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A Heartbreaking Book of Staggering Genius: One Architect’s Detour of Duty September 25, 2010

Posted by randydeutsch in architect, architect types, architecture industry, books, career, change, employment, identity, management, optimism, questions, reading, software architects, the economy, transformation.
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Today’s post will be brief: I have a presentation to edit and packing still to do. But I would be remiss in leaving town without first letting you in on a brand new book that I just read that I predict will take you and the architecture profession by storm. Before reading further, grab your wallet. You’ll need it by the time you get to the sixth line of this book review.

The book title: Down Detour Road: An Architect in Search of Practice

The author: Eric J. Cesal

Why you never heard of him: He’s a recent architecture graduate with 5 years experience as an intern and has built little.

Why that shouldn’t matter: You will be hearing a lot more of and from Eric J. Cesal. 

The consensus: This may well be the best book by and for architects ever written. And (to my wife’s chagrin) I own and have read them all.

What the book will set you back: $14.93 ($21.95 + tax if you happen upon it in a bookstore, like I did. See “chagrin” above.)

Who should read this book: Out of work architects. Architects thinking of leaving the profession. Architects who have left the profession but want back in. Former architects who have left the profession for good but on deep, dark nights lie sleepless in bed wondering if they made a wise choice. Neighbors of out of work architects who wonder why they wear a tie when taking the dog out for a walk. Anyone who has ever had to wear a tie. Katherine Darnstadt would like this book. Parents who find their recent grads living once again under their roof. Or in their tent. Employers. Architect’s spouses, friends, relatives and roommates. Architects who think they might have a story to tell but question whether anyone will care to listen. Architects who are considering doing a tour of duty helping the world in some selfless way while they wait out the Great Wake. Architects who think they may be the next to be let go. Architects who sometimes wish they were the  next to be let go. Architects who read architecture blog posts in hopes of finding someone who deeply, passionately understands their situation. Architects.

Why you should get it: This book  speaks to you where you hurt. Cesal is wise beyond his 31 years (33 today) and whip smart. He knows what matters and he (and no doubts his talented editors) cut to the chase.

Why you should get it now: The sooner you read it, the sooner we’ll all be out of this mess; the sooner you’ll decide to stick it out in architecture; the sooner you’ll find a place for yourself in this new world.

Author’s espoused purpose in writing the book: “We want to find ways for the architecture profession to prosper as our world economy transitions.” p. 42

Why you should read it: Cesal wrote the book during a period of unemployment. Nearly every architect – employed, underemployed and unemployed – can relate.

Why else you should read it: Cesal names the Great Recession the Great Wake.

What will linger long after you’re done reading the book and give it to your colleague to read: The author’s voice.

What this book could also be used for: Like a commonplace book that soldiers used to carry around with them for reassurance and companionship on the front lines, you can keep this book nearby on your own detour of duty.

Why I love the book: Interjected throughout the book are short personal essays describing the author growing up, personal incidents and events that helped shape the architect/ author/ artist/ humanitarian he has become today. I love how the book captures timely subjects (the co-opting of our title by others) and timeless ones. I am most impressed by the way the author maintains a line of thought, without jumping around from subject to subject: a real feat and welcome revelation in contemporary writing. Like the late, great architect and author Peter Collins, Cesal asks hard questions and isn’t afraid to linger in them until he offers a solution.

Why this book may not be appropriate for all audiences: There’s an excruciatingly painful scene involving a tooth being pulled. Alcohol plays a part in a number of chapters.

The author’s eye for detail: How Cesal knew the recession had reached his city: “The coffee shop I usually passed by seemed to have too many people in it.”

Why I think Eric J. Cesal is architecture’s answer to Dave Eggers: Down Detour Road: An Architect in Search of Practice is A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius if it were written for architects.

Favorite passage from the book: The author’s attempt to find work at a temp agency. (p.117) Priceless.

The author’s education: Three master’s degrees in four years: business administration, construction management and architecture from Washington University in St Louis.

What book you might compare Down Detour Road with: During the deep recession of the 1970’s we had Harris Stone’s incomparably endearing and well-illustrated Workbook of an Unsuccessful Architect (available here for a penny.) But let there be no doubt: Down Detour Road is our age’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by Walker Evans and James Agee. This book is our The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl.

Someone famous the author hangs with but doesn’t once mention in the book (very classy): Cameron Sinclair, co-founder and ‘chief eternal optimist’ (CEO) for Architecture for Humanity.

Representative quote from the book: “For all the things I had intended my life to be, for all of the  things I thought I would be doing at 31, I was sitting in the dirt, on the side of an empty, unlit road, jobless, homeless, cold and hungry, lusting after a street sign.”

The author’s solution: Cesal recommends that we have to come to some hard truths about the limits of what we do “and then leap beyond those boundaries.” He goes on to describe 10 types of architects.

What are the ten architect types he writes about? The financial architect; The value architect; The risk architect; The paid architect; The idea architect; The knowing architect; The named architect; The citizen architect; The green architect; The sober architect. He refreshingly doesn’t over-use capital letters and dedicates a chapter to each architect type.

What it says on the dust jacket: As the world redesigns and rebuilds in the face of economic and ecological crises, unprecedented numbers of architects are out of work. What does this say about the value of architecture? That is the question that confronted architect Eric Cesal as he finished graduate school at the onset of the worst financial meltdown in a generation. Down Detour Road is his journey: one that begins off-course, and ends in a hopeful new vision of architecture.

Like many architects of his generation, Cesal confronts a cold reality. Architects may assure each other of their own importance, but society has come to view architecture as a luxury it can do without. For Cesal, this recognition becomes an occasion to rethink architecture and its value from the very core. He argues that the times demand a new architecture, an empowered architecture that is useful and relevant. New architectural values emerge as our cultural values shift: from high risks to safe bets, from strong portfolios to strong communities, and from clean lines to clean energy.

This is not a book about how to run a firm or a profession; it doesn’t predict the future of architectural form or aesthetics. It is a personal story—and in many ways a generational one: a story that follows its author on a winding detour across the country, around the profession, and into a new architectural reality.

Where you can find the author today: Port-au-Prince, managing and coordinating Architecture for Humanity’s design and reconstruction initiatives in Haiti until 2012.

No, really, where can you find him: You can find him here. But seriously, he lives in Haiti with a family of two dogs, 11 chickens, 5 cats and a goat named Newfie. Read more about it in the Huffington Post here.

What’s next up for the author: As Cesal explains on his webpage, “Two projects are currently in slow, agonizing, one-sentence/week progress: NCARB & I, a chronicle of architectural licensing, and Lets Just Finish These Beers and Go, a semi-autobiographical romp about how to become an architect while making every self-defeating effort you can.”

What does the word “detour”mean in the book’s title: de·tour, n.

1. A roundabout way or course, especially a road used temporarily instead of a main route.

2. A deviation from a direct course of action.

Likelihood that the book will be made into a movie: Very good odds. I’m not a betting man but I’d bet on it.

Final thoughts: Someone get this guy a MacArthur Genius Grant. And a second one to The MIT Press for having the foresight and gumption for publishing this staggering piece of exceptional writing from an otherwise little known entity. Cesal may very well be doing wonderful, necessary work in Haiti but we very much need him here back home with us.

The quickest way to get the book in your possession: Steal it from an architect in the coffee shop. Or click here

What to do while you wait for your copy of the book to arrive: Tell everyone you know to read Down Detour Road: An Architect in Search of Practice.

A Heartbreaking Book of Staggering Genius: One Architect’s Detour of Duty by Randy Deutsch AIA, LEED AP 2010

Out-of-Work Architect Speaks September 10, 2010

Posted by randydeutsch in BIM, books, career, collaboration, employment, optimism, questions, survival, technology, the economy.
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2 comments

…and speaks and speaks and speaks.

What’s so interesting about an unemployed architect saying something?

So interesting that you just have to read about it?

Or hear it for yourself?

Is it because up until now the out-of-work architect has been silent?

And suddenly – like an oracle – has something to say?

In the time I have been out of work – since earlier this year – I have been busy completing the writing of a book (my publisher expects to see the manuscript in 6 weeks,) creating content for two blogs,

And doing some public speaking.

So much so that my wife doesn’t consider me unemployed.

In fact, when she hears me refer to myself in public using the “u” word she’s momentarily taken aback.

Until she remembers that’s why she so often sees me voluntarily do the dishes and it all comes back to her.

Yes, I’m also learning new software and technology, applying for an MBA, interviewing at exceptional architecture firms, attending networking meet-ups and awaiting call-backs on some building design RFQs and RFPs – as well as making the kids lunches, helping with homework and walking the dog.

