5 Tips for Running a Data-Driven Architecture Firm
How does technology influence architecture?
According to Dr. Daniel Davis, the answer is a lot. From running your business efficiently to collecting post-occupancy data, these days technology is woven into the DNA of many firms.
The ever-changing landscape can be both exhilarating and overwhelming.
As senior researcher at Hassell and former Director of Research at WeWork, Daniel is focused on both the role technology plays today, and the role it will have in the future.
In a recent conversation with George Valdes, Daniel discussed five ways that firms can approach, apply, and measure data.
Should your firm embrace data?
There’s no denying we live in a culture of data.
While big firms must invest heavily in technology and data collection in order to remain competitive, there are other options for small firms that can’t (and shouldn’t) over-invest in tech.
“For large firms, there's almost no question that you're going to be going up against other companies that have invested a lot in that kind of technology and that are really sophisticated in their approach. You're going to have to toe the line with them and meet them where they are,” Daniel said.
For smaller companies, the picture is a bit blurry.
For instance, a sole practitioner or a small firm of five employees that’s well-embedded in the local community may have no pressing need for a tech-driven overhaul.
“There is a danger with a lot of this that people kind of see the shiny exciting new piece of technology, over-invest in it, and don't get the value out of it because realistically there were just other more interesting and more impactful things that they could do,” Daniel said.
Or, perhaps you’re a boutique firm that follows your creative vision without regard for data-backed trends.
Daniel maintains that like fashion, there’s room for all types of firms in the world.
“The dominant companies in fashion are ‘fast fashion’ companies that use a lot of data and forecasting to understand what's coming. Then there's a whole kind of industry of people that are like, who I am and this kind of authentic thing that I'm producing is the thing that's valuable,” said Daniel.
The keyword here is value. If you need data in order to provide value to your customers, you should leverage technology to get it.
1. Apply technology to your entire business
Even if you’re one of those small firms that doesn’t need technology for design, that doesn’t mean technology can’t help your business.
Some firms fail to look for low-hanging fruit outside of the design process, like human resources or publicity.
“As designers and architects, we often think about these technologies as applying just to the design process,” Daniel said.
When you put so much effort into the design work, the work deserves to be shared with clients and showcased to the wider world in the best way possible.
“We often don't put the same amount of attention into the overall process of running a business,” Daniel said.
This technology doesn’t have to be custom or complicated.
“In areas like marketing and HR, there are products you can buy off the shelf, like Culture Amp, that have pretty sophisticated data analysis tools and pipelines. You don't really need to know that much about what's going on to use them and benefit from them,” said Daniel.
When you figure out how to use technology to make your life easier and your business thrive, you’ll feel the transformation.
2. Rationalize each research project
So you’ve decided that you want to invest in your business.
One great place to start is with research. But make sure that you’re investing in a research project for the right reasons.
As a professional researcher, Daniel can’t count the number of times he’s seen the following scenario: a company throws gobs of money at the research process, then goes ahead and does what they planned to do all along.
“One of the questions that I always ask is: realistically, what's going to change if you invest in this collection of data and you do that project?” Daniel said.
“This happens time and time again when you're a researcher. Someone will ask you to go and do research on whatever it is. And they’re not really asking you to do the research. They just want you to come up with the right answer that supports their view and validates what they were going to do anyway.”
If the business outcome is preordained, it’s better to skip the pretense of doing research and collecting data.
On the flip side, if you’re truly interested in what research will reveal and plan to let it guide your decision-making, research is the perfect way to go.
3. Start small
When it comes to implementing new initiatives, don’t try to boil the ocean.
In Daniel’s experience, an aggressive, company-altering strategy isn’t always the best one.
You want to start by fostering support.
“Within an organization you can place people on a spectrum. And there are some people that are just going to be so anti what you're doing that it’s maybe not even worth working with them. And there are some people that are going to be real champions of what you're doing and you should be identifying those groups of people and cultivating that relationship with them,” Daniel said.
Next, pursue a grassroots campaign instead of trying to undertake a complete transformation.
