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 “When they choose to strike out on their own, architects tend to follow the outdated model of trading hours for dollars.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. (Add more description). 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 

Where to From Here: Embracing technological change

la libertad tiene un precio. by ... marta ... maduixaaaa, on FlickrIs architecture on the verge of the greatest change in centuries? Ceilidh Higgins looks to the future and predicts disruption of epic proportions. This is part of the ACA’s Where to From Here series, which invites reflections on the recent ACA – SA State of the Profession research.

The architectural profession could be sitting on the brink of the largest shift in how we practice since the Middle Ages and the time of the master builder. Alternatively, we could become totally irrelevant to anything except the boutique house. The scary thing is that much of our profession seems totally unaware this seismic shift could soon occur.

I really enjoyed writing this article for the ACA, it brings together a number of topics I have written about over the last few years.  To read the full article go to the ACA website here.  If you are interested in the ACA-SA State of the Profession research you can find a summary here.  I also recommend checking out the other articles in the series.

Ceilidh Higgins

Image credits:la libertad tiene un precio.” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by  … marta … maduixaaaa 

The early bird catches the worm? When to engage engineers

Breakfast by Ron Wooten, on FlickrWorking as a collaborative team with project managers, engineers and other consultants as well as the client is a topic I have written about or touched on in many of my previous posts.  Some of my earliest posts on this blog were about working together with engineers, starting with this post on Collaborating with Engineers.

Earlier this year, after coming across this post, sourcable.net asked me to comment on why engineers should be involved early in projects.  “I think early engagement with engineers allows you to explore a lot more possibilities and solutions and not be constrained so much”.  As well as discussing the benefits of early engagement of engineers, this article also discuss the barriers to doing so. To read the full article on sourceable.net click here.

And I should also mention – when I refer to sharing drawings…of course I also mean to include models! Really I should have said sharing design information, which is what really working as a collaborative team is about.

When do you engage with engineers?  What stops you doing so earlier? Do engineers want to be involved early, or would you rather wait until the architect has ‘finished designing’? (Now there is a topic for another day!) Do you see benefits to sharing more information across the consultant team?

Ceilidh Higgins

Image Credits: “Breakfast” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by  Ron Wooten 

Is Disruptive Innovation possible in the construction industry?

fishbowl jump by Kay Kim(김기웅), on Flickr
Lately I have been finding the term “disruptive innovation” everywhere.  From events about green buildings and BIM, to blogs and even the Australian Prime Minister – everyone is talking about disruptive innovation, what it means and how it is changing business and our lives.  Along with robots (see my post on robots here), the concept of disruptive innovation seems to have become one of the mainstream technology trends to talk about in 2015 –  replacing big data as the hot topic (and see my post on big data here).  But has disruptive innovation yet impacted on the construction industry? And if it hasn’t yet, will it? I worry that sadly the answer might be no.

The construction industry is one of the least efficient industries – and this is a worldwide issue. This year I heard someone describe the construction industry as ‘the last craft industry’ and this is certainly true.  Whilst so much of production and manufacturing has become rigidly process oriented and quality controlled, prototyped and tested – even in developed countries, almost every building that we build is still a one off design, constructed piece by piece on site.  The inefficiencies of all phases of building – from procurement through to design and construction are outstanding.  Even when a building is not designed by an architect, if it’s larger than a house, it’s almost certainly a one off design.  Even in Australia, where site labour is a significant expense, prefabrication is the exception and not the norm.  We actually have less standardisation than in the larger American and European markets! As architects and designers in Australia we expect to be able to customise almost any product, and often at no extra cost because so much is custom manufactured for each and every project. All of this results in additional costs, both to those supplying services and products related to buildings which are then passed onto those purchasing buildings.  I have seen estimates suggest that the construction industry wastes a mind boggling 20-30% of building costs  – possibly equating to somewhere around $1.7 trillion (USD) worldwide each year! I found one estimate that 50-68% of time on site is wasted!!! Just google construction industry waste and you will find heaps of articles from around the world in relation to both time and materials.

