Tag Archives: architecture

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 

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/

Is it value for money if your architect is free?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The following illustrates this.

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

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

Tendering  and Contract administration approx  4%- 5%

Project Management                                                     2% -3%

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sincerely

Stephen Malone

DIRECTOR

MCA  architects

 

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

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

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

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

Ceilidh Higgins

Image Credits:

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

The Midnight Lunch: My favourite apps for busy consultants

toddler apps by jenny downing, on Flickr

A few people have commented to me recently on the number of apps on my iphone and ipad or have told me they are unsure how to use their ipad for business and which apps to use. So I have put together my recommendations – and most of them are around organsing yourself, communication and business rather than specifically interior design or architecture – and so are equally useful for engineers, real estate or project management professionals.   While I’m talking specifically ipad as thats the platform I use, most of these apps are available android as well.  Where I’ve mentioned them, prices are the USD prices on the itunes store.  You will notice I’veexcluded all the social media apps from this post.  While social media and apps go very much together, I am writing my next post as a follow up to go into more more detail about social media for designers and architects.

Evernote
Evernote is one of my favourite apps for so many things. Evernote is designed as a digital notebook library. You keep notes in notebooks. Notebooks can be sorted out into groups to easily separate them. Notes can be words, images taken with your device camera, snippets captured from the web or even recordings. The notes can be tagged and can be searched for words they contain (think like having google for your notebook). You can share notebooks and you can have a business account too. You can have Evernote on all your devices and on your desktop PC, and you can access it via the web. Supposedly (and I would agree  having experienced this), Evernote gets more useful the more you have stored there – because you really then benefit from its power to find things. I use Evernote with a premium subscription (for more space) for work, blogging and research and personally too (its great for your tax return). A great example of how I use it for work is an event like InDesign, a big trade show. During the day I take photos and make notes for each suppliers showroom or stand I visit. I tag the notes with “lounge”, “planting”, “lighting” and things like that. Later in the office when I am looking for planting ideas, I can filter the notes by tag and find all the notes I have made (in the past 2 years!) related to planting ideas. It’s amazing. If you want to know more, there are some great books out there plus lots of blogs, websites etc with tips. If you are really interested in how I am using it, let me know – I could easily write a whole post on it.

Evernote Hello
So I’m not quite finished with Evernote yet. There are a large number of apps that work alongside Evernote for added functionality and one I use is Evernote Hello. Hello allows you to scan and store your business cards as records in your Evernote account. You can make notes on where you met people and add links to their social media at the same time as you add them into the app. You can search within the Hello app or later in Evernote. Because you can make notes and in Evernote you can add reminders, you can also use it as a basic client relationship management software.

Remember the Milk
One feature I don’t use much in Evernote is the reminders. This is because for many years (even before iphone) I have used Remember the Milk. Like Evernote its available on multiple platforms (However only with the ability to sync between them all if you pay for a premium subscription), you can also share lists (I haven’t personally tried this feature). RTM allows you to create multiple lists (for example I have one for work and one for personal, plus a few more specific ones), set prioritys and deadline times, send reminders (you phone moos!) and set location. It can now also be linked to Evernote (I just set this up yesterday) as well as google, outlook and a whole host of other platforms.

Numbers
I spent ages looking for an excel app and tried at least half a dozen. My advice – give up and go tablet native with Numbers, Apples own spreadsheet app. It costs $10.49 but its worth it. Its so easy to navigate, creating and formating spreadsheets is so much easier with this app than with the apps that try to mimic your PC. And compatibility with Excel seems to be pretty good, I’ve been using some pretty complex spreadsheets back and forth and they seem to be OK (Formatting, formulas and multiple sheets included).

Dragon Dictation
This is an awesome app. Turn your iphone into a dictaphone, as as you record it types. Its not 100% accurate, but its not bad. I use it sometimes for blogging and also on site for recording defects.