But in the meantime, this out-of-work architect speaks.

What have I gotten myself into?

Isn’t public speaking the thing where they say more people at a funeral would rather be the person in the coffin than the person up on stage giving the eulogy?

In all fairness, I have been a lecturer in graduate level building science/building technology at the University of Illinois at Chicago for a number of years.

Where I would present – no doubt to the chagrin of my students – upwards of two hours at a stretch without so much as a bathroom break.

And I was a playwright in an earlier life (though, according to one director, couldn’t act my way out of a paper bag.)

So I have some comfort in front of crowds.

Though you wouldn’t know it from recent attempts.

Speaking before peers on topics of interest – all of whom are experts in their domains – is something altogether different.

Earlier this year I gave the public speaking thing a try.

At KA Connect in Chicago – with mixed results.

KA Connect itself is an amazing, stimulating and entertaining conference with the next one – KA Connect 2011 – being held at the Fort Mason Center, San Francisco in April.

I can’t wait.

When they posted the thing on iTunes (for my kids and their friends to play and lambast me in public ridicule and merriment from the backseat of my car when I drive them to the movies) I was reminded of three rules that I would take to heart if I ever ventured into public speaking again:

Rule #1: Practice.

Rule #2: Practice.

Rule #3: Practice.

I can’t think of a better use of my time right now while I await my next big challenge than to travel all across the country, speak in front of large audiences of peers – often at other’s expense with modest honorariums – about the things that matter most to me.

I get to learn a great deal about myself – and even more about these topics – as I conduct research in preparation for the talks.

Stating your opinion in a blog post is one thing.

Being able to talk intelligently, entertainingly, on your feet representing all sides of the subject is something else altogether.

Yourself, in 100 words or less

One of the first, most challenging things you need to do when you speak is supply the conference organizers with a short written summary describing, well, you.

It’s an exercise everyone ought to go through – condensing yourself down to what’s absolutely essential – for someone else to know.

Here’s what I came up with my need-to-know blurb:

Randy Deutsch AIA, LEED AP is a lead design architect focusing on and dedicated to large, complex sustainable projects. A university instructor leading graduate-level building science, design studio and professional practice courses, he served on Chicago Architectural Club’s Board of Directors and as AIA Chicago Board as Vice President. Randy is a frequent blogger – with www.architects2zebras.com and www.bimandintegrateddesign.com both recently featured in ARCHITECT magazine – and the author of BIM and Integrated Design (Wiley, 2011,) a professional thought and practice leader, an Integrated Project Delivery (IPD) facilitator, speaker, mentor and recipient of the AIA Young Architect Award.

Here are brief summaries of the four talks I am giving in the next 8 weeks.

2010 Best Firms Summit, Sept 28-29, Las Vegas, NV

I’ll be giving the opening keynote talk in the Training & Development theme of Engaging and Cultivating Top Performers, entitled:

Keeping Employees Engaged in an Age of Disruption
Randy Deutsch AIA, LEED AP, Architect, Author and Consultant, Deutsch Insights

What motivates employees to stay engaged and eager to contribute?

As the advent of new digital technologies enables collaborative work processes (that I discuss at length in my other blog,) what are the social impacts of these disruptive tools and process changes to firm culture and morale?

What motivates employees to share, collaborate and act transparently when working on integrated teams?

Learn how the new team workflows affect how employees engage with project work, each other and with the firm.

This session will illustrate how firms are turning to employees themselves to determine how best to stay engaged and motivated when the focus is set on the bottom line.

Well, that at least is the bar I have set for myself.

Everyone – especially those in HR – knows what it takes to keep employees engaged in normal times.

But how about keeping employees motivated and engaged in the new normal?

That’s something few have written or spoken about.

At the summit, among other notables, Markku Allison will be speaking on collaboration, John Soter and Pam Britton on leadership and training, and Knowledge Architecture founder and KA Connect creator Chris Parsons will be speaking on Leveraging Social Media Tools and again with the mercurial Marjanne Pearson and Christine Brack on talent management and benchmarking.

To learn more about it look here and here.

2010 AIA Ohio Convention Sept 30-Oct 2, Toledo, OH

I have to get from Vegas to Toledo with, wouldn’t you know, no direct flights.

Another opening keynote talk (I’m noticing a theme. Did word get out that I’m a morning person?)

The Well-Informed Architect:  Reasons to be Optimistic  Randy Deutsch AIA, LEED AP, Architect, Author and Consultant, Architects2Zebras

This is how I describe my session in the brochure:

Architects are trained to be on the lookout for problems. We wear our skepticism as a badge of pride. Our dissatisfaction with the way things are keeps us focused, energized and motivated, while being optimistic is a sign of weakness. This session will focus on informed optimism as a critical attribute of all leaders and explain how to develop this attribute to attract clients, do our best work, collaborate with others, attract and retain employees and enjoy the work we do. This program promises to teach the steps to take to achieve informed optimism in your own work and practice.

You might be wondering about now, How did I get myself into this?

You might recall that about 6 months ago I wrote a somewhat controversial blog post entitled 81 Reasons Why There Has Never Been a Better Time to Be an Architect.

Organizers of the conference who wanted to see the author of this post tarred and feathered in a public venue generously offered to have me speak.

And I inexplicably complied.

The 2010 AIA Ohio Convention website, built around the theme:  A Shared Vision from Different Perspectives, contains this sentence:

Keynote speakers include Craig Dykers of Snøhetta, Angela Brooks from Pugh + Scarpa, and Randy Deutsch

Snøhetta… Pugh + Scarpa…Deutsch?!

Let’s just say when I first saw what esteemed company I was in I had a Zelig moment.

60 minutes of uninterupted optimism is what I promised to deliver.

60 minutes of uninterupted optimism is what they’ll get.

Questions? Complaints? Contact AIA Ohio

2010 AIA MN Convention, Nov 2 – 5, Minneapolis, MN

Beyond Convention is the theme for this year’s convention.

The convention planning committee invited speakers to share their knowledge and expertise with fellow practitioners and allied professionals as part of a special convention to address the changes occurring within the architectural profession and the implications on the future of practice. 

They encouraged industry leaders and forward-thinking professionals who are on the cutting edge of practice, management, technology, collaboration, research, training, and mentoring to submit proposals to discuss trends that are changing the way architects practice.

I have Christopher Parsons, of Knowledge Architecture and KA Connect fame, to once again thank for this one.

Chris, the incomparable Laurie Dreyer and I will be speaking on the PMKC topic of

(Re)Learning to Collaborate                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        Randy Deutsch AIA, LEED AP, Architect, Author and Consultant, Deutsch Insights

In 50 words or less,

Collaboration used to be simple. We knew how to do it as children. We have made it harder than it needs to be. Join Randy Deutsch, Laurie Dryer, and Christopher Parsons for an informative, entertaining, and contrarian tour through social media, knowledge management, IPD, and collaboration.

Followers of my blogs know that I ask lots of questions. In my portion of this session I’ll walk attendees through what I’ve learned along the way about:

  • Why collaborate?
  • How do we as professionals learn to collaborate?
  • Is it something we need to learn?
  • Or is it something we are born with and forget/just know?
  • What distinguishes collaboration from working on teams?
  • Is collaborating always desirable? How do we know?

2010 New Technologies | Alliances | Practices conference on Nov 12th, Washington DC

I love, absolutely love, the AIA TAP conferences.

Can’t get enough of what they have to offer.

Starting with the 2006 and 2007 conference and moving onto the present.

What’s different about this NTAP from previous TAP conferences, this one will be held in multiple venues and also virtually.

I have probably learned as much from them as from anything else I’ve encountered.

And so it is a thrill to be able to participate in this event.

This time, I won’t be getting up alone in front of a large crowd of peers.

I’m going to be moderating a panel of the world’s – and industry’s – most esteemed colleagues.

The session’s entitled:

Crossing the IPD Chasm with BIM                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             Moderated by Randy Deutsch AIA, LEED AP, Architect, Author and Consultant, Deutsch Insights

The short of it is:

Early adopters of IPD have been well-documented. What role will BIM play in IPD going mainstream? What will it take to bridge the gap? Join industry leaders Phil Bernstein FAIA, Jonathan Cohen FAIA and Howard Ashcraft for a provocative discussion addressing what roles BIM plays in where IPD is headed.

Phil Bernstein FAIA. Jonathan Cohen FAIA. Howard Ashcraft.

And I get to ask them questions.

Should be a great, memorable panel and Q & A.

