Tag Archives: engineering

Is regulation the answer to fee MADness?

Is reintroducing fee scales and further regulation the solution to fee slashing and ‘the race for the bottom’ among architects?  Is this really feasible in a world of increasing globalisation and diversification of service providers?  If not, what other options are there?

Recently I read this article by Shaun Carter, immediate past president of the NSW Chapter of the Institute of Architects and a principal architect at Carter Williamson Architects.  Its really great to see Shaun speaking out on the issues of fees – and what he describes as the ‘existential crisis’ of fee madness – the ‘mutually assured destruction’ of architecture as a profession.

Immediately after reading the article, I felt compelled to join the conversation and comment – and then realised I had the beginning of another article on fees forming in my mind.  Fees are a topic I have frequently written about over the five years I have been writing this blog (from The art(or is that science) of architecture fees to talking about fees and BIMonomics and more recently Architecture and Design Fees: Why Hours), and so Shaun’s article was of great interest to me.  Essentially he proposes that the solution is regulation across three platforms – minimum fees (essentially a return to fee scales), government as a model client and limiting architecture graduates.

Is regulation, restrictive trade practices or collective bargaining the right answer? While I used to think that maybe regulation could be a solution, I wonder how does regulation in NSW (or in any other Australian state) solve a problem which is national, but also potentially global? How can you regulate at the edges of architecture – for example in fields where architects and interior designers compete? Do we really believe we can regulate if your competition is Google or Amazon? (Right now in the USA I think its the other way around…Amazon are practically setting the regulations with the offers that came in from cities determined to win Amazon 2 HQ!)  So personally I don’t think regulation, in particular fee scales is the answer.

However that doesn’t mean there is not a place for advocacy and education – both of architects and of clients. I agree with Shaun that “Clients don’t recognize that their service is cut-priced, but have the same expectations as a good, fee-paying client.”  Fees have dropped so far, that many clients including project managers, would have no idea of the real cost of the work they are bidding, only ‘market rates’.  Many clients have no idea of the amount of hours that go into designing and documenting a building or a fitout – I’ve had more than one project manager assume that my job is done after concept design “don’t you just hand it over to the engineers then?”

I’d love to see both the Board of Architects and the AIA take leading roles on the issue of cut priced fees and client education, alongside of other organisations working in the design of buildings – the ACA, the DIA, Consult Australia, Engineers Australia and more. This isn’t just an issue for architects but for all design professionals.

One of the “frequent offenders”clients guilty of this is our own government – at all levels across a wide variety of agencies and institutions. Cut throat fee bidding in government work where price is the only criteria has been a problem for years. Back in 2014 I published this piece on one architect who tried to take a stand against this practice, after uncovering one government agency who admitted they would have to accept a tender of zero if  pre-qualified firm chose to submit it.  (I also commented on this as ‘madness but without the great acronym!)

Maybe if you don’t work in the government sector, you believe that the fact these firms have been in business for long enough, with enough of a reputation and standing to be pre-qualified for government work, that they wouldn’t engage in such foolish business tactics. But when the work is low (or even often when it’s not), it’s such common practice as to be the norm. And then it’s paid for by the staff (even by the principals and directors) working long hours for free or by compromising the quality of documentation – thereby driving up construction costs and waste.  As mentioned in Shaun’s article, there is no way that low fees don’t equate to lowered quality of service. Even if a company is spending the same hours on the project – if many of those hours are unpaid overtime the quality of the work is lower. (There is so much evidence that working 50 or more hours a week compromises the quality of your work).

Shaun’s call for Government to lead the way as a model client is a fantastic idea (and while we are at it, perhaps some model client contracts from Government where risk is fairly distributed and copyright ownership retained?) I agree that if our government at all levels takes the lead in demonstrating the value of good design and the better outcomes that could be achieved, it is more likely more private companies would follow. Whilst I’ll admit, initially this is regulation, I’d perceive it more as leadership by Government, rather than purely a regulative measure.

