Category Archives: Clients

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 “When they choose to strike out on their own, architects tend to follow the outdated model of trading hours for dollars.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

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:

Could we all achieve more by working less?

Balancing lady by orangebrompton, on Flickr One of the reasons my blogging schedule is a little irregular from time to time is the fact I always want to enjoy writing this blog. Its also one of the reasons I take a break in January. To me, this is the meaning of work life balance – that you are enjoying what you are doing, its not just about the number of hours you spend at work, or doing things that are related to your work. Interestingly during the course of writing this post, I came across this article, which claims that work-life balance is impossible – but to me, describes what I would think of as work life balance – in particular filling your life with things you love.

I think for most of us who work in architecture and design, we do love many parts of what we do. But that doesn’t always equate to feeling that we have a happy balance between our work and other things we love – some of which may be related to, and extend our work, such as attending or presenting at conferences, research and writing or contributing to the industry as a whole – as well as all the other things that are important in our lives – family, friends, health and other interests.

For most people, even architects who love their jobs – we don’t love unrealistic working hours and deadlines. Mentally there is a big difference between a deadline that is a realistic and achievable goal which you have the time, energy and passion available to meet, and deadlines which are unachievable or require you to work an 80 hour week. Working late because you are caught up in solving a design problem can be enjoyable, working late and having to cancel other plans because someone else is having a crisis is not. I think for most people, it is particularly when we feel we have no control over our work and working hours, when someone else has created the deadline without your input, is when work and life start to feel out of balance and we feel stressed.

As many architects are, I’ve always had a tendency to words being a bit if a workaholic – I think you wouldn’t ever be able to finish the degree if you weren’t. Most of us do care so much about the quality of what we design and care about meeting our clients expectations that we are often prepared to put in additional hours, and not complain, still be happy and love our jobs. But in our industry, extra hours are because clients set unrealistic and unreasonable time frames for design and documentation. We often have the same amount of time to actually produce a design as they will then take to review it! Or we are working extra hours because ever decreasing and competitive fee structures rely on architectural and design staff to work extra hours for free. But is it really worth it for our clients or our firms?

Last week I read an article on how working more than 50 hours a week actually makes you less productive.

In my own experience I think this is true. As with many people, after an injury due to overwork and then later being made redundant and having some months off, my priorities around work have changed. Whilst it’s still important to me to deliver great projects and satisfy my clients,I am not willing to sacrifice my health or my whole life to do that. I also realise the value of taking time out of day to day work in order to be more inspired about work (see my previous post on finding inspiration).

So most if the time, I do now work less hours than I used to. Yes, there are still occasional times when you will find me in the office at 10pm or on a Sunday – but it’s no longer a regular occurance. I have realised that most of the time, I still get just as much done, if not more. Because I have time to sleep and excercise and I’m not stressed. Because I have time to read and blog, to go to conference and the like, I find new ideas and ways of thinking. When I go to work, my brain is switched in and I am getting work done more efficiently with less mistakes. This is an obvious benefit to the practice I work in, how much would our practices benefit from all their staff being at the top of their game rather than stressed and tired? Would it actually balance out the lower levels of overtime? And could our clients also benefit?

Clients often make the mistake in cutting short the design, and particularly the documentation process. Design takes time to consider and to mature – even if the first solutions might be close to the right answer, it almost always improves the design if time is spent considering, testing and discussing the design against the building requirements and functions. The opposite is also visible – I know in my fitouts – if you go to the spaces where the client rushed through last minute changes without allowing a full reexamination of the design as a whole, even people who are not designers themselves can usually tell there is something odd or comprimised about these spaces.

Short changing documentation is even more common – and with even more direct negative results to the client – straight to the hip pocket through RFIs and variations. Clients are often unwilling to understand that documentation is a process flow. There gets to a certain point where we can’t do it any faster no matter how many hours we spend on the job or how many staff we throw at it (also a bad idea when it comes to accuracy and consistency). There is a back and forth sharing of information and a review process between architects and designers, engineers, code compliance consultants and many others that makes up even a relatively small project today. Each person needs time to do their job and have it checked or errors inevitably occur. So clients next time you ask you design team why there have been so many variations, maybe you should think about how you cut back their delivery program.

Does the architectural and design industry need to rely on long hours? Is it helping you, your practice or your clients? Is it better to work smarter than to work harder? And what does work life balance mean to you? Is it becoming more important today that in the past?