“A lot of these initiatives that I’ve seen fall over or fail have been when people who have gone in guns blazing and hired a team of 10 people to go and do this radical transformation. And they kind of don't get anywhere, because they've invested so much capital and doing this one thing, and it doesn't quite find the traction or the audience that it needs,” he said.
What does work? Teams who zero in on one or two interesting, small-scale projects.
If these are successful, they capture the attention of more stakeholders, and can snowball from there.
4. Find inspiration in the tech world
It would be great if inspiration and insights could be gleaned from a powerhouse firm.
Unfortunately, large successful companies typically safeguard their data and processes.
“Any vertically integrated company, whether it's Disney or Starbucks, they have in-house, really sophisticated ways of understanding and thinking about this. And often they’re the market leaders in doing a lot of this work. But they never talk about it, because it's a competitive advantage to keep that wrapped up,” Daniel said.
On the small firm side, inspiration is harder to come by in the architecture world.
That’s why Daniel’s increasing source of inspiration are models from the tech scene, such as usability studies and AB testing.
“There's not many examples that I can think of in the occupation industry that I look to as north stars. I think some of the more interesting and better examples of what's happening in the space exist in the tech world,” said Daniel.
Many of the techniques that those companies are using are applicable to what architects are thinking about as well.
5. Justify design decisions with evidence
These days, clients are expecting more from architects.
They want partners who can both come up with a creative design and justify the details of that design.
Design justification requires data.
“Clients are getting really sophisticated themselves in how they're thinking about the performance of the real estate that they’re creating. I think that that in itself is going to create an environment where it's going to be an expectation for architects to be able to talk about their projects not just in terms of the kind of creative and imaginative aspects of the project,” said Daniel.
The more savvy clients become, the more architecture firms will be pushed to satisfy that demand.
That’s why Daniel thinks post-occupancy data is the new holy grail.
A huge opportunity for expansion is post-occupancy data. Firms often don’t collect feedback on how their completed designs perform over time.
“For the most part, we construct projects, see them open, we may talk to the clients kind of one-off about how things are going down the track. But you don't get a lot of good feedback about whether or not the things that we design perform the way that we say or think they are,” Daniel said.
This can be a hard nut to crack, as there are challenges to obtaining that data. But the fact remains that it’s an enticing area for firms and clients to explore together.
Seek new ways to analyze performance
Daniel thinks it would be fascinating to see a new service area where projects and data can be analyzed over time in order to advise architecture firms on worthwhile updates.
“I’d love to see something like that emerge in the industry. It'd be really interesting. Like a firm that specializes in taking over project data, analyzing it longitudinally, and giving you advice on ways you should be investing and how you should be designing your space. Or maybe even the brief that you're giving to architects,” Daniel said.
Another item on his wish list? Anonymous data-sharing among firms to share project data and project performance data.
Today, those are just dreams. But with the power of modern technology behind us, it’s encouraging to think that anything is possible.
Join us on Thursday, October 8th for Best Practice, a virtual fireside chat series dedicated to practice operations at architecture firms and beyond. From pain points to potential, hear how leaders in the architecture and engineering industry are innovating through new business models and managerial techniques.
We’re chatting with Daniel Davis. Based out of New York, Daniel is a senior researcher at Hassell, focusing on the relationship between people, space, and design technology. Prior to joining Hassell, Daniel was the Director of Research at WeWork, and a research assistant for Antoni Gaudí’s Sagrada Família. He originally studied architecture in New Zealand and later did a PhD in computational design at RMIT University in Australia. Daniel is a regular columnist for Architect Magazine and his research has appeared in a variety of publications including Wired, Fast Company, and the Harvard Business Review.
In this 45 minute chat, we'll talk to Daniel about data, and the opportunities available today for architects to make informed decisions.
- What are the opportunities and shortcomings of data?
- How can architecture firms use data?
- How can data research inform the decision-making process?
- and More!
Hassell is a multidisciplinary architecture, design and urban planning practice, with offices in Australia, China, Singapore, and in the United Kingdom. Across their global studios, Hassell connects insight with creativity to design places people love – and build a better future.