Leadership needs education.  Everyone who designs needs to be part of educating our clients, but advocacy by the AIA or the boards around Australia could help make a difference. Not just for today’s clients, but by educating tomorrows clients to appreciate design. In Scandinavia, design education starts in primary school and an appreciation of design is a part of the culture. More recently, Australians too are coming to appreciate design, you see this in the quality of our newer cafes, restaurants and shopping centres and in our obsession with home renovation reality TV. But “clients need to understand that design excellence costs money” (and takes time). This is where the home renovation shows do professionals no favours.  Where are the shows about architects or interior designers? Other than Grand Designs, notably absent.

For too long design has been undervalued in Australia, and this is because we need real evidence to back up and underpin this education.  Evidence that will prove to everyone – clients, project managers, even builders and the architects/designers themselves that design really does add value.  To do this we need more research, research like the new RASP project, that sets out to prove the value of design through the question “Do architect designed renovations improve capital gains in the Melbourne residential property market?” Whilst this research relates purely to architects and residential design, there are so many possibilities for commercial, institutional and other sectors to benefit from similar projects. The retail sector already knows it, and has long invested in research to understand how design drives consumer behavior, and the payoff is clear and direct. In other sectors the questions and the payoff is not so straightforward. The problem is that individual clients or practices can’t afford to fund this research. At the University of Sydney around 100 workplaces have participated in the BOSSA project for post occupancy evaluations – how much more extensive would this dataset be if we have if every government workplace had a post occupancy evaluation? Again,this is another area where the Government could play a leading part. Why isn’t the CSIRO involved in this kind of research?  Improving the design of our workplaces could be a key means of improving our national productivity.

While good design does cost money, our professions need to also take responsibility for productivity and efficiency. While we might have BIM capable software, there is so much wasted human capital and time in most architecture practices. Our actual fees might be a lot lower if we invested more in technology and training. The whole of the construction industry is guilty of not investing in software, training or automation. Is this because of a lack of education at leadership level, a lack of understanding of how technology can benefit us or is it fear of change, a distrust of technology and of individually being left behind? Or are we now in a vicious cycle of low fees, with nothing to invest? Whatever the root cause, our industry will be left behind if we don’t invest in technology. I’ve written in the past about the coming wave of automation, (Will a Robot take my Job? and Is Disruptive Innovation Possible in the Construction Industry and more recently, I’m a designer and I job share with an AI) – if you didn’t know, it’s already here.  If you have not started to think about how you can automate routine parts of your practice you will be left behind. When our fees are so low already, how can we afford not to automate where practical? Why should we be calculating the space for fire stairs or toilets when a computer can do this so much more efficiently that we can.

We don’t just need to educate clients, but we also need to train young architects and designers more in business – and even more so, in innovation and entrepreneurship. Architects might not feel that traditional business and accounting is their thing – but innovative ways to develop new business could be more appealing.  Especially if we continue to train architects in such numbers – we need to train them to expect to be other things than a traditional architect, because there will not be nearly enough jobs.  Maybe we don’t need to limit the number of graduates, but to value architectural training as the background to many other avenues of design thinking.  If the next generation are nimble and accept change, and learn how to keep learning throughout their careers – maybe they will take their valuable design thinking into broader roles. I am constantly surprised at how architecture and interior design are creative professions but so many practitioners are so resistant to change (how many architecture practices do you know who have implemented activity based working…)

We can’t just expect the universities to teach business awareness though. For too long in too many practices, fees and charge out rates have been too secret – something that graduates are not expected or even often allowed to know about. Everyone at all levels should understand the fee budget and how their work contributes – just like when a client doesn’t tell us their budget, how can you expect someone to understand how their time contributes to the job cost if you never shares any information with them?

Finally, we need to think about how we charge. The world has moved on from dollars per hour. The ability to make money is no longer linked to human capital. This is the major lesson for all professions where we have historically charged by the hour. So I think we need to be thinking about value based fees, and about not fee scales. I’ve never worked in a time of fee scales, but I can’t see how fee scales in a time of globalisation and diversification are going to protect our jobs and fees. Fee scales won’t stop Amazon or WeWork from taking over the traditional roles of architects.

So what is a value based fee? The value of your work, the value of your ideas.  I’ve written in a lot more detail previously on this topic in the article Architecture and Design Fees: Why Hours.  If we start to think and talk about fees in terms of our value, and the value of our work – can we continue to justify cut throat fees in our own minds?  Aren’t we devaluing our own work that way?  Of course when clients don’t value our work and our profession doesn’t value our work – we have a problem. So thats why proving our value to others is also a key part of the solution.