The proposed panel will be a moderated dialogue and interactive discussion among three notable panelists representing different expert perspectives from the AECOO community exploring how BIM can help bridge over the collaborative work processes and delivery method gap – brought about by concerns about interoperability, risk and responsibility, and the building lifecycle.

  • What’s next on the horizon for IPD? Will this stall? Will it take off? What’s stopping owners and firms from adopting and implementing IPD? What’s with the workarounds – IPD as a philosophy but not a delivery method; IPD-ish projects; IPD-lite approaches and minor trust-based adjustments of existing team collaborations – and are they as effective and truly IPD?
  • How does use of BIM encourage or discourage the widespread acceptance of IPD as a delivery method? Do architects need to return to startup mentality, by conducting the search for a new scalable, repeatable business model?

Again, lots of questions that I am eager to hear answered.

This panel discussion will focus on BIM tools and work processes that are going to be required for the industry to move toward a more collaborative project delivery methodology.

Participating venues include Washington D.C., Albuquerque, Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, San Francisco.

Let me know by leaving a comment here if there are other participating venues you know of that you don’t see here.

You can learn more about this event on TAP’s Ning site or by e-mailing tap@aia.org.

Public Speaking resources

While nothing compares with the experience and tips you get from joining a Toastmasters club in your area, I have read dozens of books on public speaking and have to say Scott Berkun’s book, Confessions of a Public Speaker, is my overall favorite. I love all of his books, but this one covers the topic in such a realistic way anyone who reads it will benefit immediately from his wisdom, experience and the tales he shares of others. Great read. Read it free here or here, borrow it from the library or get the 5 star rated book here. Better yet, watch this experience public presenter speak.

If you have done some public speaking, I’d love to hear about it. Leave a comment or contact me at randydeutsch@att.net

How Much Juice Can You Squeeze from an Architect? August 14, 2010

Posted by randydeutsch in career, employment, management, questions, the economy.
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7 comments

I start each day – before doing anything else – by preparing a cup of warm lemon water.

Before tending to the still sleeping kids and pets, before stretching, yoga or meditating, before saying affirmations, doing visualizations or reading positive, uplifting quotes and passages – even before posting here – I take a sip from this cup.

Over time, while preparing my morning ritual elixir, I noticed no matter how hard I squeezed I was tossing out valuable pulp and juice.

One day I asked myself if I was getting the most from my morning lemon.

How much lemon juice can you get from 1 lemon?

Most will tell you, depending on size, about 2 ½ tablespoons (about how much I was getting.)

So how about if you could get a ¼ cup or so from each lemon

– with no additional effort or expense –

You’d do it, right?

Here’s how you can extract more juice from your lemon.

Briefly microwave the lemon for 15 seconds before juicing.

That’s it.

It doesn’t matter what type of lemon it is.

Meyer, Eureka or Lisbon, or whether organic or conventionally grown, foreign or from here.

What does the microwaving do to the lemon?

It warms it up. It pumps up the pulp. Prepares the lemon for the big squeeze.

Resulting in greater productivity and effectiveness from the lemon with less effort and waste.

So if you are not getting ¼ cup or so of juice from your lemon you’re not optimizing it, squeezing out all of its natural goodness. Which leads me to ask:

Could it be as easy to get the most and best from ourselves today at work?

Architects, Freshly Squeezed

Architects, before the economic downturn, used to do work roughly matching their skill sets and talents.

While others had jobs, vocations and careers, architects had a calling.

And architects were called. Now we’re doing most of the calling.

When the downturn came, people were let go and holes needed to be filled by those who remained.

Generally, people within the firm stepped down to fill the role of those immediately below them.

Interns were let go – and so junior architects took on their tasks – while maintaining their own workload.

Principals stepped down to ostensibly fill in for senior managers missing in action.

Hands-off designers – who formerly operated side-by-side – picked-up software, manned their posts and joined the DIY fray or else were permanently sidelined.

All of this while everybody took on additional tasks such as marketing, business development and IT; vacuuming, garbage and kitchen duty.

Often for less pay. And less gratitude. In less time.

The Big Squeeze

Architects of course are not alone today in feeling squeezed.

The book, The Big Squeeze, by labor correspondent for the New York Times Steven Greenhouse, is a personal and emotionally compelling look at what the American worker is experiencing today, an all too human tale about the American way of living in our time.

In an interview, Greenhouse was asked: Why did you title your book The Big Squeeze?

Greenhouse responded: I really feel there’s a squeeze on workers. In many ways, corporate America is clamping down on its workers. Wages have been cut over the past few years. We’ve seen health benefits get worse. Middle-class Americans have health insurance while the typical worker has to pay twice as much for health insurance as was the case seven years ago. We’ve seen good pensions kind of disappear, evaporate and be replaced by 401(k)s, which I describe as Swiss-cheese retirement plans. A lot of workers don’t have 401(k)s—many workers have little to support themselves when they retire. While wages are stagnant and benefits are getting worse, workers also are being squeezed to work harder. There’s less job security than there used to be. And with all the rounds of downsizing, workers feel more insecure on the job. If you’re feeling insecure, you’re less likely to push for better wages and benefits.

That from the comparatively halcyon days of 2008.

What’s Within Our Control?

How much of the squeeze is brought about by factors outside our control (the economy, globalization, frozen credit, etc) and what is within our control to change and interpret differently?

In other words, despite what the world is giving us today, are employers making every effort to do the right thing?

Are employees doing everything in their power – emotionally, rationally, psychically and physically – to adjust to the new realities of the workplace?

Part of the stress architects are feeling these days is due to their internal make-up.

With obvious exceptions, architects

–          have an exceptional capacity for dealing with a variety of people, events and challenges – often simultaneously. The current economy doesn’t honor this capacity of the architect – limiting the people we work with, the number and type of projects we work on and the types of challenges we contend with;

–          truly believe they can do most anything they are given to work on. More often than not today architects are being told what to work on, how to do it, and given little say in the project’s definition or destiny;

–          work must be play or it is often not worth doing. Worthwhile tasks for the architect are those that affirm and enlarge the self, involve learning on the job and more fun than drudgery. Little of the work architects are given to undertake today – when there is work – could be described as “play.”

Architects also

–          love to please others. They will overexert themselves – physically and psychologically – to please. Today they are finding that there are fewer people – colleagues to clients – to please;

–          often work in fits and starts, and so when they become excited, they lose all sense of time, physical needs and anything else. They follow their enthusiasm until totally fatigued then collapse. More often today architects are experiencing a new kind of stress brought about from there being too little to do, too little to capture their attention and imagination, having to parse their work to fill in their allotted time;

–          are rarely complacent. With their job security at risk, few are willing to go out on a limb to voice their opinion or attempt to improve a project or situation for fear of rocking the boat.

Architects generally make more starts than finishes – and the work they are given if it is about anything these days – is finish work: their motivating mantra reduced to get it done.

Taking on project work that is outside of their – and the firm’s – expertise, the result of overzealous and opportunistic marketing efforts.

Someone brought in this project, promises made without your input, and now you have to complete it.

It is not uncommon for architects to work themselves into exhaustion while following an inspiration. Open to a never-ending flow of alternatives in any situation, the work they are given today does not call for their creativity but their ability to come to a quick and certain conclusion: not normally the architect’s strong suit.

A Question of Capacity

As architects we don’t even know how much we have to give.

If we’re capable of lifting a car off of someone who has just been run over, we are capable of achieving a great deal more than we can fathom.

When an employee knows that they are valued – for their penetrating mind, their passions and interests, for their person, who they are – and recognized for their contributions to the firm, they will find that extra place from which they have the capacity to give.

Employers, ask yourself:

  • Are you preparing your staff to be more productive?
  • Are you being realistic about the amount of work you give them and expect them to undertake?
  • Do you explain on a regular basis how the firm’s and world’s circumstances are driving this situation and that – while no one can predict when it will end – it is temporary?
  • Are you doing all you can to keep your employees engaged with the work they’ve been given to complete?
  • Or have you left it to them to fend for themselves, sink or swim?

Prepare your staff to give – from themselves, willingly, and not because they feel like they are being squeezed from all directions – in terms of time, money and output.

Employees, ask yourself:

  • Are you getting enough rest?
  • How about optimal nutrition and exercise?
  • Are you making adjustments in your lifestyle to account for these changes in the workplace?
  • Have you identified ways outside of work to remain energized, invigorated and to refuel? Have you identified a prize for yourself, however you define it – passing the ARE or studying for the LEED exam, taking a course in hand sketching, traveling or visiting projects that inspire you or however you define it for yourself – and kept your eyes on that prize?
  • Do you feel like you are being squeezed in every direction, used up for your cheap labor, relatively flexible demands on your free time, your heightened energy levels, your need to gain experience, your wanting to climb the corporate ladder, your fear of being abandoned as so many of your peers?

