Category Archives: Collaboration

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, 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 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 

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 

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.

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 

Are you an architect if you don’t draw? Is a design manager still an architect?

7597713652_c246737d9c_oAre you an architect? Do you draw?  In the sense I’m referring to that question today, it is usually meant to include modelling as well, and usually means more than just mark up or do a quick napkin sketch. Are you still an architect if your day job doesn’t involve drawing? What does an architect actually do day to day if they don’t draw? Today, the tasks that an architect do can be so broad, that many architects don’t even seem to understand what other architects they work with actually do. If we don’t understand what our colleagues are actually doing, then is it any surprise that many of our clients don’t really understand (or value) all the tasks that go into creating a building project.

I’ll start by saying, technically, I’m not an architect (although I do still draw depending on workload and projects). The reason I’m not an architect is very much a technicality, and whilst its not about drawing, I think it is relevant to the way in which the profession seems confused about itself and what architects actually do. I studied architecture for 6 years, have worked in the industry for 15 and I have even sat for and passed the Board of Architecture exams. However, I don’t pay the annual registration fee to the board, so that means I’m not an architect. (That’s my choice though, as I work as an interior designer – the relationship between designers and architects being a story for perhaps another post sometime). In Australia, anyone who not passed the exam and registered is not supposed to call themselves an architect, but a graduate of architecture, even if they have been practicing for 30 years.  It’s not this kind of semantics or industry protection that I’m really wanting to talk about today (though personally I don’t think architects really benefit from the protection if the term), it’s the tasks we actually do to deliver our projects. And can often apply just as much to other building design disciplines such as interior design and engineering too.

For any architect (or graduate of architecture) or interior designer that works in an office of more than a few people,  you won’t do everything yourself. Some people will undertake business development and bring in the work, some will have face to face client roles, some will draw, some will use BIM, some will know all the graphic software, some will write specifications, some will be good at the overarching idea, some will be focussing on construction and technical detailing, and someone needs to ensure that the subconsultants are briefed, the team is delivering on time and the team size and mix is the right one.  Most of us do a mix of these things, very few of us are good at all of them. The whole point of working in a team (to me anyway) is to benefit from these different mixes of skills.

Given that delivering a building project is therefore very much a team sport of many different positions, it therefore surprises me then when I hear comments like “as architects is job is mostly drawing” or “what are you actually doing on the project – you are not drawing or writing the spec?”  That fact that the later was made by an architect who was managing more than 20 architects (and happened to be involved with the board or architects), is to me, quite disturbing. Do architects really not understand and value what their team mates are up to on the job, thinking that only certain parts of the project are actually important to the architecture?

I guess that partially it is related to the increasing complexity of large construction projects. When I first graduated a bit over 10 years ago, we didn’t have sustainability consultants, access consultants or BIM managers – every project our consultant teams seem to grow ever larger. (Recently I saw a consultant team list which included a wind consultant – a new one to me).  Managing all of these people, briefing them and coordinating their work is a big job on its own. You can then add the work often involved in meeting client stakeholder management and reporting processes, quality assurance processes and code compliance checking (which whilst we have consultants is still so much the responsibility of the designer be they architect, interior designer or engineer). Between all these tasks n a larger project you easily have a full time role, commonly referred to as design manager.

It is really important that this is understood as a different role to the project manager – whilst one person may do both, just because there is a project manager doesn’t mean you don’t need someone undertaking the tasks of design manger. In fact, sometimes it can become even more critical to  ensure that these tasks are actually undertaken and don’t fall through the cracks when the independent project manager consultant is the lead consultant. They won’t generally do your  co-ordination checks for you. Whilst a project manager ifs often at arms length from the actual design and documentation, and may have very different qualifications and skills to the architect – to me, the true design manager needs to understand what is being designed – they need to be an architect (or a designer or engineer depending on the project/design team being managed). However, there seem to be a lot of architects and designers who don’t understand that this role is very much a valuable and necessary one (whatever it is called), and, if the project team is structured well, not just another layer of management.

