Design professionals who have the ability to deliver their services with blazing speed have a distinct advantage over their competition.

We have become accustomed to quarterly business reports describing how workplace productivity continues to increase. In fact, ongoing productivity improvements, due largely to the impact of technology, have made this current economic recovery different in terms of job creation than in recoveries of the past.

The design profession is not an exception to this phenomenon. Design professionals who have the ability to deliver their services with blazing speed have a distinct advantage over their competition.

Many clients have the same speed and productivity expectations for architects and designers as they have of manufacturing suppliers. Designers who embrace speed as a key competency will increasingly win out over their competition. Many of us recall that a few decades ago the term fast-track was coined to describe a design process where documents were delivered in distinct packages to provide an early construction start. Today, many projects are moving at a much faster pace–a pace some would have thought not possible only a few years ago. Firms capable of high-speed delivery have branded their approaches as blur-track, hyper-track, and even psycho-track.

Clients drive the need for faster design solutions for a variety of reasons:

Product to market—getting to market quickly drove the construction of many computer manufacturing and assembly facilities in the late 1990s. For many industries today, speed to market separates the leaders from the rest of the pack.

Leadership transition—the pending retirement of a CEO or other top leadership has placed some Fortune 500 Corporations on a super fast-track to complete new projects in record time.

Mergers and acquisitions—the need to quickly integrate cultures of merged companies is another factor that leads to fast project design and delivery. In one Fortune 500 company, mergers that tripled revenues to $5 billion in less than two years required a quick design and construction process.

Regulatory changes—pending regulatory changes (such as a zoning change impacting the value of land) have pushed forward projects in record time. A biotechnology firm in New England that learned of a local down-zoning petition that would decrease the allowable floor area ratio by 40 percent required prompt action by their architect.

Real Estate Factors—the Minnesota Department of Revenue building, completed a few years ago, is an example of how real estate factors drove the design and construction process at an incredibly fast pace. Because of pending lease expirations, challenging renewal negotiations, and previously unsuccessful attempts to have a building designed on budget, the State of Minnesota passed special legislation for a new facility to be delivered quickly through single source design-build. Through a competitive process a design-build team of architect and contractor was selected. The challenge was to design and construct a 385,000 square foot urban office facility to be ready for occupancy in 14 short months. Typically, the state would approach a project of this magnitude under a 38-month schedule. Late delivery would result in stiff penalties.

Three Elements of Speed

Effective delivery of design services under the paradigm of Fast Architecture requires new approaches by architects, engineers, designers and builders. Architects have long understood that the nature of the design process tends to be circular and non-linear. On the other hand, traditional construction is more linear. In Fast Architecture, these two approaches merge. The enablers of speed are Information, Process, and Communication.

Information–Knowledge and Facts

In Fast Architecture, information is constantly shared in real time. In the traditional approach, information is shared only at select times.

Process–Series of Actions

In Fast Architecture, processes are interwoven. They are more simultaneous than sequential. In the traditional approach, processes are linear with few overlaps.

Communication–The Exchange of Information

In Fast Architecture, communication is continuous and across broad media (email, voice mail, project websites, and instant messaging, to name a few). In the traditional approach, communication occurs through formal documents and meetings.

Co-locating key team members, including designers, builders, and even material suppliers who may otherwise work miles apart is an effective method for achieving new efficiency in information, process, and communication. The 10-month design and construction process for the 250,000 square foot fit-out of laboratory space for an east coast pharmaceutical firm was made possible, in part, by creating a common workplace for all who contributed to the design, cost estimating, detailing, fabrication, and construction processes.

Technology makes new approaches to information, process, and communication more achievable. New generations of building modeling technology are becoming true decision-support systems for designers rather than mere documentation systems. These technologies enable continuous cost estimate updates by linking quantity data on drawings, to databases having real-time information on cost and availability of construction products and materials. Fabrication processes are being enhanced because data contained in architectural documents is now capable of programming robotic machinery to fabricate specialized building materials to precise standards, eliminating the intermediate step of shop drawings. As for expanding the impact of the knowledge base, content management technology allows design firms to leverage their full intellectual capacity.

With new technology advancing upon us nearly every day, it is important to remember that effective interpersonal skills are equally or more important. Among these is the ability to communicate effectively. The topic of communication deserves extra attention because so many aspects of a successful design practice depend on clear communications. In fact, surveys of client’s impressions of design firms consistently point out communication skills as needing improvement. We can all benefit from the wisdom of George Bernard Shaw who said, “The greatest problem with communication is the illusion that it has been accomplished.” Fast Architecture is only possible with excellent communication.