Goodreader
This is my go to for a PDF reader, there are free ones, but at $5.49 I have been happy to pay for the extra functionality and useability of Goodreader – I’ve been using it for over 2 years now. It opens up your PDFs, allows you to sort them into folders and annotate them. One thing I like is that your PDFs in Goodreader are stored on your device, not on the cloud, so you don’t need wifi to open them up. I use this for everything from drawings, to meeting minutes, to programs. The day I realised my ipad was super useful for work beyond just the internet, was when I sat in an airport lounge marking up drawings that had just been emailed to me. I use a stylus pen for marking up in goodreader.

OneDrive and Dropbox
I have both – too much cloud strorage is never enough. Both OneDrive and Dropbox allow you to store your files in the cloud instead of on your hard drive. You can download the apps to access your files from your mobile devices and you can install on your PC to save files directly to the cloud. Both give you a certain amount of free storage with bonus storage available by installing apps, recommending to friends or purchasing a premium subscription.

Flipboard and Feedly
Flipboard and Feedly are both RSS readers with beautiful magazine style formatting. This means you can add all the blogs you follow as well as online magazines and social media.  The app has built in recommendations you can pick from too (for example under Architecture Arch Daily).  The app then builds you a magazine with a mix of articles from your selected sites. Flipboard gives you a separate magazines for each feed (site) which I don’t like (it used to be able to integrate with Googlereader to give you one magazine only). I just went back to Feedly again which seems to have developed a bit more since I originally joined last year and I’m going to see how that goes.

Project Management Systems – Acconex, Conject etc
They seem to be something we all have to live with these days. For me personally being on the interior design side, I find PM systems seem to be a lot of work with very little project benefit, but hopefully the PMs get some benefits out if them. Anyway most of the systems have an app,so that at a minimum you can read and send messages on the go. The Aconex app for ipad seems to have pretty full functionality, I am able to upload documents while I am out an about.

Turboscan
This is a great little scanning app – it works better than a photo because it takes 3 photos and adjusts out the fuzziness and converts it to a PDF.  I find it worth the $2.99 I paid.

Slideshark
This app allows you to run your PowerPoints from your ipad. You can choose if you want to view your slides full screen or with speaker notes and you can set it up also on your phone and use your phone to control the slides remotely. Whilst there were no compatibility issues with displaying PowerPoint, you can’t edit PowerPoints on this app. Maybe I will have to switch to keynote…

Bluebeam Vu
I haven’t personally used this app but one of the guys in the office has assured me it’s awesome for defects. You can take photos, annotate them and link the to locations on a PDF of the floor plan. Bluebeam Vu is free and then you can upgrade to Bluebeam Revue (not sure what the features for that are)  It’s the next app I’ll be testing.

Kindle
I have had a kindle for ages, however when I first bought it there were a lot of architecture and design books I would still buy in hard copy – black and white for images was not really worthwhile. However, now I get these books delivered to my ipad and read them using the kindle app. It syncs with your kindle and your amazon account and the images look great on ipad.

Teamviewer
This app allows you to remotely view your PC screen. Create an account, Install it on your PC and on your ipad and you can view your PC screen on your ipad. Pretty cool…but clunky to use. Good really for quick changes to word documents or emailing or moving files to the cloud. Free for personal use.

Facetime and Skype
Especially if you need to contact people overseas, both Facetime and Skype are great simple to use apps for making video calls over the web. Yes, sometimes they drop out – but hey it’s free.

Unroll me
This is not an app but it’s a super useful service I discovered recently. You sign up and it scans your email account for subscription services. Then you choose which ones to “roll up” into a daily digest, and at the same time, easily unsubscribe from any you don’t want anymore. It then sends you one email per day at a time of your choosing for all your ‘rolled up’ emails.  I have all my linkedin subscription emails arrive just before breakfast instead of getting 20 or more scattered throughout the day.

So there you have it – my favourite apps. I’m always on the look out for new ones, what are your favourite apps to use to keep you working whilst out and about or make your work life easier?

P.S. Come Out to (Midnight) Lunch. Meet fellow The Midnight Lunch readers at an informal industry event to be held next Friday 11 April from 5.30pm at Chicane bar in Sydney (10-20 Bond St). Email me at ceilidh@themidnightlunch.com if you are interested in attending or just turn up on the day.  Note the event is not sponsered, buy your own drinks and food. 