Ceilidh Higgins

Image Credits:
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License   by  orangebrompton 

Architectural services – Apple or Amazon? Or both?

happy pills by lism., on FlickrIs architecture a product or a service? Can it be both? This week a number of different conversations got me thinking on this topic (again). Whilst I have written before about the idea of a workplace as a product indicating status, the conversations I had this week came from a different angle. Are our clients actually interested in the process of architecture or design – or do they just want a product at the end?

A friend had been asked to ponder the suggestion that architectural clients do not actually care about the process of architecture -its only architects that think they do.  As so often is the case in conversations about design as a product, the suggestion was framed based on Apple. Do we as the consumers and purchasers of Apple products care about the design process behind the Apple products? Or do we just care about the product that we find innovative, beautiful, simple, elegant and easy to use? Biographies and movies about Steve Jobs aside, I would agree it is the product that we are buying and not the process. (I’d say our interest in Steve Jobs is more about celebrity than about the process of design).

When this suggestion was made – that our clients are not interested in being part of our design process – I immeadiately responded that this was not true in my particular area of specialty – workplace design. Most of my clients feel deeply about the workplace – and quite rightly given how much time most of us spend there. For me as a workplace designer, I do feel that the client has to be part of the process. For me to give them the best design solution for their staff and business I need to understand them, their culture and the work that they do. This is a key part of the design process. Not just for office fitouts but for any type of space which is to be designed for people to work in…and to me that really that means just about every kind of space.

Whilst you might be shopping or eating out, or seeing a movie – there are people  working in all of these environments.  Schools, universities, hospitals and laboratories are all workplaces too. These days so are our houses. So the kinds of buildings that wouldn’t be workplaces are pretty limited. How can our clients not be part of the process of design, when we are talking about understanding what they need and how they work? Even landlords or developers should be part of the process defining quality and expectations, and hopefully working towards ensuring better outcomes for their tenants – whose needs they might understand better than the architects.

But the design process is not just about functionality. It’s also about creativity and aesthetics. It’s about us as architects and designers taking the functional brief and turning it into something special, something unexpected. Do our clients want to be part of this process? Do we want them to be? This to me becomes a more difficult question to answer. There are some clients that I have enjoyed engaging with as part of the whole design process, there are others who are quite happy for us to come back with design concepts based upon their functional needs that they will comment on in relation to function in an open minded way, giving us full responsibility for the design itself . Both of these kinds of clients I am happy to work with, and I enjoy the project process.

There is another kind of client that is much more difficult. The kind that makes it difficult for the design process to happen.  They are the kind who criticise without understanding, who direct the design process so closely but without regard to design, who value process above outcomes and who actually end up sabotaging the design of their own projects – even if its unintentional. The behaviours and examples of this kind of client differ widely but one example would be the project manager who tries to change the breakout chairs, because he just doesn’t like the look of them. Firstly he hasn’t even sat in it, and secondly, he isn’t even someone who is going to work there. (It was quite pleasing when the project manager who sat next to him told him to stay out of something that wasn’t his job).  Another would be the client who requires endless reports but doesn’t allow enough time for both the reports and the design process as well.

At the end of the day, whichever kind of client we have, it’s still our job to deliver the project. We have been engaged to provide a service. This customer service aspect of our role was raised in my office last week during a lessons learnt workshop. One of our clients had suggested that the design team might need to take some happy pills. I am sure you are all familiar with that point on a project where everyone is working long hours, stressed and has just had enough. Most of us are not at our best perky happy customer service mindset then. It was this that our client was commenting on. For us, it raised the question, how often do we think about architecture as a service industry? Whilst we frequently refer to Apple in conversations about design, how often do we compare ourselves to Amazon?

Amazon has products too, but their focus is on customer service. If you have ever contacted their customer service department, you will know what I mean.  The way they communicate both by phone and email is all about how can we help you and solve your problem as easily as possible.  Their email ends tagged with “Your feedback is helping us build Earths Most Customer-Centric Company” which I think is a great aim and encourages customers to engage in providing feedback.  This customer service oriented culture is integral to the Amazon brand.

And actually the customer experience is central at Apple too. The philosophy behind the design of their products is all about the customer experience.  The Apple store, is also all about the customer experience, different to many other brands due to the level of staffing and the amount of space  given over to allow customers to try out and learn about their products.