If I told an architect who sat at the computer all day writing specifications that they weren’t an architect because they couldn’t manage a 20 person team to deliver a multi million dollar project they would scoff at me. Same thing if I told the autoCAD technical detailer she wasn’t an architect because she didn’t use BIM (and had no interest in learning or even understanding why you would use it). But many these kinds of team members seem to think its ok to put down the work of those managing the projects (or even those brining in the work) as not being real architects because they don’t draw.

One of the funny things to me in all of this, is that in Australia, the registration exams actually focus on these management and practice management tasks – not on design, drawing, technical detailing or specifications. This knowledge is taken as assumed (through your studies and your log book of experience) – neither the written exam or the interview deal with these topics. So maybe it’s the opposite – real architects don’t draw? (But of course in my world they are all expected to use BIM!)

Image Credits: Mennonite Church USA Archives via Flickr

Why is delivering on time so hard? Is it that architecture, engineering and time management don’t mix?

Time Jumper by h.koppdelaney, on FlickrThis week I’m struggling to find the motivation to write – not because I don’t have anything to say, or even that I don’t have time – but because my brain is currently in a state of post tender lethargy. I’m sure you are all familiar with it – the stress and extra hours leading up to issuing architecture, interior design or engineering documentation for tender seems to be a routine part of working on the consulting side of construction. Design programs seem to get ever shorter, staff numbers always reducing and the complexity of projects increasing, it is a scenario that just seems to get worse and worse. Personally, for me, I find it’s not actually the hours that get to me – even if I don’t work really long hours in the lead up to a tender – it’s more the stress of will be on time? Will all the team deliver on time? Does being late impact the end date for the project? How annoyed will the client be if we are late? Will we be able to issue an addendum?  It’s worrying about these things that gets to me. I care about being on time – whether that’s arriving for a meeting or delivering something on the date I’ve promised – and for me when this becomes impossible or outside my own direct  control this is the biggest cause of stress.  And I don’t think this is just me, I know a lot of colleagues agree (and many former colleagues who went over to the client side to avoid it!)

Why does it seem to be impossible? Is this deadline driven stress something we just have to accept as being part of our industry?  I’d like to think not. But I’m not sure how we change this. One loyal reader (Thanks Jase – he also asked me to make this post controversial) suggested that its a lack of planning and felt that no post on the last minute nature of delivery in architecture and engineering could be complete without the 5 Ps – “Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance”. I agree there is a lot of poor planning goes on by all parties involved in construction – and it all begins with the client and the fee proposal.

At proposal stage (where ironically we usually have to be on time or we are disqualified), the client typically sets out some sort of milestones that they have in mind for their project. Sometime these are ‘real’ and fixed milestones such as a lease end, a university teaching holiday period or a certain date on which staff are returning from off site locations. At other times the milestones are not so much functional fixed requirements and may be based on internal performance measures or arbitrary dates (or just plain silly things like government money that somehow evaporates come end of financial year).

Often the dates set at this stage are crazy – the client has left it too late (due to poor planning or process at their end, or even simply not understanding the time these things take) and suddenly they need a new office for 200 staff in less than 6 months (I mean seriously – you did have a 10 year lease…). But of course we architects and interior designers can sort this out – we will do anything to win your project. And the bigger the project is the sillier we are likely to become.

So we have agreed to your program –  actually at that point it shouldn’t be too bad should it? We will have planned for this right? Allocated extra resources, thought through the minimum time frames things will take, the interactions that need to take place with the engineers, when and who would be doing design reviews, what software and technology could help us and we would maximize our efficiencies at every step of the way. Maybe we have…and maybe we haven’t.

But to compound the situation we then allowed you the client just 1 or 2 days to review and make decisions. And you forgot to tell us that there is a certain person who must be consulted, a board meeting the design must be presented to, or someone in IT who needs 2 weeks to provide feedback. But of course that’s only a small area of the building isn’t it? That need not delay the whole program right? Wrong. All of a sudden we have lost some of our efficiency in how we work and the order in which decisions are made and parts if the project documented.

