Category Archives: Interior Design

The death of Activity Based Working?

The Valley of the Fallen

At last week’s Property Council breakfast on Activity Based Working – the panel moderator – Michael Cook, seemed determined to announce the death of Activity Based Working (ABW to the initiated, AWB to many others).  Asking the panel “What’s next after ABW?”  To me whilst it seems that many are hesitating to use the term Activity Based Working to describe their workplace, the way they are working seems very much like ABW.

Does it really matter if you call it ABW, agile or flexible working? Is there that much difference between the 3 (or any other terms out there).  Whilst there may be slight shifts in the focus of each of these ‘types’ of working, they all mean working in a space that suits what you right now. Maybe that at a desk, or maybe it’s in a huddle room, or at home, or even a ball pit. A ball pit?!? How can that be work? Well – maybe what you need to do right now is take a break,move around and have a colleague throw a ball at your head (or imagine throwing one at your bosses head). The question then becomes not only what spaces do I need to do my work but what activities does or should my workplace support and provide? Activities – oh that sounds a lot like we are actually back at activity based working then aren’t we?

The company that coined the term Activity Based Working, Veldhoen, certainly believe that ABW is not dead. In fact they think the opposite – that it is only just being born in Australia. For Veldhoen, ABW is still the future of work and they believe it is for everyone. They are not searching for the next big trend but seeking to make sure ABW is implemented properly. This was the comment from  an audience member from Veldhoen  (I think it may have been Gijs Nooteboom, apologies if I am wrong).  His comments left the panel in a moment of oddly stunned silence and I thought it was a shame that he hadn’t been part of the panel selection.

The morning began (way too early for networking – who wants to speak to people they don’t know at 7am before their first coffee?) with a presentation from Leigh Warner from JLL on the Property Council’s recent survey of ABW and further analysis of the likely uptake of ABW and its impact upon office space demand in Sydney over the next few decades. (You can download it here).  Regardless of what you think of ABW – and unsurprisingly views are polarised – the findings indicate that ABW will not have a significant impact upon real estate demand in Sydney over the coming years. This is due to a mix of factors including the likely uptake of ABW, the mix of tenant types and sizes in Sydney as well as the types of buildings suited to ABW and the rate of lease expiries each year.

Professor Richard De Dear from the University of Sydney then presented the University of Sydney research that made headlines last year, in its findings that ‘open offices are bad for you’. (My personal favourite headliner, Open-plan offices were devised by Satan in the deepest caverns of hell). In a very quick summary, the study covered 42,000 occupants in just over 300 buildings in the USA, Canada, Finland and Australia. Occupants were in a mix of enclosed offices and open plan cubicles with high, low or no partitions. The majority of the occupants were in enclosed offices or open plan cubicles with high partitions (and were in the USA). The findings were that across a range of measures from comfort, to furniture, to lighting and acoustics even through to interactions with colleagues, the people in enclosed offices were more satisfied. I”d seen this research online last year, and it is frequently accompanied by the suggestion that its quite likely the data is skewed by the fact that people in enclosed offices are more likely to be more senior and have more autonomy as well as higher overall engagement and satisfaction, as well as being fairly irrelevant to actual Australian office conditions of today, which differ substantially from US cubicle farms. Richard also presented some preliminary findings of Australian research which included the workspace type of flexi office.  He commented that the enclosed office was still rated higher by the occupant – but the graphs indicated that the flexi office did actually outperform the enclosed office on at least half the measures.

Putting these 2 presentations alongside one another, unsurprisingly, the densification or reduction of leased office space and its impact on employee satisfaction was a key topic for the panel discussion. The panel included Natalie Slessor from Lend Lease and Emily Dean from Telstra in addition to the speakers. Whilst there were no designers on the panel, there were certainly many in the room. You could almost hear the collective gasp across the room when Michael Cook suggested that designers were responsible for this densification – and thereby implying also, the low level of satisfaction of many office spaces. It has certainly been my experience that the densification of the office is driven by my clients, and not by designers. We work from what is possible and desirable through a range of options to get to the required number of staff. There are very few clients that engage designers before they agree to their leases. By the time we get involved, typically they have signed up for their 3,000m2 and they know they have their 250-300 staff – it is our job to fit them all in – the best we can and by educating our clients as to the options as to how to achieve this. Almost always there is compromise somewhere, a breakout room is shrunk, the number of meeting rooms reduced, or those desks put right in the circulation path to the toilets because at the end of the day they need to fit a certain number of people into their space.

Whoever may be responsible for this densification, the panel all agreed that companies that are reducing spaces and only looking for cost cutting are making a mistake in the longer term. It doesn’t matter what style of working we call a workplace, we need workplaces that match the business purposes and ways of working. A workplace in which staff enjoy coming to work and can do their best work meets these needs. Both Natalie and Emily agreed that the workplace projects that achieve these outcomes usually have a great leadership strategy. As Natalie Slessor put it nicely in response to Michael Cook’s question “should be talking to the corporate real estate team or the staff?” – “We should be talking to the CEO about what business question they want their workspace to answer”.

But getting back to the death of ABW. I think in some ways Veldhoen are right – ABW is certainly not dead. And perhaps nor is it quite the fad that many people want to call it. Do we call the open plan office a fad? If you think about it, we called a space full of high walled cubicles an open office, we called a space full of bench workstations an open office – and most ABW offices – well they are an open office too. Any office where the majority of staff are not sitting in cellular enclosed rooms is by definition an open office – even if we call it something different. This perhaps is the direction ABW is heading in, that it can have many shapes and appearances, but it is about spaces for activities.  Perhaps ABW is in fact a rewording of a design philosophy even older than the open office – form follows function!

