Griff Davenport (CEO of DLR Group) heads the firm’s executive leadership team, collaborating with them to set business strategy and elevate DLR Group’s design. DesignIntelligence caught up recently with Davenport to ask how he sees the future evolution of the architecture and design profession, professional practices, and the architecture and design market.

DesignIntelligence: Overall, what is the greatest challenge you see for the architecture and design professions?

Griff Davenport: Clearly, our profession is changing at a very rapid pace. When people ask me what keeps me awake at night, it’s probably the pace of change in our industry.

In the role of certainly the chief executive, we have more obligation than ever to be looking as far out over the horizon as we can see. We’ve got a good group of leadership that really has to deal with the here and now, but more than ever before, there’s got to be an individual or group of people looking at what’s next and trying to stay out front the best we can.

DI: What about the future of leadership in professional practices? Will there be new models of leadership and organizational structures as things change for professional practices?

GD: For quite some time we’ve practiced in a decentralized leadership structure. We’ve got 29 locations right now. I feel very strongly that decentralized leadership in a growing large firm is an essential operational consideration to master. For us, it’s opened the door to people, regardless of where they sit, either domestically or even internationally.

Our Monday morning meetings or boardroom, as a large firm, is a Zoom conference call every two weeks. We’re able to go find the very best talent in a senior leadership role and park them in a place, virtually as necessary, and make things work.

It takes a little while to grow into a firm where all the executives aren’t parked down the hall upstairs on the top floor. I think that is very much changing in the industry as different expertise is applied to firms, whether it be developing a director of research or a chief marketing officer or brand communications people, that in our cases, are all decentralized.

DI: Do you feel like this model will continue to work for DLR Group as it evolves through the future?

GD: I absolutely think it will work. It speaks to the ability to bring senior leadership face-to-face with more people in the company, which helps maintain some level of cultural consistency. If we have a group of board members and senior leaders that are all believing and seeking the same things, who all know our strategic direction and vision, and it’s decentralized, I can’t find any negatives in that. In fact, I think it only helps.

There are influences that we and our clients are certainly dealing with, such as real estate compression. I don’t think our industry’s going to be exempt from it. We’ve got to believe in more virtual locations of our staff, virtual access with our clients, working in and with our clients. I think spreading the firm out, not just from a leadership standpoint, is going to be something we’re all going to see more of. As a firm today, we probably are doing as well as anybody in being able to execute with virtual teams to serve our clients and to preserve culture.

DI: It seems like quite a delicate balance.

GD: Very definitely. I don’t think we’ll ever evolve to office-less firms. I think there still is a need to be together in firms doing integrated design. It requires face-to-face collaboration, some hands-on conversation. I don’t think that will go away in the near future.

DI: How do you think that client needs will evolve in the future?

GD: Technology is allowing us to leverage access to our clients more than ever before. That’s a two-way street. It’s a convenience to us, but I think many clients expect us to be available whenever they need us. I think our whole society is—right or wrong—kind of a get-it-now society: look it up, find it, buy it. We’ve been talking about 24/7 access now for years. I don’t see that going away. The lines are certainly blurred of what we consider to be the workday or work time. Work gets done when it gets done where it gets done, not necessarily in our offices from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Client decision-makers are accessing us all the time. They expect access to experts when they need them, whether it be someone monitoring a mechanical system, which we are doing in some cases, and providing remote service to some of our clients. I think that’s just one way that we are enabling ourselves to serve the immediate needs of our clients more effectively.

We are also seeing the whole idea of existing infrastructure being put to better use—particularly in our cities and urban environments—being taken more seriously. We’re seeing a lot of that around public education. Education can happen just about anywhere so long as the spaces are designed correctly.

There will continue to be some emphasis on creating some differentiation in our urban and suburban areas. There continues to be a risk that our urban centers begin to take on a very similar feel, and so how do we differentiate that suburban shopping center from another suburban shopping center? How do we differentiate our neighborhoods? That will be a challenge our clients will learn to expect: that coming to work ought to be a special experience, where we work and play ought to be a special experience, and hopefully not deteriorate to a monolithic form or expression in some cases.

DI: If the market evolves in the way that we’ve talked about, what will be the future of service offerings and business models? In other words, what will the firms of the future do, and how will they be structured to do it?

GD: As automation moves into our industry, I think the real value that we provide as architects will be design thinking. We’re often hired that way, but then the bulk of our fees today are generated by construction document preparation and more traditional methodologies that over time become more and more automated and integrated with the construction industry.

