Tag Archives: clients

Is design ever ‘finished’?

Finish it by Pedro Travassos, on FlickrOne of the greatest challenges of architecture and design is the fact that there never seems to be enough time.

From student projects onwards there never seems to be enough time to finish designing, detailing and documenting everything about a project.  Essentially, almost every building or fitout is a prototype and to detail every single junction, item or assembly might mean we would never actually finish.  Couple that with the fact that as detailed design and documentation progresses, we may need go back and modify or redesign different parts or elements to improve them or accommodate engineering or product details or the inevitable new client requirement, and at times it feels like design can be a never ending cycle.  Then even as construction takes place, the built reality doesn’t match the ideal, or the contractor has alternative suggestions for products or details.  The client then moves in and the way the space is actually used may differ from their original intentions, or their organisation may have changed over the time the project has taken to come to fruition.  Generally, there  comes a point where further modifications to the the project stop. Its often because of limits, of programs, fee budgets or client expectations –  But does this mean the design was actually finished – can it be and should it be?

To many engineers, it seems that architects and interior designers are notorious for changing their minds and never finishing design.  While it is true that many architects and interior designers are indecisive or looking to constantly keep improving the design at the cost of program (or engineering), it is also just as true that many of these ‘design changes’ are driven by technical or functional requirements.  If the mechanical engineer hasn’t advised the architect of sufficient space they require for plant at the concept stage, the structure may have to change to adjust.  If the client has decided they really need to keep their Comms room onsite instead of using a data centre, then the Comms Room is certainly going to be getting bigger with all the flow on effects to services and other parts of the building that may have.  Many clients and engineers don’t realise that even the smallest of decisions on audio visual or appliances can have flow on effects to the sizes of whole rooms and hence the whole building.  An example is that a corridor with no door in it could be 1m wide, add a door and you might have to increase the width to 1.6m for wheelchairs.  Obviously as architects and designers we try to build some tolerances into our designs from the beginning but extra space gets quickly eaten up.

In every project there has to be points where certain decisions are frozen, and will only change for a significant reason.  Usually we label these points as client sign offs or reviews.  Points at which the client agrees to the design.  The challenge though is always about what level of detail the client signing off.  Unsurprisingly many clients like to leave their changes and decisions as open as possible as late as possible. Its not only the architect or designer that wants to keep their options open.  Even with defined milestones, some clients can be quite difficult about what they believe they have agreed to, particularly if they want design changes and don’t want to pay for them.  Its easier to blame the architect than to concede the client organisation has changed its mind about how they want a space to function.  On one project, we proposed a combined reception and breakout space, initially the client stakeholder group really liked the idea and the images presented.  Some time after signing off on the schematic design and well into our detailed design process, we were informed that the client did not want to proceed with this space.  They wanted a traditional separate reception area, and questioned why we would ever have thought a combined space was suitable.  We found out later that they had decided to temporarily move a different user group into the fitout, and my guess is that the head of the new user group didn’t like the concept.  Thats their choice, but why should we be the ones paying to go back to the drawing board so to speak?

Even without any need for significant client changes during design and documentation, there comes a point where contractors have to price a design and be appointed, and critically construction has to commence.  In an ideal world, the design should not actually be complete before the contractor is selected.  Contractors, and particularly the sub-contractors who are actually doing the work, have their own ideas and suggestions about construction.  These ideas can be a real asset to cost and buildability, as they are the ones that have to actually make it happen.  However, it is rare on larger scale projects (in my experience anything bigger than a single dwelling) or anything put out to competitive tender that this happens in a meaningful way – even on supposed design and construct projects.  Changes and questions inevitably seem to be last minute and often ‘value management’ happens without the input of the designer. Often only the head contractor has been appointed when the design is being finalised, and later the sub-contractors have their own suggestions.

During construction design still continues.  If we detailed every tiny piece of every project then construction documents would be ridiculously complex and would really never end.  Shop drawings and site instructions resolve the finer detail of design.  This phase tends to become the only opportunity for sub-contractor input to design changes.  Whilst we all dream on zero RFIs and variations, is this really a feasible reality?  I’d say not within our current documentation and procurement systems.