Are you designing Activity Based Workplaces? Or are you calling them something else? And what about where you work – is an Activity Based Workplace suited to architecture, interior design or engineering? I find it intriguing the number of architects and designers who say no! Personally, I’m all for it.

Ceilidh Higgins

Image: This is one of my own, taken at the Valley of the Fallen on a recent trip to Spain.  Its a beautiful but strange place with an amazing tunnel like church which seems to have been dug into the hill, it was constructed by Franco as his own burial place and monument.

PS.  Its coming up to that time of year again to get your Revit fix!  I am presenting at RTC in Melbourne 29-31 May and Chicago 19-21 June.  Hope to see you there.

Worktech Melbourne: Let the User Decide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Could good design make us smarter?

3214197147_9752dd52df_o_mod2 Do you believe that the design of shopping centres deliberately manipulates you into spending more money? I would hazard a guess that most people would find this statement a reasonably believable one. What about your office space? Can we, through design, manipulate your organisational culture, work styles or even increase your productivity? (I use the term manipulate here to illustrate that we could perceive using design to impact upon behaviours in either a negative or positive way).

Now, with this second statement, we would certainly start to find that less people are likely to agree without some form of proof. CEOs and finance mangers start to ask for case studies and research papers with demostrated and quantifiable results. However, I’d say most architects and designers likely believe this to be true – that we can impact (or manipulate) peoples behaviour by design.  Many of us are inspired by this idea, and the possibility of making a positive change in the lives of our buildings inhabitants. But what if I told you that good design could actually make you smarter? It’s an intriguing idea, one which I suspect many designers would like the sound of, but perhaps not believe. I came across this idea some months ago and it’s a topic I’ve been meaning to post about ever since. This weekend while writing the first draft of this post, I’m away at a yoga retreat, and in that spirit, I felt I needed to write a positive and uplifting post full of great inspiring ideas rather than complaining about deadlines or why revit is driving me slightly insane (future post on that one!).

The idea that architecture could make us smarter is certainly am awesome one to contemplate. The Secret Life of Buildings: Grey Matter is a video segment from a TV program (only just over 3 minutes long) that reports on a study that shows that the brains of mice actually change when they are exposed to stimulating and changing environments. It’s now pretty commonly accepted that animals in captivity are happier and more content when they have variety and stimulation in their environments. Somehow (which seems a little strange) it’s taken us a bit longer to realise this applies to people in the workplace too. I’ve discussed this further in a previous post and Nigel Oseland has also written a great blog post on the subject. The step that’s new in this particular research, is that the scientists were not just looking at the end outcomes, the behaviors of the animals, but actually monitoring the brain structures of the mice. And what they found was that different, more stimulating and changing, environments caused the growth of neurons.  This is essentially meaning we are growing grew matter and in theory I would think, over time should make us smarter. So the scientists go onto suggest that all of the environments we inhabit as humans are  impacting on our brains. Given that most of us now spend our time in man made environments, this means that we are creating the environments that impact on our brains.  “Architects are impacting the structure of my brain by virtue of the designs they are making…” Potentially this impact could be either a positive one, generating new neurons in the building occupants – or it could be a negative one, essentially letting the brains of the building occupants stagnate.

Wow that’s a pretty big responsibility as an architect or designer. But a pretty amazing one too. I’d like to think I design spaces that make people smarter, and happier too. If this is true, just imagine how much more value would be placed upon design by our society. Architects and designers would certainly rise to an esteemed position in society with much less debate over the value of design in our society. Whilst I’m no scientist, based on this research, as well as my own experiences of design, both as designer and building occupant, I think this is a pretty reasonable hypothesis and it could actually be true.

Now we just need to find some way to prove its true for humans as well as the mice don’t we? This segments is actually 2 years old – does anyone know of any other research into these kinds of ideas?  What could be more measurable and quantifiable that the growth of occupants brains? How could anyone argue against paying for good design if they knew that they could make their staff, or their students smarter.

Image Credits:

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License  by  TZA 

Do our clients see interior design as a product? Do we as an industry?

enduro cart by i k o, on FlickrFor me the next question that then follows, if our clients do see interior design (or architecture) as a product, or if we do, is that a problem anyway, and does it change the way we design?Last time I wrote I compared some aspects of the workplace to a Chanel handbag, but it wasn’t actually connected thoughts that lead to these questions and title of today’s post. The musings in this post are based upon some comments at Sydney Indesign’s WorkLife day held recently as part of the new and expanded design festival that used to be Saturday InDesign (for some highlights of the more traditional showroom side of the event, visit yellowtrace). The WorkLife day was subtitled with what has become the most popular seminar/talk theme this year – of course it was “The Future of the Workspace”. It was the third event this year I have attended with a similar title (and I missed the recent similar event hekd at the Museum of Sydney – which despite being over $400 for the day apparently sold out). I’m very pleased to see so much focus, discussion and education happening around workplace design in Australia right now, and I thought that having a more formal program alongside the indesign showroom and exhibition event was a great idea. I will say though whoever holds the next workplace design seminar probably needs to think of a different title – I will suggest you could use the “trend” key words collaboration, serendipity and authenticity instead perhaps? Certainly if you are directing your message at an industry crowd.