All this would suggest, that buildings and construction should therefore be ripe for disruptive innovations – there is clearly a massive problem here.  BIM, prefabrication and robots have been seen as possible saviours of the industry, that would increase efficiencies but are they effective and are they disruptive innovation?  In the UK, the government determined in 2011 that BIM would generate savings and efficiency for government projects, and they have mandated its use on all government projects over 5 million pounds.  There is plenty of evidence from the UK and also from around the world that is demonstrating that BIM is reducing construction costs (for example refer to this series of articles by David Mitchell on ROI of BIM) – and one assumes without reducing quality of outcomes.  The UK mandate targets that by 2016 all projects will be what is defined as “Level 2 BIM”, but there is no date yet set for “Level 3 BIM”.  So BIM has already been around for easily 10 years already now, and still with no end date for this higher level uptake by industry – 15 years of change seems to slow to me to be defined as disruptive innovation. I’m not so sure that BIM is “our Facebook revolution” (see this article on Digital Built Britain)

Perhaps before we go much further, we need to define – what is disruptive innovation anyway?If I ask google the answer (via wikipedia) is ” A disruptive innovation is an innovation that creates a new market and value network and eventually disrupts an existing market and value network, displacing established market leaders and alliances. The term was defined and phenomenon analysed by Clayton M. Christensen beginning in 1995.”  The frequent examples we are all familiar with include Airbnb, Uber, iTunes and Facebook.  To me, I’m not quite sure that all of these actually meet the requirement for a ‘new market’ – how is the Uber market different from the taxi market? But the key point is that they create a new way of service or product delivery that is completely different from what has come before rather than just being a little bit different – cheaper, easier or more competitive.  For example Amazon is not usually viewed as disruptive innovation, its just a slightly different way of providing goods, at a conceptual level it’s basically the same as the very old fashioned mail order catalouge.

So is BIM a disruptive innovation? I think not. When I first attended RTC back in 2009, and really started to see the possibilities of BIM beyond just 3D modelling and how we could move towards buildings being built from models not documents, and I was seeing all the resultant changes this would bring to our contractual and teaming arrangements, I think I would have considered that BIM would be a disruption to our industry.  But now 6 years later, how much has really changed?  Buildings built from models are still very much the exception rather than the rule, as are alternative procurement and contracting arrangements.  In the same time, Airbnb (started 2008) and Uber (started 2009) have taken over and are serious dominators in their respective markets.  I think there are a few reasons for this slow uptake of change in the construction industry.  One is that with BIM, we still have the option to do things the old way.  We can combine a bit of BIM with traditional paper documents and contracts.  It’s not an all or nothing alternative.  The other is the scale and structure of the market purchasers.

I have been thinking a lot lately about what these kinds of disruptive innovations have in common and how they differ from architecture and construction.  The key issue to me, is that almost all of these commonly discussed disruptive innovators rely on the power of individual consumers and not government and big business.  Can you think of any disruptive innovations that have been driven by or even embraced by Government? Or even big business? (A related question to ponder another day – is activity based working a disruptive innovation?)  If anyone has any suggestions, I’d love to hear them – I can’t think of even one.  So recently when I came across on article on crowd funding for the property industry, I wondered – could this be the driver for disruptive innovation in construction?  Crowdfunding brings in the individual consumer, could this be the missing link?

However upon reading the article, I don’t think so.  Whilst the project funding might be obtained from smaller individual consumers, the project is still run by a larger developer –  it’s just a new way for them to get their start-up capital, like the idea of off the plan apartments really.  Whilst the smaller investors may start putting the pressure on for greater efficiency this is more likely to push incremental improvements rather than disruptive innovation.  The article concludes with the suggestion that within 6 years these crowd funding ventures might be owned by banks, so disruptive innovation seems highly unlikely!

What about other aspects of technology?  Could robots and prefabrication cause disruptive innovation in construction?  Again these are technologies that have been developing for some time – prefabrication for probably over 100 years now! Whilst both offer opportunities for efficiency gains in design and construction, like BIM, they also offer us the opportunity to take small parts and combine prefabricated or robot built items alongside traditional methods.  Robots might be laying bricks, but did they pour the concrete slab yet?