So maybe we shouldn’t be worrying about if our clients are part of the process, but we should be framing the question differently. What’s your client experience?  While we bend over backwards by working long hours trying to make our clients happy, are we actually achieving it? Do we survey our clients and ask for feedback about their client experience? Do we need to be smarter about how we create our client experience? The language use, our website, our meeting environments and our staff all contribute to our clients experience as well as the design and contact deliverables we prepare. Do all these things send the same client service  message? And are we even aware of the messages we are sending? It’s certainly something that has got me thinking.

Ceilidh Higgins

Image Credits:
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License by lism.

Is it value for money if your architect is free?

Money by 401(K) 2013, on FlickrArchitecture and interior design fees are always something that you readers here at The Midnight Lunch seem to enjoy  – and recently I’ve been reading some great stuff about architectural fees written by other people which I thought worth talking about and sharing with you – and then you can share it with all of your friends.  (Also check  out previous The Midnight Lunch reader favourite The art (or is that science) of  architecture and interior design fees)

Whilst we may get together and grumble about fees amongst  colleagues and our friends working for competitors, how often is it that an architect speaks out more publicly about fees –  to both the client organisation and to the competing architectural community – not very often in my experience. The way architectural fees are going, maybe it is something we need to see more of if we are all to actually stay in business and earn a living.  Whilst many firms thought they could cost cut during bad times and raise the fees again later this has not been the reality.  I’d say fees now in 2014 are comparable to 2004 – and I know that nothing else is.

Recently, this wonderful email written by Stephen Malone of MCA Architects was forwarded onto me (and I thank Stephen for allowing me to share it with all of you).  I’ve removed the name of the client and some other identifying references related to them, but you will certainly get the idea.  I’ve also highlighted in bold a section which I think is particular of interest.

Thank you for the briefing  meeting  which I am  sure all attending  Architects found  helpful.

I  trust you do not mind  me  circulating the following to the other Architects in attendance.

I raised with you informally our  practice’s concern  about the  level of fees which consultants were being paid, in relation  to the client  requirements in the design of the projects being undertaken  by [the client].

It is entirely reasonable that the [client] requires projects which are well designed and documented , given the buildings are for public [use].

However , notwithstanding the  [client’s] desire to achieve high architectural standards it is accepting  fees which  are markedly below  normal commercial levels.

The following illustrates this.

The total Project on costs commercially for similar projects are about 14% – 16% related to  a  construction  cost of say $3,000,000 made up as follows:

All  consultants fees design and  documentation only (excluding  QS and  specialist consultants) approx 8%- 9%

Tendering  and Contract administration approx  4%- 5%

Project Management                                                     2% -3%

You indicated in a previous  discussion with me that a similar figure of about 15% was used by the  [client] .

 

However the Fees being  accepted for Design and Documentation  only, by  consultants are in the  order of 4% (viz  50% of normal  commercial practice)  and  sometimes in  our recent  experience even  less . This means Architects are prepared to design and document buildings for the  [client]  for about 2% of the  value of the works ( the architectural  component is about 50%  -60% of the  consultants fees).

This in normal commercial practice would hardly cover  the  cost of the considerable amount of work involved in obtaining a Development Approval!

This also means the [client’s]  residual percentage is  about 11% or  about twice normal  practice, so the client ends up paying the same amount for all on costs , but  does it get the quality ?

Given  the massive amount of [projects] which has  been, and is being undertaken by the [client]  there should be by now  quite a few awards and public recognition and appreciation. I respectfully suggest this has rarely occurred and at these level of Fees is unlikely to occur.

Consultants whilst wishing to create work of a high standard sooner  or later look at their time sheets and  press the off button on the  computer.

You  can only “buy’  work so often and Architects are particularly naive in this  respect. As a fellow Architect you would know the practice of architecture is commercially vulnerable , subject very much to supply and demand. In difficult times fees can absurdly low.

You indicated to me that if a consultant offered to undertake a commission for nothing , they may still be  engaged, as it is in the [client’s] interests  to obtain the  lowest fees available. However Governments and their agents have a long term social responsibility and  a superior outcome would be achieved if fees more in  line with normal practice were accepted.

This can be done, and our own  practice has a variety of clients (including institutions ) who  will not  accept bottom line fees.

They know from bad  experience what the outcome is likely to be.

We view the [client’s]  mandate as immensely important for the public [deleted] and will trust these concerns will receive appropriate consideration .

Sincerely

Stephen Malone

DIRECTOR

MCA  architects

 

Madness, isn’t it.  We are driving our own profession into decline, by the practice – which if we were selling goods – would be known as dumping, and in many jurisdictions would be illegal! (See a discussion of ‘dumping’ in the comments in this post on Entrepreneur Architect) But here in Australia, many government clients (at all levels) are positively encouraging it – to the detriment of those now and in the future that occupy the buildings and spaces procured this way.

