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How Do We Know We’re Doing Things Right? Part II January 23, 2010

Posted by randydeutsch in career, change, identity, possibility, questions, technology, the economy, transformation.
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While there are certainly more glaringly important worldwide problems to solve – relief in Haiti, global warming, the lingering economic downturn among them – design professionals are about to pass on an opportunity that they may never see again in their lifetimes.

Beyond the Death of the Master Builder

In the presentation Atul Gawande gave at the New Yorker Festival this past October, Gawande spoke about the importance of discipline and procedure in medicine, and how following a simple checklist can help save lives in the operating room.

The same procedures, he said, could be applied to the construction industry.

He ends the talk with this call to action:

“We have come to a time of the end of the master builder world with the question: What will we put in its place? This is our work.”

As with the current overhaul of the healthcare system, he added, “it will require a transformation to move beyond the death of the master builder.”

The Master Builder is Dead. What will we put in its place? This is our work

If the Master Builder – role, title, identity – were to return, who on the design and construction team is best suited to take-on this part?

The architect? Contractor? Engineer, consultant, facilitator, owner’s representative or construction manager?

Perhaps a new role needs to be created to play this part? And a new university curriculum created to produce candidates for this role?

Maybe the new Master Builder isn’t an individual but rather a combination of team members?

And what are we talking about here anyway – the Master Builder – or a Master Virtual Builder who oversees the creation and application of the project’s BIM model(s)?

The Quest of the Master Builder

The question of the master builder takes two sides:

Side 1: One side seeing the architect’s role receding, shrinking, minimized and even marginalized with the contractor and others in the design professions and construction industry taking-on more of their scope. Call this vision the Rebirth of the Master Builder.

Many in the industry echo Phil Bernstein’s (Autodesk / Yale School of Architecture) sentiments when he writes

Architects have not been ‘master builders’ since the Middle Ages, and the development of the profession of architecture is a social acknowledgment that building isn’t just parts assembly but requires a specific knowledge of things far beyond technical efficacy.”

Side 2: The other side is seeing an expansion of the architect’s role, as well as a need for their breadth of coverage, scope and leadership. A 2009 AIA convention seminar put it this way:

Historically the architect interfaced with all aspects of construction, from design and engineering to material and building systems. Over time, specialization has eroded the breadth of architectural practices and the concept of a master-builder. Due in part to advances in technology, changes in architectural education, economic constraints, and new cultural condition, the role of the architect is expanding again. There is a practice revolution occurring in which design professionals, trained as architects, are expanding their visions of their careers and their offices. For these architects, the lines between construction, fabrication, design, graphics, product design, development, furniture, and community activism blur in the interest of expansive practice models.

Largely due to owner’s disappointment and demand with wasted resources, infighting and lack of leadership – there have been several attempts and arguments in the recent past to rekindle the architect’s increased role as master builder.

The Need to Re-establish Onsite Construction Expertise

Today, it has been suggested that architects could play the role of virtual master builder, Master Digital Builder, Composite Master Builder per Bill Reed or information master builders as described in Branko Kolarevic’s Architecture in the Digital Age.

Architects can, once again, be master builders writes construction industry attorney Barry B. LePatner:

“Once the key player in the construction process, architects were referred to as the ‘master builder’ because they not only conceived and drew plans for structures, but they also supervised construction and could control costs for the owner. But architects have ceded much of their power to construction managers and owners’ representatives over the past few decades. Architects currently design less than five percent of America’s construction projects–a depressing statistic and a telling symptom of how marginalized the profession has become.”

LePatner goes on to recommend

“To reclaim ‘master builder’ status, architects must re-establish their onsite construction expertise, change the way they structure their fees, and then market themselves accordingly.” And concludes, “Architects with the resolve to assume these added responsibilities–and with the foresight to broaden their focus and help change an industry–will thrive. Shaping a new construction paradigm will be a challenge, for owners, architects and contractors alike. The architect who meets this challenge head on will reap the rewards of increased status, fees and value to its clients.”

