Key issues discussed at the Global Conference in London and Cambridge

Recently, leaders from the A/E/C industry in Europe and the U.S. gathered in London and Cambridge to consider how designers, engineers, and constructors are adapting to the significant changes in the industry world wide.  Included here are the key issues discussed.

Communicating Value: Good Design is Good Business

Business leaders have an accepted language (accounting) that is understood the world over. Economic concepts can be articulated easily across cultures, which provide the basis for trade, growth, innovation and profit potential. Business people understand quantitative measures and are comfortable with metrics that support and substantiate investment decisions.

The same is not true of the design professions. “Design language,” being more visual and less quantitative, is generally more fluid and hence not well understood, especially by members of the business community.

Business values are not traditionally seen as something designers are required to bring to a project, but to the client this is highly relevant in decision-making. To bridge the gap, what’s needed is a way of expressing design value in business terms and business value in design terms.

An effective design language should be multidimensional. Design ideas require visualization and comprehension in both 3-D and 4-D formats. Designers need to tell their stories effectively in a way that will be comprehended and appreciated by their audiences. BIM technology and gaming simulation are increasingly effective means of communicating with clients.

One of the challenges is to communicate “soft” values such as client satisfaction, user productivity and overall sustainability. Clients need metrics that are sufficiently predictive to inform decision making. For example, does more daylight actually contribute to better learning in a school classroom? Thus, a useful design language needs to be robust, dealing with both tangible and nontangible values.

A universally accepted design language would enable architects to communicate their value propositions clearly and convincingly. How much is good design worth? Is it possible to design a building that attracts measurably more visitors or even achieves landmark status? The perception of good vs. bad design is often subjective and personal, but a project that can demonstrate true value-added design has qualities that transcend the personal, and a vocabulary is needed to express these attributes.

The London Olympics: Case Study

The integrated procurement process that was used in the design of the Olympic facilities in London was successful. How best can this and other high profile programs be communicated both inside and outside the profession? Identifying and celebrating specific project stories would illustrate how design creates extraordinary value, both in aesthetic and business terms. The London Olympics epitomizes how the client and the design team articulated and then achieved their vision, in some cases exceeding expectations. Substantial long-term value was created for London as a whole, going well beyond the original design brief. The project revitalized and regenerated an entire precinct of the city, laying the foundation for substantial long-term value to the community, the city and the nation at large.

Good design can create value for all those involved in the project, from the design team to the constructor to the users. Design, when well thought out, has a far reaching impact; it can create a sense of well-being and contribute to long-term sustainability for many decades. Clearly articulating the value of design can provide inspiration for many audiences, including those wishing to enter the profession.

This underscores the need for designers to learn how to communicate with building owners and users throughout the entire life cycle of the building, especially since the original capital cost is a very small fraction (about 10 percent) of the long-term life cycle cost of a structure, and carbon emissions produced during the operational phase far outweigh those created during the construction phase.

Gaming Technology and the Design Process

Gaming technology offers designers a much more sophisticated way to articulate their vision. By visualizing a building in both 3-D and 4-D formats, computer generated imagery captures data not only about form, massing, structure and material, but also about cost, construction logistics and long-term maintenance. Computer simulation can even provide an emotional element.

Sophisticated digital tools can help stakeholders better understand how a space will function even before it has been built. That said, it is ironic that the digital age has to some degree diminished the need for actual places and spaces. The internet and cloud computing have enabled business to be easily conducted from remote locations, even while in transit. This has big implications for the way space will be used.

In the future, expect technology to enable buildings to “talk” to the users by providing ongoing information about performance, much like the dashboard in a car. This includes not only the engineered systems, such as mechanical, electrical and plumbing, but also biometrics — information about the actual users themselves.


Over the past decade, sustainability has become a mainstream business value. Therefore, architects and engineers need to integrate it into their thinking, not only for planning and design purposes, but for its ability to generate bottom-line value. To stay successful, businesses needs to adapt and accommodate the changing needs of society as a whole, and this eventually will be evident in all aspects of the supply chain. Sophisticated owners are taking into account the environmental impact of their projects during their entire useful life, including siting and massing, the selection of materials, energy consumption and conservation and, ideally, zero carbon emissions. Building performance should be optimized at all levels; this is just good business and common sense. It’s already taken for granted that all construction needs to meet universal standards of accessibility.

Design is not only about the new. An increasing volume of work is done in upgrading and refurbishing existing structures, and the future this segment of the industry is likely to grow substantially.

