part of their commissions, they may work with suppliers for one off custom elements to be incorporated into the project.  Very few architects get paid for this.  Apparently Renzo Piano does.  He was involved in developing a new glass louvre system developed for Aurora Place in Sydney and now he gets paid when the product is used on other projects.

So what about our salaries?

One of the things that any model of fees has to take into account is how we pay ourselves and our staff. If our project fees are no longer based upon hourly rates, should the way architects are employed and paid also change? The idea of the gig based economy, where freelancers sign up for a set fee to a specific project (similar to a movie production) is often mentioned in the context of architecture and the economy of the future more generally. Whilst I can see that this could work for larger projects where architects may be involved for 2 years or more, would it be as well suited to smaller projects which may only run for a few months and frequently don’t require full time involvement? Perhaps this is only my current bias or perception, as the idea of piecemeal freelance work continues to grow more common for projects and tasks both large and small, and as technology and co-working allow different options for working together maybe this will be feasible. If we do move towards this model, payment structures would need change, likely increasing to assume that people don’t always have a forty hour work week. An industry structured this way could be a good or bad thing – potentially better work-life balance through time off between projects but potentially more stress about where the next job is coming from.

Maybe our employment structures don’t need to change all that much.  The idea of bonuses or profit sharing isn’t a common one in architecture and interior design but there is no reason this couldn’t be change very easily.

There are a lot of other ways that architects and designers are making money through non-traditional structures, but many of these are quite limited in their applications or potential to earn – for example internet competitions, although the guy who runs the site probably does quite well from it.  But this takes us into non-traditional services, offering services for other architects and designers, which is becoming relatively common on the web (examples include ArchSmarter and EntreArchitect).

I’d like to think there will be a viable model for fees for designing buildings and interiors for other people and organisations, which recognises and pays for the value of design.  We have to remember that“Concept design is not a loss leader. It is our most precious commodity.”  Design is what our clients value us for, and its not something that can be calculated by the hour.

I’d love to hear from anyone working with non-traditional fee structures, or with other ideas about how architects and designers can structure their fees.  Has anyone worked on a value based fee project?  Or even a project which included a bonus for the architect?

Ceilidh Higgins

Image Credits: “money” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by fedee P

Is design ever ‘finished’?

Finish it by Pedro Travassos, on FlickrOne of the greatest challenges of architecture and design is the fact that there never seems to be enough time.

From student projects onwards there never seems to be enough time to finish designing, detailing and documenting everything about a project.  Essentially, almost every building or fitout is a prototype and to detail every single junction, item or assembly might mean we would never actually finish.  Couple that with the fact that as detailed design and documentation progresses, we may need go back and modify or redesign different parts or elements to improve them or accommodate engineering or product details or the inevitable new client requirement, and at times it feels like design can be a never ending cycle.  Then even as construction takes place, the built reality doesn’t match the ideal, or the contractor has alternative suggestions for products or details.  The client then moves in and the way the space is actually used may differ from their original intentions, or their organisation may have changed over the time the project has taken to come to fruition.  Generally, there  comes a point where further modifications to the the project stop. Its often because of limits, of programs, fee budgets or client expectations –  But does this mean the design was actually finished – can it be and should it be?

To many engineers, it seems that architects and interior designers are notorious for changing their minds and never finishing design.  While it is true that many architects and interior designers are indecisive or looking to constantly keep improving the design at the cost of program (or engineering), it is also just as true that many of these ‘design changes’ are driven by technical or functional requirements.  If the mechanical engineer hasn’t advised the architect of sufficient space they require for plant at the concept stage, the structure may have to change to adjust.  If the client has decided they really need to keep their Comms room onsite instead of using a data centre, then the Comms Room is certainly going to be getting bigger with all the flow on effects to services and other parts of the building that may have.  Many clients and engineers don’t realise that even the smallest of decisions on audio visual or appliances can have flow on effects to the sizes of whole rooms and hence the whole building.  An example is that a corridor with no door in it could be 1m wide, add a door and you might have to increase the width to 1.6m for wheelchairs.  Obviously as architects and designers we try to build some tolerances into our designs from the beginning but extra space gets quickly eaten up.

