Could we all achieve more by working less?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ceilidh Higgins

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

Revit for Interiors – its not perfect

receptionThis post is a follow up to my last post – Do Revit and Interior Design go together? Whilst I totally believe the answer is a resounding yes, and I am a big fan of using Revit for Interior design, there are certainly a few areas where it could be improved.  In my last post I wrote about the benefits you can gain understanding your outputs and from setting up your standards and libraries – both families and materials.  Whilst these will help you make the most of Revit, there is one particular area we can’t completely fix by setup, standards or processes.  This is the way that Revit understands  materials and finishes, and in my view is one of the most significant of Revit’s limitations. I think this is what has hampered its uptake by interior designers.  However, if you understand how Revit ‘thinks’ and you organise your office documentation – you can work around this.  (Autodesk I hope you are reading…improvements for Revit 2017?)

Revit is pretty crude in its understanding of material versus finish. When I talk about material versus finish, I mean a wall is made of plasterboard, but it’s finish is a certain type and colour paint. A material is a piece of stainless steel, it’s finish could be brushed or linished.  Most of the time Revit can’t differentiate between these two concepts. In the materials library, each ‘material’ is both material and finish (or can be). This lack of differentiation is one of the reasons why implementing Revit for interiors can be a challenge – because it simply makes no sense! (And so does not align with how most firms would document)

Why would you have a wall type for every paint colour – well of course you wouldn’t! Revit sort of gets it, this is why the paint tool exists – however it’s a slow and only partial solution.  One of the key things to understand about the paint tool is that it only works for system families – that is walls, floors, ceilings (and I think roofs). Which us a bit crazy really – because I’d more often paint a door than I would a floor.  ***this applies only when you are within a project environment, thanks to Aaron Maller, check the comments section to see how to use the paint tool within families***

So when it comes to doors, casework (joinery) or any family we build – we have to make a decision – are we documenting our door as MDF or are we documenting it as a specific colour MDF? What do we need to show in a rendering and what do we need to schedule? This could be different for different offices, but in terms of managing your materials library, it’s best to agree an office wide standard. In our office, the door material would usually include both the core material and the paint finish, because we have a range of core materials that differ from door to door, and they may not be otherwise detailed. However generally casework either has all the same core material, or we detail the core construction, so we would often just specify the surface material eg laminate or stone facings.

For walls, we generally have a rule that if the wall has an applied finish with thickness it would usually be modeled separately.   So for example wall panels or tiles are modeled as a secondary wall, whereas paint is applied using the paint bucket.  This rule (mostly) works well for interiors, although I know of a few situations where it doesn’t work so well for exterior wall constructions – for example different colours of aluminium panels or different colours of brickwork.  However, we do change the rules for large projects where there are limited wall types and all the tiles are floor to ceiling – then we usually build the tiles as part of the wall types – for these project types and the way we model and document, it is the most efficient way of working for us.   As I said, its really up to you and your office standards as to if you use paint, a new wall type or a separate wall layer – they will have slightly different behaviours when modeling and scheduling, so it depends on what you want as outputs.

***The other important tool to know about is the split face tool.  This allows you to separate sections of wall faces using sketch lines and apply different finishes to each.***

If you are going to use the paint tool, it is quite limiting. You can only apply it in elevation and with out of the box Revit you can also only tag it in elevation.  ARUtils includes a tool which allows you to tag painted items in plan.  I have also had people query how to find the items they have applied paint to – it is annoying but possible by using a materials take off schedule which gives you the option to schedule ‘material as paint’.

Which brings us to creating materials and finishes schedules. Now maybe many of you have got this one figured out by now – but it had me completely baffled for a couple of hours the first time I went to make one – there is no option for a materials schedule? Then someone kindly informed me I needed to use a material take off – even if you don’t want to take off the quantities! (you just don’t include this parameter) The other important difference in setting up a materials schedule is that you use the parameters that start “Material:Keynote” or “Material:Name”. The other parameters in the list are the parameters of the objects themselves and not the materials.

A couple of important last tips on materials schedules – manage your library well and don’t have duplicate items with similar names and the same keynotes – this will save you a lot of time when you are scheduling. Also be aware that there are 2 parts to the materials dialogue box – and one part, the ‘appearance’ tab relates only to rendering – none of the information stored there appears in your Revit schedule (maybe there is an add in to do this? If anyone knows of one, I’d love to know). The data that appears in your schedule is the data under the ‘Identity’ tab – and that’s it. You can’t add extra parameters to materials (again if there is a way, this is something I would really find useful). For this reason, I don’t recommend including your company name in the material name, because then you essentially lose another parameter for scheduling.  ***Again my readers have helped me out on this – you can add extra parameters to materials, you just can’t do it within the materials editor, you have to go to manage->project parameters to add them.  I still wouldn’t recommend including your company name in the material name though***

Finally remember that in order for a material to schedule – it must exist in the project. Be particularly cautious of this if you have a habit of painting one wall to force a colour into the schedule and then you delete it…One solution to this is to use a phase before the demolition phase to create objects with all your materials on them and schedule from here (demolish the objects in the same phase). I find this particularly useful on projects where I need to generate finishes schedules for the client or contractor before the design is fully resolved (and therefore not yet modeled). It can also provide the base place for all of the project users to find the correct materials.

Originally this post was going to be about a few more things…but I have recently been teaching some classes on materials and found I had a lot to say!  So you can look out for another post on Revit and interiors sometime next year.  In the meantime, what are your tips and tricks for best using Revit materials? Do you have those odd door schedules where your doors are made of yourcompanyname_Glass_Clear? Have problems with materials and scheduling them made you give up on Revit? Share your thoughts whilst I take some summer holidays!

Ceilidh Higgins

Image Credits: DJRD project image

PS. Sorry if you have commented on the last post and it has taken a while for it to appear. I have had some problems with the comments management section of the website.

Do Revit and Interior Design go together?