So far, the best opportunity I have seen for disruptive innovation in design and construction is going to come from algorithms rather than robots, through the form of software like Google Flux.  Flux automates the building design based upon site conditions.  (You can find out more about Flux in this video from my presentation and blog on Will a Robot take my job or here on Randy Deutsch’s blog ) There is no reason why either much of the model or the documentation would not be largely automated out of this software as well.  Whilst I believe humans (as architects) will always be involved in designing high quality buildings, much of the work we do as architects could be automated.  I have recently heard said “the computers don’t have to be perfect, they just have to be better than us”.  Why should a human spend time drawing up all the details and layout of a toilet when a computer could do it faster and make sure it meet the building code? The parts could then be prefabricated or assembled on site by robots increasing construction efficiencies.  Developed outside the traditional markets, could Google displace Autodesk as the primary software provider for building design and the disruptive innovator that changes the traditional delivery of architecture? I think it’s possible.

I think it’s also possible, that architects won’t see the potential of these tools, they will see the admittedly ugly buildings that the beta version of the software produces, and believe it’s just a tool for developers to quickly design and build boxy buildings.  If architects don’t engage with these technologies, that is probably what they will become.  But what proportion of our clients are coming to us for high end design? If developers, governments and big business don’t need architects any more what happens to our industry? What happens if construction innovates but architecture doesn’t?  If construction innovates and becomes more efficient, will that leave architecture behind? Does architecture become even more of a boutique industry catering to rich people’s houses?

What about disruptive innovation in construction itself? If not robots or prefab, what could it be?  Is disrupting design sufficient to disrupt construction? Or are there other disruptive innovations out there on the horizon?

Ceilidh Higgins

Image Credits:
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License   by  Kay Kim(김기웅) 

Will Architectural Technology Create the Next Generation Gender Divide?

Women in BIM copy

It’s been a while since I have posted to this blog – there have been quite a few things keeping me busy lately.  One of which was this article that I was commissioned to write for Parlour.  Parlour is an Australian website dedicated to promoting gender equity and diversity in architecture.

In my writing and research I have questioned if architects will be replaced by robots or computers, and come to the conclusion that while computers are taking over the architectural office, we still have humans to tell them what to do. As Achim Menges, professor at Stuttgart Institute of Computational Design, comments, “this process can bring out the best in both humans and computers”. But is this going to be humans or is this going to be men?

Why are more women in our professions not embracing the possibilities technology can offer architectural (or interior design, or engineering) practice today? With rapid advances in technology and their increasing importance across the industry, it’s a question worth pondering.

Read the full article on Parlour’s website.

Ceilidh Higgins

Photo courtesty of BrisBIM

Unwind with Beautiful Thinking

IMG_2802

It’s not very often that I actually write about design itself on this blog – maybe because it’s the most enjoyable part of my job and often I am writing about the things that frustrate and annoy me -but also it is often a part of my job which I  have less time for than I would like.  The last few weeks though, have given me a number of opportunities to think about design, both in our own practice and through the work of other designers across a number of disciplines from architecture, to furniture, fabrics and paper.

Back in June, our team at DJRD were invited by Interface to collaborate in a pop up installation as part of Indesign’s “The Project”.  Our brief was to transform a number of spaces in the Interface showroom into a space for the rituals of ‘refuge’, a place to get away, to calm the mind and retreat and create opportunities for mindfulness. As well as designing the space itself we were asked to think about activities that could occur within the space, initially yoga and meditation were discussed. We were also to integrate Interface’s new carpet collection and their current campaign “Beautiful Thinking”.

All of our staff were invited to join the design team, and we had a fantastic team of 7 architects and interior designers from graduates through to myself as senior associate, with support from one of our directors – so in some ways very much like a real world project team. Joining me on the team were Tasmin Dunn, Gabrielle Melville, Sally Johnson, Darren Livings, Kate Harding and Hannah Hoeschle (who all worked much harder than I did!).  From Interface we had a brief, deadlines and a budget.  The real difference for our design process was the fact that we would be building the installation ourselves – at which point we also pulled in our IT manager and known home handyman, Peter Lean, to assist us.