As an architect, you are meant to give. Are you interpreting your current situation as the world telling you not to give of, and from, yourself?

The energy, attention, skill and talent are there in you to give – you only need to know how to properly prepare for it.

Greater productivity is ours to have – as individuals and as a profession.

The construction industry – which has seen no productivity gain in the past 40 years – will only improve if each individual who participates makes it their goal to achieve greater productivity and work more effectively.

To work smarter, not work more.

It all starts with you – one architect.

So, how much juice can you get from one architect?

Unless we change the way we work with and engage with ourselves and each other, the world may never know.

The Rise of the Knowledge-Driven Architect July 10, 2010

Posted by randydeutsch in change, collaboration, management, questions, survival, transformation.
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6 comments

In third grade the local dentist came to our elementary school gymnasium and showed the entire student body proper dental care, including how to brush properly: up and down.

In fourth grade the same dentist came to our elementary school gymnasium and showed the entire student body how to brush properly: side to side. He did not acknowledge the fact that the method had changed.

In fifth grade the dentist came to our elementary school and showed the assembled students in the gymnasium how to brush properly: in a circular motion. Again, no reference to the method changing.

Having moved on to middle school, I didn’t stick around to find out what they recommended the following year. One can easily imagine them gathered at the assembly year after year recommending another method.

And it is little wonder that I had grown up to be a relativist in philosophy and situationalist in leadership style, not to mention sporting several cavities.

This varietal display of effective brushing technique did not bode well for the dental profession. Nor, for that matter, for elementary school.

But because the gymnasium had daylight, according to researchers, I have managed to retain this vital information all of these years.

Knowledge: The Podcast

What prompted my recollection of ever-changing dental tactics is an ambitious, seminal, drop-everything-that-you’re-doing-and-listen-to-this podcast on how knowledge is transforming the profession.

In the AIA podcast, The Knowledge Agenda: Transforming a Profession, Markku Allison AIA, ever-resourceful Resource Architect at AIA talks with Walter Hainsfurther FAIA, President at Kurtz Associates Architects, Vice President at American Institute of Architects and chair of the AIA Board Knowledge Committee, about this much-anticipated change to the profession.

Warning: This post raises as many questions as the podcast seeks to answer.

Markku fires the first shot by stating that knowledge is the most valuable asset of the architect.

When you hear firm owners say “our employees are our most valuable asset” what they mean is their knowledge. And we naturally equate knowledge with money as in the oft heard phrase: “90 percent of your corporate assets walk out the door each night.” (Unless by this they mean someone’s taking home the Canon  iPF755 large format color printer.) Owners want to know that their money is invested wisely in their projects. Architects assure them by citing data, research and science, delivering value to owners. Research, not intuition. Outcomes, not anecdotes. In the podcast Walter and Markku – both incidentally LinkedIn group KA Connect members – talk about

  • the AIA knowledge agenda crafted by the AIA Board Knowledge Committee over the past 18 months with input from a large body of stakeholders across the institute
  • how the agenda will provide a framework and structure for all of AIA’s knowledge initiatives moving forward with the ambitious goal of nothing less than the transformation of the mindset and behavior of architects throughout the AIA
  • how the knowledge agenda commits the institute to a path of formal pursuit, creation  and open sharing of knowledge not unlike that of the medical profession
  • the outcome will be a stronger focus on research, higher degrees of rigor and validating the resources of knowledge available to the profession and others

Walter describes the Knowledge Agenda as an instrument to guide the AIA moving forward in the area of knowledge, with “the most important thing about this transformative document that takes our profession from an anecdotal based profession – as it currently is – to one that relies upon data-driven decisions and what we call a knowledge driven profession so that owners can get more predictable outcomes out of their buildings.”

Some highlights of the podcast:

  • we’re moving away from an anecdote- to a research-driven profession
  • citing research and science is more likely to put us in a leadership position
  • reference to the apt aphorism: the rising tide lifts all boats
  • how the knowledge agenda supports developing thought leadership as a process that will result in architects being looked to as the go-to person in an area that has to do with the built environment

The podcast references a specific sort of knowledge: result-oriented, researched, science-backed, empirical-driven, accountable, repeatable, sharable and outcome-predictable.

Types of Knowledge

First we need to clarify what exactly we are talking about here. Rules of thumb? Information? Or knowledge.

In other words, defining what knowledge actually is and how is it differentiated from data and information.

And if in fact knowledge, what kind is it?

Academic knowledge (defined as what practitioners don’t find useful) or practical knowledge (defined as useless to academics.) Theoretical, logical or semantic?

Systemic or empirical?

Direct or indirect? Procedural or intuitive?

Explicit or tacit knowledge?

When Walter says in the podcast that we gain much of our knowledge anecdotally – through habit, similar to oral history – is this just another way of saying much of our knowledge is tacit, which is by definition highly personal and hard to formalize, making it difficult to communicate or share with others? Will doing-away with our anecdotal approach to design and building impact our tacit learning and implicit sharing of knowledge?  

And is this all just a new way of reformulating the architect’s special burden of proof? That we design subjectively but explain and justify rationally? However ill-advised and indefensible, since architecture is both an art and a science, it is something most great architects have practiced for millennia.

Architects’ Ways of Knowing

It may just be a case that architects know what they know in ways that can’t be served by a giant, knowledge-filled clearinghouse.

What Nigel Cross described as designerly ways of knowing, articulating and understanding the nature of design cognition, leading to a better understanding of what is now called design thinking.

Anyone who has recently read one of the four extant versions and editions of How Designers Think by Bryan Lawson (which shamefully is almost no one) will be familiar with his companion piece, What Designers Know, exploring and detailing the knowledge that architects work with, how they use this knowledge, whether design knowledge is special and where design knowledge comes from. It’s a life-changing good read.

The bottom line is that architects – by training and experience – gain knowledge in multiple ways: by way of drawings, site visits and travel, interactions with computer software, increasingly with the internet and through late night caffeine-fueled conversations. Not to mention learning by doing. 80% about what I know about architectural practice I know from eavesdropping on 20% of a particularly vocal project manager’s forceful, voice-carrying phone conversations earlier in my career (a vastly underrated knowledge-gaining method.) 

Show Me the Data!

Knowledge in this case is based on results – not reasons. You want to design something one way – you show me the data, the metrics, the analytics.

Evidence-based design, an approach to healthcare design giving importance to design features that impact patient health, well-being, mood, and safety, as well as staff stress and safety, has a growing body of research showing that proper design of the built environment contributes to improving key outcomes. This is what clients would like to know. This area of study has gone on to impact other building types that involves creating better, more effective designs by using an approach based on evidence and outcomes rather than intuition and anecdotal information.

In the podcast, Walter alludes to there being a lot of knowledge on the web. Whether this is information or knowledge is a question worth asking. As is how much on the web is useful and how much dross.

How do we decide what knowledge to utilize in our next project? Someone – an early adopter – tries something out, returns for a post-occupancy and uploads the results.

Do you use it? What worked in Santa Cruz may not play in Peoria.

And the knowledge – in these fast-paced times – may have to be easily digestible, the equivalent of sugar-coated. How the knowledge is marketed becomes of critical importance.

How does this differ from CTRL+C: Copy, CTRL+V: Paste information out of such “knowledge guides” as Architectural Graphic Standards and Time-Saver Standards for Architectural Design Data, with contributions by world authorities and specialists reflecting essential changes and new knowledge in the field of architecture where one size never quite fits all? If you were to make a suit jacket by averaging all the suit sizes of men in Chicago it would result in a suit that fit no one.

Perhaps architects ought to Whispersync onto their Kindles, once and for all, in less than a minute for $9.99, the Architect’s Complete Knowledge Companion?

Or create a complete online source for information and insight on architectural planning, design and detailing that will get your clients the results they are looking for.

Architect’s Special Burden of Proof

Evidence-based design bases design decisions on the best available current research evidence. Just as online question and answer sites identify the best answer, one can imagine the AIA’s Knowledge Agenda site having architects vote on the best answer. Or, in lieu of democratic voting, one can imagine using something like Ask.com’s AnswerFarm™ technology – their proprietary method of crawling and extracting question/answer pairs from hundreds of thousands of sources, including user generated content, FAQ pages, news/blog articles, and structured/semi-structured data.

There are knowledge-driven organizations that emphasize the people side of knowledge management – what it takes to get employees to contribute to a knowledge system including ways to orchestrate the required culture change, explaining how organizations can move from “hoarding” knowledge to “sharing” it, building a global strategy that allows them to respond faster to client’s needs.