QUIET ROOM & ENTRY VIEW.2It has always surprised me how low the number of interior design teams using Revit has been – often even not used by interiors teams in large firms where the majority of the architecture projects are being delivered using Revit. For me, Revit has always offered significant benefits to my projects, ever since I made the decision my team would move away from 2D CAD packages and into Revit for all projects back in 2007. That’s right -all projects. I doesn’t matter how big or how small a project, or if there are existing drawings in a 2D CAD format, or even if my new design team doesn’t yet know Revit – all the projects I have lead and worked on for the last 7 years have been primarily designed and documented in Revit. Recently, I’ve been pleased to find more interest in using Revit for interior design with a number of people mentioning to me both in person and on twitter that they want to know more about the benefits of Revit for interiors. So I thought it might be time to write a blog post (which has turned into 2 parts) on the main benefits of using Revit, as well as tips for optimising Revit for interior design teams. Today’s post is focussed more on the information benefits and setup of Revit whilst the next part will discuss Revit as a design and visulisation tool.

The Power of Scheduling
When asked recently on twitter for my number one tip for using Revit for interiors, it was to make use of scheduling. From the very beginning of using Revit it was the scheduling and tagging abilities of Revit that have paid off for my projects. At its most basic, the use of schedules for room areas or workstation numbers saves time every time. Scheduling furniture, fixtures and signage is also a breeze – and even better visually now that Revit 2015 allows us to incorporate images – finally! I am sure this change will play a big part in convincing interior designers to use Revit. Door schedules are great too – although come with their own challenges, as do finishes schedules (material take off in Revit terminology).

Anything you used to schedule in word or excel, you can schedule in Revit, so why type everything twice and risk making mistakes? There are a couple of key issues to be aware of when using Revit for schedules. Firstly you have to remember that your schedule is based on your model – if there is garbage in your model (eg two chairs on top of one another, or chairs off in space), there will be garbage in your schedule. The other is the visibility filters set in the schedule, what is not visible is not counted. If the schedule name is Level 23 Workstation Schedule, but the schedule filter is set to Level 22 then its not of much use (just as if someone accidentally counted off the wrong plan!). Schedules always need to be manually checked when first set up, and then some ongoing common sense checking as the project progresses.

Schedules themselves are also great to help you with checking. I use various kinds of schedules for BCA and GreenStar calculations and checking and even expanded schedules to check filtered or totaled schedules. Taken further schedules can become the basis for Room Data sheets created in excel, word (or other 3d party softwares). For an example using excel you can see my previous post What’s in a Room?

If you are interested in more on Revit Scheduling I have presentation on slide share called Informedesign which is primarily about using Revit and its information (often conveyed via schedules) to support your design process.

At the end of the day, the value of scheduling lies in its ability to free up time to spend more time doing what we love – designing. But before we get to the benefits of Revit in the design process, I will touch on the other key aspect of freeing up your time in Revit – leveraging repaatative content.

Revit loves repetition
Its true, Revit loves repetition. Many people believe that means its not valuable for the one off – but it is and I am going to talk more about that next post. However, as with scheduling you use Revit’s power of repetition to free up your time to focus on the one off items and area, because that is where we should focus our efforts as designers.

Two areas of Revit are key for repetition, families and groups. Families are discussed further below as part of your libraries but groups should also form part of your strategy for repetition. I’ve written extensively before about groups – so once you have got the basics of this post, you can go read more about groups here.

Building your generic library
Interior designers and BIM managers alike are often dismayed by the thought of modeling everything in an interior design project (or even worse – by starting to think about what could go into a every project), every piece of furniture  and every material known to man. The answer to this dilemma – is that you don’t necessarily have to. If its your first Revit project and your aim isn’t to deliver a full BIM project then don’t try to – you will overwhelm yourself and struggle to deliver. Start off with a little and build up over time. Focus initially on two areas, one is the more generic content and the other is the areas where Revit assists your design thinking.

By generic content, I mean the components you use most frequently in projects. This will differ depending upon your firm, the types of projects you do and the types of 3d imagery you need to output. For me, primarily I am designing workplace and educational projects. My basic set of generic content therefore includes task seating, a few different lounge, meeting and cafe seating styles and a couple of shapes and styles of tables with easy to modify sizes and bases. At its most basic joinery and equipment may start out as a family that just contains a box.

Focus on your outputs.  If all you are producing is 1:100 test fit planning – you are wasting time modeling every cupboard and agonising over what each chair looks like. As long as you have your plan objects looking right, you can produce your deliverables (and schedule too). Over time you can start to develop your 3D detail or information for different areas over time depending upon your design stages and outputs. For example, while we will end up modeling the casework in a store room eventually (in order to document it), we probably won’t look at it in anything other than plan until quite late in the project (or you might never even need to). By contrast, the 3D development of key spaces such as reception will begin much earlier and may include more specific furniture, joinery and finishes even from the very first presentations. Workstation areas would be likely to be in between. We model almost everything in 3D, so we can create massing type images and flythroughs, it is then the level of detail that differs across the objects in different areas. This also helps to contribute to a more sketchy feel earlier in the design process (as do the new 2015 sketchy lines).

I would also say, don’t rule out using supplier content but don’t rely on it exclusively. For anything you are going to use over and over again, you can start from a supplier family but make sure you do some sort of QA to determine if its suitable for your ways of using it – for me key things are that it is the right way around (all Hermans Millers chairs are backwards) and that is has a 3d plan component to it so it will represent as white in views with colour schedules applied. Beyond that I may also go further with replacing parameters and materials if my uses for it require this. (eg for scheduling) Its great to see the range of furniture and fixtures available as Revit families are growing – examples currently available include Haworth, Steelcase, Caroma and Britex (you can find a good starting list here at IGS website).

The other key part of your generic content is materials. It much more efficient to have a library and templates that already contain basic finishes such as white powedercoat, black laminate or stainless steel complete with information and keynotes that then doesn’t need to be recreated in every project. Again supplier sources such as Dulux free Colour Atlas for Revit app or RTV’s Revit Paint (which includes Dulux, Resene and more) can also help build up your material options quickly.

Next post I will talk more about Revit materials and finishes as well as how to use Revit to power your interior design process, but also about some of the limitations of Revit for interiors (Autodesk hope you will be reading!). In the meantime, are you using Revit for interior design? What are your tips? Or is your firm starting to think about it? What makes you hesitate? Are you just starting out with Revit for interiors? What’s driving you batty? (because Revit does do that too, even to me some days!)