Initially, as often in the real world, our brief seemed quite complex, with potentially many ideas and elements to explore. As a team, we felt it was important that our space of retreat integrated the Interface product and the process of making, both the making of the product and making as designer.  We approached the brief as we would a project design brief, which is to look to take all the parts and find a single simple and overriding concept that can unify, enhance and speak to all the parts of the brief.  Our concept was to create a series of spaces based upon nature, places you might go to meditate – cave, forest, tree house and meadow – and for the majority of our materials to be sourced from Interface’s manufacturing process (integrating their products and process, but also helping us with our budget).  Rather than yoga or meditation, we felt that a more active and designer orientated activity would be suit Indesign, and we decided mindfulness colouring in books would perfectly suit our intended audience.  This however wasn’t our main activity.  The main activity, tied (literally) back to the space, using Interface yarn to weave between the cardboard trees in the space.  We titled the space “Unwind”, referring both to the act of relaxing and the weaving and yarn throughout the space.

As well as our (limited) budget from Interface, we arranged sponsorship from Inlite (lighting), Dulux (paint) and Skale Greenwall.  They were all so generous with their products – Jarrod Huxtable from Inlite gave us heaps of assistance building our lighting installation as well, and Skale joined our team only 36 hours before we were due to complete!  So much thanks to all of them, and also to our generous friends who loaned us some great furniture pieces to suit the ‘meadow’.

To work together with a collaborative team not just designing but building our space gave us a fantastic chance to use our everyday skills – from planning, designing and organising a team (thanks to our team leader Darren we were on time, on budget and completed the install within the number of work hours allocated) but to work together in a different way where everyone has an equal say and it was up to all of us and the design team to agree on the solutions without significant client input (although unlike a University project we did have a client, as we had worked with Interface throughout).  To create a space that only exists for 2 days also allowed us to explore different materials and take risks that might not be permissible for a longer term space. The actual act of building ourselves also allowed us to design in a more fluid way (on site changes no problems!) and discuss solutions on the spot.  So much of our work now is competitively tendered it means that you can’t work with a builder in this way.

We were also not the only team creating an installation at Interface – at the same time, 4 other design teams were creating spaces based upon either the same brief as ours (refuge) or a brief titled “Prospect” to create an energetic lively space for play and collaboration.  Not only did we get to explore the spaces created by the other designers, but as part of the activities over the 2 days, Interface hosted a panel moderated by Indesign’s editor, Alice Blackwood on Beautiful Thinking in which each of the design teams spoke about their design, the response to the brief and what they believe Beautiful Thinking means to design.  Talking with the other designers whose fields were as diverse as paper art, textile design, graphics and furniture design, was a fantastic opportunity to see behind their installations as well as understanding how their different backgrounds had influenced their work. For everyone of the panel, simplicity was mentioned as an important element in how beautiful thinking creates places and things to calm and inspire – and to allow those inhabiting the space the opportunity for beautiful thinking in turn.

After we leave university it often becomes quite rare that we see other designers present and speak about their work outside of our own practices – especially in this context, where we are not trying to compete to win an award, impress a client or sell our design. However that’s not to say that seeing designers talk about their work to win awards is not just as interesting! Last week I had the opportunity to see the presentations for the shortlist for the IDEA (Interior  incredibly inspiring.  To see seven of Australia’s top designers present and discuss their work for the year in 5 minutes each is a peek at truly amazing work going on in Australia right now(view the shortlist here).  The quality of the work was all outstanding but for me, one particular presentation stood out from the rest as a great presentation – and it gets back to the idea of simplicity and the single idea.  Hannah Tribe of Tribe Studio presented her work not just as a series of architectural projects but explained the studio’s approach to design as a portrait of the client.  A single idea behind a whole practice of work, but not at all a single look or style, an approach that is not just about beauty and awards but creates a place for people.  To me, this really represents the idea of beautiful thinking.  What inspires you to beautiful thinking?

Ceilidh Higgins

PS.  I am also now on Instagram, where you can see more of my Indesign photos.  Follow me as themidnightlunch.  

Can we have a workplace of the future without a boss of the future?

No more boss ... by Bousure, on Flickr
For some years now, but with increasing pace – books, blogs and videos are all predicting a new (and often idyllically portrayed) world of work where workers are empowered to choose where and when they work, teams are built on a project basis to find the best workers, and personal and family life are interwoven around the way we work (this example is from Microsoft). The idea of the physical workplace itself, as a service or as a consumer item forms part of this world, along with technology that is now becoming very real – on demand video conferencing (often with holograms).