I agree with Shaun – three things need to change – although my three are different:

  1. We need to value ourselves;
  2. We need to invest in the future; and
  3. Our clients and those who occupy our buildings & spaces need to value us
 Maybe I’ll add number four – we need to envision a future where being an architect or an interior  designer doesn’t always mean working in a traditional practice alongside only other architects and design professionals. Whilst Bjarke Ingels is a talented designer, BIG is a successful mutlinational firm because the CEO, Sheela Maini Søgaard comes from business not architecture. A lot of architects I know would be quite scared by that notion.

Ceilidh Higgins

Image Credits:

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

I’m a designer and I job share with an AI

Thomas Edison is credited with the phrase Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration” and I believe there is no field where this applies more than architecture and design. So often people assume that interior design is such a fun, creative job – that it’s all about drawing, colours and furniture, something like being paid to colour in and shop – when today being a designer is just as much about people management, psychology, project management, documentation, checking codes and standards and managing contracts.  It’s also often about a culture that expects long hours and being always available to the job. “It’s not work when you are passionate about it?” is common. But what if instead we could all work less hours and job share with our computers?

This is my latest article, which you can continue reading on Workplace Insight.  Workplace Insight is one of my favourite blogs and I was really excited to be asked to write this piece for them.

If yu enjoyed the article, you might enjoy attending BILT.  BILT ANZ will run in Brisbane this year from 24-26 May and will have sessions across a whole spectrum of technologies for architects, designers, engineers, contractors, estimators, quantity surveyors, project managers, building and asset owners and managers.  Buildings Infrastructure Lifecyle  supported by Technology – with over 100 classes to chose from over three days, if you work across these fields BILT has classes for you.  Its not all about technology either, with classes in leadership, change management and strategy, BILT supports the fact that a wide range of skills are need to understand, implement and deliver projects in this complex and technology driven world we now work in.

Personally, I will be presenting a class “Inside Out: Implementing Revit for Interior Design Teams” in Session 1.3.  I’d love to see you there!

You can register and find the full schedule at our website.  (Disclaimer: In one of my other roles I am the BILT ANZ Communications & Marketing Manager) If you are not in ANZ, you will also find BILT in Aisa, North America and Europe.

Ceilidh Higgins

Architecture and Design Fees: Why hours?

money by fedee P, on FlickrWhy is it, that in an age where the value of a company is no longer based on assets or staff numbers, but on ideas – that architects still charge by the hour?

Once upon a time, the value of a company and the number of staff it employed had some correlation, but today this is no longer the case. In 1979, GM employed 853,000 people and had a turnover of $66 billion, today Google turns over a similar amount but with only 60,000 people.  The stories for Microsoft, Apple, Facebook and many other companies are the same.  Making money is no longer tethered to staff and hours.

In architecture, interior design and engineering however, hourly rates are still the norm. “When they choose to strike out on their own, architects tend to follow the outdated model of trading hours for dollars. One of the consequences of this mindset is the fact that clients continue to perceive architectural services as a cost rather than a value.” (Quote from Architizer) Even if, as is commonly the case, a lump sum fee is being generated, this is usually based upon hourly charge out rates of staff multiplied by a guess (educated or otherwise) as to how many hours a task will take. (I’ve written about traditional fee methods previously here) Clients commonly expect a detailed breakdown of the number of hours allocated to each staff member across different project phases. Why are we charging this way when it both limits our ability to increase profit as well as our flexibility in how we deliver services? If I can reduce my hours either by the selection of staff or by automating part of the process, shouldn’t I as the business owner be able to chose if I pass this saving onto my customers (clients) or if I achieve a higher margin? Why is is that clients seem to think that architects and designers are trying to rip them off with higher margins.  Architectural margins are  very low, and in some sectors fees have effectively shrunk over the last 15 years.  We need to make money where we can in order to stay in business.

Obviously at some point there is a minimum fee a company with employees has to charge in order to pay costs, overheads and salaries – although perhaps salaries also need not reflect hours. If architects don’t charge by the hour, what could the alternatives be?

Charging by  the deliverable

In some senses we already charge by deliverable – the lump sum fee essentially considers the building to be the deliverable. While it’s important we don’t lose sight of this fact, the truth is that not every building requires the same amount of work. A great article on this topic is the story of 3 bike sheds by Dimase Architects  which clearly explains that architectural services are not just about building types or construction budgets but about desired outcomes.

Outside if the residential sector, it is also very common for client organisations to dictate deliverables, meeting schedules, required reviews and documentation standards. Frequently these requirements have very little to do with delivery of the building, but are to meet the client’s managers or user group expectations. Sometimes they come with extensive time and cost impacts. How do we charge for a video walk through? The hours in producing the video itself might be very low, but should the cost of software licenses necessarily be considered an office overhead if only used on some projects? Maybe only 1 or 2 people in the office are capable of this work. Should the fee structure for this work take these factors into account?  This leads to the idea of value based fees.

Value based fees

How valuable is your service to your client?  This is a concept I find really interesting, the idea that you change a client based upon the value they place on your services or even the value you create for them. A residential complex is the most obvious example, if you can design to fit in an extra apartment, the developer client makes additional profit, so why should the architect not benefit from this via some kind of bonus? Some would suggest that the architect might compromise design quality at the expense of profit, but I’d say if you are working for a developer – you probably already feel like you are doing this but not getting paid anything for it. In some ways this would be align the architects and the developers interests better.  Most architects would still value good design and their own names and developers would realise that at the point when the architect said no more apartments would fit, they really had reached the sensible limit.

I can see how this kind of fee structure could apply to many kinds of development – car parks, childcare centres or nett lettable area of office buildings. The challenge would be how to apply value to the more difficult to measure or immeasurables like productivity in an office or the positives such as mental wellbeing coming out of good quality design.

I can also see the potential that this fee structure could perhaps backfire – some clients would only want to pay based upon achieving targets or would impose fee penalties for not meeting targets.  But possibly they are the types of clients who already try to get free work or push fees down that we would all rather not work for anyway!

Architect as developer

If you search the Internet for blogs about architect entrepreneurs, the architect as developer is the most common model. Instead of working for the developers, why not become one yourself? So far, the examples I have seen generally relate to small to medium scale residential developments or small commercial premises (you can find lots of examples at Archipreneur). It’s certainly true that the profit margins are higher in development than architecture, although the risks are obviously greater too. However, this model will only ever work for certain project types.

A similar model that has recently emerged is architect as one investor rather than as developer.  This model seems to be emerging in non-traditional development sectors such as The Commons in Melbourne or SWARM in the UK. What both these two initiatives have in common, is the idea of quality development for the good of the community.  Again, this is a potentially higher risk model than traditional architectural practice, but could allow architects interested in working on projects with a social conscience a lot more scope for both work and potential income.  Again, this model won’t apply to projects where there is no development to invest in (eg an educational facility or a client workspace).

Creating proprietary products

Architects often create designs as part of their commissions, they may work with suppliers for one off custom elements to be incorporated into the project.  Very few architects get paid for this.  Apparently Renzo Piano does.  He was involved in developing a new glass louvre system developed for Aurora Place in Sydney and now he gets paid when the product is used on other projects.

So what about our salaries?

One of the things that any model of fees has to take into account is how we pay ourselves and our staff. If our project fees are no longer based upon hourly rates, should the way architects are employed and paid also change? The idea of the gig based economy, where freelancers sign up for a set fee to a specific project (similar to a movie production) is often mentioned in the context of architecture and the economy of the future more generally. Whilst I can see that this could work for larger projects where architects may be involved for 2 years or more, would it be as well suited to smaller projects which may only run for a few months and frequently don’t require full time involvement? Perhaps this is only my current bias or perception, as the idea of piecemeal freelance work continues to grow more common for projects and tasks both large and small, and as technology and co-working allow different options for working together maybe this will be feasible. If we do move towards this model, payment structures would need change, likely increasing to assume that people don’t always have a forty hour work week. An industry structured this way could be a good or bad thing – potentially better work-life balance through time off between projects but potentially more stress about where the next job is coming from.

Maybe our employment structures don’t need to change all that much.  The idea of bonuses or profit sharing isn’t a common one in architecture and interior design but there is no reason this couldn’t be change very easily.

There are a lot of other ways that architects and designers are making money through non-traditional structures, but many of these are quite limited in their applications or potential to earn – for example internet competitions, although the guy who runs the site probably does quite well from it.  But this takes us into non-traditional services, offering services for other architects and designers, which is becoming relatively common on the web (examples include ArchSmarter and EntreArchitect).

I’d like to think there will be a viable model for fees for designing buildings and interiors for other people and organisations, which recognises and pays for the value of design.  We have to remember that“Concept design is not a loss leader. It is our most precious commodity.”  Design is what our clients value us for, and its not something that can be calculated by the hour.

I’d love to hear from anyone working with non-traditional fee structures, or with other ideas about how architects and designers can structure their fees.  Has anyone worked on a value based fee project?  Or even a project which included a bonus for the architect?

Ceilidh Higgins

Image Credits: “money” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by fedee P

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 

Where to From Here: Embracing technological change

la libertad tiene un precio. by ... marta ... maduixaaaa, on FlickrIs architecture on the verge of the greatest change in centuries? Ceilidh Higgins looks to the future and predicts disruption of epic proportions. This is part of the ACA’s Where to From Here series, which invites reflections on the recent ACA – SA State of the Profession research.

The architectural profession could be sitting on the brink of the largest shift in how we practice since the Middle Ages and the time of the master builder. Alternatively, we could become totally irrelevant to anything except the boutique house. The scary thing is that much of our profession seems totally unaware this seismic shift could soon occur.

I really enjoyed writing this article for the ACA, it brings together a number of topics I have written about over the last few years.  To read the full article go to the ACA website here.  If you are interested in the ACA-SA State of the Profession research you can find a summary here.  I also recommend checking out the other articles in the series.

Ceilidh Higgins

Image credits:la libertad tiene un precio.” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by  … marta … maduixaaaa 

The early bird catches the worm? When to engage engineers

Breakfast by Ron Wooten, on FlickrWorking as a collaborative team with project managers, engineers and other consultants as well as the client is a topic I have written about or touched on in many of my previous posts.  Some of my earliest posts on this blog were about working together with engineers, starting with this post on Collaborating with Engineers.

Earlier this year, after coming across this post, sourcable.net asked me to comment on why engineers should be involved early in projects.  “I think early engagement with engineers allows you to explore a lot more possibilities and solutions and not be constrained so much”.  As well as discussing the benefits of early engagement of engineers, this article also discuss the barriers to doing so. To read the full article on sourceable.net click here.

And I should also mention – when I refer to sharing drawings…of course I also mean to include models! Really I should have said sharing design information, which is what really working as a collaborative team is about.

When do you engage with engineers?  What stops you doing so earlier? Do engineers want to be involved early, or would you rather wait until the architect has ‘finished designing’? (Now there is a topic for another day!) Do you see benefits to sharing more information across the consultant team?

Ceilidh Higgins

Image Credits: “Breakfast” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by  Ron Wooten 

Could we all achieve more by working less?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ceilidh Higgins

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

Discontents of Simulation (or what you might call modelling)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ceilidh Higgins

PS. For further inspiration Come Out to the (Midnight) Lunch – If you are in Sydney on Thursday 16 October, I am organising another opportunity for followers of this blog to meet and network.  If you are interested in having a drink, meeting new people and talking with fellow The Midnight Lunch followers about workplace, interior design, architecture, BIM or collaboration in our industry – come to Chicane Bar at 10-20 Bond St in the city from 5.30pm. Note the event is not sponsered, buy your own drinks and food. RSVP ceilidh@themidnightlunch.com or just turn up on the night.

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

Three lessons I never learnt at architecture school

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

Communication is the most important thing you do

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

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

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

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

Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions

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

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

Hire your successor

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

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

You can learn lessons from someone you don’t like

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

Ceilidh Higgins

Image Credits:

 

The Midnight Lunch: My favourite apps for busy consultants

toddler apps by jenny downing, on Flickr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Image Credits:

Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by  jenny downing