Technology + Architecture = Evolution

Technology has changed the age-old profession of architecture irrevocably. While this shift has not significantly altered our core role as designers, architecture has evolved from a document production business to an information management business.

Technology has changed the age-old profession of architecture irrevocably. While this shift has not significantly altered our core role as designers, architecture has evolved from a document production business to an information management business.

Five years ago, the architecture profession saw some profound changes to the way we work that were in large part enabled by technology. Groundbreaking firms began to explore building information modeling and integrated project delivery as highly efficient ways of delivering services and giving more value to clients. Design modeling and 3-D printing allow limitless exploration of form. Imaging and visualization software make it possible to understand projects under any condition.

Analysis software lets us model complex building behavior, including daylighting, environmental performance, structural performance, pedestrian flow, code compliance, and other systems. Production of construction documents, once the primary deliverable, now becomes a report from the model. Increased accuracy and error checking before building in the field enhances the construction process. Workflows that deliver design information directly to fabrication create increased efficiency and provide savings of both time and money. Social media and videoconferencing connect us, shrinking time and space.
This technology infusion changed the landscape of how design firms work and the value we deliver. While there are some small firms that still practice in very traditional ways, other small firms have adopted technology and approaches to radically enhance their ability to take on projects of larger scale and increasing complexity. The capabilities technology provides have completely transformed mid- and large-sized firms.

Over the next few years, technology will continue to impact our business in many areas, particularly with regard to knowledge management, information stewardship, and business intelligence.

Knowledge Management

Most firms have begun to organize their business, project, and process information into some sort of knowledge management system. This allows a capture of know-how and best practices so that past experience can inform new projects. Advances in this area allow an easier capture of knowledge at the time of its creation and will begin to deliver data into the hands of project teams at the appropriate point in time.

The main obstacle for firms to overcome is in understanding the value of this solution and committing an investment in a system. Most important, the investment needs to be in managing behavior change of the staff to create a culture of capturing and leveraging knowledge.

Information Stewardship

Information is created every day in many different systems. The human resources system has data about staff and experience. The accounting system has records about clients, projects, and financial performance. The knowledge management system has data about best practice and firm history. The project information management system has facts about projects and project teams. The BIM files have information about buildings.

There is a lot of important and potentially valuable information captured in these assets. One of the secrets to future success will be our ability to organize, manage, and harvest information.

We will use this information to guide and enhance the automation of more of our business processes. We will develop fully digital workflows and improved delivery methods. We will create seamless data flow and integration with outside partners. To put it simply, if we manage our information well, then we will run a tighter business, create more informed designs, and deliver more value to our clients.

The challenge for us is to develop staff skills in data organization and management. This may be a specialty role initially, but over time it will be a core capability of design professionals.

Business Intelligence

For design firms, one of the big payoffs from impending technology is business intelligence. Think of it as a method for visualizing and filtering information. Similar to our ability to visualize a BIM project graphically and spatially, business intelligence allows us to visualize information in a graphically and intuitively clear way. It presents information simply and understandably, and it allows drilling down into deeper levels of detail if we need them.

It is a particular trait of designers that graphics are more readily understood than spreadsheets or words. Business intelligence should drive management of both the business side and the design side of the practice to become more intuitive and successful.

No Turning Back

There is no going back to the old ways. We have passed the threshold where it is possible to deliver services that measure up to today’s expectations using traditional tools and processes. And this evolution is not complete: Technology will continue to advance, and design firms will continue to develop and grow while leveraging technology.

If we look back at the technology driven changes through which design business has evolved over the years, we see how this evolution has resulted in a more intelligent and value-adding profession. But it is not particularly unique: Many other industries have grappled with and mastered the transition into an information-based business.

One question we should consider is this: What will it take for us to become an information-based profession? Maybe we just need to recognize the opportunity to leverage technology fully. In doing so, we are sure to bring a new level of creativity and problem solving to the table and a redefined level of success to business. This transition starts on a firm-by-firm basis, and we actualize the true value when we transform the entire industry.

Ken Young is senior vice president and chief information officer at HOK.