 I first remember encountering theses concepts some years ago reading Thomas W Malone’s “The Future of Work” which predicted decentralisation of organisations and more freedom for employees to determine when, where and what to do.  At the time I read the book, the technology wasn’t quite real for me yet, but was already starting to change the way we work. In the 5 or 6 years since then, I know that my iPad and iPhone have drastically changed how I can work, in particular while I am traveling.

This new world of work is sometimes given a timeframe as in this study – Workplace 2040. But what’s stopping this from being Workplace 2020? I don’t think it’s technology, I think it’s the people. One of the key things these scenarios all rely on is the independence of the workers and the ability of these people to work together regardless of physical locations. For the majority of workplaces today, these are already no longer technology issues, any difficulties come down to human nature.

Very few jobs are yet structured around only around doing a set amount of work. Most are still structured around an expectation of set working hours, although perhaps these hours are more flexible now than a generation ago. It is still much more usual to see people staying back because the work is not finished, than for them to go home early when all the work is done. One issue in many workplaces, after of years of economic downturn – is that its pretty rare the work is ever all done, and if it is we worry that to leave early would make us a target for redundancy. But most of the time there are simply insufficient numbers of staff for the work to ever actually be finished. The other issue is that there is still a very common view that we are employed just as much to “be” at the place of work, as we are to “do” work. People are afraid if they finish their work and leave early (or even on time) they will be judged both by their managers and their peers as being lazy, slacking off, not contributing or not being team players – when in actual fact they might be more efficient and better at their jobs. To many employees, flexible has come to mean flexible for employers (I know of one firm where when employees raised the issue of flexibility the employer genuinely believed this meant flexibility in how the work was done – in the office, with no idea staff were wanting flexibility in how and when they worked!)

Even in organisations which already have activity based working or other forms of agile working, these same kinds of problems are occurring. I heard a story about one large ABW workplace which has a working from home policy, but the main workplace is often too full. Is it full because the environment itself is so successful and staff can’t stay away, or is it because there is a least one manager who wanders about every morning ticking off a role of staff and then contacting anyone who hasn’t been in the office for 2 days?

In an ABW environment, the distrust managers have of workers whom they can’t see can manifest even when staff are working within the office but beyond the managers view. It’s the same emotional motivations that lead to workplaces with beautiful but empty breakout spaces – staff are afraid of being seen as slacking off.Perhaps it’s also this fear behind why some middle managers are also so reluctant to give up their offices, it’s not so much about the work they do, or even the status, but their belief that they have earned  their right to not be watched over by the boss.

Another working model enabled by technology and affected by the same issue is distributed working, where company employees are based in different geographic locations.  I have worked in this model and it does present interesting challenges as a team leader.  Whilst staff may have a manger in their physical location, as a team leader you only know your staff are working on your project by the work they produce. You do have to manage differently for performance based outcomes – if you have your team sitting in front of you they are more likely to communicate with you more directly both with questions about the work, if someone else asks them to do something or when the work allocated is completed. Managing a distributed team does take more work – but not only does it allow more flexibility in team structures, where we can work and deliver projects – but it actually teaches managers and team leaders to be better at their jobs, better organised and better communicators.

Managements fear of the invisible employee is not a problem of architecture or design – it doesn’t matter what sort of office you have or how amazing your design team are. If your managers don’t trust their staff and are not trained to manage remote staff (from on another floor to in another country), then ‘new ways of working’ won’t work for your organisation. Very few organisations actually train people to manage teams, we don’t learn it at university either. Historically managers usually start out on the management path because they are good at the technical thing that they do – not because they are good at managing other people. If they make money for the organisation, they are likely to be promoted further regardless of their people management skills. Maybe at some point their organisation will decide they need some extra ‘soft skills’ but is likely they have developed their style and habits by then, and it’s now long past when they really would have benefited from them. Maybe as part of a new office fitout someone will have realized that a change management program is required. But in a large organisation, is it thorough enough to go right down through all levels of management and is the whole of the organisation seriously aligned to the goal (even when their own bosses are not looking)?