When the day of practical completion arrives and the client moves in, many clients think the design process is well and truly done.  However the best clients realise that as you inhabit your spaces you will understand it and realise things you didn’t see during the design process.  Almost everyone can relate to this through their own homes.  Did the furniture you thought of before you moved in suit the spaces in the way you pictured?  It’s the reason why many architects like to camp on a site, or live in their own unrenovated or under furnished homes before they make all the final design decisions.  Its a great idea for clients to save some of their design contingency to continue to work with their architect or designer in the months after they move in to undertake those additional little projects that can make that space just right.  Even with the best design and planning, organisational, technology and other forms of change mean that design should never be static – a building should never be considered finished ‘forever’.  Maybe the built elements are complete, but the lightweight furniture type elements will always need to change over time.

So I believe the answer is no – design is never ‘finished’.  But that shouldn’t mean that we avoid decisions or sign offs, whether by the designer or the client.  If we don’t say stop here and allow the team to move on, then the building will never be built.  In his book, Linchin, Seth Godin talks about the concept of ‘shipping’ which he defines as getting a project completed and out the door.  It is better to have something that is not perfect out there in the world than to have nothing at all.  To me, this is the ‘finished’ that we need to realise as architects and designers, otherwise we could still be working at 2am every day.  To quote Seth Godin “If you want to produce things on time and on budget, all you have to do is work until you run out of time or run out of money. Then ship.” Maybe its not quite that easy, but apparently the more we try the easier it gets.

Ceilidh Higgins

Image Credits: “Finish it” (CC BY 2.0) by  Pedro Travassos 

Can we have a workplace of the future without a boss of the future?

No more boss ... by Bousure, on Flickr
For some years now, but with increasing pace – books, blogs and videos are all predicting a new (and often idyllically portrayed) world of work where workers are empowered to choose where and when they work, teams are built on a project basis to find the best workers, and personal and family life are interwoven around the way we work (this example is from Microsoft). The idea of the physical workplace itself, as a service or as a consumer item forms part of this world, along with technology that is now becoming very real – on demand video conferencing (often with holograms).

 I first remember encountering theses concepts some years ago reading Thomas W Malone’s “The Future of Work” which predicted decentralisation of organisations and more freedom for employees to determine when, where and what to do.  At the time I read the book, the technology wasn’t quite real for me yet, but was already starting to change the way we work. In the 5 or 6 years since then, I know that my iPad and iPhone have drastically changed how I can work, in particular while I am traveling.

This new world of work is sometimes given a timeframe as in this study – Workplace 2040. But what’s stopping this from being Workplace 2020? I don’t think it’s technology, I think it’s the people. One of the key things these scenarios all rely on is the independence of the workers and the ability of these people to work together regardless of physical locations. For the majority of workplaces today, these are already no longer technology issues, any difficulties come down to human nature.

Very few jobs are yet structured around only around doing a set amount of work. Most are still structured around an expectation of set working hours, although perhaps these hours are more flexible now than a generation ago. It is still much more usual to see people staying back because the work is not finished, than for them to go home early when all the work is done. One issue in many workplaces, after of years of economic downturn – is that its pretty rare the work is ever all done, and if it is we worry that to leave early would make us a target for redundancy. But most of the time there are simply insufficient numbers of staff for the work to ever actually be finished. The other issue is that there is still a very common view that we are employed just as much to “be” at the place of work, as we are to “do” work. People are afraid if they finish their work and leave early (or even on time) they will be judged both by their managers and their peers as being lazy, slacking off, not contributing or not being team players – when in actual fact they might be more efficient and better at their jobs. To many employees, flexible has come to mean flexible for employers (I know of one firm where when employees raised the issue of flexibility the employer genuinely believed this meant flexibility in how the work was done – in the office, with no idea staff were wanting flexibility in how and when they worked!)

