With more than 40 years of industry experience, Tom Vandeveer—principal with HDR—has lived around the world, giving him both a U.S. and a global perspective in his work. DesignIntelligence asked him about the future of professional practice, how he helps clients to better understand the changes they need to make in their markets, methods of delivery and more.


DesignIntelligence: How are you at HDR looking at the evolution of professional practices in the future?

Tom Vandeveer: My perspective is influenced by the clients that we work with—mostly institutional and specifically healthcare. In the healthcare market, there has been, and will likely continue to be, a consolidation of smaller providers into larger systems. With economies of scale and strategic geographic presence in key markets, the larger systems can respond more effectively to pressures to reduce cost and efficiently deliver quality healthcare to a larger population of clients.

There will be winners and losers, and I believe this is also true in the market for professional services. Our clients are redefining themselves to meet the challenges of a changing market. Some approaches are different but they’re all getting larger. They’re acquiring firms, they’re dropping their costs through acquisition and economies of scale and using data to clarify future trends, allowing them to target which services will be in greatest demand.

Increasingly, the services we provide early on a project assist our clients with strategic visioning, innovation, scenario modeling, market analysis, and other such services. Our education and training as architects and designers allow our professionals to bring design thinking to the increasingly complex problems that our clients face. We’re partnering with our clients to help them create a future vision on which they can build a strategy. As we help our clients to better understand the changes they may need to make to succeed in their markets, they help us better understand how their needs are changing and evolving. Data is becoming a big part of this because it is increasingly available. The growth of available data is exponential. Being able to turn the data into actionable knowledge is the key.

I foresee our practice evolving toward highly integrated collaborative teams that include expertise from many different disciplines—far more than we have experienced in our traditional practice. Some of this expertise resides within our firm; others do not. The team is increasingly informed by data, turned to knowledge by the advances in technology and computational firepower. There’s a wealth of data available, which will continue to expand.

The key is finding a way to turn the data into information that helps our clients chart their future course. Quite often that turns into a building. At present, the business model of architecture involves billing for hours spent on projects. Historically, a significant part of effort has been spent on construction documents. But we are seeing this change. In the recent past, probably 90 percent of the work we did utilized a design, bid, build delivery methodology. Now that’s significantly reduced with different delivery models becoming more common. It will be interesting to see if the profession of architecture can change the business model to be compensated based on the value we bring to our clients instead of charging for the hours and expenses required to deliver projects.

Part of what is driving our clients to different models of delivery is their frustration over claims and litigation, and their interest in reducing the risk of cost overruns and schedule delays. Design-Build has increased as it offers our clients a single responsible source for all design and construction. But where contractors dominate and direct the design process, which is not their strength, we have seen compromises in outcomes that on highly complicated, program driven buildings such as hospitals and laboratories are unacceptable.

What is really interesting to me is integrated project delivery. We’re doing four or five of these projects now and they are all different. Even though they are all called integrated project delivery, they’re all set up differently. There are many legal issues that need to be worked through. Clients have different objectives. Some are more committed than others. Some say they want integrated project delivery but in practice, still keep to their old habits and attitudes.

In the most successful instances, integrated project delivery brings together all key project stakeholders and establishes a common legal and business framework that promotes collaboration by incentivizing all participants for achieving key performance metrics. If integrated project delivery proves to be successful, I think we’re going to see more of it. That will be interesting to watch.

DI: Earlier you mentioned design thinking and helping your clients envision their futures in a way that helps them build a strategy. How do you see service offerings and business models at your firm evolving in the future?

TV: We have always worked in teams. The traditional model is a project team, project manager, project designer. We have different disciplines, but those disciplines are mostly focused on the build environment. I sense an opportunity to redefine our profession to maintain and expand our relevance to society. The marginalization of the profession of architecture is a concern of mine. I think the use of problem-solving collaborative teams will expand and the disciplines involved will grow to meet the demands of specialized expertise.

In our practice, we have hired a number of data scientists. The use of data analytics increasingly informs the designs and projects we perform. And our clients are demanding proof of claims made at the outset of a project to be validated with demonstrated with actual, measured results.

Increasingly, our clients are asking for proof that our value propositions are realistic and achievable (or have been achieved). When we claim we can save them money by creating an energy-efficient building, or achieve operational efficiencies such as reducing travel distances for staff, they say “prove it.” This a fair challenge that we need to meet.

Our teams will include more expertise and non-traditional disciplines. One person may never have enough knowledge to deliver a robust, comprehensive solution to the complicated problems we face today. I hope the role of the architect is one that brings a clear vision of the future, and a clear vision of the central idea that will help clients meet their needs and leave the build environment improved, regenerated. It’s the individual who can work collaboratively across multiple disciplines, tapping into the depth of knowledge that each offers, supported by data analytics. My hope for the future is that the architect is the one that who truly brings this deep understanding and vision, can facilitate collaboration, and lead the team to achieving their goals.

DI: So really, the architect of the future will be as much an integrator as anything else.

TV: There’s a lot to integrate, so yes. But it is essential that the architect be the genesis of the central idea; the one who uses creativity and design thinking to generate the ideas that really move the needle for clients—and to help everybody involved in the project to see that same vision.

DI: You’ve talked about data, and you mentioned that you all have an increasing number of data scientists in the firm. What other disciplines will populate the firm of the future?

TV: We continue to offer services that are more upstream from our traditional offerings. We have people who love to analyze organizations and how to maximize operations for different clients. It really helps them measure what is currently happening in their organizations or, if our clients already have that data, we can take it from them and help them analyze it.

We are working more in operational simulation. Rather than manually generating a limited number of schemes for review, we generate a million schemes with technology, testing those against key performance metrics, and backing up decisions made with data.

It used to be the architect wore many hats. In the past, the architect as master builder was a material scientist, designer, technologist, artist, and even construction manager. Today our industry is fragmented by specialization, and there is both good and bad with that.

DI: Would you like to share any other thoughts on the future of architecture and professional practice?

TV: It is my belief—and as an architect I’m biased in this—that the training one receives as an architect lends itself perfectly to solving complicated problems. It is my hope that the architect’s skillset and training will be used to address some of our society’s most challenging problems. If we do, we reclaim some of the ground that we have lost through the years as various pieces of our traditional practice were carved off by others.

I’m not suggesting that the architect is the mysterious black-caped individual who has all the answers but won’t tell you what they are. It’s really someone who is effective working with multiple disciplines and teaming with clients to tackle some of the most difficult problems that we face as a society and solving them in a creative way through design thinking—not only addressing the problem, but also adding beauty and content to our society and our communities.