Christopher Parsons, founder of Knowledge Architecture  and the ever growing LinkedIn group, tribe and movement, KA Connect, wrote a great post recently on becoming a knowledge-driven firm.

Architects have a special burden of proof. For it is not enough to place windows in classrooms in order to get better test scores (cited in the podcast and in a million other places.) Architects are challenged to always consider the big picture – the little clients and big clients, the paying and non-paying.

Architects knowledge is a special type of epistemology. Architects may access research knowledge but they also have designerly or tacit knowledge.

Architects acquire their knowledge in myriad and unusual ways: from magazines and blogs, webinars and lectures, reference books and websites, manufacturer’s literature, heresy and hunches. Gut punches from path-narrowing options of previous decisions and lessons learned.

At every critical juncture of a project, architects ask 4 Questions:

1. What is actual?

2. What is necessary?

3. What is desirable?

4. What is possible?

What sort of knowledge results from asking these pertinent questions?

For knowledge-driven architects to come about, what will it take for us to change our thinking? To put results and results-oriented thinking first?

We’re told again and again that natural daylight in classrooms improves knowledge retention in students and improves test scores. A study found that the use of skylights, for example, improved test scores in reading by 8.8 points and in math by 12.3 points. This translates to a 19% faster learning rate for reading and a 20% faster learning rate for math.

Whether skylights or windows, were they operable or fixed? Was this location specific? Could the students see out the windows or was the day light indirect? Were students distracted by views or were the windows largely clerestory? Was this data taken before the prevalence of classroom computers and their opportunity to create glare? Were the windows tinted or clear, south facing or north, and did this matter?

Can anyone name one result in architectural knowledge besides the daylight-to-test-score relationship or how seating arrangements at work increase performance and reduce sick days?

12 Questions the Knowledge Agenda ought to consider:

1. What will it take for architects to be able to change from a knowledge-is-power mindset to one of open-book collaboration and sharing? More importantly, will senior management be able to overcome their knowledge-is-power-trips in time to train and promote the next generation of emerging talent?

2. Will architects be able to create the culture that supports knowledge sharing before others – including their competitors – do so?

3. Will architects have the discipline to become research-driven professionals in lieu of anecdote, folk-wisdom and other subjective means of architectural justification?

4. Will 24/7 access to a shared communal knowledge base help architects to resolve technical problems quickly and make immediate, informed decisions to help solve client issues?

5. How will this knowledge be attained, retained and in what form that is usable to the vast majority of architects in the planning, design and documentation process?

6. If we can agree that architects gain knowledge, at least in part, tacitly, and that tacit knowledge is highly personal and hard to formalize, making it difficult to communicate or share with others, then how exactly will this knowledge be stored and made accessible for architects to download and share?

7. The AIA all-too-well understands just how diverse the make-up of the profession is. As Bryan Lawson points out “It is quite possible to find two people who call themselves architects and yet hardly share any of their daily tasks.” Will the shared knowledge made available to architects take this inherent diversity in mind?

8. Is this idea of a knowledge clearinghouse the equivalent of building one big, loosely organized planetary brain for the architecture profession? Would the site serve much the way as Robert Wright recently proposed, where the point of evolution (in this case of the profession) is to create social brains and to weave them into a big brain?

9. If architects are being nudged, encouraged or prompted to share knowledge with one another – how far do we take it? Shouldn’t we also then share information with our professional counterparts, including interior designers and construction managers? Or will the big brain be card-carrying members-only? Or is this what Markku meant when, in the podcast, he says the outcome will be “a stronger focus on research, higher degrees of rigor and validating the resources of knowledge available to the profession and others?”

10. Is it fair to say that the web contains information and by collecting it we store knowledge? If true, then let’s stop saying that the internet contains lots of knowledge.

11. Data, information, knowledge and understanding all relate to the past: what has been and what is known. Architects must certainly acknowledge the past and address present needs, but as innovators, we must focus on the future. Had architects through time only utilized past knowledge there would have been few of what we enjoy and take for granted today: innovations of our built environment.

12. Is this really just another way of saying Albert Einstein’s oft-quoted “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand”?

But then again, in order to recall this, you would have to know that.

The Last Architect? May 21, 2010

Posted by randydeutsch in Ambiguity, BIM, career, change, creativity, essence, integrative thinking, optimism, pragmatism, questions, technology.
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Indeed, the attempt to live according to the notion that the fragments are really separate is, in essence, what has led to the growing series of extremely urgent crises that is confronting us today.
David Bohm

Think laterally and simultaneously

Redefine the problem, reframe the questions and direct people’s energy

Meet virtually but also face-to-face

These. according to Renée Cheng, Professor and Head of School of Architecture at University of Minnesota, are some of the ways we as a profession will proceed boldly into the future.

Cheng, an expert in emerging technologies in construction, recently talked with Markku Allison, Resource Architect at The American Institute of Architects, in an AIA – Architecture Knowledge Review podcast revisiting the 2006 Report on Integrated Practice that can be found on iTunes entitled: 2009 and Beyond “Suggestions for an Integrative Education.”

While the entire interview is generally excellent, I’d like to focus on the final third of the podcast, because these last 8 minutes of the podcast are like gold.

It is not that Markku and Renee go off-script – it’s that Markku allows Renee to riff on the question of “What’s next?” in a way that we seldom hear or see in our industry media.

Gratefully pragmatic without a whiff of academic jargon, what ensues in the latter part of the interview is a true dialogue, marked by a calm cadence – with much wisdom – found only rarely, if at all, anywhere.

Perhaps the last time was in this video of an interview where soft-spoken philosopher J Krishnamurti asks physicist David Bohm: Would you go into your chosen profession today if you had to do it all over?

On Crowdsourcing

Markku asks: What’s next? What developments are currently underway that you feel will have the most significant impact over the next three years?

Cheng acknowledges that it is always difficult to project into the future.

Renee: Things I’ve been keeping an eye on are things like crowdsourcing. I don’t know if you’ve heard of the Netflix competition?

Markku: Yes.

Renee: Crowdsourcing, where you can put out a query and get multiple minds working on it. Not like a wiki where you can let anyone post but more like invited experts working in somewhat of a hierarchy, somewhat of a system.

Cheng went on to describe how her school has run some studios based on social networking platforms.

Renee: We’re going to start to get some pretty highly specialized people that need to be brought in at very specific times and not end up having everyone in the room all the time. So if there can be some way to streamline some of that – how to keep communication going without necessarily having everyone be face to face.

But isn’t face to face collaboration critical to the successful outcome of a project?

On Virtual Interface vs. Face-to-Face

Renee: The more I’m getting into this the more I am realizing that face to face is a really critical part of this. And yet there are huge opportunities for virtual interface. So how do we as humans overcome the fact that face-to-face is still the best means of communication? And how can some of these virtual environments or virtual tools begin to – not replace – but supplement it, potentially making things go faster and involve more voices? That is something I will be looking for in the next couple of years.

On The Role of the Designer

Markku: I’m curious to hear you expand just a little bit on what you perceive as the role of the designer in this new future that may involve much larger numbers of stakeholders input into design. How do you think that crowdsourcing and other trends you describe will affect the role of the designer?

On Utopian vs. Dystopian Futures

Renee: There’s a utopian and dystopian way of looking at this (laughter.) In the dystopian way architects become just one of many, many voices. The hierarchy is lost and it becomes very difficult to get good design. You just get a lot of compromise. That would be the dystopian future I would not like to see.

On the Architect as Advocate for Design and Design Thinking

Renee: The utopian future that we are trying to prepare our students to lead and for this role is architect as – in some kind of manner of – not necessarily master builder but potentially something more in the Kieran Timberlake model, the central figure, the connector – someone who can be the advocate for design. And for design thinking. Can think laterally and simultaneously. And can help others to make decisions that make sense. Ideally there is some role for the architect that is different than the role of any other experts, clients or users – or whomever is adding to this future design process – that are coming in. Because of the training.

On the Architect’s Training

Renee: The training is not that they know how to make a zero-energy building. Or that they know how to manipulate a BIM model. The training is that they know how to see things laterally and simultaneously.

See laterally and simultaneously.

Renee: Very few people know how to do that. And when you can see things laterally and simultaneously, envisioning multiple options at the same time, you have an enormous ability to redefine the problem, reframe the questions and direct people’s energy.

Redefine the problem, reframe the questions and direct people’s energy

Renee: So that’s what I would hope would set the architect apart from others in the crowd. As crowdsourcing or social networking or larger number of stakeholders begin to be part of the process.