Ceilidh Higgins

Image Credits:  DJRD current project image, rendering straight from Revit.

Reproduction, Replica or Rip Off?

’56 Speedster replica by Some Guy Photo, on Flickr

Replica, reproduction or rip off? It’s likely what you call a fake piece of designer furniture depends on if you would have one in your house or not. Over the last few years designer fakes have been seen as big issue in the Australian interior design industry. For example Authentic Design Alli ance was set up a couple of years ago to petition government for change and educate both the design industry and consumers.

The topic of fakes or copies came up last week I attended the launch of Penny Craswell’s The Design Writer blog at Stylecraft. The panel consisted of 3 Australian furniture designers – Keith Melbourne, Helen Kontouris and Greg Natale.  The issue of copying was raised by Penny as part of the panel discussion and certainly dominated the audience comments at the end of the night. Whilst none of the designers present had yet had the (dubious) honour of having their pieces copied, all are aware of how prevalent cheap (and even not so cheap) reproductions are – and that they seem to be are comprising a growing segment of the furniture market in Australia.

Speaking afterwards with Helen and Greg, they were discussing how designers today may deliberately design details that are hard to manufacture and therefore hard to copy in order to reduce the chances of being copied. Whilst I am not disagreeing with this tactic, I would guess it creates additional costs both in time to market or in manufacture and whilst it certainly does not detract from, it does not necessarily benefit the design.

So what’s the attraction of fakes? And why are they so prevalent in Australia these days? Cost is the obvious answer but not the full picture. Availability and ease of purchase is certainly part of the issue. Reproduction pieces have been ever more widely available in Australia in recent years, particularly when compared to European countries. The internet is certainly part of the rise of fakes, it is much easier than ever before for either designers or individual shoppers to quickly source furniture by keywords and images. No longer do you need to know which suppliers or stores to go to, you can find what you want on the internet within minutes – often just by using Google images. Frequently we all specify or select furniture based purely from the image. There just isn’t time to visit every showroom or collect samples of every item in many fitouts (I blogged just recently on lack of time) I wouldn’t be surprised if some junior designers specify reproductions by accident – perhaps not realising that an original exists or that the supplier they have selected is selling a reproduction. (Even during the course of writing this blog I have discovered a lamp shade in my house is in fact a designer knock off – now do I get rid of it?)

Designers are also being pressured more and more to meet project budgets. Clients and project managers push to bring the costs of projects down – and loose furniture is almost always the first part of the project to be attacked by ‘value management’. Is it really ‘value’ to replace a designer piece with a reproduction? Are we reducing the value of our own interior design by doing so? Do our clients understand that there is lasting resale value in the original but not in the fake? If they don’t, perhaps we need to educate them in this regard. I can buy 2 replica Eames plastic chairs for $136 but I probably won’t get $10 back for them. Sadly though-  today I can’t prove this point – all I could find for sale on Gumtree was replicas! I guess that suggests that people want to keep the real thing?

I would also suggest that the increase in the sales of fakes  – perhaps somewhat strangely – is because Australians are more exposed to design than ever before – but without necessarily having the understanding or appreciation of quality that exists in many European countries. Think about the standard of design in your local cafe or average workspace – I would say that over the last 20 years the level of design that goes into these spaces has markedly increased. In the media, I have frequently seen Australia referred to as being a hot spot for interior design or ‘punching above its weight’. The 2 Eames plastic chairs I mentioned above I saw advertised on prime time TV (to buy on the internet though!) so clearly the market for designer furniture is now pretty broad. In my area of Sydney every second house for sale has an Eames lounge and a few Eames plastic chairs that seem to come standard as part of the stylists package. Are Australians now coming to appreciate design in the spaces they inhabit, but devaluing design itself by filling the space full of cheaper reproduction furniture? If you can’t afford an Eames, shouldn’t you just accept that? As Helen Kontouris pointed out – if you can’t afford a BMW you don’t drive a fake BMW (although I did find this replica speedster image on flicker – where there were more replica cars than replica furniture images! Perhaps that just reflects the bias of flickr’s users to cars rather than furniture).

The point is here in Australia, the replica furniture is widely available so people don’t have to accept they can’t afford it. The same as a ‘Gucci’ bag in Thailand. If you can buy it, some people always will.

In 2011 Herman Miller took legal action against Matt Blatt for infringing its trademark by use of the word Eames chair to describe their replica products. It wasn’t actually even the copying that was at dispute here – but the use of the name Eames. Australian Design Review reported on the case.  The protection for design in Australia is fairly limited, and from what I understand this is one big difference between Australia and Europe. Its not that no Europeans would buy designer rip offs, they just don’t have the chance. The case between Herman Miller and Matt Blatt was settled with what seem to be fairly minor changes to the Matt Blatt marketing and they continue to sell replicas today- and the market for replicas has even probably grown in the intervening time.

The comments at the bottom of the Australian Design Review article raise an interesting point though, and one which was raised at The Design Writer event last week – its one thing for sales of fakes to be taking sales away from a giant like Herman Miller, but do you feel differently about the situation if cheap Aisan manufactured furniture pieces are taking away from sales and manufacturing of Australian furniture? With the flow on of limiting over time the market and opportunities for new Australian designer furniture to even be developed? Or is it as a couple of those commenting say, and that to debate the issue of replicas is only about protecting corporations making money from long dead designers?

Given the concerns of local designers – Keith Melbourne, Helen Kontouris and Greg Natale – the answer is no, they see fakes as having the potential to take food off their tables to quote Keith. Is it that current legislation in Australia is not supporting or protecting live designers too? A design registration only lasts 10 years, it doesn’t actually take long before replicas are legally permitted (assuming a piece could take 3-4 years to get from registration to market) – and that doesn’t even take into account the minor design changes that could allow a replica product to be sold (although not as a ‘replica’) sooner.

The question in my mind is – does it matter? Would the people buying fake Eames chairs actually buy pieces by Australian designers anyway? This is where it comes down to the recommendations and specifications of interior designers. People who are buying replicas on their own, for their own houses are likely not going to change their decisions unless the law changes. Even then would they be buying Australian Designers – well that probably depends on media coverage. However where we as interior designers have some influence over clients its a little different. If they can’t afford an Eames chair, maybe they can afford a new piece by an up and coming Australian designer – and that is the story you sell to them – that they are supporting Australian design (and highlighting therefore what good taste they have, not just copying everyone else etc etc).