Even in organisations which already have activity based working or other forms of agile working, these same kinds of problems are occurring. I heard a story about one large ABW workplace which has a working from home policy, but the main workplace is often too full. Is it full because the environment itself is so successful and staff can’t stay away, or is it because there is a least one manager who wanders about every morning ticking off a role of staff and then contacting anyone who hasn’t been in the office for 2 days?

In an ABW environment, the distrust managers have of workers whom they can’t see can manifest even when staff are working within the office but beyond the managers view. It’s the same emotional motivations that lead to workplaces with beautiful but empty breakout spaces – staff are afraid of being seen as slacking off.Perhaps it’s also this fear behind why some middle managers are also so reluctant to give up their offices, it’s not so much about the work they do, or even the status, but their belief that they have earned  their right to not be watched over by the boss.

Another working model enabled by technology and affected by the same issue is distributed working, where company employees are based in different geographic locations.  I have worked in this model and it does present interesting challenges as a team leader.  Whilst staff may have a manger in their physical location, as a team leader you only know your staff are working on your project by the work they produce. You do have to manage differently for performance based outcomes – if you have your team sitting in front of you they are more likely to communicate with you more directly both with questions about the work, if someone else asks them to do something or when the work allocated is completed. Managing a distributed team does take more work – but not only does it allow more flexibility in team structures, where we can work and deliver projects – but it actually teaches managers and team leaders to be better at their jobs, better organised and better communicators.

Managements fear of the invisible employee is not a problem of architecture or design – it doesn’t matter what sort of office you have or how amazing your design team are. If your managers don’t trust their staff and are not trained to manage remote staff (from on another floor to in another country), then ‘new ways of working’ won’t work for your organisation. Very few organisations actually train people to manage teams, we don’t learn it at university either. Historically managers usually start out on the management path because they are good at the technical thing that they do – not because they are good at managing other people. If they make money for the organisation, they are likely to be promoted further regardless of their people management skills. Maybe at some point their organisation will decide they need some extra ‘soft skills’ but is likely they have developed their style and habits by then, and it’s now long past when they really would have benefited from them. Maybe as part of a new office fitout someone will have realized that a change management program is required. But in a large organisation, is it thorough enough to go right down through all levels of management and is the whole of the organisation seriously aligned to the goal (even when their own bosses are not looking)?

Perhaps a self managed team structure is the answer? Some organisations are now starting to abolish middle management in favour of this idea. I wonder how it will work, will natural managers and leaders start to emerge? Or does it only work if the whole team is highly organised and motivated (in effect naturally good at managing themselves at least)?

Is it possible the fear of flexibility and remote working is generational difference, and one that will simply disappear between now and 2040? I don’t think so. Whilst I see many more younger managers who are comfortable with remote management and who have more trust in their teams, than older ones. But I don’t think its necessarily a distinction of age, but one of culture and of an acceptance that the way we work has already changed. I am frequently shocked that anyone could suggest that we might work the same way now as back in the eighties or even nineties. In the 15 years since I graduated architecture the way we work has changed fundamentally. Not only has technology and software changed, but these changes – in particular the mobility and automation they have enabled means that new ways of working are not something of the future – they are already here, it’s just that some people don’t seem to have noticed it yet.

Ceilidh Higgins
Image Credits: “No more Boss”
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License   by  Bousure 

Is a Well building different to a Green building?

Sick by Leonid Mamchenkov, on FlickrRecently I attended Worktech  Melbourne, where many of the speakers focused on wellness (or  health and wellbeing) which seems to have become the next big thing in workplace design. Australia is about to have its first certified “well” building, the new Macquarie Bank building at 50 Martin Place.

When Tony Armstrong from CBRE mentioned this concept of a certified “well” building, and that it had been around since 2013 (with CBRE’S global headquarters actually having being first certified WELL workplace) I wondered why I hadn’t heard of this building assessment tool before. I keep pretty up to date with what is happening in both the world of workspace and of green buildings, and this concept of a well building certification seemed like something that would have grabbed my attention before. Someone suggested maybe it was the Living Building challenge rebranded (it’s not). Whilst the WELL building standard may have been around for a little while, it’s been a pilot (version 1 was just released in February 2015) and there are so far only a small number of WELL certified spaces (coincidentally I have been to one of the restraunts registered for certification in Chicago).