Markku: The ability to position the conversation within a framework of multiple, possible realities.

Renee: Exactly. And to be able to frame and reframe the questions. Because it’s not about trying to find answers or solutions to things. It’s really about precisely defining the problem – and then the solution becomes self-evident. And any designer who has had that moment happen – or visited a building where it all comes together and makes sense – that solution didn’t come from someone saying “make this museum function in this and this way.” It came from a variety of things that were juggled at the same time. A lot of tangible and intangible things that get fit into that process until you reach a result that is so beautiful and well-designed it becomes inevitable. But it wasn’t from trying to solve a problem. It comes from framing the questions.

On Preparing for the Unknown

Markku: Do you think that that ability to frame the problem in such a concise way that the solution becomes self-evident is possible in the realm of the academy?

Renee: we’re trying to develop and nurture that skill in our students. It’s both a blessing and a curse to have this ability to constantly frame questions and prolong the period of not jumping to conclusion or solution…If we’re asked to prepare students to meet these grand challenges that are coming forward for their generation, then we’re going to need to think about how we’re going to instill all of these skills that we’ve always counted on architects having, yet prepare them for a future that is extremely different than we knew when we were in school – or that’s even existing today. It’s a tough thing for a curriculum to do. A challenge that I would say architectural education has not faced ever before.

On How We’re Going to Get There

Markku: An interesting time for you.

Renee: It’s always good to be living in interesting times. Sometimes I do wonder how we’re going to get there. The creative thing is when you go into the studios and see the students and how enthusiastic they are in accepting the goals of carbon neutrality and low energy design and just aggressively and idealistically tackling them. And very, very thirsty for the tools that will allow them to get there. I don’t think, in student’s idealistic minds, they’re thinking of the billions of dollars cut from waste in the building industry. They’re thinking of a future where all buildings are efficiently built, with a good use of resources, hopefully with well-compensated designers and clients that are knowledgeable and willing to take risks on things that are willing to move the technology forward and buildings forward. Communities that are livable and walkable and promote healthy living. Students are aiming for the moon – which leads me to think it is a tough problem – but that’s our role as educators and our role as professionals. To show them that yes it can be done. And that we’re just taking it step by step.

Markku: Well I think we’re in great hands.

We are, indeed.

Renée Cheng is a graduate of Harvard’s GSD and Harvard College. A registered architect, her professional experience includes work for Pei, Cobb, Freed and Partners and Richard Meier and Partners before founding Cheng-Olson Design. She taught at the University of Michigan and the University of Arizona before joining the faculty of University of Minnesota in January of 2002 where she is currently Head.

Professor Cheng has written on the topic of architectural education in the context of emerging practices and technology. These writings have appeared in the 2006 AIA Report on Integrated Practice and the Education Summit at ACADIA in 2004. 2006 “Suggestions for an Integrated Practice” in AIA Report on Integrated Practice, ed. Norm Strong, Daniel Friedman, Mike Broshar, also excerpted in AECBytes, Viewpoint July 2006.

Look here and here for more on IPD at AIA.

Listen to Renée Cheng’s interview with Markku Allison on AIA Pod Net

Look here for the AIA’s review of 2009 and Beyond | Revisiting the Report on Integrated Practice, “Suggestions for an Integrative Education,” by Robert Smith, AIA.

Each essay from the 2006 Report on Integrated Practice is being re-released as part of the 2009 and Beyond series. The re-release includes new commentary as well as podcasts from interviews with the reports’ original authors.

Architects as Translators April 16, 2010

Posted by randydeutsch in architect, books, creativity, essence, pragmatism, problem solving, questions, reading, transformation.
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So much of what we do is listen to the stories of our clients and reinterpret them into physical form. If we can demonstrate to our clients that we understand their story by, in turn, telling them a story about their building and how it achieves their vision and mission, then we can create truly powerful places.

Grace Kim

Architects do many things that others – and they themselves – take for granted.

To name but a few:

Architects synthesize, orchestrate and transform.

They facilitate, collaborate and innovate.

They form-give, order-make (some would wryly add, order-take) and problem-solve.

Architects are seers, polymaths and integrators (the future belongs to the integrators.)

Architects are by necessity optimists, predisposed to act, and at one and the same time both product- and process-oriented in their thinking.

They see – and are able to zoom in and out of – the big picture and minutest detail at once.

Architects are systems thinkers, visionary pragmatists and create the elusive wow effect.

They design buildings, the spaces between buildings and the interfaces between people.

Architects do more with less; make the complex simple and look easy and the invisible apparent.

They see things that to others just aren’t there – but that they alone can see.

Architects make connections; celebrate and make apparent the meeting of materials and systems.

Architects make meaning out of bricks and sticks where only an empty lot existed before.

But perhaps the most miraculous thing architects do – is translate.

Q/A with an Architect-as-Translator

Q: What do architects translate?

A: Words into images into buildings. Some would say: Words into 3D digital models built of database spreadsheets filled with…words. Words to images and back to words again.

Q: What else do they translate?

A: Other people’s dreams, ideas and needs into a cohesive, comprehensive, meaningful whole. And sometimes for themselves. User requirements into a vision. Chaos into order. Architects listen and translate information into a meaningful medium the client understands.

Q: How do architects translate?

A: They observe. They listen. They’re receptive to other’s input.

Q: But how do they do it?

A: No one really knows how it happens – the magical synthesis, the transformation. It’s alchemy.

Q: Is translation strictly a right brain activity? Left brain? Or does it use both sides of the brain?

A: Yes. Yes. And yes. Architects think of translation as a bridge – moving from one modality to another. They bridge one medium to another; one stage of development to another.

Q: Are architects alone in this ability? Is the ability to translate unique to architects?

A: To architects…and translators. No one besides the architect that I am aware of has been able to bridge words and thoughts into images – let alone into 3-dimensional objects – that (purportedly) keep the rain out.

Q: How do architects acquire this ability?

A: Architects first learn to translate words, user needs and directions into spaces, images and form while in school. The irony is – while translation can be learned – it cannot be taught. It is impossible to pinpoint the moment when the architect learns the art of translation. Most do not even realize that they have acquired this transformative skill – going a long way to explain why they take their ability to do so for granted.

Q: Architects interpret – is this the same as translate?

A: Depends on your interpretation. Architects reinterpret.

Q: What do you call translating that involves associative thinking? As when a refrigerator is compared with a cat because: they both contain fish, they both purr and they both have tails.

A: Deluded? Some call it creative thinking. If you were paid for that thought? Design thinking.

Q: What is the future of this architect ability?

A: With gadgets and no-cost services available for translating languages, it would seem that the architect’s mercurial ability to translate written or spoken directions into both analog and digital neck-craning spaces and worlds is just an appa way. But in truth it cannot be replicated except in others who are given – or give themselves – the opportunity to learn it. With the current emphasis on digital technology, architects seldom freehand draw and have lost the ability to translate in front of others.

Q: Where do you recommend I start?

A: Why Translation Matters by Edith Grossman – translator of Cervantes’s “Don Quixote” and many of the major works of García Márquez –  a just-released book in the same Yale U Press “Why X Matters” series as Why Architecture Matters, won’t teach you to be a better translator of words into images and form. But in that it argues for the importance of translation and for a more encompassing and nuanced appreciation of the translator’s role – the architect may pick-up a thing or two about this little appreciated, misunderstood and taken-for-granted ability of theirs. Grossman’s belief in the crucial significance of the translator’s work is noteworthy and compelling and ought to rub-off on the architect. But then again, that’s my interpretation.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Design March 23, 2010

Posted by randydeutsch in architect, BIM, collaboration, creativity, essence, IPD, management, marginalization, problem solving, questions, software architects, technology, the economy.
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Design. Noun or verb?

Building design? Noun.

Architects design? Verb.

So why do architects keep treating design like it’s a noun?

What architects talk about when they talk about design – is mostly buildings.

Design strategies, initiatives, options?  Design criteria, benchmarks and objectives? Leave these for MBAs.

 “Hiring an AIA architect,” says the AIA website, “could be the best decision you’ll make for your design project.” Yet no client considers their project a design assignment. That’s framing it as an architect sees it.

Design – the noun – is a tool architects use to plan and solve a client’s or owner’s problems: they need more space, they need to move and they need to attract more students or customers or retain the ones they have. They don’t have design projects – we do.

And note: the emphasis is on action  –  not thing.

To a client, an architect may help you to realize, recommend, guide, clarify, define, orchestrate, and help you get the most for your construction dollar. All verbs.

If that’s what we mean by design – then why don’t we say it? Why don’t we remind others that that is what we do?

