The Necessary Shift
Building as a product
We've designed and delivered buildings in essentially the same way for hundreds of years, with unreliable outcomes—many projects go well, but many do not. While the last decade has brought great promise to improve outcomes, through highly collaborative and integrated methodologies enabled by technology, success requires a significant cultural shift from all players.
This shift must be rooted in an understanding that a building is a tool for creating value. This perspective applies from well before the building begins, to well after the building is complete, and conversations about values, goals, objectives, and alignment need to stretch across those same time boundaries. These perspectives have been a major focus of my work for the last fifteen years, with emphasis on the design professions. Although relevant to all AEC stakeholders, this is about the perspective of the architect. Let’s dig into what our future might look like.
What will architects do?
Of course we’ll continue to do what we’ve always done well. Architects excel at expression and exploration, and those outputs won’t change. But the input? That side of the design equation will change with the number of inputs into the design process increasing dramatically. In highly collaborative models, that means the multiplicity, volume, quantity, and quality of input information. Although I'm not a believer in design by committee, I do think design can be far richer and more robust with more sources of input than traditionally considered. If along the way those input sources also happen to have ideas or design suggestions that are beneficial to the overall project…then fantastic! But architects are still going to be designers. It's the multiplicity, volume, quantity, and quality of input information into the design process that will increase dramatically in these highly collaborative models. In the future, I think an owner enterprise may engage a project team—including architects—far earlier in the life cycle.
A real look
When an owner first sees that business case metrics are suggesting that a building might be a solution to better their enterprise outcomes, they'll form a cross-disciplinary team to monitor and analyze metrics and test different scenarios. Architects will be a key player on those teams.
Suppose all indicators suggest this value proposition: "Yes, a facility or some kind of a capital project is the direction that enterprise needs to go." The architect will move into a second phase of work within this cross-disciplinary team, involved in a type of validation study and performance design phase. This part will really be about creating a yes or no gate for the enterprise owner to decide to go forward or not.
As part of the team, architects will, as part of this team, be gathering and analyzing massive amounts of data and information. With their stakeholder partners, they'll identify scope and performance objectives, examine feasibility, and assign current market values to projects. They will frame questions and gather the necessary information to answer those questions. It's going to require us (and our partners!) to be more adventurous toward what we traditionally think of as deliverables. This step isn't about schematic design—it’s a detailed analysis and information-driven response to a value proposition that's rooted firmly in an owner's business case. And it matters.
Assuming the project goes forward, this phase is where we find familiarity. The collaborative team will start to work together to define what is going to be built. One distinction from today's more typical practices? The future will be filled with very robust simulations. Architects and the collaborative team will work with large amounts of gathered data and information, which together feed into the design team's work to inform simulations along a whole range of different axes. One cluster might be around systems. One cluster might be around envelope. One cluster might be around performance or aesthetics.
The team will be modelling, simulating, and designing in response to the criteria attached to the original value proposition and business case. Collectively, the team might start thinking about opportunities for prefabrication or automation during construction, modularization, working to come to an overall building design, but basing that design on a detailed description, a detailed estimate, a detailed performance specification and business case versus having the design come first and then pulling other stuff out the back end and hoping for alignment. This design phase is a team's opportunity to drive value and maximize the enterprise outcomes established in the original enterprise value proposition.
Implementation comes next. I think a distinction here in what architects will do as compared to what they do currently is a clear recognition that implementation begins well before construction. In fact, I think implementation documents will become common. That means a lot of information traditionally relegated to stakeholders further down the line, like shop drawings or detailed decision-making, will appear much earlier in the process and be integrated into these documents. Architects’ work will differ in the sense that there will be many other contributors to the documentation about what the project looks like and how it’s going to be built. The architect will continue to champion expression, experience and holistic thinking—but will work closely with stakeholder partners to maximize the value that they can bring to the table in terms of detailed instructions and thinking about assemblies, whether it's modularization, prefabrication or others.
Since it’s simply not practical to create a 1:1 real-time simulation of a construction project, there will always be information gaps in implementation documents that will crop up during the construction phase. Specific decisions will continue to be required to be made during construction. Of course, architects will help anchor the multidisciplinary team by keep an eye on those decisions and contributing their particular expertise as needed.
A Necessary Shift
This is a shift where all of us—architects, owners, constructors, and the whole spectrum of industry stakeholders—begin to explore building in the context of an enterprise value-creation stream, and not just as a design and construction project.
Right now, the industry has largely confined its value proposition between the beginning of design and the end of construction. The building has always been our be-all end-all, but if we start to look deeper into how it supports and fits into an enterprise picture, the idea of the building as a product will be a far easier step. Robust simulations will be a critical supporting component here.
If we zoom out 30,000 miles. See the facility as a point in time within a 50-year lifecycle of an enterprise. It becomes much easier to see the building as a tool. I want to emphasize again, that doesn't mean the building doesn't have all of the cultural, aesthetic, or experiential significance it's always had to designers and our clients, rather that it enables us to shift our perspective to create a clearer understanding of connection to enterprise business case. That’s our driver for decision-making.
If we as architects embrace it fully, along with our partners, our teams will be able to focus more of our energies on value creation in every dimension we care to consider.