Faster and Faster

February 10, 2006 · by Scott Simpson, FAIA

In today’s highly competitive environment, speed is a critical strategic issue for clients. Whether it’s a new office building, hotel, retail complex, or condominium, “speed to market” gives them an important leg up.

In today’s highly competitive environment, speed is a critical strategic issue for clients. Whether it’s a new office building, hotel, retail complex, or condominium, “speed to market” gives them an important leg up.

Even institutional clients such as medical centers and universities understand, more than ever, that time is money, and that taking several years to program, design, construct, and occupy their new facilities is simply not good enough anymore.

Things are changing so fast that traditional design-bid-build projects in high tech industries can be obsolete even before they’re commissioned. This translates into significant pressure on architects to deliver high quality design services faster and faster, which is definitely counter-cultural in a profession that is used to taking plenty of time to develop and assess multiple alternatives before committing to a preferred solution. Can design quality and the need for speed happily coexist?

They can, because they have to. Clients are not going to give up their demands for significant schedule acceleration because the core mission of their businesses depends on being nimble, flexible, and fast; they have to stay ahead of the pack. The inflation factor alone can be worth millions of dollars in extra cost for a typical project. This means that architects need a different approach. Rather than relying on the traditional sequential process of SD-DD-CD-CA, as codified in standard AIA contract documents, many forward-thinking firms are adopting a simultaneous process in which the client, consultants, and construction managers are all at the table from day one, working closely together as an integrated team. Using sophisticated computer technology such as BIM software, these firms are able to create multiple design prototypes very quickly in three-dimensional format, while at the same comparing the schedule and budget implications for each alternative. Involving all key decision makers at the same time avoids the usual iterative, back-and-forth process that takes time, costs money, and often causes considerable confusion.

The good news is that engaging many brains at once often increases both speed and quality. This is analogous to “parallel processing” in computer terms. Put simply, the power of the team trumps the talent of an individual, no matter how creative he or she may be. Technology makes this possible in part, but another key ingredient is leadership. Multi-disciplined teams need a leader to set the course, keep information flowing, and focus on overall decision making. This creates a great opportunity for architects, who are uniquely trained to problem-solve in multi-dimensional ways. First, however, they have to learn to discard old habits and embrace innovative methods.

Since the “need for speed” is here to stay, and the trend will only accelerate in the coming years, architects need to see speed as a friend, not an enemy, and turn it to their advantage. The faster they can come to this conclusion, the more productive and successful they will be.

Scott Simpson is president and CEO of Stubbins Associates, Inc., in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A senior fellow and co-chair of the Design Futures Council, he is co-author of How Firms Succeed.

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