And with the 2010 AIA Convention on the horizon why don’t we remind ourselves of this meaning of the word?

That said, if design is our core competency – what distinguishes us from pretenders –the act of design takes up a relatively small part of our day.

Over the past 25 years I have worked on several projects where I might design the building in a day – and then spend the next 3-5 years fleshing it out – and everything else that’s required to see to its realization. Some would say fleshing it out is someone else’s design development and another person’s iteration and still another’s level of detail. Sure – there is a great deal more design to do once the client says go. But again – the emphasis is on action – design as a verb – and not on the building.

One of the advantages of the new technologies such as Building Information Modeling (BIM) and Integrated Project Delivery (IPD) – the collaborative work process enabled by it (the subject of my other blog www.bimandintegrateddesign.com)– is that design occurs early, involving many stakeholders, and can come from just about anywhere. Yes, the architect may orchestrate the effort – and may be the one person qualified to do so – but she’s still applying for that position, it has not been awarded yet. Design in the near future will happen sooner in the process, by many – including considerable contributions made by non-designers and designers alike.

In fact – architects have been threatened by the role of the “designer” that has been appearing more and more in industry diagrams illustrating construction project teams. Where in these diagrams is the architect? The architect’s very survival instinct kicks in when this happens and what ensues can be unnerving. I have seen chairs fly and voices rise. Someone else is moving in on our territory and the instinct is to attack.

When we talk about design – who is our intended audience? By calling attention to design are we thinking that this will remind others on the construction team who really has the corner on design? Is this the meta-message for making this the year of design? “Don’t forget – architects design, too.” By calling attention to design, are we primarily reminding others that we design? Or – and at the same time – are we reminding ourselves?

Because many architects haven’t designed a building since the immersive studio experience in school and are in need of reminding. All but buried in building codes, zoning regulations, contractor’s RFI’s and change orders, lean construction, green building rating systems –  not to mention BIM, IPD, VDC and a hundred other acronyms that come our way – it’s almost as though instead of announcing to the world who we are, we are announcing it to ourselves. It’s almost as though we’re experiencing a form of professional amnesia or Alzheimer’s – and can’t remember who we are and what we do.

Design: Who we are. What we do.

Part of the problem is that the word design has become ubiquitous. Architects, of course, don’t have a corner on the design market.  Yes, architects design, but so do web designers, product designers, urban designers, environmental designers, business designers, set design, packaging design, game design, exhibition designers, landscape designers, graphic designers, interior designers, industrial designers, fashion designers and all the other T-shaped designers to name but a few.

If design is the planning that serves as the basis for the making of every object and system in the universe, then what are we talking about when we talk about design?

How can our purpose, our heart, our core – as design professionals – be such a small part of what we do?

And – if the new technologies and work processes have their way – we’re about to do even less of it.

Or do more of it in our heads.

Or conceptualize in the monitor, using the program’s built-in metrics to ferret out the most cost effective options.

The problem with the word design isn’t that it too narrowly defines what we as architects do. The problem is that the word design is overused, vague, appropriated by too many industries and domains – from MBA’s to makers of medical devices. I can understand the need for a convention to have as its subject a sweeping or enveloping concept to allow for the myriad specific entries and presentation-. As the convention material puts it, the weft through which a number of threads—sustainability, diversity, professional practice, technologies, leadership, communities, typologies, and others—will be woven. Last year’s was diversity. Next year’s – you can imagine – will be selected from amongst the remaining threads.

That design is not enough of a differentiator, whether building, city or global design.

To go from diversity to design isn’t to return to our roots.

Better we should ask ourselves these questions:

  • What distinguishes the architect?
  • What is unique to the architect?

Is it design or is it design thinking?

Is it design or is it problem identifying and problem solving?

The word design has too many connotations and is appropriated by too many industries. Earlier, I did my best to answer these questions here in Ten Ways to Face the Decade like an Architect.

10 Questions Architects Need to Ask Themselves

So, before heading off for the AIA Convention in Miami, ask yourself: What do we talk about when we talk about design?

  • Are we talking about design as a competitive advantage over our competition, namely design-builders and construction managers and other design professionals?
  • Is design enough of a differentiator? Others on the construction team see themselves as designers – including some owners and fellow design professionals.
  • By separating design from the rest of the process are we reinforcing others’ firmly held notions – however erroneous – that architects are elitist, arrogant, isolationists, rarified in some way.
  • Will architects who gather to celebrate design – and celebrate themselves – be accused of navel gazing, reinforcing the scourge of being labeled out-of-touch aesthetes?
  • Will architects be seen by others – disenfranchised and disillusioned architects among them – as reinforcing their already perceived irrelevance in the construction process, by meeting to talk about design they’re proverbially rearranging deckchairs while the rest of the profession goes down?
  • Will meeting to talk about design further sharpen the architect’s already considerable edge by playing-up their cool factor and wow factor?
  • If design can’t be taught and is something you intuit – that you either have it or you don’t – why meet to talk about it?
  • By talking about design do architects risk alienating teammates by remind them of their increasing irrelevance?
  • While the rest of the world is knee deep in design thinking will architects be perceived as focusing on design without the thinking?
  • By talking about the design of buildings as objects as opposed to systems, flows or solutions, will architects – with the Wal-Marting of the world and Targeting of design – reinforce the commoditizing of their skill-sets?

Thomas Friedman perhaps brought this point home when he wrote

If I just have the spark of an idea now, I can get a designer in Taiwan to design it. I can get a factory in China to produce a prototype. I can get a factory in Vietnam to mass manufacture it. I can use Amazon.com to handle fulfillment. I can use freelancer.com to find someone to do my logo and manage my backroom. And I can do all this at incredibly low prices. The one thing that is not a commodity and never will be is that spark of an idea.

Are architects talking about design like fish talking about water?

A San Francisco architect, Ted Pratt, Principal and Founder of MTP Architects, wrote to me today

The idea of Design Thinking is really taking hold here with business.  Last week I attended a panel discussion focused on the topic of Design and Business.  The event was held at Swissnex here in San Francisco.  All of the panel members were business people.  I commented to my business partner that we needed to be on the panel alongside the persons from Clorox and Nestle.  There was an administrator from the California College of Arts’ MBA program.  They have an MBA focused on Design Thinking.

Architects are already seen by many as the makers of pretty pictures. By getting together to talk about design will we be perpetuating this perception?

As Ted wrote, we needed to be on the panel.

Architects – working at many scales, from GIS to doorknobs – are first and foremost design thinkers. Design thinking is a term that some feel is the latest buzzword and by the time you read this will already be past-tense. But the truth is – whatever you call it – design thinking is something we as architects have done for centuries. You can learn more about it here.

What should our message be?

In the AIA’s 2010-2015 Strategic Plan, under Vision, it is written:

The American Institute of Architects: Driving positive change through the power of design.

Sooner that contrarian author and Design Futures Council board member, Richard Farson, author of The Power of Design, should speak at the convention.

And under Goals:

Serve as the Credible Voice: Promote the members and their AIA as the credible voice for quality design and the built environment.

Quality design. There you have it. With the focus front and center of the product and not the process.

The planet will always need quality design. But what the world needs right now is not more buildings but the creativity and ingenuity that goes into their design applied to the problems and forces at hand.

We love buildings – we love architecture – that is why we became architects: to be part of their design and realization.

But, as IDEO’s Diego Rodriguez says, Stop Treating Design as A Noun.

Is design even the message we need to be sending? At this time in history, shouldn’t our message be on collaboration, cooperation, teamwork, making our teammates look better, improving the process for all involved, playing well with others and our trustworthiness?

Design for the new decade

The 2010 AIA Convention has as its theme Design for the new decade. Design, a return to design. Getting back to our roots. Reprioritizing. Do what we do best. Which is namely,

Cool buildings, innovative form and materials, sustainable design.

With the selection of Dan Pink as keynote, the message appears to be that we have been spending too much time in the left hemisphere – with all of our focus on the left-brain thinking required of practice – and seek some Florida solace in the sun and respite in the right.

Once architects leave Miami, their brains newly balanced and their hemispheres aligned, perhaps we ought to consider the fact that what distinguishes the architect is the mercurial interaction of our left and right hemispheres. Design is not the domain exclusively of the left or right brains – but the back-and-forth interaction of the two. Our real value as architects occurs in neither individual lobe but in the space between.

Architects already do what the world needs most right now – they don’t need to emphasize one hemisphere over another – they just need to get the word out there a little louder in a world that’s already screaming for attention; that this is what we already do, this is who we already are.