The format of the day was a series of 4 panel talks with time in between for networking and exploring the exhibition hub of Sydney Indesign – Galleria (at Australia Technology Park, Eveleigh). Whilst the amount of time for the sessions was fine for panel talks (around 45 mins), I felt that towards the end of the day the panels were losing focus and perhaps we could have gotten more out of the day with more prepared presentations or specific project images and discussion, in order to give the panels more to focus on. The line up of Australian interior designers and other workplace consultants was impressive including team members from most of the large ABW projects completed here in the last 10 years or so. (For the full program see the WorkLife website) Paul McGillick from Indesign did do a good job at keeping the panel members talking and trying to get contributions from everyone involved, but there are times when even the best moderators can’t stop those determined to put out their own message (We don’t really want to be sold product at these kind of events). The format of the event didn’t really lend itself to a narrative blog post summarizing each speaker and so I’ve been pondering over the last week in what format I would share it with you.

In the end, one of the discussions that has stuck in my mind the most, was during the first session of the day – “Who’s Afraid of ABW – Is the Party Over?” – with Matthew Blain (HASSELL), Rosemary Kirkby (formerly MLC, NAB & GPT) & Stephen Minnett (Futurespace). It was Rosemary who raised the suggestion that there is a danger that the term Activity Based Working has now in Australia become popularized and many organisations wanting to define themselves as progressive will start to say to their designers – yes I’ll have one of those thanks. Stephen agreed seeing that we are in danger of jumping to another stereotype. The old stereotype was open plan workstations, low partitions and a breakout area with “kindergarten furniture”. He believes that ABW will fail if done as a copy paste, within conventuals time frames without engaging with business leaders and HR. It will fail if drive by the “wombats” in FM and procurement. (I loved this comment and was very tempted to use a wombat image for this post – and in case there are any of you in FM and procurement reading – I would say the fact you are reading a blog about interior design means you can rest assured that you are not one of the wombats).

It is really from these points that my own thought process starts to take over, influenced by other comments and discussions throughout the day as well as my own experiences with clients and designers. At some level, no matter how we feel about it, I believe design is a product. Particularly to our clients. Our clients are engaging us to provide solutions to their problems – and at the end of the day – more often that it these solutions are physical spaces. This is partly because of the procurement process – if we don’t provide a physical space we don’t earn fees, but it is also because that is what we are trained in, and what we know. Sometimes as interior designers and architects we can make the mistake of thinking that design can lead a greater program of change, be that at the office of the city level. I going to be bold and say, it can’t. It can’t lead such processes, but it can be a key part of successful change. We as interior designers don’t have the business background or the necessary skills to lead our clients in changing their workplaces or their technology. If at the end of the day, they don’t engage in the idea that ABW is about their business processes at a much bigger level than just a new office – we can’t make them. As designers, we can’t change their IT systems or their management structures, or their workplace culture. We can educate and influence them perhaps, but they need to come to the party (and bring their whole management team, HR,IT, FM and the rest along with them) if they want a successful ABW solution.

Like Le Corbusiers Unité d’Habitation which inspired so many inferior copies that became the model for apartment slums, are we in danger of the same thing occurring with ABW offices – design solutions which take the physical appearances and funky furniture settings of ABW environments – but not the business change, the use data and the problem solving behind the design. Will these be the workplace slums of the future (this is an idea I’ve had tucked away for ages and had been looking for the right blog post to share it in!) I guess the real question could be, is that any worse or any different to how workplaces are designed today? As Stephen point out, ABW could be next in an already long line of trends.

I thinks perhaps this is not so much a danger, as an opportunity. Yes, ABW could end up another trend, but this is perhaps more due to clients attitudes than things we as individual interior designers or architects can control. Our clients frequently treat workplace design as a product – separate from their business. So many of them do view it as “buying a new office”, a task best left to facilities and procurement – not HR and management. Perhaps sometimes it becomes something management wants to be involved in, and they start to treat it like buying a new car or their own home. Whenever we are engaged because we are the cheapest or because the client wants our practice for their name or their brand – we truly are a product. But to me, at our end, if our firms talk about”house styles” or we specify something just because no one else has it yet, we see ourselves as a product. If we don’t understand that our clients are buying a product and we give them what we think they need without questioning or engaging with them and their business needs, then we are giving them an inferior product. If though at the end of the day, we give them a design which meets their current perceived needs, then that’s ok too. That’s a product they want to buy. If we can work with them to deliver an amazing design solution that enhances wellbeing and productivity, it doesn’t matter if we call it ABW or something else, then that’s a great outcome, but at some level – it is still a product.

Being a product isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If its a crappily designed and produced product that people don’t enjoying using and want to send to landfill the next week, then yes it is a bad thing. But consider that the iPhone is a product too – and is both revolutionary and great design. I think I’d be happy if my next fitout was compared to an iPhone – wouldn’t you?

Image credits:

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License by i k o

What could a workplace and a Chanel handbag have in common?

My first ever Chanel 2.55 by rosebennet, on FlickrRecently I attended a de.frost* event, the topic was The Future of Workspaces, featuring Natalie Slessor, Head of Workplace at Lend Lease. Firstly let me say I think the concept Frost* have putting on these events is great. I guess you would describe Frost* as a graphic design agency (but they seem to be much more than this could mean) and once a month they organise an event in their office with a speaker, put on some drinks and nibbles (all pretty low key) and invite a bunch of people that they work with ( clients, architects, designers, project managers, builders). This was the first of their events I’d been to (although it is up to number 15 apparently) and I thought it was a great event. I had the chance to catch up with quite a number of people, meet a few new ones and hear a great speaker, I thought it was a really good mix – and that they got a good balance of time between the formal part of the evening and the informal mixing and networking – which often seems to be something that event organisers find a difficult balance.