As interior designers we want to be paid fairly for our projects, so we should respect that the designers for furniture want to get paid fairly too. Think about it – by supporting rip off furniture, we assist in undermining the value of all kinds of design – including our own – don’t we?

Ceilidh Higgins
Image Credits:
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License   by  Some Guy Photo 

Discontents of Simulation (or what you might call modelling)

”Cave” simulation by Los Alamos National Laboratory, on Flickr“…architects are learning that the fight for professional jurisdiction is increasingly jurisdiction over simulation”

I’ve recently finished a book called “Simulation and it’s Discontents” by Sherry Turkle, which I bought while I was working on my presentation Big data at the intersection of people analytics and building analytics.  Part of my presentation was about creating simulations of human activity based upon big data, and I’d assumed the book would be about these kinds of simulations.  It wasn’t quite what I expected though – if I talk about architecture and a simulation – would you think of CAD? Nor did I!

In fact the term “simulation” is here applied to what we in architecture, interior design or engineering would use the term, models – specifically computer models. Part way through the book, our use of this term in architecture is actually discussed – that we use this term in resisting change, feeling a need to define the computer outputs in a language with which we are familiar.

It was interesting to see the understanding and language of computer simulations discussed across a variety of fields including architecture, engineering, life sciences, physics and even nuclear science (the image in this post is a nuclear simulation). The writers examine the attitudes of academics, students and professionals to the use of computer simulations in their fields – back in the 1980s (hence CAD) and again in the mid 2000’s. It was intriguing to see how much things have changed – and even just since 2005 – but at the same time how much things stay the same. The argument between hand drawing and Revit models continues  in many offices to this day. Personally I think it will keep on going for some time, because now even our clients have started contributing to it! One design gets up because of a sexy fly though and renderings, another client is only convinced of the quality of the design when they see some pretty hand drawn perspectives (which had in actual fact been traced over a Revit model!).

Do we think only by drawing as is so commonly stated by architects and designers?  I still keep a roll of trace at my desk and use it at some point in every project, I do think while I draw. But I think while I model too. Often the model makes me think harder. Things cannot be faked and fudged in the model as easily – to do so the person modelling almost always has to make a conscious decision to fudge it, to take a shortcut. At least anyone who actually understands the building does. There are certainly those who have been taught to fudge it, make today’s drawing or image pay off, get it out the door. There are certainly times when you need to. But that’s not BIM and it’s not thinking either. To me it’s the same by hand – you can draw or trace without thinking about how something really works, if it works in 3d or from the back, how it’s built, if it complies with code. You can do the same with a model. But if you model properly, with the intent of creating something that can be built then you have to think at the same time.

Interestingly one of the biggest concerns of the “discontents of simulation” was the same for all the disciplines discussed. It was a concern that practitioners became disconnected from the reality and the physicality of their discipline – unable to judge what is possible in the real world as opposed to a simulation. In architecture there is no doubt that this problem occurs, with the number of technical detailers and specification writers (often of the grey haired variety) dropping in many offices and there not being a younger generation to replace them.

Now in the architecture profession, we could blame BIM and computer software for this problem – but is it? Does anyone really think so? We can blame a lot of things on BIM, but is it BIM or is it something else?  When I read articles blaming poor design on BIM, it often seems to me it’s a different problem. The problem is about many things – most of which are outside of BIM. First and foremost it’s a lack of a transfer of knowledge.  Whether that is the immediate transfer of knowledge between designer and modeller, or the lack of BIM knowledge of the designer or the lack of technical knowledge by the detailer.  Why isn’t this knowledge being passed down? Is it a lack of interest in either teaching or learning – I don’t think so. I think it’s a lack of time. A lack of time (and fees) for graduates to go out on site and learn about construction.  A lack of time for more senior staff to learn about BIM. A lack of time because there are so many different things we expect an architect or interior designer or engineer to do and know. Not just one BIM software but many packages for modelling, presenting  and maybe even project managing and scheduling too.  Its not just the amount of knowledge required either.  Its the pace – every year projects seem to be delivered faster and faster – it’s not even about fees anymore – sometimes there really just isn’t any time for someone to explain what or why something is done that way – it just has to go out to the builder now.

Is this affecting the quality and cost of design? Of course it does. It’s not just the time for teaching, it’s also the time for thinking. It has been proven that as architectural fees go down, construction fees go up. While BIM can help rescue RFIs and variations – it still remains true garbage in, garbage out. This is the biggest concern of the discontents of simulation – sometimes at the end of the day the simulation is so beautiful, we could be blind to the garbage that went into creating it.

Ceilidh Higgins

PS. For further inspiration Come Out to the (Midnight) Lunch – If you are in Sydney on Thursday 16 October, I am organising another 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. Note the event is not sponsered, buy your own drinks and food. RSVP ceilidh@themidnightlunch.com or just turn up on the night.

Image Credits:
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License   by  Los Alamos National Laboratory 

Where do you find your inspiration (or even motivation?)

*inspiration* by AlicePopkorn, on Flickr

I don’t know about you, but I find after I finish a big deadline, it can be hard to get motivated again. There is so much stress and adrenaline whilst you are in the midst of it, and then afterward your brain as well as your body just want to totally chill out.  If you are a regular subscriber to The Midnight Lunch, you might have noticed there has been a longer gap between posts than usual. You might have thought this related to my being buy at work, and in some ways this is right – but it was actually during July and August that we had a large number of deadlines. Whilst we were right in the midst of all the deadlines, it was important to me to keep up with my regular posting schedule of every two to three weeks – committing in my own mind to keeping my work / blog balance.  However, once the rush was over, clearly my overall work / life balance was out of whack and I really struggled to sit down to write.