So how can we encourage our clients that this process of selecting the cheapest will not result in value for money? We all have to educate them, and we all have to resist the urge to undercut our competitors.  For a great blog post explaining in simple terms why architects charge different levels of fees, check out this post from Di Mase Architects – perhaps this should be essential reading for all clients.

At the end of the day, we all need to also remember that fees = salaries.  Do you want to be working for free?  Recently spotted on Twitter – “It’s amazing how creative you can be when your have interns working for free” (Tweeted by the great parody account @RoyalAusINSArch).  This one is certainly pretty close to the truth in a lot of practices – but its not just the interns working for free.  If you look at the latest DIA salary survey, design salaries are at minimum wage levels or less, and I have seen UK surveys that have indicated architects salaries are static.

I applaud Stephen for his stand, and for communicating such a well considered email, as well as the fact that he sent it both to the client and to the other architects working with this client. Its interesting to me that back in the 70’s price fixing for architecture was removed as a consumer protection – but now we are in a situation where we as architects and designers seem to be needing protection from the consumers, and that the consumers seem to need protection from themselves – as Stephen points out, you don’t get great architecture for free.

Ceilidh Higgins

Image Credits:

PS. Come and see me at RTC Melbourne where I am presenting “Get your Groupon” at 2.30pm on Saturday 31 May.  Soon after I’m off to the USA where my alter ego Stuart (the girl) BIMimion is presenting as part of BIMx at RTC Chicago.  Follow the BIMinions on twitter throughout both RTCs – @BIMinions.

Worktech Melbourne: Let the User Decide

847622286_b1a0789077_oIf you think about all the images you have ever seen of a Google office, you will realise that very few of them picture any desks – ball pits, slippery sides, cars turned into meeting rooms, sleep pods, gardens, game rooms, footsal tables, and of course kitchens full of free food – but not very many desks.  So it may come of some surprise to learn that at Google, each Googler (they really do seem to call themselves googlers) has their own desk. When Hayden Perkin spoke about the design process for Googles New York City offices,  at last months Worktech Melbourne most of the attendees at the event hadn’t been expecting to hear that Google still has allocated desking.

Hayden’s presentation focussed on the importance of the philosophy of “Let the User Decide” particularly in the design of the actual workpoints.  Let the Users Decide is part of the Google workplace design guidelines – which can be described more as a Google vibe than a strict set of standards with limited options.  As part of the Google NYC office project consultation the googlers were asked about what style of workpoints they wanted – and around half were in favour of enclosed offices! This certainly surprised an Australian audience, as even in our most conservative client offices (outside of legal) cubicles are almost considered outdated and the idea of 50 percent of staff having an office would be unheard of for quite a while.

Enclosed and assigned office space is only really suited to very static work environments with very little change in organisation size and structure, teams and small movement of people. The way that Google works needs this flexibility. Typically googlers work in teams at workpoints that are assigned for the duration of projects. Movement and reconfiguration of people and space are frequent – on average people move 4 times per year. So, while we can let the users have input, in this case not all the users got what they wanted – exactly. Given that the other half wanted open plan work environments, Google made  the decision that the open plan environment would suit their operational needs better.  But Google wasn’t quite done with the user input to design.

Taking the user involvement further than your typical consultation sessions, Google determined to allow the users to custom design their open plan environments. So while you couldn’t necessarily have an enclosed office, you could make choices such as how high the screens are or what type of desk layout or accessories you have at your workpoint. Google worked with Haworth to design a workstation system that allowed the users maximum control over their own micro environment, and that looks something like a desk sized meccano set. The system is based upon a post and beam system, with worktops, screens and accessories to attach. The attachments are made via coloured connectors (google colours of course). Hayden described the system as “controlled chaos”.

Within a certain set of rules (for example different carpet colours delineate fire egress paths that must be kept open) each team got together to plan their own defined workzone. The groups have come up with many different solutions and have used the components to build not only workstations, but semi enclosed office areas, park benches, canopies and toys. Some people were not interested in building their own desks and Google now offers a selection of standard models for these individuals or groups.