 

Image Credits:

Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by  jenny downing 

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 

The social life of workspaces

IMG_4930 Recently I read this post on Office Insight and it reminded me to watch again one of my favourite architectural documentaries – The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. So I thought I’d also share it with you. You don’t have to be an architect to enjoy the film at all – anyone interested in human behaviour and cities as well as architecture, urban design, landscape architecture or interior design would find it interesting. In actual fact, I first came across it on recommendation of a friend who is a banker.

There are a couple of reasons why I love this film. The first is that it is really entertaining. William H Whyte has a deadpan sense of humor, with some memorable quotes describing the characters and of happenings in these urban spaces (personally I love the bit about the groups of men classed as “girl watchers”) and also the way he sometimes uses humor to state the obvious – like one of the “surprising” findings of the study – that people sit where there are places to sit.

The second reason why I love this film is that its all about people, and why people use certain spaces more than others. For me, its always been this interaction between people and space that has been the most interesting part of architecture, and one of the reasons why I gravitated towards interior design, as one area of architecture that is particularly people focussed and human in scale.

One of the things about this film is that it proves that essentially people don’t change that much, and, that what they want in an urban setting is very similar to what they want in an office space. The film dates from 1979, well before current popular terms in workplace design, such as sustainability and activity based working had been coined (or the concepts much discussed) – but interestingly enough, many of the key tenants of Whyte’s findings for small urban spaces are now routinely applied to office design. Choice of seating spaces, access to daylight, plants, food, art or entertainment and connections with circulation routes have become hallmarks of the best work environments 30 or so years later.

The first time I watched the film I remember thinking of some of these similarities. This time, one of the aspects that really struck me was that of choice. By providing different kinds of spaces, different levels of sun/shade, different heights/types of seating or different levels of noise – more people are likely to use the park or plaza. Of course with the park or plaza – people are making the choice in the first place to be there, whereas historically, for the office this was not always a choice. This is changing. The office becomes more and more one place amongst many which we might choose to work. In the same way the pocket park or plaza becomes a place where we might also choose to work. In this way, offices now compete with urban spaces, coffee shops and our homes as a place we might choose to be. While this shift is occurring, it is still the case for many people that the office is still the place they are expected to be most of the time they are working. By giving people choice of a variety of environments, we are likely to be improving their working day. Choice of where and how to work not only gives people a feeling of empowerment leading to positive emotional outcomes, but its also better for us physically as we move around and adopt different postures as opposed to sitting statically all day in one place.

One of the aspects Whyte mentions that hasn’t become a common feature of workplace design is water. Now there are a lot of reasons for this – its obviously complex, messy and expensive to introduce water inside your office building. However maybe we do need to look at one of the benefits that water brings – white noise. A common complaint in many an open plan office is the noise levels and the disruption that overhearing others can cause. Perhaps a waterfall might help reduce that feeling of overhearing your workstation neighbour? Being serious though, white noise is something that is quite underutilised in workplace design.

There is one of the big differences between urban space and work space – in the work place we do need to get work done. Perhaps one key is to recognize that Whyte is looking at the social life of urban space – and while the workplace needs spaces for a social life, it also needs spaces for isolation too. (I looked up what word I might use here to define the opposite of social, and I was actually surprised that most words were really negative!) Whyte noted that the main activity going on in these small urban spaces is “people watching other people”. Obviously if this was to be the main activity in the workplace we’d have a pretty dysfunctional workplace. Generally in the workplace most people don’t want to feel like their being watched (particularly if its by the boss!). There is obviously a need for more quiet secluded corners in a work place than in an urban space, a fact that is often compromised in the design of many kinds of open plan offices – activity based working or assigned seating. Although I think that the main desirable features – and in particular, the element of choice and variety is again what is important in creating these more concentrated (I don’t like to say anti-social) spaces.

Anyway, I encourage you to set aside an hour (or even just part of an hour to get an idea), sit back and enjoy the film and let me know what you think about urban spaces and workplaces.