One of the things I really noticed during this particularly busy period (did I mention 9,000m2 of quality fitout had to be designed and built in under 6 months! insane!),  is that even while I am working hard in the middle of all this stress – my brain isn’t necessarily performing at its best. I am not referring to the mistakes we all start to make when we are tired and stressed, but that I realised I wasn’t thinking about anything other than the particular issues and tasks that had to be done.  While this is necessary at the time to get the work done, too long a period of this, and it becomes a very stale and narrow minded way to think -not particularly productive for a designer, or indeed any form of creativity, problem solving or innovation.

A large part of the reason I got to thinking about this was because I was finding it hard to get out of my day to day project thoughts to write a blog post – but then I reaslised that its the same kind of thinking which I need when for a lot of design – and even detailing work.   Its hard to solve problems or get ideas in a vacuum, and essentially this is what can start to happen to us when we get to busy with the day to day of deadlines for too long. If we stop doing all the things that take us out of our day to day work routine and make us think more about our work and our industry, we can be working and producing, but not really mentally participating. Not going to industry events, not reading blogs or new books, not flicking through a magazine or browsing through some images for pinterest, not meeting sales reps to look at new products or not taking the time to have coffee or a drink with a colleague – for me anyway these are some of the things that feed both my ideas for this blog and for my work as an interior designer. Without all these inputs it easy for our brains to get stale.

We don’t just get inspired by work related things either.  For many of us our holidays and travel are what feeds our imaginations and keeps us working to pay for the next trip.  We all have other smaller day to day things in our lives too that keep us engaged and motivated, even if they don’t even seem to relate to architecture or design (or whatever it is that you do).

For me this is yoga and meditation. Some of my best ideas (noteably including the idea behind starting this blog!) come to me during my regular yoga practice.  I took up yoga about 3 years ago to help recover from injury and also de stress, and over time I found it to be much more than this.   But again, when work is busy, this is something that suffers. Even if I still get to the same number of classes, when I am stressed I find not only is my mind busy but my body is super stiff from so many hours sitting at the computer, so its harder to get beyond the physical and into a more inspired place in my head.

Its made me value the work I do on this blog even more, even though the last couple of weeks I have been neglecting it. Its good to be getting back into the swing of my more regular activities and not just focussing on the push for deadlines. This last 2 weeks I’ve spent some time on all my usual social media sites, browsing inspiration of office snapshots, attending a number of green building events and workshops and putting together a fresh conceptual scheme for my current project. I”m starting to feel inspired again. Just sitting down to think about writing now feels like a good kind of intellectual discipline. When I started writing this post today I was planning to write a post about delegating – its kinda morphed a little bit away from that topic, so perhaps I have a few more ideas stashed away in my head that I realised! Not that I will have so much time to post over the next 2 weeks, today I’m attending the Retrofit and Refurb Conference in Sydney and next week BIM Day Out in Perth, so I might see you there – refreshing and inspiring your brain.

Ceilidh Higgins

PS. For further inspiration Come Out to the (Midnight) Lunch – If you are in Sydney on Thursday 16 October, I am organising another opportunity for followers of this blog to meet and network. The first event in April was attended by a very mixed small group including architects, project managers, engineers and BIM enthusiasts who all meet new people and enjoyed the night. 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. Note the event is not sponsered, buy your own drinks and food. RSVP ceilidh@themidnightlunch.com or just turn up on the night.

Image credits:

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License   by  AlicePopkorn 

Architectural services – Apple or Amazon? Or both?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ceilidh Higgins

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

Three lessons I never learnt at architecture school

The Learning Process. by rubyblossom., on FlickrI pondered for a while what to title this article.  Because its not about architecture really – its about the lessons you learn when you work, as opposed to the ones you learnt studying. Working as an architect or interior designer (and from what I know – an engineer or  a project manager too) is very different from the way we learn to work at University.  The amount of time you spend on different tasks bears little resemblance to how you would likely have imagined an architecture office before you ever actually worked in one.  When I was studying, design units made up at least half the course credits and probably took up three quarters of our time with very limited classes on business or even construction – and that certainly isn’t the reality for most architects or designers either working in, or running an office (even if you choose to call it a studio).  Somehow a recent conversation with a friend and colleague got me talking about what I thought were the most important lessons I  had learnt in my career – and none of them are things I recollect really learning about at uni.

Communication is the most important thing you do

Not design or anything else.  It doesn’t matter how good a designer you are – if you can’t communicate your design then your career won’t go far.  But its not just communicating our designs through drawings, models or other visual mediums that is important in architecture.  We spend more of our time communicating than anything else.  You communicate with your client, with your team, with your subconsultants, with the contractors.  You communicate via phone and meetings, minutes,  email, drawings, reports, room data sheets, spreadsheets, models.  All of these are different modes of communication.  To be effective, all of these means of communication need to be understood by somebody else – and often somebody else with a different level of experience or education to you, who may speak a different first language or maybe just has less time, involvement or interest in the project.  All of these things are barriers to communication.

It’s important to remember that communication is not primarily about you providing information (then we would call it information not communication).  Communication is about providing information in a format and structure that the person receiving the information can digest and understand.  How many times have you been part of a series of emails which go back and forth because the 2 people involved are not able to clearly identify the relevant issues and provide clear and direct instructions as to what actions need to be undertaken.  For example, recently we had a tender set due on a Friday.  Early in the week, the project manager indicated we would receive the final client feedback on Friday.  What he failed to tell us in the initial email was that the program had changed for other reasons, and we would not be required to issue the documentation for another 2 weeks.  It took four more emails for this information to be extracted from him! (And with 5 people reading thats a serious waste of productivity).  Whilst there are certainly some people who would suggest simply picking up the phone – I would say whilst that is a solution, it doesn’t always deal with the whole problem.  In some cases it may solve the immediate communication issue, but can still lead to interpretative issues down the track when there is no record of that communication and it relates to a contractual issue.

How do we learn to communicate more clearly?  Practice is certainly important, but not the only thing.  Clear communication is not just about the words (or pictures), its also about the format.  Its about space, bold headings, grid lines in a spreadsheet, line weights in a drawing.  All of these formatting elements can help provide clarity in your communications.  Learn by seeing what others do.  If you find a website, a spreadsheet or a drawing is really clear and easy to read think about why and how you can emulate it.

I also find its helpful to think about the other persons perspective.  What are they trying to get out of the project, what is their agenda, their key issues.  Especially if I only have a short time to get their attention (either in person or in writing) – what matters to them?

Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions

As a  younger graduate, I was often quick to go to my boss, the project manager or the client as soon as a problem arose on a project.  I didn’t want to get in trouble for not keeping the right people informed.  One day there was some problem on one of the office fitout projects I was delivering internally for my company. I can’t even remember now what the problem was, but I think it was some sort of delay on the part of one of the furniture suppliers or subcontractors which would prevent us moving into the office on time.  It was certainly something of significance to the project, and completely outsisde of my control.  So straight away I rang the manager I reported to on the project. And I was given an earful.  I think he yelled at me for over an hour (unprofessional on his part) but what he did manage to communicate to me – was that I should have waited before calling him.  He was right.

It’s pretty rare that you can’t wait half an hour or even a day before passing on problems.  You should use this time to come up with solutions and recommendations.  In this instance, for example our options may have been something like – delay the move, hire temporary workstations or put more pressure onto the non performing subcontractor.  Or some combination of these options.  It would have been much better for me to go to my manager presenting all these possibilities, with research into the costs or pluses and minuses of each one and a recommendation of which action to take.  It shows you are proactive in dealing with problems and you can be relied upon to solve problems.

Hire your successor

This is one of my personal favourite pieces of advise I ever received.  It was very coincidental that someone said it to me just at the time I had interviewed a talented designer to back me up in my role as design team leader – but she had asked for a higher salary than I was on.  I had felt pretty threatened by that.  But hearing about the idea that you should always aim to hire people who are ambitious and want your job leaving you free to move yourself on to the next level in your career really resonated with me.  We all want to work with a great team, if someone is good enough to make you feel they could do your job, then it follows that they would be a great asset to your team as long as they don’t want your job right now.  I hired the designer (not on a salary higher than mine tho!) and didn’t regret it – although changes to our team structure  meant we only briefly worked together.  Now, I would have no hesitation in hiring someone who I thought wanted my role in the future – even if by future I mean a year or two.  I would also add that I believe that you should always aim to hire people you think will be incredible at what they do – and not just settle for average.  Whilst not everyone is a leader, you will find people who are incredible at documenting, or at producing graphics or at reviewing spreadsheets – and one thing I think these people all have in common is a passion to always improve the way  they work.

On that note – we are currently hiring interior designers and Revit architects/documenters at DJRD.  So if you are looking for a new opportunity in Sydney or know someone incredible who is, check out our ads on LinkedIn and get in touch.

You can learn lessons from someone you don’t like

I know I said 3 lessons – but I think its probably important to say that 2 of the lessons above I learnt from the same project manager – and I didn’t always like the way he behaved or treated me.  But that said, I still learnt.  If someone is intelligent and has things to teach, don’t let the fact that you don’t personally like them get in the way of learning.  Just don’t make them your mentor!

Ceilidh Higgins

Image Credits:

 

Big data at the intersection of building analytics and people analytics

buildings with peopleImagine if you could simulate your building or workplace environment before you built it – not just simulating energy usage or daylighting – but creating a simulation of how the people would behave and work inside your space. And not just a generic sample population, but your actual workforce in a simulation that knows and understands their actual behaviours. Before investing in bricks and mortar (or tables and chairs) – you could test numerous design scenarios and their impact upon not only how the building itself operates, but also how the occupants respond, their use of space, their interactions with one another and more. How would this change the way we design, the way we build and possibly the way we all work?

Many people would think this sounds pretty far fetched, futuristic and certainly a little bit big brother. The reality is that we actually have both the information and the technology available to do this – right now in 2014. Today I’m going to talk about why we would want to look at simulating human behaviour in the built environment and what this could mean for design, as well as discuss the types of data analysis and technologies from different fields that I believe could be brought together to make this kind of simulation of the built environment possible.

My background is in workplace and educational design. A large workplace is probably one of the most complex environments in which to try to predict and understand human behaviour. Unlike a restaurant, a shopping centre or a train station, it is designed to have a large number of diverse activities taking place. Whilst at the same time – and I know this sounds a little strange – there is actually less of a clearly defined purpose in being in a workplace than in many other kinds of enivonrment. Different individuals have different purposes in being there, because they enjoy their work, to socialise or to earn money are just a few. An opposite example of a much more simplified purpose of space would be in a cinema – where almost everyone is in the space for one purpose, which is to see a movie (although they may have different motivations for seeing the movie). In the workplace, because there are so many different activities and behaviours, finding patterns to predict how people work – and even understanding what improves their work is more complex.

The holy grail of workplace design is to be able to prove that certain design elements increase productivity. Most researchers agree that it has historically been almost impossible to measure productivity in knowledge or service oriented workplaces, which today make up the bulk of first world workplaces. We can however measure a lot of approximations of productivity – or things that we expect to have a close correlation with productivity – things such as staff retention, absenteeism or self reported satisfaction and comfort levels. This kind of data is readily available.

Another key issue in workplace design centres around the actual useage of space. Real estate is a significant business cost (though much less significant than the people cost) During the design phase of any project there is great debate over wdifferent kinds of spaces and how and if they will get used. Do we allocate individual offices to sit empty, will staff actually use that large breakout space, will that training room sit empty for half the year? From the workplace designer through to the facilities manager and the CEO, the ability to simulate occupant behaviour in the workplace has a huge potential to impact upon what and how we design our workplaces. To me this could be the next significant game changer in workplace design and productivity.

It’s being made possible by big data. In the past, we have not had access to enough information about either building systems or occupant behaviours to be able to simulate these kinds of complex environments. There is software that can simulate human behaviour – and it has been around for more than 20 years. Commonly used software that simulates vehicular and pedestrian behaviour or fire engineering modelling is all simulation software which is based upon predicting human behaviour. However, the difference between these previous software models, and predicting behaviour of occupants of a workplace or other complex building type is the complexity of the human interactions. Human behaviour in a fire situation or within a train station environment is much simpler than in a workplace. There are less possibilities because of the limited scenario, and also we are essentially only tracking one variable – movement. Workplace design has made very limited to use of this kind of simulation, for example Google campus at Mountainview has been designed to ensure that all staff are within 2 and a half minutes walk of each other. Movement within the workplace, or other building types, is a pretty simple and limiting factor to use to test and simulate our designs. Big data, and in particular, combining information from the fields known as Building Analytics and People Analytics, could give us the opportunity to feed a huge range of different kinds of building and human behaviour data into a simulated building model.