The result is certainly not at all a designed aesthetic, this is saved for the cafes, libraries and nap areas – those images of a Google office with which we are all familiar, still exist as part of the NYC office, but were not the theme of Hayden’s presentation. As an interior designer, I’m still not sure how I feel about this level of user design and customisation. The flexibility and choice it gives to the user groups is fantastic and I’m sure this allows Google to make more googlers happy with their own work environments. It certianly also works in an environment where teams are constantly moving and reforming.  As a designer, I would also certainly love to never have a discussion about workstation screen heights ever again.

Visually however its not the sort of environment that I like to work in. That said, I also know that within days or weeks of the client moving in, any office environment can quickly turn into the same level of controlled chaos. I’ve never quite figured out if its just rules or also culture, but even the most uncluttered aesthetically designed office environment can quickly descend into something else entirely. Archive boxes build up around desks, collections of trolls pop up on top of partitions or other paraphernalia starts to take over the office (I had one previous boss that insisted upon keeping dusty models of some of Sydney’s most hideous buildings) and then the controlled chaos is not really much different to that of the create your own work point office.

I guess this point brings me back to one of the biggest issues of workplace design and user consultation – it doesn’t matter if your workplace is fixed seating or an agile workplace. Choice, customisation, control and personalisation are big issues for the workplace occupants. They are issues that don’t easily mesh with the visual control of interior design or the flexibility of standardised corporate space allocations. So the question which applies equally to interior designers and those within client organisations responsible for procuring workplace design (whether facilities or project management, human resources or finance), how much do you let your users decide?

PS. Come Out to (Midnight) Lunch – If you are in Sydney (or will be on Friday 11 April), I have decided to organise an opportunity for followers of this blog to meet and network.  If you are interested in having a drink, meeting new people and talking with fellow The Midnight Lunch followers about workplace, interior design, architecture, BIM or collaboration in our industry – come to Chicane Bar at 10-20 Bond St in the city from 5.30pm on 11 April.  (Note: This is not a sponsered event, so you will have to buy your own drinks and food!)

Image Credits
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  TitaniumDreads 

Worktech Melbourne: Jellybean Working

Yummy Jelly Beans by Ruth L, on FlickrLast week I headed down to Melbourne for Worktech 2014 . It is the first time I have attended a Worktech event , going based upon a few great recommendations – I had been told it was the best workplace event in Australia. I wasn’t disappointed. As well as getting a peak inside of NAB’s new 700 Bourke St at Docklands (which was the event venue) the presentations were generally of a very high standard – great presenters with relevant and focussed material. I also found it interesting to note that most of the presenters were not designers – but representing the client organsiations such as NAB, Bupa, Google, MLC and RMIT to mention a few – which sets the apart from many other workplace seminars. The day was jam packed – there were approximately 15 sessions, as well as the presentations these included a site tour and an interactive session moderated by Rosemary Kirkby. I thought rather than give you a sentence or 2 about all of them I’m going to share my thoughts on the 2 sessions I found most interesting , over this post and the next. If you see other sessions in the program and wonder what they were about – feel free to comment, tweet or email me and I am happy to share further thoughts.

Philip Ross is a workplace futurologist at Ungroup, and so not surprisingly, he was talking about the future of the work in a presentation which he described as being about Jellybean Working. At first I wondered what the reference to jellybeans might mean, surely not the fad for jellybean shaped desks, but as I got interested in his talk the reference to jellybeans faded into the background. Although he did explain towards the end, and so will I. The main focus of Philip’s presentation was the impact that technology would have on the workplace of the future – and not a far range future, but within the next few years, technology that already exists. Whilst we are all now familiar with the idea that we work using technology tools – and that they change and update all the time, I would say less of the audience were aware of the technologies that makes up what Philip described as the next break through in the workplace – big data and real time activity tracking.

Philip spoke about a range of technologies and methods for tracking activity both in the workplace and elsewhere including sociometric badging, social media and short range wireless as well as other technologies such as driverless cars which would change the way we work.

Sociometric badging is an area I have been interested in since I first came across it about 12 months ago. MIT have invented a device, which they call the sociometric badge which allows you to record data about the movement and behaviour of the person wearing the badge as they move around the workspace during the day. The device is about the size of security swipe card (and can have this function embedded into it I recollect) and it contains a whole bunch of bluetooth and/or wireless sensors, motion detectors and recording devices. So not only will it track where you walk, but if you are standing or sitting and if you are talking to someone and how loudly for how long. Put very simply and crudely, through a whole lot of measures, the data then indicates who you talk to a lot, who you say hello to in passing and where and how you spend your day. The data can then be used to create social maps of an organsiation, which are now being considered important signifiers of innovation and collaboration. I could probably write a whole blog post on this topic…If you are interested in reading more, I highly recommend “People Analytics: How Social Sensing Technology Will Transform Business and What It Tells Us about the Future of Work” by Ben Waber.

