Present Reality Explored

This is Step 5 on the pathway to Taking Control

What is our “Present Reality”?

The topics list is long and the causes diverse – but I believe that these seven aspects, introduced in Step 1, have – and will continue to have – the greatest effect on design practice.

  1. The most rapidly evolving environment in history
  2. Information overload, doubling every two years
  3. Flow-on fragmentation of design specialties
  4. No framework for coordination and integration
  5. Constant downward pressure on fees
  6. Flow-on difficulty in maintaining quality
  7. Increasing liability and risk

Fast Foreword

The built form of architecture changes slowly, in long sweeping cadences. I grew up in an era where the virtues of “modernism” were still being questioned and debated, and Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion ideas were the cutting edge of avant-garde design thinking (see sidebar).

The processes of architecture that create the built form, on the other hand, changed very, very slowly until recently. Over the span of a thousand years plus, papyrus became velum, tee-squares morphed into drafting machines, the bone abacus and then the slide rule gave way to the pocket calculator – but until the advent of computer-aided design and drafting tools a mere 4 decades ago, design process changed very little.

Even with CAD, very little changed until the development of the internet in the late 1980’s, and subsequent advances in computing power, created the possibility for a massive explosion in data, data transfer, and data storage. It is this “tsunami” of information that has had the greatest effect on virtually every aspect of design practice.

The 7 Key Aspects of Our Present Reality

1  The most rapidly evolving environment in history

First, it is global. If you are not already working with an international design/drafting office, you can be sure that some of your competitors are. This gives them significant cost advantages, and in some cases, time advantages where teams can work “around the clock, around the globe”.

This help is sourced either from subconsultants (drafting services) or from owned foreign practices, and cost 1/4 to 1/3 of what you will be paying your people in a “developed” country. This is part of the cause of the fee pressure described below.

Second, the successful marketing of professional services is changing extremely rapidly. Because of the information tsunami, “signal to noise” ratios are increasing, and our messages are becoming fainter and fainter. Even the very recent growth of email outreach is failing; “open” rates are only about half what they were just a few years ago.

Relationship marketing will never go out of fashion, but it is a hard way to build business. Successful firms are to moving away from “outbound” marketing to “inbound” marketing. This is a huge shift, requiring knowledge and skills that few design professionals have – and that seems completely counter-intuitive to everything we know.

Third, generational differences are changing the way that principals must deal with younger staff. Familiar rules about what creates loyalty and service longevity no longer work, challenging practice leaders.

These newer generations place higher value on workplace flexibility and more equitable, “family-friendly” working conditions. They are also more likely to “job-hop” after you’ve trained them.

Fourth, rapidly accelerating climate change, which is changing the way we think about the role design in our future environment.

2  Information overload, doubling every two years

Depending on which source you read, knowledge is doubling every two years, or 18 months, and the pace is accelerating. IBM predicts that information will soon be doubling every 12 hours. It’s safe to say that nobody really knows, but it’s also safe to say that built-environment professionals are confronted by a geometrically expanding knowledge base. What information do we needed today? Here are a few examples:

  • The Revit user guide Mastering AutoDesk Revit 2013 (Wiley) is 1,120 densely packed pages.
  • ASTM Standards for construction are available together as a set. The last print edition of these standards (2010) included more than 1300 standards, comprising over 8,700 pages. The current (2013) version is no longer in paper, but available as a DVD, with 1,800 standards – and an unknown number of pages.
  • Sweets File, the US standard source for product information, contains data on more than 20,000 products and materials.
  • The BDP Environment Design Manuals, published by the Australian Institute of Architects (RAIA), comprise more than 240 articles in over 2,000 pages.
  • The RAIA Advisory Notes on how to use the three ABIC standard forms of construction contract (BW-1, SW-1 and MW-1) comprise approximately 700 pages.

Nobody, as far as I know, has attempted to quantify the amount of data that comes to bear in designing a single project. However, it almost certainly exceeds 10,000 pages of information – of which a small fraction needs to be skilfully extracted to complete project design and documentation.

3  Flow-on fragmentation of design specialties

The more information a designer has to manage, the greater the pressure to become a specialist rather than a generalist. Nobody can know it all. Consequently, the design profession has become increasing fragmented, much like medicine and law.