Its even worse the project goes on hold and staff are reallocated to other projects – it can be difficult to get them back when suddenly the client says (without warning of course), here is that feedback and signoff – so when can the tender documents be ready – next week as planned? No, we can’t usually do 4 weeks if work in 1. I’m sure all my readers know, it gets to the point where throwing more people at the project just isn’t enough. Things still have to be done in a certain order, particularly if the client would actually like the engineering to consider the architecture and vice versa. (and it would be a strange project if this wasn’t a client requirement, much easier though!). It would also be nice for us to have time so that the documentation can be checked, and cross checked properly, so we can minimise errors which inevitably result in extra costs (and potentially time) on site.

Of course this isn’t every project and clients aren’t the only people to blame. Jason’s comment on proper planning is a big issue. We need to better plan reviews – doing them at the right time by the right people. We need to better understand what is a review and what is a design change. We need to respect the work of other members of the team, be they architects, engineers or interior designers. We need to incorporate buildabilty, engineering and cost earlier in the process of design to help reduce last minute changes (and clients need to understand some of these things too). We need to spend enough time and resources at the briefing and concept stages to better think through the design solutions at the point when we do have the time and we are not making quick decisions without thinking through the implications. We need to better understand and leverage off the technology and the process of automation. We need to embrace BIM for the productivity gains it brings, so our reviews can focus on construction and coordination instead of detail reference checking. Autodesk needs to make Revit less buggy and prone to doing strange things on the day tender docs are due (much as I love Revit – somehow it knows and conspires against you).

Revit (or other BIM software) changes this design and checking process in other ways too. For those that don’t understand the process of modeling, early drawings can seem rubbish and not worth checking. For those of us who use scheduling, the temptation is there to think the schedule is just being generated as things are modeled, without any checking. The process of checking changes and the worst thing is to throw too many people on the job in the last week. Final checking should move forward and all sorts of coordination, clash detection and checking should be ongoing throughout the process. It’s not really any different to what should have happened using CAD, it’s just that BIM highlights process deficiencies.

Maybe some days we just need to admit we can’t do it. That this tender won’t be on time.  But not the day after it was due. Nothing annoys me more than when team members haven’t delivered on time and I am calling the next day to ask what is going on. Then I have to start building contingencies into their delivery dates, further reducing the time they have – and I know that the project managers and clients are often doing this to me too. But because we are all late way to often, I can understand why they do.  Maybe if we could reliably deliver fully coordinated documents on the planned day the builders could afford have a few days less tendering or on site building, giving us a few more days working?

Whilst for many of us its true that deadlines can motivate and drive us, we function better when we are not stressed and tired. No matter how much we love our jobs most of us have lives outside of work – partners, kids, hobbies, the need for sleep and exercise. Maybe if we all accepted this of each other then our documents would actually be more accurate…and maybe we’d all have the time and inclination to do other things – blog more! Or teach and mentor more, or contribute to our industry more – and maybe this would help improve the quality of what we do, how we are treated by our clients and the inefficiency of the construction industry generally. Now that is revolutionary – could we improve our productivity by taking more time off? (Controversial enough?)

I certainly noticed when I was not working and was pretty relaxed,  when I sat down to do anything ‘work’ (like write a blog post or prepare Revit models for conference papers) that I did it a lot more efficiently than I’d expected, and with less mistakes.  I’ve always noticed this on a smaller scale in relation to my stress levels/working hours in the office too.

What do you think? Can we make on time stress free quality delivery a reality for architecture, interior design and engineering? What do you think we need to do to achieve it? How can our industry change? And does time off make you more productive?

Image credits:  “Timejumper”

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

What makes a great workplace design client?

Office Politics: A Rise to the Top by Alex E. Proimos, on Flickr

A few weeks ago I wrote a post on if great workplace design was a result of great business leadership.  This generated some discussion on who makes a great client, so I thought I’d consider some points on what I think makes a great client for a workplace design project.

Working with any organisation there is more than one side to the client – there is both the culture of the organisation and the personalities of the individuals involved – and usually we interact with two or three groups of individuals.  Firstly the key client representatives, secondly the wider user consultation groups (or end users they are often termed) and thirdly the executive or approval level (in a smaller organisation it is likely this may be the same person as the client representative). As interior designers it is the client representatives we have the most contact with – usually at least weekly.  So it is usually the key representatives that have the biggest impact on client relationship and also the design of the workplace.  Working with the same client organisation can be quite a different experience if one of the key individuals involved at this level changes.