So onto the speaker, Natalie Slessor. I’ve seen her speak before (at GBCA’s Workplaces of the Future Summit, see my previous blog entry) and she is a great presenter with a very interesting point of view on the workplace. Natalie is an environmental psychologist at Lend Lease – not a consultant that is common on our workplace project teams in Australia (or I think even in psychology here – I know quite a few psychologists and I’ve never met another environmental psych working in Australia. Maybe we don’t train them? Natalie is from the UK and the only other ones I’ve met or heard of are from the UK too…)

As I mentioned, Natalie is also a great presenter, and I’m starting to see that she likes to use different presentation structures as a storytelling technique. The presentation this evening was structured around a single slide with a grid of images with each row and column connecting ideas. It was a very effective technique,and I’m sure whilst it looked simple it must have taken a lot of work to simplify such complex ideas down to a 2 way grid of 24 squares! You can view the slide below.

PowerPoint Presentation

The key question of Natalie’s talk was “What is the Workplace for”.  Now I didn’t take any notes at the talk and I’m going to try and retell the story based on the images alone. So any misinterpretations are entirely my own,and I’m sure I will have missed some great points but perhaps some of my readers will have something to add (I know a few of you were there!). Following Natalie’s presentation there was plenty of time for discussion and questions, some of which I’ve woven into the story – there was of course plenty more form many viewpoints and those of you that we’re there can add your own stories of the night to the comments. (Or even if you weren’t – now you can be part of the discussion).  I’ll also state here that the references to the Chanel handbag are my own…but you will see the link.

First like Natalie did I’m going to explain what each row of the grid represents. The first row is the history reasons why the workplace exists. The second to fourth rows are about where we have been, where we are now and the direction we are moving towards. The fifth row is about psychology and the final row is what Natalie believes we should be aiming for in a workplace.

Now the first image is easy to remember – the workplace was created as a container. A container for the tools and machines to do the work, that were too expensive, too large (or too dirty?) for us to have in our homes. Gathering all these tools and people together created efficiency (this is what the cogs represent). Until recently, work meant physical things – whether it was a product or a piece of paper – so by co-locating eve white collar workers, efficiencies were gained – I can hand you that paper rather than mail it. So the office was also for gathering people together, as shown in the third image. The final image represents the workplace as being inspirational. Creating a place, creates part of the company identity, and historically inspiring loyalty was also part of the workplace equation. This row of images was why the workplace was created, and to some extent the second row, where have we been, covers a lot of the same ground. The workplace was a manual process (film), where ever more process efficiencies were to be gained (a portrait of Taylor – well known for applying production process thinking to workspace design known as Taylorism or scientific management). Buildings were designed as statements about the companies they housed with branding part of the building design. The Money Box building in Sydney was home to the Commonwealth Bank and I’m sure you recognize the Chrysler Building, one of the most branded buildings I’ve ever come across (I recollect there are parts inspired by hubcaps as well as other car parts and the Chrysler logo, I think also it was one of the first buildings to use metallic materials that were more akin to cars at the time). Part of this design ethos was also giving employees something to aspire to – I will climb my way up to the top floor or the corner office.

Not much of this seems quite so relevant today does it? Buildings are anonymous and owned by investors not branded for occupants, and who as a Gen X or younger would ever picture (or likely even aspire to) a corner office with an ensuite? Moving onto the next row of images we are living in a digital world and over the last few years have moved towards more and more mobile technology – Samsung “life companion” pictured. (From this point in the presentation Natalie was moving down the columns not across the row). The future workplace no longer needs to be a container for the tools, however the tools are just as important as they ever were for getting the job done. One of the things that can lead to the most stress is not having the right tools (eg slow or unreliable Internet connections).

With more mobile technology and as what we do for work has changed into knowledge work, the ideas of efficiency are no longer what they once were. Work is not necessarily the place where we get our best work done or have our best ideas. Whilst many offices are laid out like a place to house computers and well suited to a life of email, they are not well suited to either focused work or face to face communicative work. Natalie sees activity based working as a possible solution. Giving people a choice of an environment appropriate to the task should allow people to get more work done, and therefore reduce stress levels. Whilst there is a big focus on collaborative work and spaces in many ABW fitouts, its just as important that ABW design solutions don’t forget spaces for concentration and focused work either (and places for email too I guess).

As the workplace has become more varied, so too have the places that we work. Work has spilled out of the offices and into coffee shops and public spaces (MLC center pictured). The choice of where the workplace is and what facilities the surrounding area offers is becoming more important. No longer do most people want a workplace that is surrounded only by other workplaces. They want access to cafes, shops, entertainment, parks, childcare – places to go during breaks or after work, access to services. New precincts such as Barrangaro (Natalie’s admitted this as her one little plug for Lend Lease), a whole new piece of the city, need to be designed to consider people’s fulfillment and wellbeing, not just as workplaces.

Balance is what many people are seeking, rather than climbing the ladder. Social responsibility is also going to become a moe important driver for future generations (for me this slide/statement didn’t quite seem to fit into the flow of the narrative). There was some discussion also of the authenticity of the workplace design, and the importance of the workplace design being meaningful to what the company actually does and represents.