As Philip pointed out, all of this leads to the question of privacy. However studies are showing that privacy is very much a generational idea, and that generally younger generations have less concerns with sharing information than older generations. Many people seem to no longer care about privacy at all – Philip referred to a website ijustmadelove (which I am not linking to my blog – I don’t want to think about how much spam it might set off!) where people are choosing to share very private information. Whilst some information we are sharing by choice, other information is shared without most of us realising it. We are already sharing significant amounts of information with search engines and retailers, and not just online but a link between instore and online.

Using short range wifi to allow checking into a locations via a social media application means that the next time you enter that space the retailer will know every time you are inside their store. They will also have your purchase history and your browsing history while in store. This will lead to live time direct advertising. Apple are also already using a low energy bluetooth system called iBeacon which doesn’t even require you to check in. I already have something like this happening on my phone which I think is operating via gps tracking – every time I pass the local burrito place after using an evoucher there – at this point it doesn’t offer me any deals but it does pop up to tell me I am near the restaurant.

All of this eventually leads us eventually back to the jellybean. Philip uses the term jellybean to refer to the social media dot or blob that indicates if you are online or offline. He suggests this will become more important in the workplace, signaling to others where you are and what you are working on. I know in an office I worked in with an instant message network people did stop calling the phones if your greet dot wasn’t on. However in the fairly near future, not only will this social media icon just signify that you are online, the technology to concurrently edit documents with other users, will also allow it to signify who is working on a document, whilst tracking technology will identify where in space they are physically located. Philip defines “Jellybean working” as the intersection of technology, people and physical space.

All of this freaks people out a little sometimes, but if you think about it, Apple and Google probably know everything about you already. Which is a nice segway into my next weeks blog post, which will be on Hayden Perkins presentation about NYC Google and Let the User Decide.

Would you sign up for a sociometric badge in your workplace? What new technologies or social media platforms do you think will transform the way we work? Do you use social media in your workplace?

P.S. I’m excited to announce that I’ll be presenting at RTC NA in Chicago in June in a session on a similar topic to this one – entitled BIMx:Big Ideas around Big Data. Registration for the conference hasn’t opened yet, but the RTC AUS conference registration has, it will be on in May in Melbourne and I am also presenting there – a session called Get your Groupon. Check out the RTC Events Site.

Image Credits:

Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  by  Ruth L 

Are your clients part of your design team? Do you want them to be?

Monkey in the Middle by Mark Dumont, on Flickr This week I read that nearly 2 thirds of industry representatives surveyed believe that the UK Government target for the uptake of Building Information Modelling is unachievable – largely due the lack of a collaboration between clients and construction contractors, hindered by contracts that do not support collaboration (here’s the link).

This came as no great surprise to me – I have always wondered how the UK Government was actually managing this whole process and program, particularly because here in Australia, the Government contracts can often be the most onerous and the client specific expectations and requirements – for reports, meetings or documentation which are outside the actual requirements for building design and documentation – are often excessive. This article got me thinking generally about clients and collaboration. Collaboration is essentially another (more trendy) word for teamwork. Do our clients understand that they are a part of the design team?

For many types of projects today – workplace, hospital, laboratory – the input of the client representatives into the functional aspects of the design is critical to a successful project. Frequently clients have their own in house project managers, designers, architects and engineers who may be involved in briefing, reviewing and responding to the queries of the external design team. Contractually these representatives are part of ‘the client side’ and not considered part of the design team. This can become a real problem for actually delivering projects.

All to often the client side creates delays for the project. Delays in providing information about types of equipment, numbers of staff or delayed feedback at review points. Every time we ask a question, the lack of an answer or a partial answer can impact upon our ability to push on with the design process. Information as well as creativity drives design, good design generally cannot occur in a bubble separated from the client organisations functional needs.

Frequently it can get to the point where there are so many question marks it becomes almost impossible for us to progress any part of a building due to the number of fuzzy areas. If the client was truly collaborating and part of the design team, they would take responsibility for this. Instead of blindly insisting that the end date for delivery remain the same they would work with the design team to minimise the delays. They would also accept that they are accountable for the additional costs that their consultant teams incur due to their organisational delays.