Most often my client representatives have been project or facilities managers at various levels within an organisation. Sometimes they were going to be working in the new workplace, at other times they will remain based in another office (often even in another city). There is a variety of backgrounds in these client types- whilst there were many with a background in construction or architecture or others who had been in facilities a long time and had much experience if fitout, there were plenty with absolutely no experience of buildings, property, fitout or design. Now in my view this isn’t a problem – as long as they realise this and engage us for an appropriate scope of work.  I have had a client who had no experience of fitout design argue with me over how I knew what size to make a 6 person meeting room and wanted a list of projects where I had used that size room before! (Even with plans demonstrating the setout of the room) At the opposite end of the scale I had a client representative who was actually an interior decorator outside of her 9-5 job.  This didn’t make my life easy either though –  she used to call at least 5 times a day and for over 1 month would drop by the office daily to look over samples because she was so personally involved in the design. At the end of the project she returned a box the size of a removalist carton full of samples. (How do you factor someone like that into your fee agreement?)  So as you can see from the above example a passion for design (or maybe just too much time?) is not necessarily the answer as to what makes a great client.

My top 10 attributes for a great client representative:

  1. Trusts us – Respect our professional advice and opinion. Sometimes a colour or a piece of furniture might not be what you would choose yourself but if you put your trust in your interior designer you’ll generally have a better project outcome. That said, the most successful design is a result of an open relationship between the two designer and the time where the client can question and debate the interior designers proposals.
  2. Understands the organisation and business – Both at the strategic level in terms of company direction and aspirations, and at the operational level in terms of the different functional groups within the organisation.  Understand what the organisation wants to achieve through the fitout and clearly communicate these priorities to the interior designer.  Be able to direct the interior designer as to which business groups have specialised needs, and be able to make the judgements about what the user groups need.
  3. Appreciates design – To me this does not mean that you must have highly developed design of knowledge, education, or aesthetic appreciation but that you appreciate and value that you are paying for an interior design service and that this service offers tangible value to your organisation.  You respect that my time is valuable . And you understand that it is our job to design the fit out not yours – you understand the difference between providing the design team with functional requirements of a space versus designing the space yourself.
  4. Manages the user groups – It is important for the design team to have access to the end users at some point during the design process. They need to be the option to ask questions and gain a further understanding of the way people work especially if there are very specific activities undertaken by certain groups. However as interior designers we need your assistance to manage the user groups. We don’t have the authority within your organisation to tell people what they can and can’t have or what they do and don’t need – you need to do this.
  5. Tells us the budget – Trust us to manage their budget (I’ve blogged a little on this subject before). Allow your interior designer to suggest where money is best spent. Clients can get quite caught up in the price of an individual chair. I think this is because they understand and can relate to the price of a chair – you have bought one before. However you need to look at the cost of the fit out as a whole or of larger components of the budget rather than just at a single individual expensive item. Especially if there are just one or two of those expensive chairs in the reception area. Of course, if it is a task chair the cost will add up – but here we are talking about then the investment in good seating which is an important consideration not just the cost. Understand that your fitout is not just a one of project with a capital cost budget to meet now. The decisions you make now will impact upon operational and maintenance costs, as well as how well your fitout will age or meet changing organizational structures and needs. Maybe you would be better off spending more up front to have more energy efficient lighting for example.
  6. Has reasonable expectations – particularly with your expectations regarding program or scope changes.  Understand that there is a fine balance between cost, time and quality, you can’t reduce your program and expect the same cost and quality.  We probably can’t revise the design in less time than you spent reviewing it.  Agree and stick to the timeframes for your own internal review processes. Manage your team (and your management) that needs to be involved in this process.  If you make changes later, or want more 3D views understand you have to pay for this (refer point 3 again!)
  7. Understands that significant internal resources are required – we need access to a wide range of your staff through user groups, to your executive team for decision making (unless they have delegated this task), you need to manage your inputs and reviews and someone needs to manage the relocation process as a whole – there is a lot more to be done than just designing a new office.  Interior designers usually don’t undertake relocations planning, but may be able to assist with some tasks if this is agreed as part of their scope (for example fire evacuation plans or phone number/seating plans would not usually be part of the scope but an interior designer may be happy to provide these as additional items).
  8. Has the authority to make decisions – you don’t have to be the final decision maker, but you need to understand the priorities and provide the design team with confident direction on all matters relating to design – be they functional, aesthetic or budgetary.  If the interior designer is not in regular (weekly) communications with the decision makers you need to be ensuring they are kept in the loop and we are heading in the right direction.  Otherwise we might waste weeks of both our time.
  9. Isn’t worried about their own corner office – you have the interests of the organisation as a whole in mind and not just a focus on your own office, own team or a particular driver that motivates you. You understand that the workplace design will influence staff motivation and productivity and satisfaction and you care about improving the place you work.
  10. Is part of the team – you understand that the best workplace design will be the a result of collaboration and trust between you as the client and your interior designer.  Your input, and particularly your detailed reviews and feedback are an important and necessary part of ensuring that we have understood and captured your organisational aims, objectives and functional requirements.

