Category Archives: Industry

Mental health and the road to leadership

Do we have to accept that “long hours are just part of the job”? Is it possible to succeed in architecture and design without working excessive overtime?

For the first time in Australia, a top law firm has recently been reported to Worksafe for overworking employees, “A source said KWM graduates were subjected to grueling conditions, with some employees choosing to sleep at the firm’s Melbourne office rather than return home. Day and night shifts were allocated so work could continue around the clock.” This probably sounds familiar to a lot of architects and designers – except we might be thinking “They got to sleep though?” and “so if there were shifts…that means individuals were not working round the clock”.  Whilst law is renowned for its long hours, architecture is frequently worse – and far more poorly paid.  Even if we haven’t worked all night lately ourselves, we all know practices where it is common place.  It will be interesting to see the outcomes of this case and what impact it might have on architecture as well as law.  There is no doubt that the long hours culture of architecture takes its toll on many individuals in different ways.

Around the same time as I came across this article, I attended two separate events on the same day – Sustainability Live and a WIDAC networking event.  Through a session “Mental Health in the Building Industry” the topic of the long hours culture of architecture was part of the discussion.  Mental health is an issue that the NSW Architects Registration Board is currently focusing on – and Registrar Tim Horton was part of the panel.  The NSW ARB is concerned about the mental health of architects and commissioning further research to learn more about this important topic.  However it does seem that their focus is on the risk of sole practitioners suffering mental health issues and the resultant risk to the public, than necessarily on the impacts of those working within practice and subject to long hours and bullying cultures.  We have to remember that the job of the Boards is primarily consumer protection rather than protection of the architects – that’s where the AIA and ACA need to be involved.

Personally I do believe that part of the prevalence of sole practitioners and small practices is due to the desire of many mid career architects to escape the hours and bullying and to gain control over their own lives, and not just their own designs.  But the problem we have is that often the long hours have been so well trained into us, and  then you add the pressure of small business, and many architects still can’t get away.  I’m not sure if its funny or scary that some of the young architects I spoke to after the session (and since) had thought the previous session on “Modern Slavery” was going to be about Australian architectural practices and their working cultures…

That evening I attended my first WIDAC (Women in Design and Construction) event – and I was very impressed.  Outstanding speakers and well organised – I’ve already joined! The topic for the evening was “The Road to Leadership” and there were three speakers, an architectural director, a partner in a law firm and a HR executive (the selection of which somewhat seems to match the topics of this post!) Alex Wessling, Sara Haslinger LLB MPP and Kate Evans shared their fantastic and individual stories of their own roads to leadership.  One of the things that all three had in common, and I think probably underpins many successful people, but perhaps even more particularly women, is that while working long hours can sometime seem to contribute to success, working long hours usually lead to problems in your life (be they mental, physical or both) and that ultimately this is not a sustainable path to continue along. The other common lesson is that the path to leadership is windy even if at an outside glance it might not always seem to be so.

My own story also has these threads in common. Initial career success stalled with the combination of a slowdown (GFC) and a psychopathic boss. Years of overwork – sometimes due to deadlines and those around me, and sometimes due to the pressure I placed on myself – combined with the pressure of workplace bullying eventually lead to repetitive strain injury and chronic pain.   Physio, personal trainers, acupuncture, feldenkrais and a dozen different medical specialists and surgery didn’t solve it – for the first few years it got worse.  Starting with my left shoulder, then my right arm, both wrists, my neck, both hands.  Imagine the fear of not being able to use your hands.  To the point where I almost couldn’t work at all.  Then in the middle of all of that I was made redundant from the job that caused it.  All of this defines my story from this point on.  Almost 10 years later, I still have chronic pain in my neck but I am much recovered and can now manage and live with the pain and its impacts on my mental health.

Part of the way I have improved my health is to work part time.  People assume I work part time because I have a small child.  While this is partially true – I dropped my hours to part time after she was born – I’ve found its really helped my health, and I know I certainly can’t work more than 40 hours a week.  I can’t take a job in a practice that might expect me to work excessive overtime.  My symptoms would flare up and it’s just not worth it.  This is one reason why I am passionate about hours and working culture – I don’t want to see more people face these kinds of problems – and the more time we spend crunching over computers the more common it is becoming.  Already almost every architect and designer I know has some kind of neck, back, shoulder or arm pain that flares up from time to time.

At the same time, I have been determined not to let my injuries or my working hours define my role or opportunities within design practice.  Whilst it has meant that I am careful about choosing where and with whom I work (unfortunately for me not always clear at the interview stage), my commitment to my own work life balance or integration has had a positive side effect.  Bullies usually also seem to inhabit the long hours cultures in higher proportions…coincidence?

Now I am lucky enough to work at Custance Associates, a boutique practice where I have a senior client facing role and input to the practice direction, with directors who are supportive and who actually care about the staff who work for them – a team who are a friendly and incredibly talented bunch.  I work flexibly from Tuesday to Friday working at 70% of full time, with some of that time being from home.  Occasionally I work some extra hours to meet deadlines, but its pretty rare.  Nor do my team work overtime regularly.  I have time for my blog, being a part of the BILT ANZ committee, to exercise (which is actually essential for my pain), occasionally to meditate and always to spend with my family.  I am happy.  I think this is something we sometimes forget is even possible in our industry.

So many people I know have continued working in unhealthy environments on the premise that everywhere else is the same.  Maybe a lot of practices are – but not everywhere.  Take the time to define what you want and expect – and then demand that – and if where you are can’t provide it, you can probably find somewhere else that can.  Maybe not so quickly and easily as just any job, but I believe for most of us, it is possible.  If more staff expect that a reasonable work life balance and working hours is possible, and that bullying is unacceptable, then companies will be forced to change – both in architecture and law.  Do you want things to change? Do you believe cultural change is possible? Will you be part of the problem or part of the solution?

Ceilidh Higgins

Image via unsplash

The Midnight Lunch: My Favourite Blogs 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ceilidh Higgins

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ceilidh Higgins

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

What’s so critical – why the long hours?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Ceilidh Higgins

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

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

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 

Where to From Here: Embracing technological change

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

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

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

Ceilidh Higgins

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

Is Disruptive Innovation possible in the construction industry?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ceilidh Higgins

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

Will Architectural Technology Create the Next Generation Gender Divide?

Women in BIM copy

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

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

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

Read the full article on Parlour’s website.

Ceilidh Higgins

Photo courtesty of BrisBIM