As buildings have become more intelligent there is now the option to include technology, such BMS (Building Management Systems) to allow the structures to communicate with the occupants in order to optimize performance. Certain clients, including the British government, are also driving the need to embrace BMS, and in the future it is likely to become a standard requirement.

The Effect of Social Media

Social media has profound implications for the world of design. SinaWeibo is overtaking China as Twitter has overtaken the West. The increased use of social media means that the population is more informed than ever before. The opinions of users need to be taken into account. Organizations have shifted from traditional hierarchical structures to networks, thus empowering the rank and file. There is a pressing need for designers to effectively communicate with all stakeholders who may be affected by a project. When the needs of the stakeholders are understood, an environment that is responsive and conducive to productivity can be created. In well-designed offices there is lower staff churn and less employee absenteeism.

Evidence-Based Design

Evidence-based design is fast gaining traction as a legitimate discipline in the profession. There has been a tendency for designers to reinvent the wheel with every new project and to fail to recognize that many examples of best practice already exist. Hence, the need for robust empirical and evidence-based research.

It is important to understand what is being measured and why. Engineers currently use empirical measures and have a firm evidence base with which to assess performance, and this approach needs to be embraced by design professionals as well. Data can be interpreted in many ways and therefore it is important to determine what information is being gathered and for what purpose. Objectivity is critical. Lessons learned should be gathered not only from successful projects, but from those which have experienced problems.

Post occupancy evaluation is a good way of assessing actual performance.

In the UK, “Soft Landings” is a useful technique. During the briefing phase, data from similar projects are considered and during operation there is continual feedback. Along with performance of the physical asset, data is also gathered from the end users and taken onto account on future projects.

Who should gather and analyze the data? Clients are often reluctant to publish performance metrics, but a full and frank discussion is required to gain the most insight. We live in a culture that often is uncomfortable about examining the real causes of failure, but true innovation rests on understanding why failures occur. Evidence must be gathered objectively, including case studies and other papers that are freely available for study. Some of this material already exists.

Universities are generally well equipped to carry out multidisciplinary research. They can also partner with industry to conduct investigative work. Universities and the private sector can protect proprietary information if needed, and this work could also be carried out by third parties.

Leadership by Design

Design requires both leadership and teamwork, but many design professionals lack good leadership skills. This is something that can be addressed through design education and by continuing professional development. There is an opportunity for organizations like the Construction Industry Council and Construction Forum to provide appropriate guidance.

The business world understands and regularly uses metrics, which must be quantifiable, robust and reproducible. Despite much research and some progress (such as the LEED and BREEAM rating systems) there is still a need for more widely trusted and accepted standard metrics that can support the understanding of sustainable building performance among the design community, policy makers and the public.

The business world uses metrics to communicate to internal and external stakeholders. This may take the form of annual company reports, annual accounts or other data explaining the efficacy of business decisions. Stakeholders take comfort in robust and quantifiable metrics. Building assessment methods, such as LEED, BREEAM and others, have attempted to provide the same reassurance in terms of building performance. As yet there is not a universally adopted standard, and each assessment method uses subtly different criteria, thus limiting comparison and inviting confusion. The design world needs robust and reproducible Design Quality Indicators (DQIs) that can be universally adopted and understood such that building performance can be quantified with the same reliability as financial data.

The Design Quality Index (DQI)

Robin Nicholson, former chairman of the Construction Industry Council and a senior partner of Edward Cullinan Architects, offered the following summary:

In 1997 the incoming New Labour government was eager to deal with the backlog of building schools and hospitals after many years of declining public investment, but wanted to get better value from any public monies. They appointed John Egan, who delivered his report “Rethinking Construction” in 1998 and set up the Movement for Innovation to develop the Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), study “demonstration projects” and promote this new thinking within the U.K. However, his first report made no reference to either design or sustainability.

When asked to devise a complementary design excellence tool I arranged for the Construction Industry Council (CIC), which I was then chairing, to lead the process and eventually own the tool. We felt it would be advantageous for an engineer to lead the project to ensure the widest industry acceptance. Michael Dickson, then Chair of Buro Happold and CIC Chairman-elect, led us on a three year development program. The tool was made available in 2002 and has been used on a wide range of projects. Within five years, 60 percent of all publicly funded and 20 percent of all projects valued over £1 million used the DQI. The research lead was professor David Gann, initially at the University of Sussex and later with Jennifer Whyte at Imperial College London.

We started by identifying the key qualities of good design and then arranged them into 10 groups within the Vitruvian triad which we updated to Functionality, Building Quality and Impact. There are 99 scoring statements gathered into 10 fields: access, space use, performance, engineering systems, construction, urban and social integration, internal environment, form and materials, character and innovation.