Perhaps a self managed team structure is the answer? Some organisations are now starting to abolish middle management in favour of this idea. I wonder how it will work, will natural managers and leaders start to emerge? Or does it only work if the whole team is highly organised and motivated (in effect naturally good at managing themselves at least)?

Is it possible the fear of flexibility and remote working is generational difference, and one that will simply disappear between now and 2040? I don’t think so. Whilst I see many more younger managers who are comfortable with remote management and who have more trust in their teams, than older ones. But I don’t think its necessarily a distinction of age, but one of culture and of an acceptance that the way we work has already changed. I am frequently shocked that anyone could suggest that we might work the same way now as back in the eighties or even nineties. In the 15 years since I graduated architecture the way we work has changed fundamentally. Not only has technology and software changed, but these changes – in particular the mobility and automation they have enabled means that new ways of working are not something of the future – they are already here, it’s just that some people don’t seem to have noticed it yet.

Ceilidh Higgins
Image Credits: “No more Boss”
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License   by  Bousure 

Will a Robot take my job?

If I am an architect, a designer, an engineer or even BIM manager – Will a Robot take my job? This is the big question I recently presented in my talk at RTC Australia as part of the session BIMx: Big Ideas around Big Data.  Open up my slideshare presentation above that accompanies this blog post.

NESTA, a UK innovation charity has a quiz you can take to see if a robot is likely to take your job.  The quiz asks a series of 6 questions around skills and ongoing learning, if you manage complex real world tasks, work with, teach and manage people, or design and manage technology, machines and systems. It uses your answers to determine how likely it is a robot would take your job.

The answer is that an architect is “Robot Proof” with a low probability of a robot taking our job.  BUT does this match with our experience? Are architects, engineers, or designers really likely to be robot proof?

Whilst we think a robot won’t take our job – what about a computer?

Many of us would agree that BIM has already resulted in smaller project teams. Computers have long been a part of the design process.  Whilst we often forget CAD standards for ‘computer aided design’, computers can now aid the design process in much more significant ways than back when AutoCAD was released. Its interesting though that today a google search of computer generated architecture still mostly generates links related to rendering and imagery, rather than designs produced by computers.

If you think that BIM won’t take your job – what about Big Data?  We are already using data to check, verify and evaluate options within our designs. As the scale of the data available gets ever bigger these processes become more complex and more powerful. Right now google searching for data generated architecture won’t get you many hits related to buildings, but this is sure to soon change.

Rules based checking might not yet be big data. But it is about using data sources to validate designs or documentation. Examples include checking codes or standards using software such as solibri.

Again data analysis doesn’t necessarily mean big data yet.  Analysis began as something that architects did using pen and paper, a site analysis diagram for example. Data analysis is starting to become more computer driven which allows for much more significant analysis to take place.  Examples include environmental or performance analysis of buildings, or analysis on a larger city scale looking at land use and traffic patterns. This kind of analysis is very much in the realm of current uses for big data.

Data is also the basis of simulations. For example fire or traffic simulation modelling is based upon creating algorithms from data. Currently the simulations used within the AEC industry are relatively simple algorithims.
Big data gives the potential for developing significantly more complex simulations. Last year at RTC in Chicago I discussed the potential for big data to allow us to simulate human behaviour in complex building types such as workspaces with the potential of increasing a companies productivity. (see blog post here)

So, data can evaluate design – but could big data actually drive design? Is it already happening?  As with data based checking, its certainly true that data driven design exists already – and has for some time, although generally not yet into the possibilities of big data. Computational and generative design is data based upon algorithms and therefore data based design. Algorithms are already being used for design in many different ways.

The use of formulas to create design is an example of data driven design.
An example is the façade of the Auckland Savings Bank by BVN and Jasmax which was designed using Microsoft Excel and the Chaos formula.

The structure of the Watercube by PTW and Arup was designed using an algorithm to determine structural steel member sizes.

A simulation is just another kind of algorithm. Rather than just using simulations to test current design proposals, the simulation algorithims can be part of the design software and the design options can be based upon the outcomes of the simulations.  This bandstand by UK architects Flanagan Lawrence was designed using Dynamo and an acoustic simulation algorithm called acoustamo.