Don’t get me wrong – I love Dan Pink. He spoke back to back at the Design Futures Council’s summit AND my kid’s middle school last Fall. He’s moved on – driven – past design onto more intrinsically motivated pastures. And we ought to take a clue from him and follow his lead.

So it should be clear by now. Design isn’t what we do or who we are. But instead Design thinking. Design deliberation. Design countenance. It’s not design – that’s shared by far too many to have any meaning – but what we do with it. Design isn’t a skill but a modifier for who we are and what we do. We ought to start acting more like it and let others in on the secret.

So go ahead – re-commit yourself to design as the architect’s primary mode of thought and action. Just don’t be fooled by the siren song of designed objects be they places, projects or things. What you are re-committing to is making design thought and design action a priority.

Design thinking and design doing: who we are and what we do.

This is the crux: for the present time – to reinforce the notion that we are team players, that we are relevant, that we are necessary – we ought to emphasize our positive impact on the process, not the end result.

We are designers in that we are design managers and design leaders.

We are designers – we are design thinkers – gathering to re-commit to helping to define and solve our clients’, city’s, community’s and neighborhoods’ problems.

That is design for the new decade.

Reports of Architect’s Death have been Greatly Exaggerated March 17, 2010

Posted by randydeutsch in career, change, collaboration, marginalization, questions.
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The knowledge that every ambition is doomed to frustration at the hands of a skeleton have never prevented the majority of human beings from behaving as though death were no more than an unfounded rumor.   Aldous Huxley

 

A number of prominent architects have sadly died this month: Bruce Graham, an architect who designed several of the most prominent buildings in Chicago, Frank Williams and Der Scutt, architects who designed several of the most prominent buildings in Manhattan, and Herb McKim who pretty much did the same for the entire state of North Carolina, are among them.

But this post isn’t about any one architect’s death – however important a role they might have played in our lives, cities and industry. This post addresses the increasingly prevalent pronouncements calling for the end of architecture and death of the profession. This post is about whether our profession will still be around to tell our grandkids about.

Only the latest along this line of thinking is the current debate taking place online, entitled Will the Architecture Profession Still Exist in 40 Years?, between RIBA President, Ruth Reed and self-proclaimed provocateur and naysayer Austin Williams, Founder of mantownhuman and writer at Building Design online, The Architect’s Website, found here with comments and also here.

Without stealing their distant thunder, suffice it to say that this debate doesn’t really solve anything. But the comments, as usual, bring up several decent points. Some of my own observations:

  • Architects will continue to be valued for their expertise – unless that expertise can be tapped into and proffered outside the profession in design-build outfits, wherever architects find employment in the years ahead
  • The gist of RIBA’s argument follows this line of logic: Architects, as custodians of the built environment, are beholden to both paying clients and non-paying (society at large) and for that reason will always be valued for the beauty, judgment, ingenuity and delight that they bring to a project. That said, most architects have found that it’s pretty difficult to state this outside the relative privacy of a blog, while maintaining a straight face. While this remains largely true – architects must represent both because it is what they do, it is why they went into the profession in the first place, because it is  the right thing to do and because the world needs them – whether or not the world recognizes this, recognizes them, remunerates or rewards them for their efforts. Just do it.
  • The gist of William’s argument states architects are toast because…architects are allowing their environmental agenda to dominate architectural practice. Say what?
  • By incorporating new technologies and collaborative work processes. By being the change they want to see – and not wait for someone else (Owners) to tell them to do it. More on this here. 

For Austin William’s co-edited book, The Future of Community: Reports of a Death Greatly Exaggerated, look here.

Commenters mention the usual bromides: others have trodden on much of the architect’s territory and until they are squelched architects will just have to be their own best advocates. As some would have it, architects excel at two things:  fighting over what scraps of work there is or congratulating each other on how well we have all done. As one commenter so aptly put it: The recession had made this failure in the profession to assert itself more clear.

Several other commenters’ insights worth repeating here:

  • As long as people want buildings, they will want them to be poetic.
  • Sustainability goes beyond a carbon footprint. It needs to bring in factors such as happiness, tradition, continuity and society.
  • If the “profession” was to disappear…talented designers and creative thinkers will remain
  • The best architects at any level are those that listen to others and take onboard their ideas, then giving them a twist to turn them into something special.
  • The arrogance of some architects who dismiss the fact that anyone else working in the built environment can be creative and have good ideas brings the profession down.

What is made clear by these comments is that an acceptance is needed on the architect’s part that almost anyone can have the big ideas: architects give these ideas, whether their own or from others, give them a twist and help turn them into reality. Read more comments here.

The State of the Profession

In reference to the title of this post, Mark Twain’s famous quip – the reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated – I would like to report that the architect is alive and well and living in denial.

Our death is perhaps exaggerated – but we’re in deep convalescence – so there’s still an outside chance.

The architecture profession has had some serious symptoms and it is perhaps time we saw a doctor.

In a biological model for the profession, I think it’s worth looking at some of the hard-to-miss signs: an increasing forgetfulness on our part, and what appears to be a cancerous growth within the profession.

As expected, the forgetfulness – to always play well with others, to share our information with teammates and empower those we work with – is age related. Architects have a case of amnesia where we’ve forgotten where we come from. It’s as though architects have Alzheimer’s and have forgotten who we are and what we are here to do.

A Focus on longevity

In terms of longevity for the profession, is appears that our resveratrol will be the adoption and complete embrace of new technologies, our daily glass of red wine will be to acquire the necessary mindsets and attitudes, and our calorie restriction diet will be a newfound determination on our part to collaborate with others.

Keeping the profession-as-human analogy going, in medicine, there’s this state – between good health and decline – called senescence. You might have heard author and nutritionist Andrew Weil MD talk about it in Healthy Aging. Senescence is marked by these common characteristics:

  • The period of decline, called senescence, is different than what came before
  • Senescent cells still perform many functions of life – but they cannot reproduce
  • When researchers take cells from healthy organisms and put them in new environments, senescence overtakes the cells and the cultures die
  • Senescence equates with the period of functional decline that precedes death
  • Most cells senesce after a fixed number of divisions
  • The number of times senescent cells can reproduce is coded in their DNA
  • Health depends on a balance between stress and defenses; the presence of senescence represents the body’s inability to cope with the stress

Thinking what I’m thinking? Allowing for some poetic license, the architecture profession is in a period of decline – this we have known for some time. In fact, per Robert Putnam and others all of the professions are to an extent. So, following  this logic:

  • The period architects find themselves in is different than the period that came before
  • Architects continue to perform many of their familiar functions– but due to circumstances they cannot employ, hire, educate or remunerate emerging talent
  • When architects are removed from their familiar workplaces and are placed in working environments outside their host domain, architectural culture dies
  • Architects are operating in a period of functional decline that precedes the death of the profession
  • Most architects decline after a fixed number of career moves
  • The number of times architects can renew themselves is coded in their make-up
  • For architects, survival depends on a balance between stress and defenses; the current presence of decline represents the profession’s inability to cope with the multiple stresses placed on the architect today

As with all analogies taken too far, this one is no less farfetched.  And yet there seems to be something there when you consider that – due to the unprecedented circumstances architects find themselves in today, due to their own choices as well as others out of their control – the architecture profession is not yet dead but does seem to be in a state of decline. Of, if you will, senescence – architects are in a state of senescence.

Those still interested in longevity, I write more about the architect’s so-called fountain of youth at my other blog.

Architect’s routine physical results

Should the architecture profession go for an annual physical examination? While this annual ritual has been largely discarded as unnecessary for healthy patients – one wonders over the past couple years how healthy is the state of the architect?

When you sit down with your doctor, what things should the architect discuss? What things determine the architect’s risk?

  • Heredity – What have architects inherited from our predecessors? What habits – good and bad – have architects inherited from our favorite professors and practitioners? From role models and mentors?
  • Lifestyle – If your client gives you a call 5PM on a Friday demanding that you deliver results by Monday morning – how do you respond? How balanced is your work and home life?
  • Your Medical History – Working in silos, holding back information, an unwillingness to share, or prolonged use of certain attitudes – will these play a big part in determining what has to be monitored or watched out for?
  • Age and sex – Are emerging professionals who are architects in their 20’s are more likely to be impacted by burnout and disillusionment than their midcareer colleagues? Do men have career-shortening events earlier in their careers and more frequently than women? Are women at greater risk for leaving the profession? Are midcareer architects today the target of layoffs?

If the architecture profession was a sick patient – and went to see the doctor – what do you think she’d diagnose?

What recommendations for cure would the doctor make?

What will it take for the architecture profession to be declared the picture of health and fit for duty?

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?

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.