Image Credits: This is actually one of my own, taken last year in NYC.  It is late in the day, so its not so surprising that the space is empty. I also went to a few of the main spaces featured in the documentary Paley Park and the Seagram, but didn’t have any good shots.  The same refreshment booth is still there in Paley Park, but I don’t recommend the coffee!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image Credits: Mennonite Church USA Archives via Flickr

Are you sitting in a half empty office? What would you do with all that vacant space?

vacant 2 by devlon duthie, on Flickr

Two weeks ago I attended the Retrofit and Refurb conference in Sydney at Australian Technology Park. This is the first time I’ve attended this conference, and it’s a very diverse conference in terms of both the speakers and the attendees. The speakers were a mix of architects, engineers, sustainability consultants and suppliers, with the topics as diverse as the speakers and including energy upgrades, environmental upgrade agreements, GreenStar, workplace design issues, hotel refits and project case studies. I would say the target audience was building owners, however there really was something for anyone involved in refurbishing existing buildings – maybe not 2 full days though. The other feature of the conference program was that the sessions were not grouped in any logical fashion but different topics were spread across the two full days. So, for example you couldn’t choose to attend just a half day session to hear the topics about workplace design and GreenStar interiors. I assume this was deliberate in order to encourage attendees to spend the full two days at conference mingling and networking and visiting the supplier expo booths. For me it did mean a couple of sessions on my iPad catching up on emails and replying to comments on my blog – I’m not quite so interested in the detailed operations of air conditioning system upgrades! However, I certainly did find many of the presentations interesting though and have gathered new ideas for this blog as well as meeting some new people and catching up with others.

It was the first presentation of the conference which has inspired me this week. Simon Wild from Cundall’s presentation on multisite integration was one of the most interesting presentations of the conference covering a very diverse range of issues around building refurbishments and sustainability, with a focus on how integrating systems across multiple sites can offer environmental benefits (he has a great blog too). The case study presented was the Sydney Central Westfield, where by combining services systems across retail and office towers greater efficiency was achieved due to different functional uses and different peak loadings. Simon then spoke about how his could be taken further if larger numbers of buildings could share services, which is now becoming possible even remotely for electricity, due to remote transmission infrastucture where electricity is shared over data networks rather than physical transmission (I have heard a bit about this lately…but don’t ask me to explain any more than this about how it works!).

This discussion about multiple uses better utilising services got me thinking during the presentation about utilisation of office space – and how underutilized it is especially at night and on weekends…And then later in the presentation, Simon raised this very issue.

First some facts from Simon’s presentation:
A 1000 person activity based working (ABW) fitout with only 800 desks is equivalent to 15 years of the office operating carbon neutral.
Approx 50% of space in the CBD is vacant at any one time (and I think this is during work hours!)
City wide ABW in Sydney would save as much energy as making all the buildings in Sydney 6 star Nabers rated.

This week, this vacancy rate certainly made sense in my office, with a large number of staff away due partially to the exodus that seems to occur in most offices every school holidays or the week of long weekends. ABW starts to reduce this underutilized space belonging to a single organisation, but creates more empty space as organisations downsize their tenancies. We therefore have 2 kinds of space to consider – the space left vacant by tenants downsizing their tenancies and the temporarily vacant space by people in not being in the workplace.

So, how do we manage all this vacant space, what do we do with it? One suggestion at the conference was to convert commercial buildings into residential. But I’d like to contemplate how this could impact upon the way a traditional office or commercial building is designed and programmed, and how perhaps it could accommodate tenants working in an ABW a model, but other tenants as well, because ABW won’t be the answer for every workplace. Also how could such a building could accommodate other aspects of the changing workplace, such as the ageing population, more flexible working arrangements, options for working parents, and a closer integration of work and life. The commercial office tower as we know it really dates from the early to mid 20th century when western life was base around a separation of work and life with male workers with a stay at home mum and a couple of kids out in suburbia. The fact that these buildings stand at 50% empty consuming resources isn’t so surprising given how different our lives are today.

Mixed use commercial buildings are pretty common these days – the building that doesn’t have a coffee shop in the lobby is a rarity (certainly in Australia anyway), and it’s becoming quite common to have a couple of levels of retail and a food court beneath an office tower too. This is all great, but what else could we insert into our office buildings? In particular are there functions which would operate after hours or support the lifestyle choices of workers? Maybe all these extra functions shouldn’t all be at the bottom of the tower either? In Japan it’s not uncommon for common for restaurants and bars to be located within office tower buildings. Personally, I’m a big fan of a bar in the lobby – so much easier to convince your colleagues they do have time for a drink when they don’t have to go anywhere and maybe you will be able to pull in few more as they pass by.