What will inspire us in the workplace of the future? Can we create more buildings and workplaces that in themselves inspire us by their design? Design that helps us to get work done, to focus or collaborate, to promote wellbeing and reduce stress. And it’s of all design that inspires. And this is where the link to Chanel comes into the story. The last slide is an image of a temporary building designed by Zaha Hadid as a Chanel exhibition. It was demountable and traveled around the world. Whilst obviously not very sustainable, Natalie found the building and the project inspirational. This is where my link to the Chanel handbag comes in, I also see a connection here with the first row, the container and the aspiration to the corner office – maybe now we don’t need a workplace container, or to aspire to space, we aspire to the handbag which also happens to be a container for the technology? (For women anyway) or we aspire to some other symbol that travels with us (Shoes? Laptops? Clothing? Maybe not such good containers?). So perhaps the office doesn’t need to provide these anymore. I know I’d certainly rather see inspiration and wellbeing than corner offices in my workplace anyway.

What would you like to see in your workplace if the future? Do you think we can design to reduce stress and increase wellbeing? What would this look like to you? We know we can design buildings to inspire – what are the hurdles which prevent all buildings and workplaces from being inspiring? Or do you still want the corner office with ensuite plus parking? Would this motivate you to work harder?

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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?

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

There is no I in workplace – the role of the individual in workplace design consultation

I for information

A few months ago I read an article by Gary Miciunas, “The design of work and the work of design” in Work+Place. Miciusnas focuses on the collaboration between the Director of Work, Director of Work-Place and the workplace designer – bringing together facilities management, human resources, information technology and business services to deliver new service oriented work place models. The collaboration of these teams would be a significant improvement over current typical model of workplace design where it can be a challenge to get all of these people to even sit down together in one meeting (I’ve talked a little about this before – What makes a great workplace design client). However this approach got me thinking about the question of where and how the individual knowledge worker fit into this collaboration? Given the flexibility to choose a place of work – work from home, work from a cafe or work in the office – may mean that workers vote with their feet. What impact does this have on the design of the workplace? What if we design a workplace and no one shows up?

As the choice of place to work becomes a choice of consumption, does the individual workplace user need to become more involved in the workplace design process? Or can the role of the ‘user group consultation’ possibly be reduced as variety or a menu of workplaces are built into the design? The challenge of involving all individuals in workplace design is already a problematic issue. Workers frequently have very fixed ideas of the settings they need to do their work. Sometimes this is based upon existing layouts or settings, at other times those seen elsewhere or an idealised setting. Whilst the worker knows their work best – are they equipped to imagine other possibilities? Do they understand how their work fits in with other work within the organisation?

The idea of ‘the design of work’ perhaps provides a good starting comparison point to the ‘work of design’ of the work place. As anyone who has ever worked within a large organisation knows many individuals design their own processes, systems and software optimising these to suit their own individual needs to best get their job done. However if there is too much individualisation and not enough organisational standardisation, this comes at a huge cost. Each individual worker has spent significant time to customise their work process and it differs from the work process of the other 50 people doing the same job. This is not efficient for an organisation. However too much standardisation and the individual knowledge worker is likely to get frustrated – because whilst there might be 50 others doing the same role, the way they do their job and apply their knowledge is not, and does not need to be identical. Could some of the same thinking apply to the workplace? How can we give people the individuality and flexibility to optimise their work place without losing the benefit of standardisation?

To me, the idea of Activity Based Working can be seen as a potential solution. A variety of different workspaces and settings are offered within the work place ranging from different size and shape workstations, differing levels of privacy and enclosure and different styles of furnishings. The worker has the choice of where to sit each day or each hour depending on the task at hand. The worker may also have the choice not to be in the workplace at all but working elsewhere. By offering a variety of workplaces, can the worker gain sufficient control to improve productivity by enabling choice of environment?

What happens if the workers do indeed vote with their feet, and large parts of the workplace remain unoccupied? This is surely not the aim of a workplace, and would appear to suggest that the design has failed. How do we as designers determine what types of environments to offer? Is it through user consultation, co-desgin (an even more intensive user involvement) or can we start to combine these activities with a more objective evidence based approach?

Currently workplace design (especially in Australia) tends to be based upon the experience of individual designers or companies, with very little high level research applied across multiple sites or projects (what research there is tends to be focussed on green building measures or space utilisation and is not necessarily comparable across studies). Through more research that captures what workers do across similar task types or industries and what design elements provide improvements to productivity, job satisfaction or collaboration – best practice can be defined. This kind of research could give a design team the confidence to know what kinds of spaces to design, based upon defined activities.

Research on the design of the workplace needs to be both qualitative and quantitative – this is where it has the advantage over traditional user group consultation which tends to be qualitative. Quantitative research needs to include testing of actual workplaces. The idea of beta testing our workplaces is already is use on larger projects. Frequently organisations with many thousands of square metres of office space will install prototype work areas for testing during the design process – from the scale of 1 or 2 workstations for workers to drop by to look at, up to the scale of whole floors where staff are working and formal research is being undertaken of how the space works. This is not always practical for smaller projects and if the knowledge of larger projects was made available to smaller projects could give more small to medium size organisations the encouragement and hard reasons to move towards different workplace models. Perhaps through benchmarking and physical testing, in the future simulated computer testing based on previous project data could also become a reality.

