Tag Archives: design process

Is Disruptive Innovation possible in the construction industry?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ceilidh Higgins

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

Unwind with Beautiful Thinking

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It’s not very often that I actually write about design itself on this blog – maybe because it’s the most enjoyable part of my job and often I am writing about the things that frustrate and annoy me -but also it is often a part of my job which I  have less time for than I would like.  The last few weeks though, have given me a number of opportunities to think about design, both in our own practice and through the work of other designers across a number of disciplines from architecture, to furniture, fabrics and paper.

Back in June, our team at DJRD were invited by Interface to collaborate in a pop up installation as part of Indesign’s “The Project”.  Our brief was to transform a number of spaces in the Interface showroom into a space for the rituals of ‘refuge’, a place to get away, to calm the mind and retreat and create opportunities for mindfulness. As well as designing the space itself we were asked to think about activities that could occur within the space, initially yoga and meditation were discussed. We were also to integrate Interface’s new carpet collection and their current campaign “Beautiful Thinking”.

All of our staff were invited to join the design team, and we had a fantastic team of 7 architects and interior designers from graduates through to myself as senior associate, with support from one of our directors – so in some ways very much like a real world project team. Joining me on the team were Tasmin Dunn, Gabrielle Melville, Sally Johnson, Darren Livings, Kate Harding and Hannah Hoeschle (who all worked much harder than I did!).  From Interface we had a brief, deadlines and a budget.  The real difference for our design process was the fact that we would be building the installation ourselves – at which point we also pulled in our IT manager and known home handyman, Peter Lean, to assist us.

Initially, as often in the real world, our brief seemed quite complex, with potentially many ideas and elements to explore. As a team, we felt it was important that our space of retreat integrated the Interface product and the process of making, both the making of the product and making as designer.  We approached the brief as we would a project design brief, which is to look to take all the parts and find a single simple and overriding concept that can unify, enhance and speak to all the parts of the brief.  Our concept was to create a series of spaces based upon nature, places you might go to meditate – cave, forest, tree house and meadow – and for the majority of our materials to be sourced from Interface’s manufacturing process (integrating their products and process, but also helping us with our budget).  Rather than yoga or meditation, we felt that a more active and designer orientated activity would be suit Indesign, and we decided mindfulness colouring in books would perfectly suit our intended audience.  This however wasn’t our main activity.  The main activity, tied (literally) back to the space, using Interface yarn to weave between the cardboard trees in the space.  We titled the space “Unwind”, referring both to the act of relaxing and the weaving and yarn throughout the space.

As well as our (limited) budget from Interface, we arranged sponsorship from Inlite (lighting), Dulux (paint) and Skale Greenwall.  They were all so generous with their products – Jarrod Huxtable from Inlite gave us heaps of assistance building our lighting installation as well, and Skale joined our team only 36 hours before we were due to complete!  So much thanks to all of them, and also to our generous friends who loaned us some great furniture pieces to suit the ‘meadow’.

To work together with a collaborative team not just designing but building our space gave us a fantastic chance to use our everyday skills – from planning, designing and organising a team (thanks to our team leader Darren we were on time, on budget and completed the install within the number of work hours allocated) but to work together in a different way where everyone has an equal say and it was up to all of us and the design team to agree on the solutions without significant client input (although unlike a University project we did have a client, as we had worked with Interface throughout).  To create a space that only exists for 2 days also allowed us to explore different materials and take risks that might not be permissible for a longer term space. The actual act of building ourselves also allowed us to design in a more fluid way (on site changes no problems!) and discuss solutions on the spot.  So much of our work now is competitively tendered it means that you can’t work with a builder in this way.

We were also not the only team creating an installation at Interface – at the same time, 4 other design teams were creating spaces based upon either the same brief as ours (refuge) or a brief titled “Prospect” to create an energetic lively space for play and collaboration.  Not only did we get to explore the spaces created by the other designers, but as part of the activities over the 2 days, Interface hosted a panel moderated by Indesign’s editor, Alice Blackwood on Beautiful Thinking in which each of the design teams spoke about their design, the response to the brief and what they believe Beautiful Thinking means to design.  Talking with the other designers whose fields were as diverse as paper art, textile design, graphics and furniture design, was a fantastic opportunity to see behind their installations as well as understanding how their different backgrounds had influenced their work. For everyone of the panel, simplicity was mentioned as an important element in how beautiful thinking creates places and things to calm and inspire – and to allow those inhabiting the space the opportunity for beautiful thinking in turn.

After we leave university it often becomes quite rare that we see other designers present and speak about their work outside of our own practices – especially in this context, where we are not trying to compete to win an award, impress a client or sell our design. However that’s not to say that seeing designers talk about their work to win awards is not just as interesting! Last week I had the opportunity to see the presentations for the shortlist for the IDEA (Interior  incredibly inspiring.  To see seven of Australia’s top designers present and discuss their work for the year in 5 minutes each is a peek at truly amazing work going on in Australia right now(view the shortlist here).  The quality of the work was all outstanding but for me, one particular presentation stood out from the rest as a great presentation – and it gets back to the idea of simplicity and the single idea.  Hannah Tribe of Tribe Studio presented her work not just as a series of architectural projects but explained the studio’s approach to design as a portrait of the client.  A single idea behind a whole practice of work, but not at all a single look or style, an approach that is not just about beauty and awards but creates a place for people.  To me, this really represents the idea of beautiful thinking.  What inspires you to beautiful thinking?

Ceilidh Higgins

PS.  I am also now on Instagram, where you can see more of my Indesign photos.  Follow me as themidnightlunch.  

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.