There are now at least a dozen main design professional groups, and if you go to the increasingly common breakdowns of those, you are up to nearly 70 distinct professional roles applicable to built environment projects.

4  Lack of any framework for coordination and integration

The number of potential interactions, or points of communication, between different design disciplines is shown by the formula Pi = n (n-1), where Pi = number of Potential interactions, and n = number of different design consultants involved in a project.

Thus, for a project with 26 separate consultants, the number of communication paths is 26 x 25 or 650. I picked that number, because that is how many different consultant groups were engaged as prime consultants on the Melbourne Central project, with which I was involved two decades ago.

The reality is that there is no recognized professional category responsible for the coordination and integration of design services.

But are there really that many potential interactions to manage? Sure: Many design firms have multiple disciplines, and are appointed for multiple design roles. But when has that guaranteed that they actually talk to each other? Indeed, many users of design services discover that “packaging” of disciplines for a single point of contact is no better than appointing separate consultants.

Whenever there is a service void, providers will rush in and promise to fill it. Professional project managers have led that charge. Have they significantly benefited projects?

The core problem: To be able to coordinate and integrate the services processes of a number of design professional disciplines, you need to have a fairly deep understanding about how all of them work. At least in my experience, the great majority of “professional” PMs don’t have that depth of experience. Too often, they don’t really understand the processes they are coordinating.

What happens, more often, is they become what are called “mailboxes” in the design professions: receiving and forwarding correspondence to everybody, without really adding value to the process. More recently, firms offering project website services have jumped into this framework vacuum, doing pretty much the same role as the project managers did, but maintaining systems “in the cloud”.

Although these services offer advantages, all of the feedback I get is that they cost more money to maintain than traditional ways, and that the advantages do not outweigh the disadvantages.

In any case, they are not the solution to the need for a framework for coordination and integration of project information – no matter what the vendors of these systems may argue.

The solution to this question? You’ll find it in Managing Design corner of this website.

5  Constant downward pressure on fees

Every design professional I know talks about the erosion of design fees, and the difficulty of producing high quality design for the fee levels that are available. So: Is there any proof of that, or is it just complaining?

Turns out there is proof, in landmark research carried out by Paul Tilley and Stephen McFallan for Australia’s peak research body, CSIRO, in the late 1990’s. What Tilley and McFallan found was that real fees had declined by about 25% over 12-15 years.

Tilley image

In the above graph, “now” = 2000.

The conclusion of the research: the levels of fees being obtained in 2000 were well below those required to provide quality design and documentation services.

See my paper discussing these research findings.

The consequences of inadequate documentation? In another study, Paul Tilley found that construction costs blew out sharply when documentation was inadequate, as seen in the table below.

Tilley Construction quality image 2

See my paper discussing these research findings.

6 Flow-on difficulty in maintaining quality

We can see from the above research that, by reducing design fees to minimise costs, clients and developers were, by their own actions, contributing to the problems that lead to inefficiencies in the construction process and increases in overall project costs. The results of the surveys clearly show a need for clients and developers to allocate adequate funds and time to the planning and design phases of a project, in order to maximise construction process efficiency and minimise overall project costs.

The only way for design professionals to deliver quality design and documentation for sub-standard fees is to work a lot of unpaid extra time – in short, to “burn out” staff.

Inevitably, quality control suffers, projects go out to bid without being properly checked and coordinated, and construction costs and schedules blow out as a result.

7 Increasing liability and risk

Against this situation, liability and risk increases. It’s that simple. We see it in the claims history of professional indemnity insurers. Click to review an analysis of claims by the XL Group.

Mapping the High Ground

To some degree, we are all blind men feeling parts of the elephant and making guesses about its nature. The “Architect as Master Builder” is still a memory of where we should be heading, but any who actually were those master builders died long before our time. Those who think BIM and IPD will restore some of that long-lost patina are dreaming.

But there is, in my mind, still some high ground there for the taking, with the benefits that go with having high ground. Mapping that high ground is my personal goal: a map that younger men and women can follow.

Next: Step 6