I really believe that the design industry will do more and more in highly specialized services, whether it be acoustics, environmental services, energy management services; those kinds of things.

I see parametric design becoming even more of a play in the industry, letting data drive design iteration—more so than it does today.

DI: What does the future staffing profile look like?

GD: The staff mix will change. The production architect today is probably more of a design thinker and someone who is an integrator with other services perhaps, other industries, other partners. Maybe the use of the word “integrator” is relevant here, because I do think that’s part of a design thinking methodology.

In the near term, and I’m saying out the next 20 years, I think it will be a very slow transition, but parametric design is already changing the way we iterate today. As proficiencies with parametric design become more prevalent in the industry, that will change, I think, what architects and engineers do really right out of school.

As we all begin to collect the data that we input into our BIM software, it will be interesting to see how we use the data that we’re inputting today a year from now, or two years from now, to our benefit and to the greater benefit of our clients.

DI: There seems to be continuous learning in the professions on how we use the data that we collect or generate in the design process.

GD: Learning how to use the data that we collect or that we input is a huge part of our industry. How do we connect our BIM models to the construction industry? How do we connect our BIM models to the operations of a client’s facility? There are pieces of our profession today dealing with just that. How does the data that we input in BIM connect to a cost model or to a subcontractor or vendor supplier? Those connections I think will become much more evident as time goes on, and there’ll be a lot more awareness of the impact of the data that we’re creating and inputting.

DI: How are we going to see design and delivery models shift and evolve?

GD: We’ve talked a lot about parametric design specifically. I think automation will begin to play into this. I think the firms that learn how to integrate, for example, augmented reality and virtual reality into their delivery models and delivery products are going to be the ones that thrive. We’re working very hard on how we integrate those delivery tools into the products that we’re delivering to our clients today.

We are slowly but surely moving to a process of using data to design a better product. Even today, clients are asking us to prove design concepts and the performance of our design. I think we’ll see much more of that as time goes on.

DI: Do you think we’ll see architects and designers more involved with the building beyond when it’s commissioned?

GD: I think there’s a huge opportunity in building optimization. It will continue to be a growing service. Leveraging technologies available to us today will only help us maintain connectivity with a client.

The building operating systems will always change. They’ll always get to a point where there’s a lifecycle of sorts to those building systems that will need to be modified or changed as technology advances.

An ongoing challenge is ensuring a building is being operated as designed. If we deliver an advanced, technology-rich system to a client, and educate and mentor their staff in the proper operation of the building to deliver the modeled efficiency, what happens when operational staff departs? The intended building efficiencies decline. This human factor is a crucial part of the design, especially if we deliver high performance building to achieve the goal of Architecture 2030. The solution is simple, ongoing relationships and strategic consulting with the owner after the building is delivered.

DI: How do you see the future of talent in design organizations?

GD: I think certainly the lack of labor supply is one that we’re already dealing with. This is not an attack on our school systems and our university systems at all. However, we are at a point where the demand for design thinkers and architects is outpacing the available labor supply. We have to look at the origins of the problem as an industry—and it goes beyond our industry—but we’ve got to find a way for building sciences to become part of a STEM career path at a very early age. Right now, architecture and building engineering, building sciences, aren’t necessarily recognized as STEM careers and therefore something that we must introduce to a student—a creative young mind—early in their development.

Our industry will continue to be more demographically diverse than ever before. The whole issue of immigration reform has a huge impact on our industry. Being able to tackle the available labor source from around the globe is going to be an issue that we as a design industry need to tackle as well.

There is something for everyone in the design industry. I always try to tell students when I’m out talking with them that they may find a path of developing details and building specific building sciences. They may find a path in telling the story about design, or they may find a path in marketing and communications.

As we acknowledge the wide variety of ways in which someone can practice, maybe that will open up the limitations of our labor force as we see it today.

DI: After all, what is a firm but the people in it?

GD: Exactly. There are just so many avenues for people to explore—I’ll even call it change pathways—in their own professional development. You see it every day. There’s just somebody else with a different professional passion that makes the firm stronger but also provides another opportunity or another service or another interest or another capability to deliver design thinking to our clients.

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Griff Davenport is CEO of DLR Group..

Excerpted from DesignIntelligence Quarterly, 1Q 2018.

Photo by Vlad Busuioc on Unsplash