The DQI does not measure design quality as such, but rather it involves a wide range of stakeholders in deciding what the key design issues for a particular project are and the extent to which the design and then the building meet those objectives. Recording the conversations among the participants is the most revealing. When I introduce the DQI, I ask each stakeholder to imagine one of their favorite places and then think of an adjective to describe its special quality. I then observe that such words never appear in a building brief. The DQI can be used at 4 stages for Briefing, Mid-Design, Ready for Occupation and In-use.

Considerable interest in the tool developed even before CABE put its weight behind it and Partnerships for Schools made its use mandatory for all schools. It presently scores points in the BREEAM assessments. However, the tool requires expert facilitation, which is not always provided in these obligatory situations. I have used it very successfully at the University of Warwick; we have now designed and tested three buildings at the university, each benefiting from the stakeholder response to the previous one.

In 2006 Mark Salette and Goran Lukic set up DQI USA which they have used for 1,900 projects to great effect.

The Need For Speed.

There is ongoing concern about the ever-decreasing time pressures on the design process. “Change will never again be as slow as it is now.”

The digital age has meant that everything happens at an unprecedented pace and is not always conducive to the traditional design process. The scale of a project, be it a single building or a new town, dictates the pace at which change can occur and there is a point beyond which timelines cannot be compressed without sacrificing design value. This is further complicated by the fact the design process is iterative and may take several cycles to mature. In certain circumstance the availability of libraries of component parts for BIMs may facilitate the more rapid development of a design concept. Such tools allow more rapid articulation of standard elements within a structure, but the iterative process of understanding client needs and design realization still takes time.

Global vs. International Practice

There is a big difference between a global company and an international company. An international company is considered to be one that exports practices of the parent company and overlays them on the country or region in which it is working, often with varying success. This often fails to recognise the specific needs of the local community and/or culture. A global company is one that uses and develops local talent and knowledge in expanding its business to the benefit of the regions into which it expanded, thereby progressively enriching the organization as a whole.

Many companies think that they are global businesses when in reality they are international (in other words, companies that take what they do in their home country and replicate it in another domain). This modus operandi can result in a square peg in a round hole. To succeed globally it is necessary to adapt business practices to the local culture. An intelligent company is able to learn from the country in which it wishes to establish itself, absorbing and adopting better practices that can then be “exported” to other regions as well.

The volume of potential work in both China and India is huge. If we do not learn to understand and adopt the best practices of other cultures, we will be left behind. The flow of ideas is a two-way process. Talent exists on all continents and there is an opportunity for the interaction of cultures. A great company is one that recognizes that useful ideas may come from many quarters, and it is arrogant to assume that ability and brilliance do not exist elsewhere in the world. Many of the best and brightest minds are likely to be found locally. These individuals may bring an enthusiasm and unique perspective. Individuals should be developed who are conceptual and flexible and are not intimidated by national boundaries or a changing environment. Ideally, every organization should seek to have leadership from each of the domains in which the organization operates, thus allowing for a truly diverse and multicultural perspective.

Mentorship is incredibly important in developing talent, and many design firms do not have effective training programs in place. Effective mentoring is not just a top-down process, but is a partnership with all parties benefitting from the relationship. Diversity is critical for the design professions, and this in turn requires relevance at the local level.

The Future of Design Education

Effective design education requires greater focus on the business aspects of design. Significantly more architects are leaving the profession than are joining. Having larger numbers of design-trained professionals in other professions is seen as a positive. The design professions are morphing and expanding beyond traditional definitions, and the benefits of design training are demonstrably spreading among other professionals.

In the U.S. and the U.K. the number of students graduating from design schools each year exceeds the number of jobs available. “Design thinking” can bring a different perspective to other fields. These skills are sought out, and a number of major companies have designers within the boardroom. The profession is predominantly white and male in the senior levels, and more needs to be done to address this. To stay relevant, it’s important to encourage a true cross-section of the community to enter the design professions. The U.K. system of professionals being generally unpaid visiting professors and visiting scholars in universities was noted, as this provides input of practical issues into student teaching.

The education of the design professions needs to adapt to changing times, which requires some rethinking of the educational system. In the U.S., internships should be a shared partnership between design schools and professional firms. Students need to be prepared for practice in a different way, and entrepreneurial skills should be encouraged. This might be through a multidisciplinary foundation year. The professional institutions need to be more proactive in supporting and encouraging such a transformation, as frequently change is stifled by the need to comply with the requirements of accreditation and licensing.