James A. Walbridge AIA, president of Tekton Architecture and Artisan Builders Corporation in San Francisco agrees. He writes in BIM in the Architect Led Design Build Studio on The BIM Conundrum: Computer Skills vs. Construction Knowledge:

One of the issues that cannot be stressed enough is having a strong understanding of how a building is put together. Unfortunately, many of the young graduates we see entering the profession do not possess the fundamental understanding of constructing what is designed. In the new BIM environment and the current move towards integrated practice, this core-competency is one that is significant. Many of the young constituents of the profession have strong computer skills including proficiency with a BIM platform – but the level of construction technology is seriously lacking. Our experience is that a team member with sound construction technology expertise will be required to mentor the young intern and work side-by-side with BIM integration. This cannot be over-emphasized. True to our foundation in the architect as “Master-Builder”, all of our designers have extensive hands-on experience in construction. This type of experience is hard to acquire in the traditional model of today’s architect. Construction experience such as this is initiative-based from the individual and not all young interns can or will take this career choice. We must strengthen the construction side of the education experience and provide serious mentorship with our young interns in our offices so that the new integrated practice and BIM can continue to grow and develop more cohesively.”

There is a still great opportunity right now for the architectural profession to regain the role of master builder – irrespective of title or identity.

The important question is whether architects will have the courage to step-up and accept the risk and responsibility associated with taking-on this much needed transformative role, OR instead, overwhelmed by current societal, economic and technological forces coupled with their own feelings of disempowerment, recede into the silos and unsafe havens of their traditionally defined roles.

How do you recommend architects begin to regain their master builder status in the AECO industry?

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How Do We Know We’re Doing Things Right? Part I January 18, 2010

Posted by randydeutsch in Ambiguity, change, collaboration, pragmatism, problem solving, questions.
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In the face of the unknown – the always nagging uncertainty about whether, under complex circumstances, things will really be okay – the builders trusted in the power of communication. They didn’t believe in the wisdom of the single individual, of even an experienced engineer. They believed in the wisdom of the group, the wisdom of making sure multiple pairs of eyes were on a problem and then letting the watchers decide what to do. Man is fallible, but maybe men less so. Atul Gawande, from The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right

Things have become increasingly complex in medicine, in technology and no doubt, for architects and others in the design professions and construction industry.

New technologies, new work processes, new codes, new materials and systems, new energy requirements, new priorities –there is seemingly no letting up of the complexity.

Architects pride themselves in being comfortable with ambiguity – but there comes a time when neither pride nor patience serves them or anyone else well professionally.

So what’s an architect to do?

A Focus on Checklists

MacArthur Fellow Atul Gawande, gifted surgeon, New Yorker staff writer and esteemed author of Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance (“A masterpiece,” Malcolm Gladwell,) Complications, and now, The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, in the chapter entitled The End of the Master Builder turned his scalpel on the architecture profession and construction industry. And what he discovered is quite astonishing.

The Checklist Manifesto grew out of a New Yorker article about the surprising impact of basic checklists in reducing complications from surgery.

Things have gotten pretty complex for architects and the construction industry and as Gawande writes “we need to make sure we apply the knowledge we have consistently and correctly.”

Messages

It has been years since I read a book so powerful and so thought-provoking…The danger, in a review as short as this, is that it makes Gawande’s book seem narrow in focus or prosaic in its conclusions. It is neither. Gawande is a gorgeous writer and storyteller, and the aims of this book are ambitious. Gawande thinks that the modern world requires us to revisit what we mean by expertise: that experts need help, and that progress depends on experts having the humility to concede that they need help. – Malcolm Gladwell

The book has a number of simple but powerful messages:

  • The volume and complexity of knowledge today has exceeded any single individual’s ability to manage it consistently without error despite material advances in technology, training and specialization of functions and responsibilities.

 

Gawande explains the challenges associated with the exponential growth in both the complexity and volume of information and the inability of expertise alone to manage that information successfully. Gawande informatively distinguishes between simple, complicated and complex problems – where complex problems are like raising a child or designing and constructing a building. He tells us that a simple checklist can help us keep things in order. He writes, “Since every building is a new creature with its own particularities, every building checklist is new, too.”

  • Despite demonstrating that checklists produce results, there is resistance to their use

From the book: “Despite showing (hospital) staff members the benefits of using the checklist, 20% resisted stating that it was not easy to use, it took too long and felt it had not improved the safety of care. Yet, when asked an additional question – would you want the checklist to be used if you were having an operation – a full 93% said yes.” In the book Gawande discusses two main types of checklists, characteristics of what constitutes a good checklist and some potential challenges of the approach.

