Transforming Studio Culture – Notes for an AIA Panel Discussion

The ACADIA 2015 Hackathon
The ACADIA 2015 Hackathon

This week I am giving several talks at this year’s AIA Minnesota conference in Minneapolis.  I will be participating in a panel called “Transforming Studio Culture”  to discuss the impacts that data and computation are having on studio culture in architecture firms.  Here are some notes as I prepare my opening remarks…

I find myself in an interesting position on this panel.  I am the only non-AIA affiliated panelist and my career path has taken me far afield from traditional architectural design practice.  Yet, as a consultant I have been given insights into the operations of many different design studios and have been witness to (and participated in) many of the transformations we will surely discuss as a group.

Ahead of this conversation, I thought it might be useful to convey some of my recent experiences in what I see as some of the larger transformations occurring in today’s design studio culture…

The Rise of Virtual Teams

In my last 3 years as a consultant at CASE, I operated as a ‘remote employee’ (nearly 50% of us were) and I interacted with my teammates through any and every manner of online chat and video conferencing.  My office has been my basement, a coffee shop, a client’s conference room, an airport, a hotel room, and the inside of a fuselage. Now, as the owner of a startup company, I fully expect that my future teammates will not work where I work.  Needless to say, my current professional reality feels starkly different from my previous experiences working as an architectural designer where ‘studio culture’ is typically built around the concept of co-located teams.

Remote working is becoming increasingly important for studio operations.  Teams are traveling more often and the need for virtual ‘work sharing’ between geographic locations is becoming a pressing concern for firms with multiple locations.

According to Global Workplace Analytics, ‘working from home’ among the non-self employed has grown 103% since 2005.  3.7 million US employees work from home at least half the time. In addition, many of my clients indicate that remote working is becoming increasingly important to their operations.  Design teams are traveling more often and the need for virtual ‘work sharing’ between geographic locations is becoming a pressing concern for firms with multiple locations.

Remote working solutions are undoubtedly made possible through the adoption of (and comfort with) the latest technical infrastructure.  Even more important are the attributes of the a remote staff:  flexible, adaptable, and self-starting personalities thrive in remote work scenarios.  Having trust in your remote teammate also means having a deeper understanding of their strengths and weaknesses.  It’s not just a matter of ‘staffing up’ the project as a deadline approaches, it’s about being doubly sure that you have the right person for the job.

Learning by Hacking

The pace of technological change has created the need for new types of learning strategies within architectural organizations.  I have personally observed a trend of moving away from multi-day classroom training in favor of shorter, more frequent exploratory workshops that focus on specific topics with new tools.  These types of workshops also tend to be more project specific so there is immediate relevance to current work. In addition, I am seeing firm’s invest in virtual ‘self-paced’ training content in order to provide staff with more opportunities to learn amidst project deadlines.  (PG plug: be sure to check out some of our new free video content)

Jonatan Schumacher presents at a recent hackathon hosted by Thornton Tomasetti
Jonatan Schumacher presents at a recent hackathon hosted by Thornton Tomasetti

Beyond training and workshops, new skillsets are resulting in alternative learning scenarios focused on problem solving and, ideally, useful products.  As I have discussed in previous articles, learning to code has become a popular idea in the architectural design community.  It is not uncommon to now find designers creating scripts, algorithms, and powerful computational workflows to achieve a building design. Along with these new skills come new forms of collaborations and social activities.  For example, ‘hackathons’ are becoming another popular activity within design studios.

In many ways, the growing interest in hackathons signal just how close the worlds of technology and the building industry have become.  More and more teams are engaging in the creation of custom tools and workflows.

Like the familiar ‘design charrette’, a hackathon creates an environment for focused problem solving with technology. The premise is simple:  teams will self-organize around a technical problem and spend 24-48 hours creating a usable solution.  The results are shared with the larger group and there is usually an abundance of pizza and Red Bull.  In many ways, the growing interest in hackathons signal just how close the worlds of technology and the building industry have become.  More and more teams are engaging in the creation of custom tools and workflows.  Hackathons provide an outlet for teams to rapidly produce usable solutions that can be used for process improvement and design exploration.

Data-Informed, Data-Driven Designers

In a previous article, I wrote at length about the use of data in the design process.  The growing demand for data in design is requiring new skills on teams and consideration for organizational change management.  Beyond simply adopting new computational tools, designers are having to exercise their analytical mind to take advantage of data for informed decisions.  Furthermore, the clear communication of data to clients is a new imperative alongside more familiar architectural schematics and renderings.  Business Intelligence tools are being used within architecture companies to understand complex programmatic relationships and gain insight into other building performance criteria.

Program Adjacency Map
A graph-based data visualization for programmatic relationships (using Gephi)

Firms that are being successful with data are positioning clear workflows and decision-making methodologies to align with their organizational values.

Getting access to data is the easy part.  Gaining actionable insight from the data requires a much greater investment in equipping people with the right process and tools.  Firms that are getting value from data are positioning clear workflows and decision-making methodologies to align with their organizational values.  For example, a firm with a well defined sustainability ethos may leverage different data sources than than a firm known for designs possessing high operational efficiency.  To know the relevance of data to your process is to ‘know thyself’.

Transforming Culture in a Change-Resistant Industry

Having spent my more recent career as a consultant, I have had the opportunity to pop the hood and ‘check the engines’ powering architecture firms of all shapes and sizes.  I have worked with boutique design companies as well as large corporate practices. There can be no doubt that new technologies and data sources are having an impact on architectural practice.  We’re seeing new tools on desktops, new language in contracts, and new skill sets on teams.

And yet, there can also be no doubt that the building industry remains change adverse.  This should come as no surprise. Buildings are inherently expensive and building professionals take on great liability to construct them.  ‘Messing around’ with the approach using new technology and data can be perceived by managers and leaders as an unnecessary risk to the bottom line.  More often than not, new technology and data is adopted as a way to incrementally improve on the existing workflow rather than revolutionize a process.

However, today’s pace of technological advancements in combination with high performance expectations are pushing studio culture towards a massive transformation where team dynamics are increasingly virtual and where problem solving is fueled by data.