This comes to the heart of the problem. The client in these cases is not an individual person. It’s an organisation. And it’s probably an organisation that doesn’t have a collaborative culture internally. Usually it’s not so much the individual project representatives who are facing the design team who are causing the delays or not understanding the importance of the information – it’s other people in their business who don’t necessarily understand how design works. It seems a simple concept to me – to design you an office I really do need to know how many staff you have (or wish to have)…

Sometimes it is those client representatives sitting across the table at project meetings every week that are causing the delays. They pretend they don’t understand why you need that information or decision so urgently – because they don’t want to be stuck with the blame inside their organisation. If the individuals running the project are going to be blamed and have negative performance reviews because the building project they were involved in ran late or cost more, then it’s no surprise they push all this back onto the external design team. Or to other teams within their organisation. (Although with IT, it almost always is true – somehow they never seem to understand that their equipment can have a very large impact on the physical space, but if we didn’t provide enough room or enough air conditioning there would be trouble!)

Perhaps it’s no surprise really – as long as collaboration and an attitude of cooperation or a best for project approach does not exist inside of large organisations then it probably won’t exist in construction either. But that doesn’t absolve individuals of responsibility either. Whatever your role in a design team – architect, interior designer, engineer, client or project manager (yep, I think you too are part of the design team, and these comments apply just as much to PMs as to clients), if each person on the team makes an effort to work openly and collaborate then as an industry we will get so much further. Over time, if project teams actually tried to work together more, the demand for more collaborative contract styles will increase as teams realize the benefits.

By the way – I don’t let architects, designers and engineers off the hook here either. While my discussion above has focussed on the role of the client and the importance of their collaboration in a design project, the rest of the design team has to be willing to collaborate too. This means we as designers have to understand that the client has a real and valid input to the project – after all they are paying for it and do have to live with it – we don’t. That doesn’t mean design by committee or that the client always knows best. It does mean that we should take the clients comments, concerns and functional needs seriously, and that they need to trust us to work with these needs and come up with the best design solutions.

In most western economies, construction is one of the most inefficient industries – and without collaboration by all parties involved, but particularly by clients who are the drivers of projects and the ones who select the contracts, then this will never change.

But the best thing about working on a project where everyone involved is interested in collaborating and ensuring a great project – its actually more enjoyable to work on when we can all focus on the things that matter – like design – instead of bickering over missing information and missed project deadlines.

Do you feel your clients should be part of the design team? Do they want to be? If you are a client – do you want to be? What are your barriers to collaboration?

Next week I’ll be at Worktech Melbourne, so I hope to bring you some great ideas back from there. Perhaps also I will see some of you there.

I am also now on Twitter find me @ceilidhhiggins.

Image Credits:
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by  Mark Dumont 

It is mandatory that external walls are waterproof: What do client design guidelines, specifications and requests for tender have in common?

Red boat - Venice by MorBCN, on FlickrSeriously I am not joking – this sentence came out of a client design guideline document. I am a little worried about the standard of their existing building given that they feel the need to write this out for their future architects to read. Surely for any building waterproof external walls is a pretty basic design expectation? The client shouldn’t have to ask for it. If the walls aren’t waterproof I’d say its a pretty big mistake, I’m pretty sure it’s negligent either on the part of the architect or the builder – so why write it down? It’s also pretty unlikely that it was deliberately designed that way, so putting it into a design guideline isn’t going to fix it. All it does is create work for someone to write it (the client organisation probably paid an architect to write this down) and more work for their next architect to read it. And whilst we all want more work,I think as architects and designers we would rather our clients were paying for something of value – for example our design skills – than this kind of bureaucratic process that wastes everyones time and in the end achieves nothing.

Originally when I started thinking about this post I was only thinking about client design guidelines, but then I realised that a similar problem exists with the specifications we write for builders, the briefs we or our clients write and request for tender or proposal documents written by our clients. We all spend a lot of time writing down things that are obvious, standard practice or a stautory requirement. How often have you read any one of the above documents that says the building has to comply with the BCA (Building Cde of Australia)? Doh – of course it does (assuming its in Australia!). What is much more important or relevant is specific details of how this building needs to comply – such as the levels of fire rating required. But that’s not defined. It’s left up to the project team to resolve – no problem, but they would have done that anyway without being told the building had to comply with the BCA.

All of these documents are often necessary and valuable documents for communication between parties in a construction project – but frequently seem to provide no value – just waste everybodies time.