This list might seem pretty demanding, but I guess that is part of the point.  For a major office relocation, being the client representative is an important and necessary role that does take up a lot of time.  As interior designers or architects we can’t just walk in and give you an office without an understanding of your organisation.  One thing you will notice though – is nowhere on my list does a job title come into the picture.  To me it doesn’t matter if your real day job is in FM or HR or you are the CEO – its about your approach to your workplace design project, your organisation and the people that work there.

What do you think?  Are there any qualities that I’ve left off the list?  Do you disagree with any of the above – am I expecting too much? If you are client side – what are your qualities for a great interior designer?  (maybe thats another post someday)

Image credits:

Working with Hydraulics Engineers

Blue water... by ERIO, on FlickrIn Australia hydraulic engineering and wet fire engineering (sprinklers/fire hose reels and hydrants) are often the work of a single engineer on smaller fitout projects.    For this reason I’ve decided to cover these two disciplines together in this one post. In other locations people may be more familiar with the use of the word plumbing to cover these disciplines.  In Australia, we also have fire engineers, who undertake work related to overall fire and life safety systems – which I’m not covering in this post. (Perhaps for another blog post – this series seems to keep expanding!)

The extent of hydraulic engineering works on many fitouts can be quite minor – perhaps limited to a single tea room sink.  Sometimes the fact that the hydraulic engineering works are so limited can mean that sufficient attention is not paid to coordinating this discipline.  Due to recent changes to the accessibility standards  in Australia it has become more and more common that a wheelchair accessible toilet facility will also be part of the fitout.  Installing new toilets into existing building structures greatly increases the need for coordination and early planning in relation to hydraulic items.

In my experience there are three major issues that arise again and again in relation to the hydraulic engineering works.

Clashes with existing structural elements
Frequently what needs to be coordinated is not so much the interior design and the hydraulic engineering or pipe work but the pipework or fixture locations and the structure or other impediments below the fixture.  It is important to try and find out at the very early planning stages what is underneath any rooms proposed to have hydraulic fixtures and in particular toilets.

Sometimes it is not possible to gain access to the ceiling below in order to run the pipe work. For example if there is another organisation’s server room below or if there is a fixed plasterboard ceiling – the costs, risks and difficulties of access may mean that it makes sense to move the toilet or kitchen to another location within the fitout.

