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How Architecture Firms Innovate: Three Practices Firm Leaders Can Use to Integrate New Technologies

Architecture Design Technology

In today’s fast-paced design environment, it can be extremely difficult for architecture firms to find space to innovate — to experiment with new design processes, technologies, or workflows. And yet with the rapid shift in technology, it’s more important than ever that principals create this space in their firms, or risk getting left behind.

Here’s the dilemma: Project Managers are accountable first and foremost to the client. While they are the ones who are in the best position to try out new technologies, they are not usually incentivized to do so. They are under pressure to deliver a great design on time and on budget. So when they have to make a decision whether to rely on tried-and-true tools or try out something new, the least risky decision is to go with the sure thing and leave innovation for another day.

But in aggregate, and over the long term, this is detrimental to the firm, because the firm fails to adopt new tools, fails to realize the benefits of new approaches, and ultimately fails to deliver maximum value to its clients.

The problem is pervasive. Only 10% of architecture firms report using BIM on more than 50% of projects, despite the widespread ambition (and decades-long drive) to integrate BIM as standard practice. The numbers appear to be similar for integration of performance analysis.

Overcoming these obstacles requires both strong leadership at the senior level, and a new way of thinking about innovation. Here are three practices that firms can implement to quickly discover and adopt the most effective new tools and processes.

1. Give PMs Room to Experiment

Firm principals must give explicit license to Project Managers to try out new processes and technologies. This means providing cover if there are impacts to a project budget or schedule — including providing a mechanism for the firm to absorb the costs of training, the inevitable learning curve, or adding additional heads to the team if a project gets behind schedule. PMs must be confident that their projects and clients are not bearing all of the risk — that the firm will step up and provide the necessary resources, without penalty to the PM or project team.

PMs must also be given license to experiment with new methods that may depart from the firm’s “standard practice.” This room is critical for discovering new processes. However, providing room is not the same as providing carte blanche. The following two practices help firms mitigate risk and quickly home in on the most successful experiments.

2. Use Small Explorations to Test Value

As I discussed in an earlier post, the best way to try a new practice is to start small. Find a way to begin to use a new technology or process without going “all out.” Can it be used for one design exploration? For one presentation? On one project phase? Small explorations allow learning and capacity building to happen in small, manageable chunks, reducing risk while increasing velocity.

For some specific ideas on how to implement performance based design in a lean, lightweight way, see my previous post.

3. Structure Your Firm Around Growth & Learning

A key ingredient for successful innovation is rapid learning: understanding what works and what doesn’t. Think of each new exploration as an experiment: begin with a hypothesis and find a way to measure the results in a rigorous way.

The measured results should be meaningfully related to the firm’s broader goals. For many firms, these include growing revenue, nurturing client relationships, increasing productivity, and building a strong reputation in the area of high performance design.

Here are just a few ways that individual design explorations might be tied to these broader goals:

  • Utilize performance analysis results in a proposal or competition; determine the impact by gauging client reaction, or by measuring impact on win rate over time.

  • Include performance data in a client presentation; measure client satisfaction (either qualitatively or quantitatively, depending on what you’re hoping to learn).

  • Benchmark performance against Architecture 2030 goals at key points in the project; measure which practices provide the biggest boosts in performance.

  • For projects that require a validation energy model (e.g. for LEED certification or code compliance), measure the extent to which early analysis reduces the time required for engineering coordination and energy modeling in the later stages.

In addition to giving Project Managers space to experiment, firm leaders should also incentivize them to track and improve specific, learning-focused KPIs — in other words, award them for learning how to better achieve the firm’s objectives by using new technology.

Finally, these learnings must be shared throughout the firm. This responsibility should be centralized — often times firms have a BIM Manager or Sustainable Design Leader who is already responsible for distributing best practices. This person can liaise with PMs, aggregate results of experiments, and help the next team improve the process and execute the next experiment.

With fast, lightweight learning and sensible risk management architecture firms can drive innovation and discover the most effective ways to achieve their design and business goals.

About the Author

Carl is an architect, sustainability evangelist, and an avid storyteller. He applied these skills as Product Manager, Marketer and Technology Evangelist to help build Sefaira until its acquisition by Trimble. He now serves as the Director of Design and Sustainability at a design firm.

Profile Photo of Carl Sterner