So what is a WELL building? According to the website of the International Well Building Institute, who developed the WELL Building Standard “Buildings should be developed with humans at the centre of design.”  Interestingly this sounds almost the same as TILT Studio’s concept for codesign, who also spoke at Worktech (and is fresh in my mind because I have just been reading their book Codesign).

A WELL building is more than just human centred design – a WELL building sounds pretty amazing actually. The Well Building Institute claims not only will a WELL space improve our health, nutrition and fitness, but also our mood and our sleep patterns. And of course our improve our performance. There have long been claims that a well (as in good!) designed building, in particular workplace increases productivity, which one assumes equates to increased performance. From my own experience as a designer,it’s clear to me how buildings can help or hinder the activities within. Buildings improving mood also makes send to me – stimulating design, natual light and sufficient ventilation all play a part in enhancing our mood. But how can our buildings help improve sleep? Or nutrition? Clearly I need to learn more about what a WELL building might be.

So this week I set out to undertake some research on the WELL Building standard to see what it entails and how it differs from and compliments a green building (I should mention that the WELL Building certification is administered by the GBCI who certify LEED).  When I started reading the WELL concepts (or categories) it sounds a lot like GreenStar (Australia’s equivalent to LEED) – air, water, comfort… nourishment and fitness are a bit different. WELL has 7 categories (called concepts) are air, water, light, nourishment, fitness, comfort and mind. Like GreenStar these categories are then broken down into features (a total of 102). Some features are baseline essentials for certification and some are optional for extra points and a higher level certification. Also like GreenStar some features relate to the built fabric and some are management, policy or education strategies.

Air – this category is all about indoor air quality so is very similar to what you would expect for a green building.

Water – green buildings tend to focus on water use, WELL is all about water quality.

Nourishment – I am going to quote this one because I am not even quite sure what it might mean yet. “Implement design, technology and knowledge building strategies to encourage healthy eating habits. Provides occupants with design features, behavioral cues, healthy options and knowledge to enable healthier food choices”!!!! How will my building do all that? More research required on this element for sure!

Light – this seems a little more straight forward. It’s all about appropriate light and enough natural light. I can see how lighting can impact health, so many people complain about headaches and muscle tension related to poor lighting. Daylight also regulates our mood and sleep patterns so maybe his is how well buildings help improve our mode and sleep?

Fitness – is about introducing opportunities for occupants to excercise. So I expect this category will include features such as gyms but also design strageties that encourage using stairs over the lifts.

Comfort – again this is someone similar to some similar GreenStar credits. Acoustics and thermal confort a key to providing a “soothing, distraction free environment”.

Mind – this is another category I want to research further. Here we are looking to support mental and emotional health, relaxation spaces are important but so is “providing feedback and knowledge about their personal and occupational environment”. What does that mean?

Obviously to understand the tool and what it means for the design of buildings I need to do a bit more reading (all the above was gleaned from the overview sections of the website). Next step download the standard.

One difference I notice immeadiately on reviewing the executive summary is that “the space must undergo a process that includes an onsite assessment and performance testing by a third- party” – this sounds interesting someone must actually visit the building – and is not required for a GreenStar certification. The assessor will spend up to 3 days onsite undertaking tests and verifying features applied for. This is pretty stringent and I imagine comes at a cost (Certification is charged by the square foot, prices are on the website).

The program allows for certification only of completed occupied spaces. Buildings yet to be tenanted cannot be certified, only designed as WELLL compliant. Like GreenStar or LEED there are levels ranging from silver to platinum. WELL is being designed for many building types, although at this point is mainly aimed at office and institutional projects. Other project types (retail, residential, healthcare and more) are encouraged to register and help develop the pilot programs.

Like GreenStar has recently introduced, certification has a validity period of 3 years after which time, it must be re-verified and certified again.