  • If you are acting on intuition rather than a systematic process, this book will cause you to pause in your tracks and seek a more disciplined approach

Gawande writes: “In a world in which success now requires large enterprises, teams of clinicians, high-risk technologies, and knowledge that outstrips any one person’s abilities, individual autonomy hardly seems the ideal we should aim for.  …what is needed, however is discipline…discipline is hard – harder than trustworthiness and skill and perhaps even than selflessness. We are by nature flawed and inconstant creatures. We can’t even keep from snacking between meals. We are built for novelty and excitement, not for careful attention to detail. Discipline is something we have to work at.”

Some revelations from The Checklist Manifesto

  • You should develop and implement a process checklist for critical processes and decisions

Gawande explains how the construction industry operates in a world that has become overly complex to accommodate the traditional Master Builder at the helm, where a sole architect once controlled of all details of the building process. Hence, the Death of the Master Builder (the subject of Part 2 of this post and the title of a presentation Atul Gawande gave at the New Yorker Festival this past October.) Architects and contractors are able to accomplish this, he learns, through the use of multiple checklists.

  • It takes more than just one person to do a job well

We’ve been hearing a lot of late of the days of the architect working alone have long passed. Collaboration has become a buzzword in business circles, not just in the architecture, and for good reason. As Gawande writes in The End of the Master Builder, “the variety and sophistication of advancements in every stage of the construction process had overwhelmed the abilities of any individual to master them.”

  • A team is only as strong as its checklist

–by his definition, a way of organizing that empowers people at all levels to put their best knowledge to use, communicate at crucial points, and get things done, according to Bartholomew, Senior Books Editor at Amazon.com

  • Busy people, caught in the complexities of life can change their ways and can produce better outcomes by using a simple checklist.

Really, checklists! We live in a world that has at our disposal pre-designed checklists in Word, Excel and all kinds of checklists you can download for free.

It’s Complicated

Architects of course have had checklists at their disposal. The AIA’s D200 form is a color-by-numbers step-by-step guide that hand-holds you the way through the design process . But it’s necessarily a false comfort – as Gawande makes clear.

I have resorted to using checklists – but clandestine, hiding them in my file or side drawer – embarrassed that I was unable to trust that I had kept every step, action, question, material, system, deliverable in my head and needed to rely on a list, as one does when food shopping.

The 1995 AIA D200 checklist lays out the architectural design process step by step in a color by number format where all you need to do is connect the dots and voila! You have a building. The architect has the comfort of knowing what to do, when to do it, and what to look out for down the road.

 

According to the AIA, the D200™–1995, Project Checklist is a convenient listing of tasks a practitioner may perform on a given project. This checklist will assist the architect in recognizing required tasks and in locating the data necessary to fulfill assigned responsibilities. By providing space for notes on actions taken, assignment of tasks, and time frames for completion, AIA Document D200–1995 may also serve as a permanent record of the owner’s, contractor’s and architect’s actions and decisions.

A checklist of this sort acts as a back-up system – where I look like a hero when we get to that part of a meeting and someone says “anything else?” and I list 3 or 4 items than no one else had thought of. Don’t thank me. Thank the AIA.

Who needs scenario planning when you have a time-proven list of what to expect in front of you?

 

“The truly great don’t have checklists”

 

But architects pride themselves on keeping everything they need to know in their head. Having to rely on a checklist is a sign of weakness to some surgeons – and no doubt to architects.

 

Besides, as Gawande mentions, checklists aren’t cool.

As Gawande writes: “It somehow feels beneath us to use a checklist, an embarrassment. It runs counter to deeply held beliefs about how the truly great among us – those we aspire to be – handle situations of high stakes and complexity. The truly great are daring. They improvise. They do not have protocols and checklists. Maybe our idea of heroism needs updating.”

We don’t picture architects Herzog and Demeuron with a checklist. But that is probably because their staff keeps them under wraps and out of sight. But no one doubts that they keep them.

Gawande points out in his book that each project by nature of being a one-off is unique and so no one checklist will serve.

This is true – anyone who has resorted to one of the checklist books – Fred Stitt’s Working Drawing Manual, Pat Guthrie’s Cross-Check: Integrating Building Systems and Working Drawings, or Guthrie’s forthcoming 688 pages 4th edition of his The Architect’s Portable Handbook: First-Step Rules of Thumb for Building Design Publisher: from McGraw-Hill –

 can attest to that. They are at best cursory, sometimes random, skipping around from reminding you to put in flashing to reminding you to submit for permit.

