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Business of Architecture
The Digitisation of Architecture as a Business
Light Vortex, a light sculpture that pushed the boundaries of light to create a new spatial experience, a way of thinking that leads innovation. Light Vortex by teamLab, 2016. Photo by Von Chua.

In many parts of the world, remote working is a common practice today and digital engagements are replacing in-person interaction. Although this is driven out of necessity, companies around the world have adopted this way of working, rethinking what is essential to operate a business with a crucial eye. On the 12th of May 2020, Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey announced that their employees will be allowed to work from home forever given their work that was “uniquely positioned to respond quickly” and “emphasis on decentralization and supporting a distributed workforce capable of working from anywhere.”

Low Digitisation Within the Architecture Industry

Within the architecture, engineering, construction, and property industry, the way how things work has remained unchanged for decades. In 2015, McKinsey published its Digitisation Index, highlighting the design and construction industry at the bottom of the index. Although architecture practices have been integrating Building Information Modelling (BIM), which is one of the successful adoptions, there is still a huge gap between what technology can help achieve today.

With my background in architecture, my view and experience focuses on the forms of the process when a client first approaches an architect for a project until the project is handed over. Depending on the scope of work, some architects also work with the clients on marketing materials, thereby extending the process to include understanding what purchasers are looking for. There are opportunities to lead new forms of process through which we design, construct, and operate, and the form of organisation through which professional services within the built environment work and interact.

“To avoid obsolescence, architects need to increase demand for their skills by embracing emerging technologies that both stimulate and satiate consumer desires.”

Harvard Design Magazine

Digital Adoption in the Architecture Industry

For architecture practices, the largest barrier to the adoption of digital tools appears to be the cost. Firstly, investing in technology, then training to use the new piece of technology. Therefore, digital transformation adoption often stems from strong leadership to drive this change, supported with the financial commitment to adopt it.

At the core of digital adoption within the architecture industry, in my opinion, is the aim to create a competitive advantage for architecture as a business. For example, beginning with thoroughly understanding a client’s design brief and in the case where clients are unsure, to take the responsibility to develop it with them to have a clear set of aims to achieve, ensuring the right design team is sourced to work together from day one, minimising inefficiencies in the complex workflow in architecture projects, selecting the best use of resources along the entire process to maximise the value delivered for clients, and also, building resilience for the architecture industry.

In the Royal Institute of British Architects’ publication titled Client Conversations: Insights into successful project outcomes, Ian Mehrtens was quoted:

“You need to spend this time to be sure that the architect really understands your intentions and vice versa so that you are able to test each other’s conception, because otherwise you find out later that you are not getting what you want and you waste time and money doing redesign.”

Digital transformation is a shift in the industry-level adoption of a technology, which requires multiple direct and indirect aspects to fit together to happen. Within development projects, this is often cross-disciplinary as well which the digital transformation needs to be adopted across the board. As digital transformation involves changes in how we work, create, communicate, and deliver architectural services, the current pandemic has had an effect to accelerate digital transformation activities across industries.

At the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) in the United Kingdom, a survey with over 1,000 of its chartered members was conducted, evidencing the huge disruption of projects and the fragility of the business of architecture:

  • 79% projects delayed
  • 37% projects cancelled

At the American Institute of Architects, a survey conducted with 387 architecture firm leaders suggests a deeply uncertain future for the professions:

  • 67% of the firms said projects had either stopped or slowed down
  • 94% anticipate revenue to dip

A large number of architect’s work is desktop-based, especially so during the early concept and design development stages, ie. before the project begins on site. During the pandemic, we have seen some architects begin to offer virtual consultations, holding video calls, and walk around for small architecture projects such as home renovation and extension. As a typical extension project can take approximately six months to design and submit for planning permission, this work can be completed remotely.

There are also architecture practices embracing the way design proposals are presented to clients, ie. utilising augmented reality and even virtual reality to help clients visualise a scheme before they are built. This technology could be further developed for wider use to support this transformation as there have been positive responses in this method to allow clients to get more involved in the design process, communicating the design through seeing, experiencing to elevate the level of understanding from drawings.

The Importance of Working with The Right Team for Each Project

A study from KPMG shows just 31% of all projects came within 10% of the budget between 2016-2019. This is concerning and also signifies a lot of improvements are required within the of process through which we design, construct, and operate buildings. As an example, one of the greatest cost overruns in the global construction industry is the Scottish Parliament Building which went from GBP 10 million to GBP 414 million. It was meant to be a modest building but the architect selected was famous for his highly complex and experimental design; we need to work with a compatible team and provide a clear comparison of information to enable property owners, property developers, and other stakeholders to select the best project team to realise each project from day one. As each architecture project is different, changing one aspect within a project can create a vastly different result, for example, the same piece of land with a different client may produce a different outcome. Therefore it is important to scrutinise the professionals appointed in a design team, and for architects to be forthright about their capabilities and engage in collaboration with other professionals as and when needed.

Throughout history, architecture has taken on a much bigger role than a simple building. As examples, an iconic building also represents the client’s wealth, economics, and politics that it symbolises to the world. However, at the core of architecture is about well-being, a shelter that provides well-being for individuals and families. Today, our homes also extends to act as a shelter from the coronavirus. In my opinion, good architecture is truly about well-being. Good architecture that improves the daily lives of people is just as successful as creating the next iconic tower for a city. The aim of digital transformation within the architecture industry is to create improved buildings and places in the world, and my point of view is to begin with ensuring the right design team is working together from day one and to help improve client-architect relationships.

Buying a property as an individual or even as an organisation involves a huge financial investment – the stakes are high. The process is complex, involves multiple professionals such as lawyers, surveyors, architects, and more, and there is an element of risk from the negotiation of the purchase price to possible construction delays. Digital transformation is complex and requires in-depth thought process, considerations, and capabilities to create a workable solution. A large amount of information, cross-disciplinary adoption across the board from property owners / property developers, architects, engineers, contractors, estate agents, etc. We ought to pursue digital transformation within the architecture industry and support the other professional services we work with in their digital transformations to maximise material resources, land resources, human resources, capital resources, and others at stake.

“We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten.”

– Bill Gates

Written by Von Chua. First published on ADF Web Magazine on 02/06/2020. If you have any questions or would like to further discuss about the digitisation of the business of architecture, proptech (property technology) or designtech, an area of work I was previously involved in via Pitch Your Concepts online platform, please do not hesitate to contact me via email at von@vonxarchitects.com

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