Building Analytics is currently seen as the next big thing in building and asset management as well as an important factor for environmentally sustainable buildings. Probably most people in this room have at least some familiarity with this field. In the past, data gathered from buidling tuning or the BMS was more limited and unlikely to be in real time. However this has been changing. Building managers can now have real time access to a range of data – from factors such as which lights or appliances are in use, to the temperature, CO2 and VOC levels, heat or movement maps of actual occupation coming through motion or heat sensors, lifts that track occupant destinations or individuals movement through security systems via access cards or CCTV. Many of these systems are already commonly available in any new large commercial development. Facilities managers and building owners are using them to understand and predict occupant behaviours in relation to building systems. Historical data from the same systems can then be combined with real time data to predict or simulate things like building energy usage in a given period or what the impact of certain weather conditions might be on occupant comfort.

This type of building analytics does take into occupant behaviours, but only at a very simple level, things like is the space occupied or not occupied – because this is key information for the running of building services such as lighting and air conditioning. Whilst this data is firstly being used to control the systems and secondly to predict building performance it also provides us with real time reliable data on occupied versus unoccupied space. The ability to use web based booking systems for rooms or desks was the first step that created some kind of data around anticipated space usage, but it wasn’t real usage data, only a prediction of usage. Today BMS data can be combined with this kind of booking system, and it is possible to not only track advance bookings but real time actual usage – if someone doesn’t turn up to use the booked space it can be reallocated to somebody else. Whilst this kind of information can help manage a building it doesn’t predict behaviours or improve occupant performance.

This is where People Analytics can start to work with building analytics to create a fuller picture of how space is actually being used, and what this means for the occupants.

So what is people analytics? People analytics looks at data generated by people and companies rather than data generated by building systems. It is a growing field of social science with implications in particular for human resources and recruitment – and in my view for designers. People anayltics starts to look at and analyse any available kind of data in order to find patterns and understand human behaviours – its anthropology using computer generated information. Today, data generated by people can include anything from emails, to social media usage, to bluetooth and movement tracking, voice recordings, computer data logs, organisational plans, charts and documents or google searches. If you think about your electronic footprint, even without anyone planning on tracking what you do, there is a lot out there. The more we use the web or cloud based services, the more data exists about our habits, our performance or our personalities. In the past the quantities of data have been so much smaller, that there was not sufficient amounts of data to generate patterns or the computing power to crunch it. Today there is.

By analysing huge amounts of historical data it is possible to identify patterns or characteristics of certain groups of people, or how to predict or promote certain behaviours. Once the historic data set has been created, it is then possible to analyse data of new people to identify who fits the patterns. We still don’t always know what the data can mean on its own though. One of my personal favourite odd ball data correlations is that super guru computer programmers apparently have a tendency to like a certain Japanese manga website! You can see the applications to recruitment and HR immediately.

Another fun example of the use of large samples of aggregate data is the Twitter happiness index. This website analyses the use of certain words on Twitter every day since 2008. Words are assigned values from 1 to 9 to signify sad to happy. The overall happiness score for each day is then calculated and graphed. There are also Twitter election indexes, oscar indexes and many more aimed at trying to predict outcomes based upon twitter traffic. Elections polling has been a high profile example demonstrating people analytics to the public. In the 2012 US presidential election, big data was used by a number of forecasters to accurately predict the results in all 51 states. These are all examples of different uses of people analytics.

But how does all of this relate to buildings, and workplaces in particular?

Lets start with a really simply example of using other kinds of data in combination with building systems data which was undertaken by Immersive, a big data company based in Melbourne, Australia. By taking the historic heat sensor data from a workplace BMS and analysing it against the organisation’s project planning data for the same time period, it was possible to determine what the actual space usage and occupancy loads had been over the period compared to the predicted project staffing levels. Using the same forward project planning data, it was then possible to predict the organisations actual future space needs. Whilst this takes into account some level of occupant behaviour – space occupancy – again its a single variable, where we are still looking at physical space more than actual occupant behaviours.

But what if we could take multiple kinds of data – data that is more specifically tracking behaviours in the specific context of the workplace? And not just data about electronic interactions – what if we can gather the same types and quantities of data about our face to face interactions as our electronic interactions? In analyising workplace productivity, this tracking of real time physical interactions is important – because in most companies, much of the informal collaboration still happens face to face. The theory is that in organisations where knowledge work is undertaken, social networks define how information is transferred informally across the organisation, and that this informal sharing is creating a transfer of knowledge. This new knowledge then has a significant influence on how the work gets done and therefore on productivity – kind of like how you learn just as much by going for drinks at RTC as you do in the presentations – people are sharing what they already know.

If organisations can find ways to firstly understand these social collaborative networks and then secondly promote them, social scientists believe that the organisations productivity can be enhanced. The office space itself then becomes one means of modifying social behaviours in order to promote certain kinds of interactions. But how to collect information on face to face interactions – we are not all going to suddenly start skyping the person sitting next to us.

Enter the sociometric badge. Developed by a team at MIT, this device contains a number of sensors. An IR transreciver allows the devices to sense one another, bluetooth records their physical location in space, an accelerometer can figure out if you are sitting or standing and a microphone detects audio. Right now this device is approximately the size of your building access card although slightly thicker and can be worn around your neck. In the future your smart phone will probably be able to track all of this anyway – its actually already got almost all of the same sensors. The sociometric badges have been used to track and record the behaviour of building occupants in a number of studies investigating the way we work. The outcomes have been published in a great book called “People Analytics: How Social Sensing Technology Will Transform Business and What It Tells Us about the Future of Work” by Ben Waber.

One of the interesting things is that the microphone doesn’t even record what you actually say. It records things like tone, change in volume and speaking speed – which are considered social signals, and which are in fact more important in our face to face interactions than the words we actually speak. Early tests in laboratory environments included speed dating and salary negotiation simulations. Computers were able to predict outcomes with over 85% accuracy based upon 5 minutes or less of these recorded social signals.