The other issue is  locations of structural elements. In particular, this has a major impact upon locations for toilets as usually pipework for sinks, basins or showers can be slightly modified or moved to avoid structural elements.  Generally with a toilet waste this is not possible (there may be 2 options an P or an S trap only).  For accessible toilet facilities this becomes a more significant issue as the location of the toilet pan is quite critical and cannot necessarily be easily moved to accommodate structural elements.  If the room is designed to the minimum code dimensions this may prevent any rearrangment of the room to suit the structure. The best solution to this problem is again to try to obtain the information on the structural design early if possible (and import it into your plans/model so you can check and see it during your design process) – although often this isn’t possible with an existing building. In this case in may be necessary to scan the concrete slab to determine the location of beans or post tensioning cables. Another good options if it is possible, is to slightly oversize the rooms to allow for some future flexibility. The final option you are left with if this issue is discovered only when you are on site, is to install a pump. In my opinion and experience this is a very simple solution for sinks and basins and I have no problem recommending it to clients for these applications. However it’s not something to be recommended for toilets – whilst it is possible – it’s not pleasant when it leaks onto the brand-new carpet! (broadloom of course)

The other information that should be obtained early is the location of hydraulic stacks.  In my opinion as an interior designer or architect you can’t let these drive the fitout planning, as you would often end up with kitchen/breakout areas in the most unpleasant parts of the building with no access to natural light, but you should take them into account and be aware where they are located. That way when someone asks you about why the kitchen is not next to the stack you can explain that you considered them, and the reasoning why you located sinks away from them.

The most important thing is to consider these constraints and gather information as early as possible in the planning process.  By the time we get to a client signoff milestone where we have locked in the locations for rooms such as toilets and tearooms we may not yet have a hydraulic engineer on the project. As interior designers and architects we need to take responsibility for this early coordination.  If there is a hydraulic engineer already appointed it is a good idea to have them review approximate fixture locations prior to finalising the agreed layout with the client.

Sprinklers seemed to be an item which frequently cause trouble on a project. I have never quite understood it but it seems that the sprinkler code in Australia appears to be open to some level of interpretation. I can ask three different hydraulics /fire engineers and get three different opinions as to what the design criteria should be to comply with the code. If anyone else has a solution to this problem and how to manage it I’d like to know!

The other issue that interior designers and architects need to be aware of when it comes to sprinkler design is to ensure that the engineer is aware of any high level elements such as bulkheads, feature ceilings, compactuses or joinery which could impact upon the sprinkler head flow.

Coordination of hydraulic fixtures
Hydraulic fixtures should only be specified once. It does not matter if they are specified by the interior designer or architect or by the hydraulic engineer. However it is important that it is agreed who will select the fixtures and that the other party is given information on what has been selected – and the chance to comment on the selections.

The interior designer or architect also needs to ensure that sufficient space has been left for the hydraulic fixtures including items such as pumps, hot water or boiling water units and the pipework or any ventilation needs associated with these items. Whoever is taking overall responsibility for coordination should also check that the electrical engineer has provided power where required.

The other item that should be checked early on (prior to finalising plans with the client if possible) is if existing fire hose reel locations will be sufficient. If new reels are required ensure to allow space for these too. In Australia, the need for a new hose reel may also highlight that you have an issue with your egress distances so you may need to check these (a hose reel covers 40m – the same distance as the permitted egress path).

Do you have any tips on hydraulic and wet fire coordination? In particular any suggestions on the mysteries of the Australian sprinkler codes? Are there other specific regulatory issues that need to be considered in the countries you work in?

I’m planning further posts on working with sustainability consultants, acoustic engineers and fire engineers – if you have any tips on these topics please email me. As always any suggestions for future blog posts are always welcome too.

Image credits:

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  ERIO 

Working with Mechanical Engineers

*** by dzarro72, on FlickrAt a glance working with mechanical engineers can seem to present less visible coordination issues for interior designers than electrical engineering (previous blog post here).  However, the results of mechanical engineering (most commonly air conditioning ) are one of the most frequently complained elements of office fitout.   Whilst a lot of the reasons for the complaints about the air conditioning are not strictly due to coordination issues between the interior designer or architect and the mechanical engineer, there are ways that the design team can help to minimise any problems.  In my opinion there are three reasons for the majority of the occupant complaints:
  1. People’s different perceptions of temperature. 
  2. Under design of the mechanical systems compared to the intended use.
  3. The interactions between the base building systems and the fitout systems or modifications made due to the fitout.
Perception of temperature

Individuals perceive temperature and humidity differently depending on many factors.  This is always going to be an issue and if you are dealing with a large number of people in a single space it is difficult to design out.  There are some options now available for individual air flow controls at workstations, or you can allow user override in meeting rooms or offices – however these options generally have to be balanced against increased energy consumption and installation costs and are not necessarily going to be suited to every project or client.