These field guides, handbooks and lists, by addressing the technology and science of building, give the design professional the false feeling of safety and security – they’re no substitute for covering your tracks by looking things up and crossing your T’s, nor for direct communication with your fellow project teammates and collaborators.

As one reviewer put it, “As in all of his work, Dr. Gawande latest book brilliantly reminds us all of the huge value of getting the human interaction side right to accompany the advancements in science and technology that his (and other’s) field of work has witnessed. It highlights the inadequacy of technical expertise when not joined by an equal (maybe greater) emphasis on strengthening our relationships with those we work with and care about.”

Anyone working with complexity and readers already familiar with Gawande’s previous books, Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance and Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science, will find The Checklist Manifesto no less an informative, entertaining and thought-provoking book.

Ten Ways to Face the Decade like an Architect January 8, 2010

Posted by randydeutsch in Ambiguity, architect, change, creativity, optimism, possibility, problem solving, the economy.
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Many people say that they would have liked to become an architect but for the math or drawing requirement – areas where they felt they were weak. While sketching and crunching numbers remain important parts of what an architect does, with technology and others nearby to help out, these skills have become less critical with time while other skillsets, mindsets and attitudes have come to fore. The irony is that architects to a great extent don’t do the very things that might have kept you from pursuing this career in the first place.

But luckily that need not deter you from thinking like one. Architects are trained to face seemingly intractable, unsolvable problems with a set of tools and mindsets that are readily accessible by all.

So, at the start of a new decade, let’s turn our attention to how architects approach problems – so that we might do the same in our own lives, at home and work, in our schools, neighborhoods, cities and the world at large.  

What can we learn from the ways architects think that might help us improve our lives and the world?

Architects see the Big Picture – how often have you worked on a team when most of those involved focus on their own special interest areas, in silos, seemingly unable to see how their viewpoint impacts others? Architects are trained to understand their client’s, user’s and neighbor’s issues and circumstances and come up with multiple solutions that not only solve the problem for all involved but do so while successfully addressing multiple constraints brought about by economics, the site, user’s needs, resource availability, politics. In other words – architects determine the consequences for their paths of action and decide accordingly. Architects are often characterized as focusing on objects and things – at the expense of all else. But in truth what separates the architect from others is that they see everything as a system, the object of their assignment as either a contributor or inhibitor of the various necessary flows within that system. In the end, you may walk into the physical library or school that they designed, but to them it’s all part of a much larger, largely invisible, network of flows.

Architects focus on the Details – specifically, the Divine Details. How so? Architects believe that opportunities for discovery and creativity come from focusing on the details. Architects say, after Mies, “God is in the details” while others might say “The devil is in the details.” Architects are optimists – we have to be – in order to work on the front ends of projects, to visualize and imagine them one day existing despite so many obstacles in their path. Non-architects more often opt for the devil version, where solutions break down when you examine them closely enough.  You can see this most often when someone in a meeting offers to play the “devil’s advocate,” determined to kill whatever promising idea is in their path by death-by-detail. When it comes to details, go the God route.

Architects believe in Reciprocity – Sees the big picture in the detail and the detail in the big picture – keeping things whole, a hidden wholeness, all of a piece, keeping chaos at bay, providing meaning and purpose, when elements refer to a larger whole relate, appear less arbitrary, justified in their existence. The house is a city and the city a house. Architects address the big picture and the details at the same time. Their work is organic in this way – where every part is of the whole.

Architects Synthesize – as much as they are sometimes labeled as head in the clouds, impractical dreamers, architects always have at least one foot in the ground because they know if they are ever going to build what they’ve dreamed-up every idea and suggestion needs to have a corresponding answer in the real world. Architects only take to the air knowing that the goal is to land safely. They take part in digressive thinking knowing that sooner rather than later they need to return from their excursion – where they gather information and explore alternatives – to solid land with ready answers in terms of gravity, dollars and sense.

Architects like Ambiguity – they’re even comfortable with ambiguity. The architect has a lot thrown at them in the early stages of a project – a lot of unknowns – it’s pretty difficult to juggle all those balls especially if you’re the sort who needs to hold onto a ball or two while the others are in the air. Architects are trained to keep the balls in the air for as long a possible while a solution makes itself known. Yes, many have a reputation for designing for too long, but truth be told, just as often the architect is delaying the materialization of a solution while still gathering critical information from stakeholders as well as shareholders. Bean counters tend not to be so comfortable with ambiguity. This calls on another skill of the architect…

Architects Manage Expectations – architects today are expected to work quickly, efficiently and expertly all at once. But as every architect worthy of her name knows, you can have it free, now and perfect – pick two – but not all three.  I can lower my fee and get it to you sooner – but the quality will suffer. Or get you great detailing and quick – but it’s going to cost you. Knowing this – and because architects can see the big picture well into the future – they need to temper expectations. They do this subtly, casually, along the way.