These devices have since been utilised in a variety of actual real workplace studies. So far sociometric badging has found that call centre productivity is enhanced when team members take breaks together and that the amount of time spent interacting and the amount of physical movement are god predictors of creative days.

These studies, and most in the book, are based around understanding and modifying behaviours rather than modifying environments, but as any architect or designer knows, if you modify the environment, you have the opportunity to modify the behaviours. One of the studies of most interest to us, looking at how changing physical space impacts on occupant behaviours, was a study which investigated the size of lunch tables in a workplaces cafe spaces. Using data from the sociometric badges within an online travel company, it was found that staff that sat at larger lunch tables were more productive. Within the existing office environment there were 2 different spaces staff could choose to eat lunch – one had small tables for 4 people, and the other larger tables seating up to 12 (or they could chose to eat by themselves at their desk). The data quickly showed that the people who ate lunch together would then tend to communicate further that day. The staff that sat at the larger tables were more likely to speak with others outside of the group they had arranged to lunch with, and formed larger conversational groups at the lunch tables. These wider lunch time conversations led to links and collaborations in the organisation that were not otherwise being formed. These links were part of the knowledge sharing that led to greater productivity.

In another MIT project, the cubicles themselves were equipped with sensors so both the office environment and the people within it were being analysed. The cubicles were fitted with blinds instead of typical workstation cubicle screens, in order to provide privacy or allow collaboration. Based upon the collaborations that the data had identified as being most beneficial, the automated blinds would open or close overnight. In this way the building itself can even automatically respond to data analysis.

Often, the data coming out of these studies is not surprising the social scientists or the building designers. What is is doing though, is proving things we know instinctively, the things we have seen work before.

When you think about this information about your day, what you do, where you go and who you talk to is then combined with your electronic footprint, the information about your colleagues and then possibly also the building data – its a pretty full story of what happens inside a given workplace or building in a day. The possibilities for analysis and experimentation will be endless. Why is this so important to design and construction though? So far this is all about modifying existing environments. Being able to test and prove what works is the next step.

In an example that initially does not seem to be related to physical space, but to health, the sociometric badge data is combined with data about how disease spreads. The impact of sickness on the work environment, the interactions and the productivity can then be simulated across a range of scenarios with different people being the disease originator and different simulated responses such as stay home versus solider on being tested. One suggested solution to minimise spread of disease was to change the regular seating layout, which has the effect of reducing the level of interactions between people who already knew each other.

Moving into the not so distant future – there is no reason why the possibilities of physical environments could not be tested inside a BIM, with the algorithms behind the behaviours of the sims being developed from these kinds of behavioral data sets. We have the technology available to us already.

While this isn’t about BIM as we know it today, the link between the the building model and the simulations is obvious. But will architectural practices embrace these technologies or will this lead to another new kind of consultant in our team?

Imagine the value of the design and simulation team who can prove to the client organisation that workplace productivity could be enhanced simply by working with them? Translate that to all kinds of building typologies – and the whole definition if what architecture is or could be may change. Perhaps big data is going to have an even more significant impact on change in our industry than BIM, in ways we haven’t even imagined yet.

Ceilidh Higgins

This blog is the text from my presentation at RTC North America last month, as part of the session BIMx: Big ideas around big data.  I had a great time over there and attended some excellent classes.  If you are in Europe, RTC will be in Dublin later in the year.

Image Credits: Via Flickr Creative Commons
Big Buildings https://www.flickr.com/photos/neilarmstrong2/5480543083/
The New York Times on the New Art of Flikr https://www.flickr.com/photos/thomashawk/2442371176/

Get your groupon! A guide to Revit groups

nesting by sizima, on FlickrGroups are possibly one of the least understood and most misused (and abused) functions of Revit. So, last year in the midst of struggling with a large multi-residential project containing hundreds of groups, I decided to submit an abstract to the Australasian Revit Technology Conference focusing on groups. I will also admit that I also thought about the fact that groups had not been a topic I had seen covered at a previous RTC – and therefore I figured had a high chance of being accepted as a session topic.

At the time I submitted the abstract, I was also wondering if in fact groups were the best solution for my purposes, and part of my research preparing for the conference was to test alternatives. Before I started the research, I wondered if my presentation might end up being about something other than groups –  something along the lines of, these are all the things I found wrong with groups, so use assemblies!

As you will see from the slidedeck this was not the case. Whilst groups are error prone and seem to have a lot of bugs (Autodesk are you reading?), they are still the best available solution within revit for collecting together repetitive sets of objects.

The presentation is essentially structured to be your guide to many aspects of using and troubleshooting groups. I see it as a great training resource for all levels of revit users from fairly new to experienced. The slidedeck explores many different ways of using groups, exploring the full functionality of exporting, importing and detailed annotation groups (which is incredibly powerful), how to vary and schedule groups and how to deal with errors. I spent over 6 months gathering screen clips and trying to solve various group errors, and along the way found many to share.

However, even I found something new to learn about groups at the RTC. Aaron Maller, who in my opinion is the guru if groups (I learnt much of what I know reading Aaron’s blog and forum posts) – was also presenting a session on groups. Whilst we covered some of the same topics, there was a lot of different tips from his presentation. In particular, I don’t use face based families, and it seems there are a lot of issues with face based families and groups.  If you want to know more about errors mirroring, flipping and rotating groups check out Aaron’s presentation (if you went to RTC it’s on the app). Apparently you can’t rotate a group with face based objects 90 degrees, 87 then 3 is fine though!!!

Another great RTC is over (it was the sixth time I have attended), but I’m not quite done with RTC for the year yet – today I fly to the USA where I will be presenting at RTCNA in Chicago (19-21 June). I am part of the “BIMinions” lineup and we are presenting a session entitled BIMx: Big ideas around big data. My own presentation is called Big data at the intersection of building analytics and people analytics. Hope to see you there – 2.30 on Saturday afternoon. You can also keep up to date with all my RTC tweets @BIMinions.

See you again in early July when I will share my Chicago talk – which is a very interesting mix of  workplace design issues intersecting with BIM – I have had a lot of fun researching it, and look forward to sharing it with you soon.

Ceilidh Higgins

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