In every project there has to be points where certain decisions are frozen, and will only change for a significant reason.  Usually we label these points as client sign offs or reviews.  Points at which the client agrees to the design.  The challenge though is always about what level of detail the client signing off.  Unsurprisingly many clients like to leave their changes and decisions as open as possible as late as possible. Its not only the architect or designer that wants to keep their options open.  Even with defined milestones, some clients can be quite difficult about what they believe they have agreed to, particularly if they want design changes and don’t want to pay for them.  Its easier to blame the architect than to concede the client organisation has changed its mind about how they want a space to function.  On one project, we proposed a combined reception and breakout space, initially the client stakeholder group really liked the idea and the images presented.  Some time after signing off on the schematic design and well into our detailed design process, we were informed that the client did not want to proceed with this space.  They wanted a traditional separate reception area, and questioned why we would ever have thought a combined space was suitable.  We found out later that they had decided to temporarily move a different user group into the fitout, and my guess is that the head of the new user group didn’t like the concept.  Thats their choice, but why should we be the ones paying to go back to the drawing board so to speak?

Even without any need for significant client changes during design and documentation, there comes a point where contractors have to price a design and be appointed, and critically construction has to commence.  In an ideal world, the design should not actually be complete before the contractor is selected.  Contractors, and particularly the sub-contractors who are actually doing the work, have their own ideas and suggestions about construction.  These ideas can be a real asset to cost and buildability, as they are the ones that have to actually make it happen.  However, it is rare on larger scale projects (in my experience anything bigger than a single dwelling) or anything put out to competitive tender that this happens in a meaningful way – even on supposed design and construct projects.  Changes and questions inevitably seem to be last minute and often ‘value management’ happens without the input of the designer. Often only the head contractor has been appointed when the design is being finalised, and later the sub-contractors have their own suggestions.

During construction design still continues.  If we detailed every tiny piece of every project then construction documents would be ridiculously complex and would really never end.  Shop drawings and site instructions resolve the finer detail of design.  This phase tends to become the only opportunity for sub-contractor input to design changes.  Whilst we all dream on zero RFIs and variations, is this really a feasible reality?  I’d say not within our current documentation and procurement systems.

When the day of practical completion arrives and the client moves in, many clients think the design process is well and truly done.  However the best clients realise that as you inhabit your spaces you will understand it and realise things you didn’t see during the design process.  Almost everyone can relate to this through their own homes.  Did the furniture you thought of before you moved in suit the spaces in the way you pictured?  It’s the reason why many architects like to camp on a site, or live in their own unrenovated or under furnished homes before they make all the final design decisions.  Its a great idea for clients to save some of their design contingency to continue to work with their architect or designer in the months after they move in to undertake those additional little projects that can make that space just right.  Even with the best design and planning, organisational, technology and other forms of change mean that design should never be static – a building should never be considered finished ‘forever’.  Maybe the built elements are complete, but the lightweight furniture type elements will always need to change over time.

So I believe the answer is no – design is never ‘finished’.  But that shouldn’t mean that we avoid decisions or sign offs, whether by the designer or the client.  If we don’t say stop here and allow the team to move on, then the building will never be built.  In his book, Linchin, Seth Godin talks about the concept of ‘shipping’ which he defines as getting a project completed and out the door.  It is better to have something that is not perfect out there in the world than to have nothing at all.  To me, this is the ‘finished’ that we need to realise as architects and designers, otherwise we could still be working at 2am every day.  To quote Seth Godin “If you want to produce things on time and on budget, all you have to do is work until you run out of time or run out of money. Then ship.” Maybe its not quite that easy, but apparently the more we try the easier it gets.

Ceilidh Higgins

Image Credits: “Finish it” (CC BY 2.0) by  Pedro Travassos