Whilst benchmarking and best practice need to be considered, each workplace still needs to be designed for individual organisations and teams. Ideally each individual work space should be be evaluated and tested to ensure it is providing value to the organisation. This can’t occur as part of the way the design process is currently structured, where the design is completed before the work begins. Perhaps the design process needs to be enlarged, to encompass ongoing evaluation and if necessary redesign with testing of workplace continuing beyond day 1 occupation. Therefore the space that remains unoccupied is not seen as a failure of design but as simply as an area which needs more development. Perhaps it also needs to be considered that it is not design that is the issue, but that the workers need to learn how to use this new kind of space. This then has impacts upon how we procure work place fitout. Can furniture and fitout companies offer components that are offered on rotation for changing needs over time, with leasing instead of outright purchase? Or designs with common component parts that can be reconfigured from a workstation setting to a meeting setting?

Are clients prepared to invest in these kinds of workplaces and the research required to achieve best practice? In Australia, in particular, research into workplace design and productivity has always been very limited and as in many other places has suffered further as a result of cost cutting in tough financial times. However does the changing nature of work and the workplace mean that the creation of great work places is no longer a choice but a necessity in order to attract and maintain the best workers, and get the most out of them?

Are today’s interior designers equipped to manage this process? Do they want to be? Unfortunately there are still too many clients who view interior design in a similar category to interior decoration. A strategic collaboration between interior design, research and the new Director of Work could see this change – or will this see interior design marginalized by a new genre of workplace productivity and strategy experts? What do you think as a designer or as someone who works in an office? Do you think workplace consultation is necessary? Would you like to be able to chose between a variety of work environments each day?

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What’s in a Room: Room Data Sheets and the briefing process

DollhouseA room can be considered the container for interior design. The elements of an interior – walls, flooring, joinery, furniture, services, lighting, graphics and signage all belong to a room or a space. In the briefing process, room data sheets are the container for information about the room or space. Particularly for more complex architectural and interior design projects, room data sheets have long been a key part of the briefing process. I am a firm believer in a rigorous briefing process, and have long used room data sheets as a part of this process for all but the most simple of projects. Lately I’ve been thinking about how this process can be improved – both from an efficiency and automation point of view through the use of BIM tools, but also if room data sheets are in fact the best tool for capturing and communicating this information.

Within an architectural or interiors office you can frequently find a whole array of room data sheets depending on project types and client requirements. They may be in Word or Excel, or even occasionally Access. For larger projects there are a range of softwares such as Codebook, dRofus, Building One and the like dedicated to this space planning and briefing process. The dedicated software systems have extensive integration with BIM software such as Revit and ArchiCAD, but tend to be expensive and complex requiring dedicated staff and training. For this reason they are infrequently used for anything but the largest projects. However, for any size of project there would be obvious benefits in having some level of link between the room data sheets and the BIM model. Currently much information is entered (at least twice) – once into the room data sheet and then again into the model. As a simple example, room names and room numbers. If this kind of information could be linked, immediately time is being saved and the potential for errors is being reduced. An ideal use for BIM.

One on the interesting things I found when I first started to discuss the concept of room data sheets with BIM managers was that (depending on their background) many saw a room data sheet as being a document which listed everything in the model. However this isn’t the purpose of the room data sheet. The room data sheet is a briefing tool. The room data sheet is the document which records what has been agreed with the client. It is a work in progress throughout the early design phases, but at some point, the room data sheet is signed off by the client and frozen and becomes the final brief for all interior disciplines. The aim is that at 100% documentation completion the model contents will match the room data sheet contents. One of the biggest potential benefits of being able to link the room data sheet and the revit model is the ability to check for discrepancies. One of the challenges to checking for discrepancies is that the room data sheet, by its very nature, as a briefing document, will have a lesser level of information and development than the model. For example the room data sheet is not the place where colour schemes are usually proposed, although material types will be. So for example we need to check that the room designated in the room data sheet to have resilient flooring has some kind of vinyl or linoleum in the model – not a particular material type.

At the same time as I have been considering these technological and software issues, I was also wondering if room data sheets were in fact the best method for communicating with clients and the design team. The point of the room data sheet is to transfer information between the architect or interior designer to the client and then back to the wider consultant team. The problem is that you hand a client a stack of 50 room data sheets and ask them to review all the details and (unsurprisingly) many do slightly freak out at how much work they have to do to review all of this. It is also hard for people whose brains don’t seem to cope well with picking up small discrepancies and errors in a pile of data presented in this format (and I admit to being one of them myself). Whilst many clients have trouble reading plans, I find there are just as many who find the visual communication of the plan more effective than the numeric/data format room data sheet.

Another issue is that as rooms or spaces become larger and more flexible with multiple zones or activities taking place within a space, does a room data sheet work anymore? Is a room data sheet going to function for a whole or even half a floor dedicated to activity based working? The amount of information on the sheet and the level of uncertainty about where within the floor an object is required means that it is probably not going to work very well. I think the room data sheet has to become an activity data sheet, but I’m not quite sure yet entirely how this would differ from a room data sheet. Much of the information would be the same, but somehow it seems more flexibility might be required.

The risk with room data sheets is that such a process can sometimes be too regimented. Its not so difficult for a laboratory or a hospital room where the room contents are more rigidly fixed by the functions and understood by both client and designer. But in a fast tracked project or more design oriented projects, it can be hard to manage the process of sufficiently developing the design to the level needed for the client sign off on the room data sheets. At what point in the office fitout design is it determined that reception will have a lounge versus armchairs versus an ottoman. Is that level of detail to be included in the room data sheet? If its not it means that the client hasn’t signed off on the idea, but if it is some detailed decisions may be locked in too early compared to other parts of the design process. I have to say I don’t feel like I have the answer to this problem.