In looking at client design guidelines what I like to see is actual requirements and details. For me, dealing mostly with interior design guidelines, I find that usually finishes, furniture and signage requirements are reasonably well defined, not surprising, as this is the look and feel as well as interchangeability of components – one of the main reasons for a large client organisation to have design guidelines in the first place. However, even with these items, often you start to get into the finer detail and things like materials or construction are not so well defined – is that Parchment white laminate table on 25 or 33mm thick board. And the thing is, if a client has gone to the trouble of having a design guideline more than likely they care about this level of detail, so then I have to ask what seems like a million questions.

It tends to get even more poorly defined when it comes to construction of fitout – partitions, doors, door hardware. Again, it seems misty definitions are typical. If you have a standard expectation for how partitions are constructed to achieve a certain level for acoustics – how about instead of referencing the Australian standard you just give me the details? That way you will save yourself getting a different acoustic engineer to give you advice on the same partition construction over and over again.

For some reason building services often seem to be a little better defined, but maybe this is because I’m not getting into the detail of it, and its a similar situation to the furniture. Perhaps some of my readers out there want to comment on this?

The problem seems to be that clients want to have design guidelines but they don’t want to take on any of the risk or liability for the design. They want to tell the consultant architect or designer what to do, but not to tell them too exactly, because then it somehow seems like the architect or designer has some kind of choice or responsibility. This is a ridiculous situation, wasting everyone’s time and money (and one I wonder which would stand up in court if tested anyway). If you as client have certain requirements or ways of doing things that have worked in the past – just tell your architects or designers – and if you do it the same way all the time, have someone write it down.

Moving to the other side though, we architects can be just as bad when it comes to specifications. I usually use Natspec (an Australian standard specification package) to put together my specifications. I want to point out that none of my comments are specific against Natspec but apply to the industry and the way we have come to write specifications generally. To me, specifications basically come into 4 parts – schedules/items of stuff that go into the building, installation methods, standards and submission requirements. So – the stuff that makes up the building, that’s pretty critical, if we don’t specify that we will have a problem. Now how to install it – is that our job or the builders job? And what’s the point of writing ‘install to manufacturers specifications’, that’s pretty obvious? Or even more stupidly why copy out the manufacturers specifications and standard details? As for standards – why do we need to reference them? Shouldn’t it be expected that glazing will comply with AS1288 as that’s the standard that is applicable? As for witness points and submissions, we frequently request loads of items that no one might ever look at. That is, until something goes wrong. And that is the point of most of the specification, it seems to be there for when something goes wrong and isn’t done properly – on many jobs I bet its not ever even read by anyone on the contractor team. It’s a shame we put so much time into something that’s almost just in case.

So what can we do to change all of this? Part of the problem is that our industry, so frequently all of the parties are separated by contracts which seem to actually prevent people from working together to sort things out and do things better, and everyone is trying to pass risk onwards down the chain. Outside of individual projects, when do clients, architects, engineers and contractors actually talk to each other about how to improve the way we work and construction industry productivity? Not so much in terms of making money – but in terms of all of us working smarter. Not very often.

One of the few times I see consultants, clients and contractors together is in the BIM space – although there is still not enough participation across all levels and sectors of the industry – and the lack of collaboration across the industry is has been one of the hinderances to BIM uptake to date. By coincidence, at the same time as I was thinking and writing on this topic, I received an invitation to be part of one of the Collaborate ANZ working groups on Level of Detail – now while Level of Detail might be a BIM issue (read a good explanation at Practical BIM) – in the end, it comes down to the same things I’ve been talking about in this post – making sure that the right information is shared across the industry and across projects with the people who need it at the time they need it. Whilst Collaborate ANZ is BIM focussed, most of the people involved are passionate about improving collaboration and communication across the industry as a whole. If we can get people talking about collaboration on BIM, and if BIM becomes a standard tool across the industry and starts to cover things like client guidelines and specifications – hopefully this will start to solve some of the problems across the industry. If my client could give me a full BIM package – template and families – maybe I wouldn’t have to read through all the irrelevant wordy guidelines and maybe my BIM model could go to the contractor with all the information they needed, but nothing extraneous included – and that could be our documentation. No specifications, no design guidelines. (It still doesn’t solve the problem of requests for tender though does it?)

However maybe I am being too optimistic here? What do you think – how can we streamline the way we work and reduce unnecessary documentation? What are the strangest design guidelines or specification requirements you have seen? Or should things stay as they are – are these kinds of documents generating work for architects and designers?

Image Credits:
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License by MorBCN