Aligning Teams for Joint Performance

Fast Architecture and the new approaches to information, process and communication can happen only if team members–client, architects, engineers, suppliers, builders, and others–are aligned on vision, strategy, and goals for the project.

Leadership instills team members with a common vision for the assignment–the big goal. Values also need to be defined, as these establish important priorities. Expected results need to be articulated and understood as measures of success.

In addition to being part of a team with a clearly defined vision, high-performing staff need to shape the planning and decision-making process. They need to understand how their successful performance will lead to continued growth in their careers and how their specific project role fits into the overall picture. Good leaders articulate the role of each team member. While some firms still operate under the old “command and control model,” enlightened principals create a more dialogue-based environment essential for attracting and retaining top talent.

High-performing staff members also want to know how they contribute to profitability. This is why it is important to track and monitor financial performance and share the information with all team members. Even though studies have shown that fewer than 5 percent of staff say their paycheck is the primary reason they are with their design organization, financial incentives are a helpful tool in encouraging and rewarding high performance. A variety of methods are available to link team performance with project profitability.

Depending on the specific culture and values of a design firm, a combination of team-based financial rewards plus merit rewards for individual accomplishment can be effective in motivating both team and individual performance.

Some facility owners include contract financial incentives in the owner-architect agreement to achieve alignment on key objectives. For example, a large medical technology company recently offered its design firm two incentives in lieu of a larger basic services fee. One was for meeting an aggressive document delivery schedule; the other hinged on delivering the project on budget, even though the architect had little control over market conditions. The total value of these two bonuses was well into six figures. From the owner’s point of view, these bonuses were a carrot. The design firm viewed them as a stick because they were the difference between marginal financial success and robust profits. With part of their compensation at risk, the architect was emboldened to be more proactive at requesting timely client decisions and requiring weekly budget updates from the builder. In the end, it was a win-win for everyone. Design firms that are willing to assume additional risk, and stake their compensation on it, will win out over their more conservative peers.

Fast is a Challenge

Accomplishing design at increasingly fast speeds creates new challenges for design firm leaders. Fast Architecture is not for everyone. Identifying and assigning the right staff–most often the best staff–is essential for a fast project to be successful. In the workplace, every generation has its drivers–from Gen Xers, to Boomers, to Traditionalists. It is important to carefully select team members and choose those who enjoy a challenge and complement each other’s skills.

Another challenge is that time, or lack of it, affects the creative process. Many architects find limited time a positive constraint that stimulates and enhances their creative energy.

It may however, be a more significant challenge for the client. With less time for review and approval, clients may not fully understand or appreciate all of the implications and ramifications of the proposed solution. To compensate, designers need to over-communicate and find new ways to help clients understand and evaluate design alternatives.

Educated clients who understand the architectural process are, as a general rule, happier clients. Education is even more critical when undertaking a fast-track project. Part of this education process involves the client’s acknowledgment of the added risks that accompany speed. The owner is advised to carry larger contingencies to cover the inherent ambiguities present in faster delivery. For example, on one recent 400,000 square foot project, excavation was begun just two weeks after the architect was hired and the foundation design was issued just three weeks after that. There are undoubtedly subsequent revisions required of these early design packages, hopefully minimal, and there is the potential to revise work already constructed in order to accommodate the evolving design.

Fast projects requiring significant personal time commitment can be challenging for staff. Maintaining work-life balance is important, especially if we are to retain talented people over the long term. Unlike the traditional project process with milestones for deliverables spread out over time, deadlines in the interwoven phased process of Fast Architecture occur almost daily. When teams work long hours, free dinners and lunches can make time at the office a little easier. Perks like family dinner certificates, laundry and dry-cleaning coupons, plus periodic paid time off are also appreciated.

Speed is Here to Stay
Design firms with the ability to deliver enhanced content rapidly will prevail. Successful firms will find new ways to meet their clients need for faster delivery of design services. They will embrace new ways to manage information, processes, and communication to advance the increasingly complex objectives of their clients. Part of the answer comes through technology. The other part comes with achieving the right balance of visionary leadership and pragmatism to motivate design teams to strive for and reach new levels of performance.

—Steve Fiskum