If you are familiar with LEED, the standard has a comparison table identifying how the WELL features relate and cross over with LEED.

At this point I decided to read up on the nutrition and mind sections of the standard as these are the areas that I feel I have the least understanding of how design could affect space occupants in these areas. So I am by no means an expert on the standard yet!

Unsurprisingly a large part of the nourishment section relates to food and drinks provided or sold by or under contract with the project owner. So if I wanted to have a WELL certified shopping mall and my food outlets would have to meet pretty specific items around fruit, vegetables, fat and sugar as well as serving sizes and labeling. I’d say it would be simpler for a workplace which would tend to provide less food to employees. Hand washing is a feature where design plays a part – provision of disposable paper towels and soap at all sinks as well as minimum sink sizes are required for this feature. Under another feature, food preparation area require separate sinks to prevent cross contamination. (I wonder if a workplace breakout counts as there wouldn’t usually be raw meat there?) There are some specific requirements for refrigerators which might be selected by a designer. The main areas where nourishment features are impacted by design would be the provision of gardening space and spaces for mindful eating, both of which are optional features. Mindful eating is the provision of breakout areas as unsurprisingly getting away from out desks is good for reducing stress, and apparently eating with others encourages healthier eating. The eating space must have fridges, microwaves, sinks etc and contain tables and chairs to accommodate at least 25% of total employees at a given time as well as be located within 60 m [200 ft] of at least 90% of occupants. The new GreenStar interiors tool also requires breakout space, with an area based calculation per occupant and less definition of what the space contains – the GreenStar credit is about providing staff for employee enjoyment as opposed to specially a space for eating (it can be part of an activity based work area)

The mind concept is much more diverse. Covering biophilia, workplace policies in travel and flexible working, charity, beauty, the design process and post occupancy evaluations. Some features would be perhaps difficult to demonstrate objectively – how do we measure if the project contains features intended for human delight and celebration of the spirit? (This feature is apparently derived for the Living Buildings Challenge). The feature related to adaptable spaces and requirements for both diverse spaces for collaboration and private spaces for concentration could start to provide a good guide to the amounts and types of private spaces required within workplaces when clients start pushing design teams to cram in more workstations. Not sure the sleep pods and meditation cushions will take off just yet though! Inclusion of plants has already seen a big increase in Australia due to GreenStar, and forms part of the biophilia features along with patterning from nature, water features and roof top gardens. Other design oriented elements include minimum ceiling heights and the inclusion of artworks.  This mind section would be worthwhile for designers to take into account even when not designing specifically to meet the standard.

Having reviewed in more detail two of the seven concepts, only around one third are design related. Clearly certification under the WELL building standard requires a high level of commitment from management and will have far reaching effects on the organisation and it’s employees and building occupants. The question is who will drive adoption of this standard – whilst design teams can educate their clients as to its existence, I think ultimately it will have to be driven from within an organisation’s leadership team for there to be any chance of sucess. Perhaps also we will soon be finding a new consultant on our team, a wellness consultant who might have a background in HR or psychology rather than in buildings. Personally I believe, this could only be a good outcome for workplace design. What do you think? Can design contribute more to health and wellbeing? Will your own or your client organisations be interested and committed to this process? Would you like to have a wellness consultant on your team?

Ceilidh Higgins

Image Credits:

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.

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 death of Activity Based Working?

The Valley of the Fallen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ceilidh Higgins

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

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

Worktech Melbourne: Let the User Decide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are your clients part of your design team? Do you want them to be?

Monkey in the Middle by Mark Dumont, on Flickr This week I read that nearly 2 thirds of industry representatives surveyed believe that the UK Government target for the uptake of Building Information Modelling is unachievable – largely due the lack of a collaboration between clients and construction contractors, hindered by contracts that do not support collaboration (here’s the link).

