In a recent article published online at Building Design + Construction magazine, architect Matthew Rosenberg of M-Rad Architecture + Design identifies eight inefficiencies he believes are plaguing the architecture and design industries. Suggesting fixes for each, he tells BD+C that “for far too long the river was standing idle, becoming stagnant. [Design firms’] business model and [my] proposed solutions are helping to get it flowing once again.”
Here is the list of problems Rosenberg identified (as it was published at BD+C) along with his proposed solutions. In the analysis we’ve provided which follows each, we discuss existing and potential tech applications – some of which we’ve discussed previously here at AEC Labs – as well as provide some more general thoughts about what the future might hold for the construction industry.
Problem: Brokers. Paying a middleman to find projects takes away revenue for the architect.
Solution: Cut out the broker by forming relationships directly with developers and clients.
AEC Labs: Think about the types of middlemen whose businesses have been – or will be – decimated by technology – from real estate (Redfin, Zillow) to insurance (Lemonade and others). It’s easy to imagine a solution that connects designers to clients more easily. Already sites like HomeAdvisor and Thumbtack help connect contractors and builders with clients. Why not designers and design firms? Social media and other tech is already raising firms’ profile; it’s easy to see how the shelf life for brokerage firms may be limited in an environment that’s being driven by social media and network effects.
Problem: Underpaid, overworked designers and architects. The architecture industry is notorious for low wages, heavy workload, stressful deadlines until you “make it” to the top.
Solution: Allow the designers and architects to take equity in their projects.
AEC Labs: This is not really a technology issue per se, but many contractors and even design firms (like AECOM, for example) have formed equity/financing divisions that allow them to have a seat at the table at the equity investor level, giving them some measure of control over the project and the ability to share in the upside if they perform (and of course greater risk in the event that they don’t). Dragados, Walsh, Skanska, and others also come quickly to mind as constructors that have embraced this paradigmatic shift in how contractors are pursuing and winning work. And, as AECOM’s Future of Infrastructure report recently noted, the industry expects integrated delivery to accelerate as owners and clients demand more efficient project delivery at a better price. The firms that can figure this out will be successful – others will get left behind or, worse, swallowed up by the competition.
Problem: Designing independently from actual community needs. When architecture firms design a building for a client without considering the needs and wants of the surrounding area, the project may not benefit the community or the client.
Solution: Use a positioning tactic to understand what the community is lacking and incorporate these ideas into the project.
AEC Labs: We’re not sure there is so much of a tech solution here. But for large infrastructure projects in particular community engagement is critical. Many large projects fail to get off the ground because the community wasn’t even aware of what was going on. The Gateway tunnel project underneath the Hudson River comes to mind – by the time Governor Christie decided canceled it, it was too late for proponents to mobilize and generate momentum against his shortsighted decision. Better outreach through technology could help change that.
Problem: The industry is heavily reliant on unpredictable markets. With the real estate marketing and cost of living in constant flux, it’s difficult to predict the stability of the industry, which is reliant on the financial status of the client.
Solution: Consistency, strategic business moves, and keeping an eye on markets allows architecture and design firms to be proactive and shift their practice to better suit the economy.
AEC Labs: This is where savvy design firms could potentially use artificial intelligence, analytics from products like Salesforce (and their Einstein Analytics app), and deep learning to stay ahead of where their clients and markets are heading. We’re not aware of any such tools currently on the market, but it’s clear that AI is going to dramatically change the way the AEC operates in the near future. So keep an eye on this one.
Problem: City planning process and restrictions. Sometimes designing or building structures takes many years, as they are stuck in the city planning process. One minor mistake can set a project back months or sometimes even years.
Solution: It can be difficult to get around or speed up the city planning process, but being involved in the community, town hall meetings, and voting on city measures can help improve the process.
AEC Labs: Construction tech in general has its origins in project management software from the likes of eSUB and Procore, both of which have been highly successful. Whether these types of products could segue into helping front-end project managers streamline approval work flows remains to be seen, but why not? Certainly many types of approvals are outside of the control of a project team. But streamlining submittals and providing paperwork to relevant government agencies seems like a no-brainer. Other startups like Envelope and CityBldr are using big data and other data mining techniques to give developers a more complete picture of the regulatory regime before they even break ground. So that’s an option too.
Problem: Politics within the industry. Politics occur in every industry, but when millions of dollars are exchanged, expectations are high, and egos can get in the way of business. The political elements in Architecture can get sticky.
Solution: Stay professional and only partner/work with people who have positive reputations.
AEC Labs: At the end of the day, design and construction are people and relationship businesses. You can automate or use tech or crunch the numbers as much as you want, but so much of what goes on in the trenches of the AEC industry is about the people – which is what, from our perspective, makes this so much fun. Using technology to improve how we collaborate across disciplines and scopes of work is where the real potential exists for increased efficiencies and productivity.
Problem: The scope of the architect is becoming smaller. Technology advancements cause more complex buildings, which causes increase in liability and legal aggression which prompts architects to hand off elements of the design process to “experts in their field,” ultimately chipping away the responsibility and profits of the architect.
Solution: Increase the scope of the architect.
Problem: Stealing intellectual property. It’s hard to determine when a design is stolen or original.
Solution: No real solution. Can try to prevent your design being stolen by trademarking, keeping records, photographing the design progress, certifying the design, and by being careful of releasing designs to public view.
AEC Labs: These last two issues are closely tied together, so we’ll address them in tandem.
We firmly believe that although buildings and projects are being more complex, blockchain and other technological advances could make a huge difference for design firms that are concerned about legal risk and exposure. The immutability of a blockchain transaction ledger could have massive, positive impacts for the use of BIM models and giving design firms comfort that their work will not be changed, reused, or modified without their consent. This is always a major issue for designers who are delivering a piece of intellectual capital to a client that may treat that capital like a widget and not an IP deliverable. So contract language around that delivery is always key.
What do you think of Rosenberg’s list, his solutions, and our analysis? Are there any other major design firm inefficiencies that he’s missed, or tech solutions that we’ve omitted?