Engineers are traditionally taught objective, evidence-based thinking. These skills are valued by financial institutions, which frequently employ staff with an engineering background. Architects could benefit from more evidence-based design. Designers and engineers will invariably be required to work toward common outcome, yet currently each speaks and understands a subtly different language. A diversified first year would provide the opportunity to expose students to all of the thought processes and skills that are used by the A/E/C industry as a whole, thus facilitating better communication for all concerned. This would provide a more rounded approach, equipping designers with transferable skills, thus allowing them to more enter other professions.

buro happold Case Study:

What can the A/E/C industry take from the success of the London Olympics? Some thoughts from Mike Cook.

The success of the London 2012 Games should be attributed far and wide; many factors contributed to it. The design and construction community was an essential part of the success and that this deserves recognition. What went right?

Three things made a clear difference:

1) Commitment to schedule

A date was set for when the eyes of the world would be on that site in Stratford. We needed a place for the games; we needed an infrastructure to get them there and buildings to play in.

2) Leadership

Leadership that set the goals and established a framework for delivery, keeping everyone focused (including that drop-dead date). Leadership with vision; people who could imagine the transformation, knew what needed to be done, knew how to communicate the vision and share it and cared enough to keep it alive.

3) Teamwork

the “Team GB” spirit encouraged and achieved integration across different sectors of the design and construction industry. This helped remove barriers to efficient and effective working practices and clarified decision making.
What will be the lasting impact for the design and construction industry?

A lot of young people have seen some amazing results in some fantastic sporting venues. Some of them will have been inspired by what they saw; spaces that enliven the senses; places that worked.

Government has seen our construction industry “deliver the goods.” The message is clear: a good client begets good construction results. The client set a clear agenda for quality and sustainability and a delivery mechanism that made it possible. There were tensions, of course, regarding the alignment of quality, cost and time. But the compromises worked. The construction industry’s image and credibility rose substantially; this has to be good for business and confidence.

The people of London are the biggest winners. The investment made in the Lee Valley has re-drawn the map of East London and there can be no going back. Communities will start to develop, jobs will be created and the “industrial wound” of the Lee Valley will heal. It will take time but this is a legacy the next generation. It will benefit millions in the years to come.

The design and construction industry has a lot to take from the success of the games. It has made a big contribution to a major event, leaving behind a massive legacy. UK has demonstrated that it has one of the most competent design and construction communities in the world.

Edelman Case Study

Edelman, the world’s largest independent international public relations firm, is a testament to the positive impact excellent design can have on business. When Gary Wheeler (Principal in Charge) and Grant Kanik (Project Designer) were engaged to bring together Edelman with two subsidiary companies they found the disparate organizations divided by location and culture; each of which had a distinct and strong brand identity that was working at odds with the organization as a whole.

Many office environments only accommodate one mode of working, head down and solitary, but research by Wheeler and Kanik indicated there are three further modes of working: collaborating, learning skills and socializing for the purposes of work, all of which involve interaction. Wheeler and Kanik have enhanced the office experience by creating spaces where people can meet and congregate. There is no reception desk; instead, visitors are met by a concierge who take coats and direct visitors. There is minimal privately dedicated space and every space has at least two functions. The directors’ offices can be used as meeting rooms, the reception area is a coffee shop and visitors can observe employees at work as they are located in an open plan office space that is visible from the corridors, which double as breakout areas.

To facilitate communication and collaboration there is a free breakfast for staff each morning provided staff stay within the café area and talk with one another. The bar café area doubles as a library and is lined with a vast collection of books and current magazines which can be enjoyed by visitors and staff. Socializing is further encouraged by free cocktails on Friday evenings. The free breakfast and cocktails encourage communication as well as providing an environment in which people want to come to work. As a result, sickness rates and staff churn rates have decreased; within 12 months of moving in Edelman was named PR Firm of the Year.

Flexible desking, with each space set off by bright partitioning, allows for variable density; capacity has now been reached and a further floor is soon to be occupied. Edelman took occupation just as the global financial crisis was beginning, but it has bucked the trend with the number of employees increasing from 180 to 400 in five years. Within four months of occupation the win rate on cross-practice pitches had increased between 30- 40 percent. Year on year profits have increased by over 30 percent.

The success of the project is a reflection of like-minded people working together each with a shared vision. Design has been used to overcome operational challenges and has facilitated collaborative working, which has resulted in business success.

Dr. Aeli Roberts spent a number of years teaching material science to conservation and art history students. She is director of undergraduate studies at Bartlett School of Construction and Project Management at University College London, UK.