Algorithms can be used to optimise an existing design. At the Barclays Centre by ShoP – detailed design of the steel panels was undertaken using CATIA to generate options which allowed a reduction from 230,000 sqm of steel to 150,000sqm. No two of the 12,000 panels are the same.

This exhibition hall building was designed by the University of Stuttgart’s Institute for computational design.

The question – How can you create a resilient timber structure with as little material as possible? This is a simple example of applying one rule to a simple building type. Using an algorithm inspired by a sand dollar one of natures most efficient structures, this building was designed by computer. The human input to the design is the initial idea and the design of the algorithms. (Read more)
As a side note, it was built by robots too.

What about more complexity? The complexity of trees growing in nature? There is actually already an algorithm for that.  The programming to create suburban housing exists too (its initial use is for generating realistic houses for 3d gaming environments). Using rules based criteria such as number of rooms, adjacencies and architectural style, a suburb of varied housing can be produced.

With big data the questions and the building programs can get more complex. And these kinds of design tools are not as far away as you might think.  Autodesk has a lab project in development called Dreamcatcher. “Dreamcatcher is a goal-directed design system that enables designers to input specific design objectives, including functional requirements, material type, manufacturability, performance criteria, and cost restrictions. The infinite computing power of the cloud then takes over.” The publicity for Autodesk’s Project Dreamcatcher suggests it is for industrial design – the same could potential apply to create rules based design solutions for buildings.

Autodesk are not the only company investing in this technology. Google has setup a spinoff called Flux to explore how data will shape our future. Right now Flux software and much of the media is focused on the metro scale data analysis but the future of Flux is about buildings.

Flux asks “What would happen if we stopped designing individual buildings and started designing building seeds” It is based upon the idea that the data will form seeds.

The information would include the codes, standards, weather conditions, occupant data, building product data and other information available about a building, its site, its occupants and client requirements as well as industry data such as materials, systems and construction methods and costs.

Just as each seed grows up to be a different tree, the building data seeds will grow to be different buildings depending upon the site and its constraints, the client requirements and other project specific inputs.
This kind of design will have a significant impact upon the way our industry operates.  (See post by Randy Deutsch)

This is a clip from a talk by Jen Carlilse co-founder of Flux. (Embeded in slide share or at youtube)

We probably all agree that the building examples in the Flux video are somewhat lacking in the architectural beauty department.  If nature could be an algorithm – could beauty also be an algorithm? Is there the possibility that in the future we could use data analysis to design beauty into our buildings, to use data to design buildings like the Sydney Opera House?

So what will my job be? It won’t be drafting disabled toilets anymore that’s for sure.

I’d like to think that the data will allow us to get rid of the drudgery. It will allow us to focus on the best parts of our jobs. It will allow us to realise the true value of design.

We will still evaluate the computer options and talk to the clients. Whilst data can assist us to make decisions, the human race is not about to let everything be decided purely on the basis of data – if we did we would be doing it already. Human nature is that we still want humans involved in decision making. We still need to tell the computers what to do at some level. Does it mean we all become programmers rather than architects and engineers? Could this process can bring out the best in both humans and computers?

What do you think your job could be?

Ceilidh Higgins

 Imaged Credits:
See slideshare presentation for full image credits.

 

Does your workplace offer yoga, meditation or perhaps colouring in?

Meditation by Moyan_Brenn, on FlickrWhilst many are touting workplace wellness as the next big thing in workplace design and strategy, there are others such as Kelly Robinson, workplace manager and yoga teacher, who spoke at last month’s Worktech Melbourne, who are suggesting more specifically that mindfulness practices will soon be coming to your workplace – if they haven’t already. The signs are certainly out there that mindfulness has suddenly become a topic of interest with many blogs and articles on workplace design and human resources sites as well as at least 2 books on the subject. Since I saw Kelly speak last month, I have seen a number of articles on mindfulness practices and spaces within the workplace, and this article which I shared recently on Linkedin seemed to have a high response rate, suggesting that people are certainly interested in the topic.