This came as no great surprise to me – I have always wondered how the UK Government was actually managing this whole process and program, particularly because here in Australia, the Government contracts can often be the most onerous and the client specific expectations and requirements – for reports, meetings or documentation which are outside the actual requirements for building design and documentation – are often excessive. This article got me thinking generally about clients and collaboration. Collaboration is essentially another (more trendy) word for teamwork. Do our clients understand that they are a part of the design team?

For many types of projects today – workplace, hospital, laboratory – the input of the client representatives into the functional aspects of the design is critical to a successful project. Frequently clients have their own in house project managers, designers, architects and engineers who may be involved in briefing, reviewing and responding to the queries of the external design team. Contractually these representatives are part of ‘the client side’ and not considered part of the design team. This can become a real problem for actually delivering projects.

All to often the client side creates delays for the project. Delays in providing information about types of equipment, numbers of staff or delayed feedback at review points. Every time we ask a question, the lack of an answer or a partial answer can impact upon our ability to push on with the design process. Information as well as creativity drives design, good design generally cannot occur in a bubble separated from the client organisations functional needs.

Frequently it can get to the point where there are so many question marks it becomes almost impossible for us to progress any part of a building due to the number of fuzzy areas. If the client was truly collaborating and part of the design team, they would take responsibility for this. Instead of blindly insisting that the end date for delivery remain the same they would work with the design team to minimise the delays. They would also accept that they are accountable for the additional costs that their consultant teams incur due to their organisational delays.

This comes to the heart of the problem. The client in these cases is not an individual person. It’s an organisation. And it’s probably an organisation that doesn’t have a collaborative culture internally. Usually it’s not so much the individual project representatives who are facing the design team who are causing the delays or not understanding the importance of the information – it’s other people in their business who don’t necessarily understand how design works. It seems a simple concept to me – to design you an office I really do need to know how many staff you have (or wish to have)…

Sometimes it is those client representatives sitting across the table at project meetings every week that are causing the delays. They pretend they don’t understand why you need that information or decision so urgently – because they don’t want to be stuck with the blame inside their organisation. If the individuals running the project are going to be blamed and have negative performance reviews because the building project they were involved in ran late or cost more, then it’s no surprise they push all this back onto the external design team. Or to other teams within their organisation. (Although with IT, it almost always is true – somehow they never seem to understand that their equipment can have a very large impact on the physical space, but if we didn’t provide enough room or enough air conditioning there would be trouble!)

Perhaps it’s no surprise really – as long as collaboration and an attitude of cooperation or a best for project approach does not exist inside of large organisations then it probably won’t exist in construction either. But that doesn’t absolve individuals of responsibility either. Whatever your role in a design team – architect, interior designer, engineer, client or project manager (yep, I think you too are part of the design team, and these comments apply just as much to PMs as to clients), if each person on the team makes an effort to work openly and collaborate then as an industry we will get so much further. Over time, if project teams actually tried to work together more, the demand for more collaborative contract styles will increase as teams realize the benefits.

By the way – I don’t let architects, designers and engineers off the hook here either. While my discussion above has focussed on the role of the client and the importance of their collaboration in a design project, the rest of the design team has to be willing to collaborate too. This means we as designers have to understand that the client has a real and valid input to the project – after all they are paying for it and do have to live with it – we don’t. That doesn’t mean design by committee or that the client always knows best. It does mean that we should take the clients comments, concerns and functional needs seriously, and that they need to trust us to work with these needs and come up with the best design solutions.

In most western economies, construction is one of the most inefficient industries – and without collaboration by all parties involved, but particularly by clients who are the drivers of projects and the ones who select the contracts, then this will never change.

But the best thing about working on a project where everyone involved is interested in collaborating and ensuring a great project – its actually more enjoyable to work on when we can all focus on the things that matter – like design – instead of bickering over missing information and missed project deadlines.

Do you feel your clients should be part of the design team? Do they want to be? If you are a client – do you want to be? What are your barriers to collaboration?

Next week I’ll be at Worktech Melbourne, so I hope to bring you some great ideas back from there. Perhaps also I will see some of you there.

I am also now on Twitter find me @ceilidhhiggins.

Image Credits:
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by  Mark Dumont 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image credits:

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