With a looming talent shortage, firms amplify creative power with emerging technologies

A spacecraft orbiting the far side of the moon enters very dangerous territory. It goes completely “dark,” losing all contact with earth. There is no guarantee that it will maintain exactly the right trajectory, and it does not carry enough fuel to make major mid-course corrections should something go wrong.

If the ship overshoots, there is no possibility of rescue or return, and if it undershoots, the moon’s gravity will pull it ever closer, eventually causing a crash. Instead, the ship must rely on the gravitational pull of the moon itself to “slingshot” its way back to earth, with just enough force to send it safely home. In this sense, both its demise and its salvation spring from the same source.

Something similar has just happened in the A/E/C industry. The effects of the recent recession were especially harsh. With unemployment in excess of 30 percent, cuts in staff and salaries were common. Many saw their careers stagnate for lack of opportunity, and others were forced to seek employment elsewhere. The effect on emerging professionals was particularly severe and carries long-term implications. Countless firms met their demise, and others sought safe haven through mergers or acquisitions. Every firm, regardless of size, location, or market focus, was forced to reconsider its mission statement, marketing strategy, and cost structure. The only certainty in those turbulent times was that “business as usual” was a sure ticket to oblivion.

Design firms were not alone in this trial by fire, which affected just about every major segment of the economy. The legal profession, healthcare, and major media firms have all had to re-write their playbooks. While the process of reinvention can be highly uncomfortable, from time to time it is both necessary and desirable. We live in a highly creative age in which new ideas, technologies, and social norms change with increasing frequency. Some might view this process as disruptive while others see change as opportunity. It stands to reason that designers, who are in the business of creative problem solving, should thrive in the post-recession environment.

What’s different now? Just about everything. Let’s start with clients, who for far too long had to contend with an A/E/C industry that was suffering from steadily declining productivity, where 30 percent of all projects did not meet schedule or budget and 37 percent of all construction materials wound up as waste. To put it bluntly, this was not a sustainable business model. Clients are now increasingly turning to professional project management firms which understandably expect a different level of performance. Creative thinking is still highly valued, but gone are the days where budget or schedule overruns can be tolerated. Also fast disappearing is any appetite for silo thinking or non-collaborative behavior among the project team members, including architects, engineers, consultants and constructors. Instead, there seems to be a refreshing new appreciation of the fact that design and construction is a team sport.

Clients are also becoming more attuned to the life cycle costs of ownership. Initial capital expenditure is only one part of the equation; the real financial leverage is in controlling the cost of maintenance and operations over the lifespan of the building. This is particularly true for clients such as universities, medical centers, and public agencies, as well as long-term holders of real estate like pension funds. An appreciation for life cycle design is changing the way decisions get made, and it also has the potential to re-write the rules for how architects and engineers get paid.

Advances in design technology have provided another jolt of adrenaline. The BIM revolution is essentially over. What’s next on the horizon is what could be called DBA, or design by algorithm. These systems, which already exist in their nascent form, enable designers to write prescriptions for just about any building attribute (zoning envelope, size, footprint, orientation, massing, etc.), which are then used to generate thousands of possible alternatives in a matter of minutes. The options can then be sorted according to pre-determined criteria, prioritized, and edited as the designer sees fit. The modeling can be tweaked to maximize any number of factors, from lot coverage to floor area ratios to energy consumption to construction cost, and the results can then converted into highly realistic images or modeled on 3-D printers at a fraction of the time of the conventional process: minutes rather than months.

The implications are clear and compelling. Some might resist this new approach, but it’s important to realize that DBA does not replace the creative process; it merely provides a means of amplifying its power. Similar technological revolutions have overtaken other industries, such as manufacturing and financial services. Is there anyone left who does spreadsheets by hand?

Fortunately, there is an emerging generation of tech-savvy professionals who are eager to embrace technology and push it to its limits. Unfortunately, too many of them left the profession as a result of the recession. As a result, there is a looming talent shortage. Firms can’t rely on academia to adequately prepare students for what they will encounter in the new era of professional practice, so they must provide training themselves, and given the impending retirement of the Boomer generation, there is a relatively short window of opportunity for that knowledge transfer to occur.

All this places increased pressure on professional services firms. Business is rebounding, but fees are not rising. Clients are expecting better service, more detailed documentation, faster schedules, and better cost control. Costs for talent and technology are rising, which puts a squeeze on profits, and so firms must find more effective ways to deliver results. While this might sound like a recipe for chronic heartburn, it actually presents a tremendous opportunity for innovative design firms to “slingshot” their way to a much more productive future. Doing so requires shedding some old habits. Here’s a snapshot of what to expect:

Projects:

As design becomes more globalized, projects are increasing in both size and complexity, and therefore requiring larger teams. As clients recognize that attracting and retaining talent is a critical success factor, here is a new appreciation for innovative workplace strategies — designing places that will inspire staff to do their best work. Mixed use projects and “live/work/play” environments are seen as key to sustainable cities. Just about every building type is affected.

Processes:

Going beyond BIM, look for major advances in VDC (virtual design & construction), 3-D printing, increased interest in P-3 financing (public/private partnerships), prefabrication, and DBA (design by algorithm). These factors will inevitably lead to ever accelerating schedules as well as greater accuracy in documentation, construction, and predictive modeling of long-term building performance. In short, time is money, and form follows finance.

People:

As the Boomers retire, Millennials will ascend to key positions of leadership, bringing their love of technology with them. The advantages of providing truly integrated services under one roof plus the ability to work seamless among multiple offices on a 24-7 basis will create increased incentives for mergers & acquisitions. In short, scale matters. Top talent will be in short supply. To keep up, firms will need to devote more resources to staff development. Remember that Millennials are an impatient lot; they will be looking to advance in their careers as quickly as possible (and to make sufficient salaries to retire those pesky student loans!).

Performance:

Post-recession practice requires recognizing that design and management are two strands of the same rope, and that they must pull in the same direction. Sophisticated firms will clearly articulate their value propositions, making the case that good design is good business. A great place to start is explaining to clients how thoughtful design can have a huge impact on long-term operations and maintenance cost, thus boosting the bottom line. This can provide the basis for a whole new compensation model, one that is based on value rather than cost.

The post-recession business climate brings with it changes in client expectations, new tools and techniques, and innovative delivery methods. As design thinking is applied not only to static objects but also dynamic systems, its influence can only grow. The A/E/C industry may have emerged from the dark side of the moon, but the question still remains: have we seen the light?

Scott Simpson is a senior fellow of the Design Futures Council and a member of its executive board. He is a RIchard Upjohn Fellow of the American Institute of Architects. With James P. Cramer, he co-authored the books How Firms Succeed and The Next Architect.