For those of you who already practice yoga, meditation or just spend to much time around psychologists, you certainly would have heard of mindfulness. If you haven’t perhaps you are wondering what is it – and how does it relate to the workspace – and probably all of you are wondering what on earth does colouring in have to do with it? According to Google mindfulness is “a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique”. It has become a commonly used treatment technique by psychologists, and essentially involves beingaware you in the present moment and of your surroundings and calming the breathing and the mind. Whilst meditation is a common path to mindfulness, sitting cross legged on the floor and doing nothing is not the only way to achieve a state of mindfulness. There are many different kinds of meditation.  Yoga can be one way of calming the mind, as can breathing techniques, sitting or walking in nature and apparently colouring in! (or other focused but slightly repetitive activities where you think about what you are doing) This week I came across this article on how big corporates are issuing adult colouring books to staff as a means of mindfulness training.

Whilst practices such as yoga and meditation have been growing in popularity in recent years, why are corporate workplaces offering these programs? Whilst its certainly true that many corporations like to promote how much they care for the health and wellbeing of employees, science is showing there are of lot of potential benefits for employers as well as their staff in mindfulness training. Numerous studies have shown that within weeks of commencing a meditation program, changes in the structure of the brain can be seen on an ECG. According to Headspace, a mindfulness and meditation app that promotes itself as ‘a gym for the mind’, mindfulness promotes creativity, increases focus and reduces stress and anxiety. In the workplace, all of this could mean both increased productivity and happier staff. With this research now becoming common and mainstream, a spate of recent reports on Forbes, the Huffington Post and the Wall Street Journal all discuss the science and benefits of mindfulness in the workplace. Whilst many of these recent articles relate specifically to mindfulness in the workplace and David Gelles’s new book “Mindful Work”, there is a long and growing body of studies related to meditation (see for examples recent article on Forbes and Wikipedia) and mindfulness showing similar benefits.  And of course with any new trend, the articles against mindfulness are also starting to appear.  There was one I read, which suggested forcing people to meditate in a group setting would be more harmful than helpful to your workplace culture – I must say I hadn’t even thought of the idea that anyone would try to force people to meditate!

I have been practicing yoga and mediation for almost 4 years, and would personally agree with many of the benefits – and I note I would have hated to be forced to meditate in a workplace setting. I believe yoga and mediation have helped me to become more resilient and deal better with a number of signficnt workplace issues in a previous workplace from bullying to chronic pain and then a redundancy, to now being better able to managing my stress , prioritise better and focus more on what is important both in life and at work. I think my practice has also helped me to become a better team leader and a better designer, through increased awareness of how I communicate with others as well as creating a calmer mind which I can see affecting my creativity and ability to think differently. Frequently I find after a yoga class I will have new solutions or ideas related to current projects – the basis of this whole blog in fact started in my mind during a week long yoga intensive.

I have also seen how introducing these practices to the workplace, opens up yoga or meditation to people who might not otherwise venture into a yoga studio or a buddist meditation class. I used to sit in a workstation pod with 4 male structural engineers of varying ages – our workplace introduced a weekly yoga class, and over time all of them become participants, regular discussions were held in our work area about the benefits of yoga and there was a push for the classes to be increased to twice weekly. They also frequently commented on how it was obvious I was in a better mood on days when I attended yoga classes before work.

How does mindfulness affect workplace design though? If its just about quieting our minds, can the design of our workplaces contribute? They certainly can, and it doesn’t have to be all about cushions or incense. The recent article by Leigh Stringer for Office Insight  suggests a number of ways mediation spaces can be created – from dedicated rooms, to quiet spaces away from the busier parts of the workplace, to outdoor spaces and labyrinths for walking meditations. Space for yoga and other physical practices is frequently accommodated within flexible meeting or training spaces. In many ways, good workplace design supports mindfulness – a variety of different spaces for different uses, access to nature or views of nature and provision of quiet soothing spaces for individual use all support work, just as much as they support the practice of mindfulness training in the workplace. Good design itself also helps focus us in the here and now rather than wishing ourselves elsewhere.

What other ways could design promote mindfulness? Does your workplace offer yoga, meditation or colouring in? If it did, would you participate?

Ceilidh Higgins

Image Credits: