Tag Archives: management

Is your work flexible, agile or autonomous? (and what is the difference anyway)


What does flexible mean to you? Is it the hours you work? Or the place? Is activity based working he same as flexible working? And what does agile working really mean?

These days companies are frequently talking about offering flexible and agile working conditions or environments but what that means in reality can vary widely between different organisations.  If you google “flexible work” in Australia you will find the top links are to the government Fair Work Australia website. Fair Work defines flexible work as “Examples of flexible working arrangements include changes to: hours of work (eg. changes to start and finish times), patterns of work (eg. split shifts or job sharing),locations of work (eg. working from home).” However, one of the key items of note in Fair Works requirements for defining and flexible working arrangements is that everything is documented and approved – essentially it is a contractual definition of flexible.  Definitions from government bodies in the UK and USA are similar.  Is this what you thought flexible working was? I only discovered this definition when I was returning to work part time after maternity leave and I found it very surprising – for years I thought I’d had flexible working arrangements but it hadn’t been this. This contractual or legal definition of ‘flexible work’ does not allow the flexibility of varying hours day to day or with little notice.  It’s not about trust or performance based outcomes, it’s still about watching and clocking the hours.  I was used to travelling, working from home if I had a tradesman coming (or needed to write a submission), taking time off if I worked a weekend or even just arriving at a different time because I chose to fit a yoga class in before work. I would have thought for many people having to contractually defining flexible is almost the opposite – it wouldn’t meet the needs of many people looking for more flexibility in the workplace – such as the ability to attend children’s school events or to care for a sick child while still working. So if flexible isn’t what I thought it was – what is the right terminology to clearly define this way of working, based upon trust and the ability to change the plan? Could this be activity based working (ABW) or agile working?

While ABW is a way of working, it is a way of working which has been very much linked to physical environments.  Often the term agile working is also used to define these types of working environments. But what is the difference between agile working and activity based working?

ABW is based upon the premise that staff choose where to work in order to best perform the task required.  The choice may be in a variety of work settings within the workplace, or somewhere else all together. It’s is generally acknowledged that for ABW to be successful, a different style of management with a higher level of trust is required. If a supportive management culture exists this would therefore seem to lend itself to people also chosing the time at which the work is performed?  But the definition of activity based working is also dependant upon the premise that staff don’t have an allocated desk. So what kind of work is it if you do have an allocated desk but you can choose when and where to work?

I recently started researching agile working and what this term really means, and discovered that agile working is a lot bigger than just a way of working or an environment.  Agile working begins with how you run your business “you allow the established routines within your business to quickly and seamlessly adapt to the quickly changing marketplace.” While agile working does involve the flexibility of time and place, it is also about the flexibility of management, structures and the ability for an organisation to respond and transform itself. (You notice this articl doesn’t use the government/contractual definition of flexibility but the more commonly accepted notion).

It’s also important to understand that agile working is not the same as agile development – it’s not about the post it notes.  Agile development is a project management methodology developed in software development in the 1990’s which in recent years has become very popular across various sectors.  One of the most popular methods is known as Scrum.  Scrum is best known for the daily scrum and scrum task board of post it notes. (Kanban is also similar).  One of the limitations of Scrum is that is works less well for teams whose members are geographically dispersed or part-time – whereas agile working should not be limited by this. Paul Allsop of the Agile Organisation defines “Agile working [as] bringing people, processes, connectivity and technology, time and place together to find the most appropriate and effective way of working to carry out a particular task. It is working within guidelines (of the task) but without boundaries (of how you achieve it).” 

In this article, John Eary discusses he differences between flexible and agile working, and the concept of work-life integration. Work life integration allows staff to choose when and where to work to suit their personal lives, and as long as performance outcomes are achieved.  John notes that “Managing this trade-off is a challenge for employers and employees. For employees the trade-off for more flexibility in working time is accepting greater responsibility in meeting work commitments. For employers the trade-off for staff becoming more responsible and responsive is adopting a relaxed attitude to their staff’ working practices, particularly to when staff choose to work. ”

To me, this says that agile working is really about giving everyone autonomy to chose how, when and where they work. Numerous studies have been published to verify that autonomy is one of the single biggest predictors of workplace satisfaction. Whether it is control of your place and time of work or of your environment, autonomy helps both attract and retain the best and brightest staff. And according to Gensler, autonomy also increases your chances of innovation.

While everyone these days claims to offer flexibility, how many organsisations are truly offering autonomy? When we ask for flexiblity should we be asking for autonomy instead?

Ceilidh Higgins

PS. I’m currently looking for a new role as a lead/senior workplace designer – in an organisation that offers flexibility (3 days per week) and autonomy.  Get in touch with me via the links at the bottom of the about page you are hiring! (no recruiters please)

What’s so critical – why the long hours?

School Memories by lehman_11, on Flickr
Is it really necessary for us to accept a long hours culture in order for architecture or design practices to thrive, or for us to succeed as individuals?

Earlier this year I started a new role.  I’m a senior associate in an award winning interior design studio. In my last practice I managed a major workplace fitout project of close to 8,500m2.  I also work 3 days per week.  A lot of people are surprised at the last sentence.  Whilst it is not uncommon for women in our industry to work part time after having children – what is uncommon is that I changed jobs and managed a major project without switching to a full time role.  Numerous women, both in design and other industries have told me that my job change is inspiring them to start seriously job hunting and not putting it off, “until they are ready to go full time again”. If you are a man thinking this post isn’t for you – think twice. Would you like your evenings and weekends back too? It’s all part of the same problem.

There seems to be a belief across our industry, from architects and interior designers through to project managers and clients that you have to work more than full time hours to lead a project.  That part time won’t work.  That you should be available to answer questions from clients and contractors at least during all business hours, but preferably during any hours they chose to work.   This isn’t just an issue for women – I know plenty of men sick of the hours and the pressure too.

Why has our industry culture developed this way? Sorry to say – but what we do isn’t all that critical.  We are not emergency services – no one’s life is at risk.  To be really brutally honest – not even that much money is at risk.  Your clients payroll for a week is much much larger than a week’s corporate rent.  So why have we developed this crazy notion that everything is super urgent, that a reply can’t wait a day and that everyone has to be working all the time?

Mobile phones and email are part of the problem.  In days gone by, contractors might have had to wait for us to come to site, or even send a letter – that could take days!  Somehow even a fax was never as urgent as email has now become.  It sat in the office until you returned.  The pace of things has changed for everyone, but why do we let it drive us? If we are part of the problem, we are all a part of the solution.  As long as we all accept the status quo, nothing changes.  But what if we push back, if we look at alternative ways of working and managing our teams and our clients? Why shouldn’t everyone work part time?  Especially if automation is going to mean less work for everyone.

My choice to work part time is partly about the fact I have a toddler, but its not just that.  Working part time also gives me more time for other things – to write, to be part of the BILT ANZ event committee, to meditate and to try to fit in some exercise.  I had already spent some time working more flexible hours a couple of years ago and had realised that working less hours makes me more productive, more creative and better at my job and my life.  Especially in a creative role, sitting at your desk for 40 hours plus a week doesn’t help you do a better job, it just gives you repetitive strain injury or a mental health problem.

Right now, we have a shortage of senior interior designers in Australia.  Why? Partly because so many young designers dropped out of the industry during the GFC but also because many senior designers are women with children who just don’t want the stress of feeling that they can’t meet the hours and workload expected of a senior design role.  Architecture has a similar problem with a shortage of senior women, particularly in mid to large size practices.

It doesn’t help that many part timers are forced into roles that undermine their confidence and capability.  Being a senior associate given the same work as the part time student is pretty demeaning (and it has happened to me, along with many others I know).  Just because you are part time doesn’t mean you can’t be client facing.  If you chose not to be – there are plenty of tasks in every studio that can really benefit from the knowledge of part time senior staff.  Quality reviews are a really easy start.  Internal staff training and mentoring.  Partnering a part time senior staff member with a more junior team member can be a great way for a junior to get more client exposure and more responsibility.

Its true that looking for a new role as a part timer is harder – one practice told me they wouldn’t hire a part timer for a senior role – it’s too hard to manage.  It’s different to manage – it is only harder because it’s not what we are used to.  I know this as a manager, I’ve managed remote teams and I have managed a team in which I was the only full timer.  Both of these kinds of management are different to managing a team who sit right in front of you, available every day of the week.  The secret is being organsied, communicating and setting expectations.  It takes adjustment on both sides.  Managers have to realise that staff are not there at their beck and call.  Micromanagement won’t work.  This applies as much to other kinds of flexible and agile working as it does to part time.  As an individual you have to take control of your role, your tasks and your relationship with email.  Team members have to learn to balance taking initiative with when something is truly urgent and worth bothering someone on their day off.  Finally, clients have to learn to respect boundaries too.  Most of our client organisations have part time staff (and many of them work shorter hours than your typical design studio anyway). Given the knowledge and the chance, most clients seem to respect the fact that I’m not in the studio every day.  Usually things are not so complex or critical that they can’t be solved by another team member, or wait a day or two.  More often than the client having a problem with part timers, its our own industry perceptions that assume a client will have a problem.  It is not unusual for a senior staff member to be regularly unviable several days per week due to existing project commitments or travel – why is the fact they are at home rather than in another client office that day any different? For some reason our culture seems to think it is.

It’s up to individuals and their practices to figure out what will work for you.  How do I manage my part time week? I chose to spread my work days out, working Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday so I am only ever out of the office for one day at a time.  This won’t work for everyone. I also keep an eye on emails on my days off, again this is my choice, and it can lead to difficult conversations around boundaries.  The challenge is to be able to see an email and not freak out or feel you have to respond straight away, as well as for others to respect that you won’t respond to everything. If you and your team can’t do that, then maybe checking email on your day off won’t work for you (but maybe you want to train yourself to try to be less affected by email bombs – its something I am getting better at by practicing).  If things are urgent, I might contact team members via email or on slack.  The team know they can contact me if its urgent too.  I don’t respond to client emails on my days off.  My email signature tells people the days I am in the studio and I find most people respect this and don’t call my mobile on my days off.  When I’m running a project, I make sure all the team members are fully briefed on the priorities for the days I am away and we have a shared to do list (I have been testing out trello) for when anyone finishes up all their allocated tasks.  For my teams, its working.  In my previous role, I delivered tender documentation on time for a fast paced 8,500m2 fitout project, thanks to the help of a great team working alongside me.

Its highly unlikely anyone else will ever tell you to go home, or not to respond to emails on your day off.  Its true some clients, team members or managers will always be difficult and expect everyone to always be available.  But rather than expecting this to be the case, expecting organisations not to hire part time staff – why don’t we all start expecting the opposite?  That’s how change will come about. Once we start accepting that part time works we will also realise that no-one needs to work 24/7 and we can all get our lives back.

 

Ceilidh Higgins

Image credits: “School Memories” (CC BY 2.0) by lehman_11

PS. Are you coming to BILT ANZ in Adelaide in May? I’m really excited that we have a great range of presentations lined up this year, particularly of interest for anyone interested in Interior Design and Technology – Daniel Davis from WeWork will be presenting.  See more on the RTC Events blog.  You can register as well as enter our competition to win a free Golden Ticket here.

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 

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 

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 

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 

Why is delivering on time so hard? Is it that architecture, engineering and time management don’t mix?

Time Jumper by h.koppdelaney, on FlickrThis week I’m struggling to find the motivation to write – not because I don’t have anything to say, or even that I don’t have time – but because my brain is currently in a state of post tender lethargy. I’m sure you are all familiar with it – the stress and extra hours leading up to issuing architecture, interior design or engineering documentation for tender seems to be a routine part of working on the consulting side of construction. Design programs seem to get ever shorter, staff numbers always reducing and the complexity of projects increasing, it is a scenario that just seems to get worse and worse. Personally, for me, I find it’s not actually the hours that get to me – even if I don’t work really long hours in the lead up to a tender – it’s more the stress of will be on time? Will all the team deliver on time? Does being late impact the end date for the project? How annoyed will the client be if we are late? Will we be able to issue an addendum?  It’s worrying about these things that gets to me. I care about being on time – whether that’s arriving for a meeting or delivering something on the date I’ve promised – and for me when this becomes impossible or outside my own direct  control this is the biggest cause of stress.  And I don’t think this is just me, I know a lot of colleagues agree (and many former colleagues who went over to the client side to avoid it!)

Why does it seem to be impossible? Is this deadline driven stress something we just have to accept as being part of our industry?  I’d like to think not. But I’m not sure how we change this. One loyal reader (Thanks Jase – he also asked me to make this post controversial) suggested that its a lack of planning and felt that no post on the last minute nature of delivery in architecture and engineering could be complete without the 5 Ps – “Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance”. I agree there is a lot of poor planning goes on by all parties involved in construction – and it all begins with the client and the fee proposal.

At proposal stage (where ironically we usually have to be on time or we are disqualified), the client typically sets out some sort of milestones that they have in mind for their project. Sometime these are ‘real’ and fixed milestones such as a lease end, a university teaching holiday period or a certain date on which staff are returning from off site locations. At other times the milestones are not so much functional fixed requirements and may be based on internal performance measures or arbitrary dates (or just plain silly things like government money that somehow evaporates come end of financial year).

Often the dates set at this stage are crazy – the client has left it too late (due to poor planning or process at their end, or even simply not understanding the time these things take) and suddenly they need a new office for 200 staff in less than 6 months (I mean seriously – you did have a 10 year lease…). But of course we architects and interior designers can sort this out – we will do anything to win your project. And the bigger the project is the sillier we are likely to become.

So we have agreed to your program –  actually at that point it shouldn’t be too bad should it? We will have planned for this right? Allocated extra resources, thought through the minimum time frames things will take, the interactions that need to take place with the engineers, when and who would be doing design reviews, what software and technology could help us and we would maximize our efficiencies at every step of the way. Maybe we have…and maybe we haven’t.

But to compound the situation we then allowed you the client just 1 or 2 days to review and make decisions. And you forgot to tell us that there is a certain person who must be consulted, a board meeting the design must be presented to, or someone in IT who needs 2 weeks to provide feedback. But of course that’s only a small area of the building isn’t it? That need not delay the whole program right? Wrong. All of a sudden we have lost some of our efficiency in how we work and the order in which decisions are made and parts if the project documented.

Its even worse the project goes on hold and staff are reallocated to other projects – it can be difficult to get them back when suddenly the client says (without warning of course), here is that feedback and signoff – so when can the tender documents be ready – next week as planned? No, we can’t usually do 4 weeks if work in 1. I’m sure all my readers know, it gets to the point where throwing more people at the project just isn’t enough. Things still have to be done in a certain order, particularly if the client would actually like the engineering to consider the architecture and vice versa. (and it would be a strange project if this wasn’t a client requirement, much easier though!). It would also be nice for us to have time so that the documentation can be checked, and cross checked properly, so we can minimise errors which inevitably result in extra costs (and potentially time) on site.

Of course this isn’t every project and clients aren’t the only people to blame. Jason’s comment on proper planning is a big issue. We need to better plan reviews – doing them at the right time by the right people. We need to better understand what is a review and what is a design change. We need to respect the work of other members of the team, be they architects, engineers or interior designers. We need to incorporate buildabilty, engineering and cost earlier in the process of design to help reduce last minute changes (and clients need to understand some of these things too). We need to spend enough time and resources at the briefing and concept stages to better think through the design solutions at the point when we do have the time and we are not making quick decisions without thinking through the implications. We need to better understand and leverage off the technology and the process of automation. We need to embrace BIM for the productivity gains it brings, so our reviews can focus on construction and coordination instead of detail reference checking. Autodesk needs to make Revit less buggy and prone to doing strange things on the day tender docs are due (much as I love Revit – somehow it knows and conspires against you).

Revit (or other BIM software) changes this design and checking process in other ways too. For those that don’t understand the process of modeling, early drawings can seem rubbish and not worth checking. For those of us who use scheduling, the temptation is there to think the schedule is just being generated as things are modeled, without any checking. The process of checking changes and the worst thing is to throw too many people on the job in the last week. Final checking should move forward and all sorts of coordination, clash detection and checking should be ongoing throughout the process. It’s not really any different to what should have happened using CAD, it’s just that BIM highlights process deficiencies.

Maybe some days we just need to admit we can’t do it. That this tender won’t be on time.  But not the day after it was due. Nothing annoys me more than when team members haven’t delivered on time and I am calling the next day to ask what is going on. Then I have to start building contingencies into their delivery dates, further reducing the time they have – and I know that the project managers and clients are often doing this to me too. But because we are all late way to often, I can understand why they do.  Maybe if we could reliably deliver fully coordinated documents on the planned day the builders could afford have a few days less tendering or on site building, giving us a few more days working?

Whilst for many of us its true that deadlines can motivate and drive us, we function better when we are not stressed and tired. No matter how much we love our jobs most of us have lives outside of work – partners, kids, hobbies, the need for sleep and exercise. Maybe if we all accepted this of each other then our documents would actually be more accurate…and maybe we’d all have the time and inclination to do other things – blog more! Or teach and mentor more, or contribute to our industry more – and maybe this would help improve the quality of what we do, how we are treated by our clients and the inefficiency of the construction industry generally. Now that is revolutionary – could we improve our productivity by taking more time off? (Controversial enough?)

I certainly noticed when I was not working and was pretty relaxed,  when I sat down to do anything ‘work’ (like write a blog post or prepare Revit models for conference papers) that I did it a lot more efficiently than I’d expected, and with less mistakes.  I’ve always noticed this on a smaller scale in relation to my stress levels/working hours in the office too.

What do you think? Can we make on time stress free quality delivery a reality for architecture, interior design and engineering? What do you think we need to do to achieve it? How can our industry change? And does time off make you more productive?

Image credits:  “Timejumper”

It is mandatory that external walls are waterproof: What do client design guidelines, specifications and requests for tender have in common?

Red boat - Venice by MorBCN, on FlickrSeriously I am not joking – this sentence came out of a client design guideline document. I am a little worried about the standard of their existing building given that they feel the need to write this out for their future architects to read. Surely for any building waterproof external walls is a pretty basic design expectation? The client shouldn’t have to ask for it. If the walls aren’t waterproof I’d say its a pretty big mistake, I’m pretty sure it’s negligent either on the part of the architect or the builder – so why write it down? It’s also pretty unlikely that it was deliberately designed that way, so putting it into a design guideline isn’t going to fix it. All it does is create work for someone to write it (the client organisation probably paid an architect to write this down) and more work for their next architect to read it. And whilst we all want more work,I think as architects and designers we would rather our clients were paying for something of value – for example our design skills – than this kind of bureaucratic process that wastes everyones time and in the end achieves nothing.

Originally when I started thinking about this post I was only thinking about client design guidelines, but then I realised that a similar problem exists with the specifications we write for builders, the briefs we or our clients write and request for tender or proposal documents written by our clients. We all spend a lot of time writing down things that are obvious, standard practice or a stautory requirement. How often have you read any one of the above documents that says the building has to comply with the BCA (Building Cde of Australia)? Doh – of course it does (assuming its in Australia!). What is much more important or relevant is specific details of how this building needs to comply – such as the levels of fire rating required. But that’s not defined. It’s left up to the project team to resolve – no problem, but they would have done that anyway without being told the building had to comply with the BCA.

All of these documents are often necessary and valuable documents for communication between parties in a construction project – but frequently seem to provide no value – just waste everybodies time.

In looking at client design guidelines what I like to see is actual requirements and details. For me, dealing mostly with interior design guidelines, I find that usually finishes, furniture and signage requirements are reasonably well defined, not surprising, as this is the look and feel as well as interchangeability of components – one of the main reasons for a large client organisation to have design guidelines in the first place. However, even with these items, often you start to get into the finer detail and things like materials or construction are not so well defined – is that Parchment white laminate table on 25 or 33mm thick board. And the thing is, if a client has gone to the trouble of having a design guideline more than likely they care about this level of detail, so then I have to ask what seems like a million questions.

It tends to get even more poorly defined when it comes to construction of fitout – partitions, doors, door hardware. Again, it seems misty definitions are typical. If you have a standard expectation for how partitions are constructed to achieve a certain level for acoustics – how about instead of referencing the Australian standard you just give me the details? That way you will save yourself getting a different acoustic engineer to give you advice on the same partition construction over and over again.

For some reason building services often seem to be a little better defined, but maybe this is because I’m not getting into the detail of it, and its a similar situation to the furniture. Perhaps some of my readers out there want to comment on this?

The problem seems to be that clients want to have design guidelines but they don’t want to take on any of the risk or liability for the design. They want to tell the consultant architect or designer what to do, but not to tell them too exactly, because then it somehow seems like the architect or designer has some kind of choice or responsibility. This is a ridiculous situation, wasting everyone’s time and money (and one I wonder which would stand up in court if tested anyway). If you as client have certain requirements or ways of doing things that have worked in the past – just tell your architects or designers – and if you do it the same way all the time, have someone write it down.

Moving to the other side though, we architects can be just as bad when it comes to specifications. I usually use Natspec (an Australian standard specification package) to put together my specifications. I want to point out that none of my comments are specific against Natspec but apply to the industry and the way we have come to write specifications generally. To me, specifications basically come into 4 parts – schedules/items of stuff that go into the building, installation methods, standards and submission requirements. So – the stuff that makes up the building, that’s pretty critical, if we don’t specify that we will have a problem. Now how to install it – is that our job or the builders job? And what’s the point of writing ‘install to manufacturers specifications’, that’s pretty obvious? Or even more stupidly why copy out the manufacturers specifications and standard details? As for standards – why do we need to reference them? Shouldn’t it be expected that glazing will comply with AS1288 as that’s the standard that is applicable? As for witness points and submissions, we frequently request loads of items that no one might ever look at. That is, until something goes wrong. And that is the point of most of the specification, it seems to be there for when something goes wrong and isn’t done properly – on many jobs I bet its not ever even read by anyone on the contractor team. It’s a shame we put so much time into something that’s almost just in case.

So what can we do to change all of this? Part of the problem is that our industry, so frequently all of the parties are separated by contracts which seem to actually prevent people from working together to sort things out and do things better, and everyone is trying to pass risk onwards down the chain. Outside of individual projects, when do clients, architects, engineers and contractors actually talk to each other about how to improve the way we work and construction industry productivity? Not so much in terms of making money – but in terms of all of us working smarter. Not very often.

One of the few times I see consultants, clients and contractors together is in the BIM space – although there is still not enough participation across all levels and sectors of the industry – and the lack of collaboration across the industry is has been one of the hinderances to BIM uptake to date. By coincidence, at the same time as I was thinking and writing on this topic, I received an invitation to be part of one of the Collaborate ANZ working groups on Level of Detail – now while Level of Detail might be a BIM issue (read a good explanation at Practical BIM) – in the end, it comes down to the same things I’ve been talking about in this post – making sure that the right information is shared across the industry and across projects with the people who need it at the time they need it. Whilst Collaborate ANZ is BIM focussed, most of the people involved are passionate about improving collaboration and communication across the industry as a whole. If we can get people talking about collaboration on BIM, and if BIM becomes a standard tool across the industry and starts to cover things like client guidelines and specifications – hopefully this will start to solve some of the problems across the industry. If my client could give me a full BIM package – template and families – maybe I wouldn’t have to read through all the irrelevant wordy guidelines and maybe my BIM model could go to the contractor with all the information they needed, but nothing extraneous included – and that could be our documentation. No specifications, no design guidelines. (It still doesn’t solve the problem of requests for tender though does it?)

However maybe I am being too optimistic here? What do you think – how can we streamline the way we work and reduce unnecessary documentation? What are the strangest design guidelines or specification requirements you have seen? Or should things stay as they are – are these kinds of documents generating work for architects and designers?

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