Anyway, over several months of thinking about these issues and discussing with colleagues, I decided that I would set myself a deadline for my exploration of the automation of room data sheets – I submitted a talk for Revit Technology Conference on this subject, What’s in a Room: Revit Models,Room Data Sheets and Interiors. You can download it here.

What’s in a Room? from Ceilidh Higgins

At the same time as looking at the linking of room data sheets to a BIM model, I explored how I could use this data in more visual ways, displaying room data via coloured floor plans. At this point, it would be quite an efficient process to be able to produce both plans and room data sheets as required depending on the project stage and client requirements. Its also probably a useful workflow for design and construct projects where full detailed documentation is not being produced by the architect. The process is pretty simple using Revit, BIMLink and Excel to create a bi-directional link between excel room data and the Revit model.

The outcome is that the workflow demonstrated in this presentation is a very practical one for the many projects that currently use room data sheets and a BIM model. Whilst its not a perfect solution to integration, there are many efficiency and accuracy gains. I don’t think I’ve come up with the perfect alternative to room data sheets though, and certainly haven’t solved the problem of managing more open design problems or larger activity based spaces.

I have added an extract from the slideshare presentation with a  room data sheet example after a request in the comments.

Do you use room data sheets? Do they work as part of your design process or do you think there is a better way? Would you like to integrate your room data sheets and your BIM process?

P.S. I’ve started work full time again after enjoying a long sabbatical. I’m at Daryl Jackson Robin Dyke Architects. The Midnight Lunch will continue, but posts may be a little less frequent than before.

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Is your architecture or design client value for money?

Money by Philip Taylor PT, on FlickrLast week I started a discussion on how the client and their expectations impacts on the cost of design. Whilst there was some hope expressed on linkedin about this next post offering solutions…I’m not really sure I’ve got the answers. As I was originally writing this blog, I found that as I wrote I was moving more and more towards discussion of another contentious topic – competitive tendering. So today, while I continue pondering the impact of the client, this has segwayed into a consideration of the problems of competing tendering.

Often the project brief (or lack thereof) is the beginning of the problem. Whilst developing the brief can be part of the architect or interior designers scope, if it is teamed with unreasonable contract conditions or unreasonable interpretations by the client, significant additional work can be required. I have encountered contracts which expressly forbid the designer from claiming variations due to a prolonged program, limiting the number of meetings or site inspections or from an increased project value. This, to me is incredibly unfair on the part of the client. When the brief is little more than this – design a 5,000m2 fitout in a new building of 5 storeys to accommodate 400 staff in a mix of open plan and enclosed offices with support facilities. To me, the program and budget are key considerations in my scope, the scope is not just the final construction documents. Whilst it is true that the architect or interior designer could increase the construction cost due to design decisions, it is equally true that the client could increase construction costs and the amount of detailed design and documentation required due to their decisions on a higher level of acoustics or particularly extensive and complex joinery requirements as examples. I guess the decision has to be made at the fee proposal stage – do I take this risk of bidding on an very undefined scope and how do I (if possible) cost this into my structure. If the client then gets unreasonable in assessing variation claims, this is a recipe for cost overruns. In the end this kind of client should suffer with reduced quality for their project, but often they don’t, because we as designers still want to do a good job and keep the client happy. And our companies can often somehow think they will be able to make the money back on the next job, but in my experience its hard to make this work if you are dealing with clients who require competitive tendering on every job.

At the other end of the scale I have seen very detailed briefs, which (I thought) set out the clients full expectations of activities and deliverables. I responded to this detailed scope, pricing accordingly. We were even shortlisted for a tender interview. However, it turned out the client was interviewing all the tenderers (there were 3-5 selected tenderers) because there was such a large difference in the fee values (I think it was something like 200%) and they wanted to ask further questions of each party. I thought the interview went very well, but then we didn’t get the job. When we asked for a debrief, we were informed that we were offering a ‘blue ribbon’ service and that the client couldn’t afford this. So apparently the project had gone to someone with a much lesser level of services than they had put the tender out for, and a matching lower price. So much for fair tendering processes. If they didn’t want our ‘blue ribbon’ services, we should have been given the opportunity to price the same as the other company – or perhaps if they weren’t fixed on the services but on the outcome (eg the fitout) then they shouldn’t have specified all the detailed meetings, reports and the like in the tender. Very frustrating.

Although the tender process makes these things worse, even with more involvement with a potential client up front there is still no telling. Just like a job interview, it is a pretty brief time you spend with someone, where both parties are on their best behaviour. Later when things start to get even a little bit difficult or go wrong it could be a different story. Or it could be that the people change, or additional people get involved in the project. Having a user group that violently disagrees with the project manger/property person responsible for delivering the project can be a challenging process to work through for both the architect or interior designer and the client representative.

The most time consuming client I ever had, was one who used to pop into the office every single day for weeks at a time. She had decided to personally take charge of the colours and finishes. Whilst I wasn’t happy with that, the client organisation had agreed she would do this (I think that people thought it would reduce our workload! Little did they know…) If I told reception I wasn’t available she started to ask for the other project team members. She would then ask to come in and look at the samples library – but she wouldn’t just be doing this quietly on her own, the whole time she would be asking the opinion of whoever had let her into the office and they couldn’t get back to their own work. At the end of the project she sent back a removalist size carton of samples. We did actually end up charging the client extra fees, and thankfully in this case, the organisation was reasonable and recognised the additional work we had incurred due to the behavior of their staff member.