Under design of mechanical systems
Under design of the mechanical systems is the area where the design team have the most influence and control over the functionality of the systems.  As an interior designer or architect you need to ensure that the mechanical engineer is fully briefed on the functions and occupancy of the room. Often mechanical engineers assume certain numbers of people and anticipated occupancy periods based upon the floor plan and the usual use of a room. For example if the floor plan shows a series of meeting rooms with operable walls, drawn with a certain number of meeting tables and chairs, frequently the mechanical design will be based upon the number of chairs on the floor plan. Whilst the mechanical design may take into account the operable walls and allow the space to operate as a single space – it may not take into account that when the operable walls are open the client intends to use the space for a lecture and the occupancy density will be higher. The mechanical engineer needs to understand if spaces are to be used in different ways with different occupancy densities.

I have also found that the mechanical engineer may under design the systems to save money, thinking that the client will not really use the space in this way very often and therefore not want to pay the additional costs – for example a training facility for 60 people which converts to a function room for 250 people. If the mechanical engineer believes that the cost of the briefed functional requirement is unusual or excessive then they need to discuss this with the interior designer/architect and the client.  The client would much rather understand and have the choice to pay the cost up front than to have to modify the system later after everyone has sweltered at the opening party. Particularly if they had asked for a space for 250 people.

Base building issues
One of the biggest issues with the mechanical systems for many interior fitouts is that you are working with, modifying and adding to an existing system. Often no accurate drawings or manuals exist for those systems. Whilst not frequently undertaken, a full site audit of the existing mechanical systems prior to design can be very worthwhile – if the client is willing to pay for this and if there is a way to arrange access (generally this will mean removing ceilings). If not, the involvement of the mechanical engineer during construction stage to work with the air conditioning subcontractor is essential.

The other issue with existing base building systems can be that there is an air conditioning subcontractor responsible for ongoing maintenance. It always makes sense to see if this subcontractor can undertake the fitout modification works as well. At least that way if there are any complaints there is only one responsible maintenance company. Some building owners and facilities managers require that modifications are undertaken by the maintenance contractor.

Other coordination tips
Many of the issues discussed above are not so much coordination issues as design management issues.  So I’ve listed below a few more of my tips on coordination between interior design / architecture and the mechanical engineer:

  1. Ensure the mechanical engineer understands the different partition or wall types in the project. In particular they need to be aware which walls are operable walls and which walls are full height to the underside of a slab or roof above, or which walls have baffling above.  Walls to the slab above or with baffling above impact on the path of return air above the ceiling and need to be taken into account in the design of the mechanical systems. Operable walls change the air flow within the space and again need to be taken into account in the mechanical system design.
  2. Coordinate different types of diffusers and grilles. Ensure that grilles are shown both on architectural and mechanical drawings. Ensure that you understand where the door grilles go and advise the mechanical engineer if there are any problems with proposed locations. For example grilles proposed in acoustic doors , glazed doors or other doors where the visual appearance is important. Similar issues apply to ceiling diffusers and grilles.  Ensure that the selection and style of grille and the colour are co-ordinated suits the interior design and are not specified differently in the architectural documents and the mechanical documents. Also ensure that linear grilles which crossover from room to room and could impact acoustics are considered and detailed appropriately.
  3. Check locations of thermostats and controls. Ensure they are not on operable walls, glazed walls, behind retractable screens or in other functionally or visually unappealing locations.
  4. Consider accessible outdoor space for condensor units and the need for either building owner or authority approvals for any outdoor units or grilles.

All of the above are my tips and suggestions – maybe the mechanical engineers reading this have their own suggestions?  What are your tips for working with mechanical engineers?  Does anyone have any more solutions to managing and coordinating with existing base building systems? Do you have any tips for hydraulic and fire engineering collaboration?

I thought my readers might also be interested in this blog post  on BIM collaboration – what it has to say about collaboration applies to every type of project, not just BIM projects.

Image Credits:
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License  by  dzarro72