At the other end of the healthy lifestyle scale, perhaps our office buildings can support some healthy choices too – some buildings already have commercial gyms, how about yoga, massage or acupuncture as well? Some of these kinds of spaces could even become flexible use spaces – meeting rooms during the day and yoga studio after work.

Currently, these kinds of facilities are either provided commercially or by single tenants for the use of their own staff, within their tenancies. Is there the opportunity for these spaces to be provided in a different model – either by the landlord, or perhaps by one large tenant but benefitting all tenants? This could enable better use if space throughout a building and enable landlords to fill up otherwise vacant space and entice new tenants. Maybe a landlord could provide a series of well being rooms suitable for massage, physio, doctors or acupuncture. Individual practitioners could rent the rooms perhaps on differing short or longer term arrangements. Maybe some operate commercially selling their services to individuals but maybe others are paid for by the corporate tenants as a benefit for their staff.

Landlord provided spaces and services, or commercial tenancies are quite straightforward in terms of who pays, the security of the space and shared access. Management of the spaces becomes the issue, with a landlord having more diverse functions and infrastructure to manage and operate. But how about tenants sharing out their tenancy space? What are the issues? And could the landlords actually help with this too?

Whilst the landlord could manage a major meeting and training facility for the use of all tenants, maybe this is better off managed by one of the tenant organizations. Perhaps they have a very high level of in-house meeting needs, specific expectations of service, or they are a training provider. Firstly, if this is to be a shared service, then the costs of the space and servicing it have to be considered – in my view it’s the landlord who is best placed to manage this, through rent discounts for tenants providing services such as this, and maybe a higher rent to other tenants. I’m not convinced these models should be a direct user pays system based on booking, but maybe that could work too – Although I think as soon as something like this becomes user pays, corporates just start to build their own.

The meeting facility is usually a discrete space though – what about letting people in to use all those vacant desks, informal breakout areas or casual meeting places? Or perhaps even breaking down the idea of one organisation, one tenancy? Traditionally the tenancy is required as a secure container for stuff (refer to my blog post on Natalie Slessor’s talk on the future workplace for more on this). More recently, this stuff was also electronic – data servers and computers. We had to protect our equipment, our papers, our computers and our data from being accessed by outsiders. What we could never really separate from outsiders was our people – today, it’s our people that are the most valuable asset. These days although we still want to protect our data, we don’t keep it on servers in our offices (creating yet more vacant space), we keep it on the cloud or in data centers. So why do we need that company network anymore? What if IT was provided by he landlord, as a utility, like electricity? Then there is no technical reason why I can’t come and work in your office for the day if it suits us both (oh, I didn’t mention, we have gotten rid of all those fixed computers and phones we need to keep secure too). The only reason left is confidentiality, which I think is mostly only a concern held by those who are up to something dodgy in the first place – or if it is a genuine issue – needs genuinely confidential space, not open plan offices anyway.

Does this help fill up the vacant space though? If I have just moved from my office to yours because you have better coffee and a bar and a massage room, we still might have some vacant space? Though it really does encourage choice, and highlight which offices are popular and place of choice to work then doesn’t it?

Maybe we can fill up some space with some more diverse functions, that encourage other things and parts of our lives too. Just a few more random thoughts – a commercial kitchen could be used by office caterers during the day and charities at night (I know there is one in Sydney OzHarvest that cooks for homeless), a model making workshop for the architectural practices could also replace our individual home garages and workshops, childcare shortages are a big issue in Australia and it would certainly help more women return to work if more centers are provided within workplaces…I’m sure you can think of more ideas? With the growth of the sharing economy and of co-working perhaps we will start to see a whole range of different ideas.

Is your workplace half empty right now? How would you share your office space? What kinds of facilities and services would you like to see in your workplace? Who would pay? Who should operate them?

Image credits
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License  by  devlon duthie