Architects remain Flexible – stuff changes all the time. Architects know they need to roll with the punches. I used to design buildings, no matter how large and complex, by coming to a solution rather quickly then holding on to my hat – and my breath – as the design went through the veritable spanking machine of the process before coming out the other end a building. If 80% resembled the way it first started out, I deemed it a success.  This is no doubt – like bungee jumping – a game for youth and not recommended for those faint of heart. Today, older and wiser, I recommend keeping a vision in one’s mind while allowing for other possibilities as information is gathered and feedback provided and realities set it. Neither way is foolproof – and both can lead to great results – but the key lesson here is not to approach situations with preconceived ideas, lest you repeat the last one you did in a new situation. Each site and situation, client and opportunity, is unique and deserves the architect’s full display of resources.

Architects Prototype – not stereotype. Architects, as designers, love to make models and sketch – they do so to test ideas out quickly and inexpensively before going to the big show. As rigid as some architects may come across when it comes to their limited wardrobe palette, architects seldom zoom in on one solution, even if they know intuitively beforehand that it is the right solution. Why? Because the right solution may not be the best solution for those involved.

Architects Facilitate – meetings, presentations, discussions need someone who both belongs to the group and at the same time –simultaneously – can stand apart. Architects always keep the goal in mind and in doing so keep the topic moving forward. They design and present knowing that they are leading the client down a path. And once the client has taken their first step on that path, everything that is said and offered ought to move the story forward. No diversions, no distractions. Sure, architects take flight of fancies as much as anyone. But all know if these flights are to end in real results – they need to have both feet on the ground and place one in front of the other until they arrive at their mutual destination.

Architects Help – most architects will tell you if they weren’t able to practice their chosen profession any longer and were given the choice would opt for one of the helping fields – medicine, healthcare, therapy. As a service profession, one would conceive this to be a natural outcome – serving others is what they are in business to do. But what is perhaps less well known is that architects when they build – whether they are working on new ground-up construction or renovating existing buildings – see themselves as repairing what is broken. They’re repairing and maintaining the manmade and natural world. Much the way doctors see what it is they do.

So, what can we learn from the ways architects think that might help us improve our lives? What in other words are the takeaways? Draw your own conclusions – here are some of mine:

  • When working on an assignment – don’t let yourself get buried by the details. As yourself how this specific task relates to the larger whole. If it doesn’t – then creatively find a way that it relates or propose a way that it can.
  • Don’t focus on the task you’ve been given as an end in itself but rather as a way of fixing or repairing an existing system, fabric or situation
  • When in a discussion or meeting, mindfully zoom out to see what is being covered in its larger habitat or situations; then zoom in to the close-up detail level to see if a solution can be found there – or an overlooked problem revealed
  • The world is in a state of flux – in terms of politics, the environment, the economy and much more. See to what extent that instead on fixating on a stance or solution – how you and others around you might benefit by your becoming more comfortable with the idea that things are unsettled and might remain that way for some time. What are some things you can do or yourself to approach and respond to events in a more flexible way?
  • You may be in business to produce the next widget – but even so, try to picture what you do as a service that is performed to help others in some way. To do so will result in your performing your work with more of a sense of purpose and meaning. Ask yourself: What is the problem in the world that my product fixes, repairs or maintains?
  • See your individual decisions as part of a larger system – one that flows both upstream and downstream. Before realizing any idea by pursuing it, test out your course of action by determining the potential consequences for each course taken – who is impacted and why.
  • The next time you are confronted with a problem of some weight – test out your response on paper first, building a miniature prototype of your answer or solution before taking it out on the road for a spin and exposing it to scrutiny. This will help you to see the benefits – as well as the flaws – before others do, and will help you to see your treasured idea through their eyes.
  • When it comes to the details – go the God route. In other words, use details to allow you to see things as a positive opportunity – as opposed to providing you and others reasons and excuses for not pursuing a trend or goal.