For me the problems is that these different client attitudes have costs attached and this time can also impact upon the project program. We have planned the project process based upon certain time periods, and its not always a simple matter of throwing extra resources against the project when the client requirements expand the time required. So how do we as an industry change this? We can’t always work for repeat clients that we know and understand, where we can somewhat predict their behaviours and expectations at the fee proposal stage. Particularly when it comes to competitive tendering we don’t have the opportunity to get to know the client. Or if we do know them, we might overprice the job or the opposite, we can win the job by offering a lesser level of service than the tender calls for. In my view, we as an industry need to take some responsibility for this. Architects and interior designers need to be less hesitant about defining scope and claiming variations. All architects and interior designers need to take responsibility for this, as often client attitudes are determined by the other architects/consultants they have worked with in the past. We need to educate our clients. But I also think that large client organisations, who purchase architectural and design services frequently also need to take responsibility. In particular, in Australia, government at all levels is a large user of architectural services, generally uses competitive tendering processes and frequently promotes one sided contracts. Clients need to understand their roles in the process and what has been allowed for in the fees. The staff involved need further support and education. Value for money does not mean cheapest. The conditions at tendering stage need to suit the actual project expectations. Client organisations need to judge project management success on more than just keeping consultant fees down.

If one of our largest clients (as an industry) treats architects and interior designers as not worth being treated as professionals with a high level of skills and value, what does that say about our profession? What is your experience – do you think competitive tendering offers the client the best outcomes? Do your clients understand that program or meeting attendance is part of the scope and can impact on your fees? What kinds of additional services have your clients expected without changes to your fees?

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Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by  Philip Taylor PT 

How many architects or interior designers does it take to design a building (or fitout)?

Light bulbs No, that’s not the start of a joke comparing architects versus interior designers. And it’s just as applicable to engineers too. The question is really how do we determine how many hours it will take to design a particular project? I’m back to what seems to be one of my readers favourite subjects again – design fees. Last week a comment on my post on BIM-onimics queried the number of hours spent on some of the example projects. This question put me in mind of a number of issues I’d been meaning to blog about one day – the main one being how do you cost the client themselves into your design fees? To me this is often more difficult than the already difficult task of putting a number of hours on creativity.  However the more I started to think and write on the subject, the more it has expanded, and so this will be a 2 part post.

As I mentioned in my response to the comment on the number of hours a project takes, and I’ve discussed previously (in my post What makes a great workplace design client) clients come in many forms. I find particularly in the areas I of design I have worked in (workplace, healthcare, labs), the client group expects to be (and in my view quite rightly is) part of the design process. But that said, different clients at both the organizational and the individual level have very diverse views about what their role is, what their architect or interior designers role is, what deliverables should be provided, how many review points they should have, how frequently we should meet and generally how much involvement they will have in the design (and even construction process). The client’s level of industry knowledge and familiarity with the design and construction process also differs. All of these factors will impact on the amount of time I spend working on a project – not necessarily designing, but managing the client inputs, reviews and approvals, answering their questions and producing documents which are specifically for their use and not a requirement for construction.

I don’t necessarily mind doing any of these things. The problem is that if I don’t know the client (and by this I mean both the organisation and the individual) at the fee proposal stage then gauging what kind of client they are and what their expectations might be can be exceedingly difficult, and in some cases downright impossible. If you’re lucky you have a client who is only seeking proposals from  a small number of your competitors (or even better you are single select) and they may meet with you once or twice to discuss the project. You have a chance to speak directly with them to clarify the scope and their expectations. It may even be likely that if there was an obvious difference in scope between the proposals the client would come back to you to discuss this. Unfortunately, in my experience this has not been the norm. Maybe in some sectors and firms it is, which is great (give me a call, I’d love to come work with you!). Particularly when dealing with government or large institutions or organisations, competitive tendering becomes a more usual approach.

Even on an invited or short listed tender with a limited number of companies it is unlikely that there will be any significant interaction between the designers and the client representatives. Whilst a site inspection may be held, this usually involves all tenderers and doesn’t really provide an opportunity for the designer to get to know the client. The first time this is likely to occur is after you have submitted your fee, at a tender interview. Indeed for some larger open tenders, there is never even the opportunity for the architect or designer to speak to the client. The only means of contact may be via an anonymous procurement email address, with the whole tender process run by a different individual than the person who will be the client representative.

Especially when the person who becomes the client representative in the design stage has had very little involvement in procurement their expectations can differ markedly from what is documented in the tender and project brief. Individuals can have very different views over what constitutes a review or approval and how the design should progress. With some of my clients I know that if we have a meeting and I present some preliminary design options, I will get instant feedback and go away straight after the meeting to revise and develop the design. However with others, the decision makers are not in the room or further people need to be consulted, I will be lucky if I get feedback and direction 1 week later. These two scenarios affect my resource planning and my project costs. Design is not just dollars per hour, every time I start and stop it costs more. There is also the likelihood that during the time the client is reviewing the schemes they will have more questions, will ask me to explore more options and that overall there will be more meetings and the project will take longer. Now, I can and do try to reduce my exposure to such risks by including a detailed scope and program, limiting the number of meetings and options and other such assumptions within my fee proposal. But still, a number of scenarios have arisen for me in the past where for a wide variety of reasons other issues arise which further complicate the potential project costs or reveal interesting things in relation to the expectations of the client.

Tune in again next week to find out more about some of these issues, a discussion of competitive tendering and my opinions on what needs to happen to help sort out this mess!  In the meantime, feel free to offer your own stories, suggestions and comments.

PS. My TEDx video is now available on line. Click here for the Audience Talks. I’m at around 9 minutes of the way through.

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