Chicago architect Randy Deutsch, AIA, LEED AP, thinks so, too. “There will always be a need for designers, whether boutique firms or not, but design will represent a smaller portion of what’s looked for,” says Deutsch, the author of BIM and Integrated Design: Strategies for Architectural Practice (Wiley, 2011).
Deutsch is so convinced that intensive collaboration is the way of the future that he’s planning the 2014 launch of the Integrated School of Building, an academic degree program featuring a multidisciplinary curriculum that brings together architects, engineers, and contractors. “I think the profession’s forward momentum will not be linear, but will require involvement from many people simultaneously,” he says.
The subject of building information modeling (BIM) invariably comes up in discussions about where delivery methodologies are headed. And while there is disagreement over its current practicality on residential-scale work, the technology, however it evolves, bridges the gap between digital experimentation and real-world architecture. As such, it offers architects the potential for moving beyond a one-liner role.
“Certainly contractors are using BIM to cement relationships with clients and deliver more services during and post construction,” says IT consultant Kristine Fallon, FAIA, president of Chicago-based Kristine Fallon Associates. “They’re looking at it as a tremendous leveler to improve prestige and establish long-lasting relationships. I don’t see architects doing this as aggressively.”
Even if a contractor is not working in BIM, architects using it are forced to meet early and often with the contractor to get information for the model, thus reducing the uncertainties of costs and schedule, Deutsch says. It also encourages mentoring up and down the in-house hierarchy: Senior staff with building knowledge can learn from digitally savvy younger talent, and vice versa.
“Something else will supplant BIM, and more quickly than we might imagine,” Deutsch says. “The point is, architects need to swing from design towards construction, and we’re in a position to make the first move.” Something architects can do now, he adds, is to treat emerging ideas as a learning opportunity and acquire the technology needed to face new challenges while coping with its limits.
A good example of this get-it-done attitude is Boiled Architecture, a startup based in San Francisco that operates as a virtual office. Oscia Wilson, AIA, LEED AP, launched the firm this past July with three partners in Oakland, Hercules, and San Leandro, Calif. “When you’re setting up a new firm from scratch, you can figure out what really is the most logical way to operate,” she says, “because you aren’t burdened by the legacy of ‘we bought this so we have to keep using it.’”
Wilson is tapping the latest technologies to run a lean, nimble operation. The partners meet in person on Fridays, but in between they text, Skype, and Google Chat. OpeningDesign, a free Internet-based design tool, lets them talk and sketch together in real time. And the web application Podio gives everyone access to contacts, calendars, financials, and marketing materials. “It has a Twitter-style feed, so whenever I enter new information, the others know,” Wilson says. But how will clients perceive a virtual office? So far the architects are meeting clients at their own offices or at jobsites, though the firm also will use an office co-op close to public transit—space it could never afford to rent outright.
With a decentralized business, Wilson is researching cloud servers so builders can access BIM and AutoCAD files. That’s necessary because Boiled Architecture uses an integrated project delivery contract in which the architect and general contractor are equal parties on the commercial tenant improvement and small health care projects it targets. The working relationship is reinforced when the architect and builder are on the same contract, Wilson says. “It’s the fastest way to get contractors’ feedback. They’re thrilled to have documents that aren’t riddled with errors, and they’re not fighting with the owner to get paid for the extra work that entails.”
Some firms never lose the ethic of the small, scrappy startup. In 1999, BUILD principals Kevin Eckert and Andrew van Leeuwen founded their Seattle firm on the owner-builder concept, which means clients hire them to manage design and construction on projects ranging from single-family homes to mixed use. They have four employees, including one who runs a cabinetry shop. The partners “got tired of how expensive modern cabinetry is and saw an opportunity for doing it better and less expensively.
“Clients are less dreamy” than they were a couple of years ago, van Leeuwen says. “They’re interested in how much it costs and when it will be done, but still within the brackets of capital A architecture. We can charge less for design because we wear a lot of hats. We take care of everything from pricing to scheduling and finished photography”—and write a popular blog, too.
starting a conversation
While technological innovations are changing the nature of work, they’re also quietly tweaking the image of the ivory-tower architect unilaterally handing down design edicts. The increased emphasis on online and interactive media, for example, forces firms to define their identity in a language lay people can understand. Boston architect Katy Flammia, AIA, LEED AP, principal of THEREdesign, realized this recently when she rebranded her 15-year-old business.
“Quite a few firms here are started by academic types whose websites are so complicated you can’t get to what you want. You start to think maybe this is what it’s like to work with them, too,” she says. “We wanted ours to show that we’re easy to talk to and not full of hype.”
Instead of focusing on a public message, Flammia and her staff asked themselves a question they often pose to clients, and one every entrepreneur must inevitably answer: What do we care about? “The bell for me is that I’m able to affect a life, culture, or company in some way that improves the client’s situation,” she says. “This approach helps us make sure the project has real significance and is not just the trendy thing this year.’’
Throughout history, architects have adapted to change by acquiring new skills and attitudes, and this is one of those times. Several years ago, Fivecat Studio principal Mark R. LePage, AIA, LEED AP, took a 15-week Academy for Entrepreneurial Excellence course at Westchester Community College near his home in Westchester, N.Y. There he learned a system for closing sales.
LePage, who started the Entrepreneur Architect group on LinkedIn, also is a prolific social networker. In addition to Facebook and Twitter accounts, he writes two blogs: Living Well in Westchester targets potential clients; the other, Entrepreneur Architect, is a networking forum for architects. “People who weren’t really looking at branding and business solutions are becoming more interested now,” he says. “I think that’s why the LinkedIn group is so active.”
Job creators are needed in this economy: problem solvers who inspire while keeping a watchful eye on the bottom line, theirs and their clients’. “We’ve always been nuts and bolts kind of guys,” van Leeuwen says. “We wake up and put both feet on the ground, and we think that’s become more desirable to clients.”