Airtable’s Jackie Park on how architects can get their creative time back
If you’ve been an architect long enough, you know the frustration of project organization in the form of overflowing physical binders and disparate spreadsheets.
When Jackie Park was an architect, she felt this pain point deeply. She knew there had to be a better way to get things done.
She’s since made the switch to tech, working in customer engagement and sales enablement at Airtable, a low code platform that lets users build collaborative apps.
Jackie shared with us exactly how a solution like Airtable can fit the needs of architects, from organizing FF&E projects to helping reclaim time for creative design.
Airtable is a digital tool kit
Architects are natural problem solvers.
“I think that a lot of architects have this tendency. If we see a problem, we want to fix it. And we don't want to do a surface fix. We want to go to the root of the problem,” Jackie said.
Digital platforms like Airtable can eliminate inefficiencies and streamline project management and operations.
But Jackie knows that it’s often hard to conceptualize how a digital tool like Airtable can replace the practices firms already have.
“For architects, I usually describe Airtable as a digital kit of parts that allows you to create the applications that you need,” Jackie said.
It’s useful for building product or material libraries. You can also track new projects that are being onboarded.
Instead of cobbling together different digital tools for each need, Airtable lets you make custom apps for everything in one place.
“Airtable is really just that flexible tool kit that allows you to create the things that you need to get your work done,” Jackie said.
5 ways Airtable can work for architects
Let’s get down to how Jackie sees Airtable as a game-changer for architecture firms. While there are almost endless ways to utilize Airtable, here are five concrete ways that architects can put Airtable to use.
1. Organize FF&E research
Jackie walked through an example of how Airtable would have made the process of finding the right indoor upholstery much easier during her days as an architect.
She was looking for upholstery options that were blue, less than $35 per yard, and at least 100k double rubs.
As she researched online, she added the product information for any product that matched those requirements.
“What I wish I could have done then is easily clip this information and send it to somewhere like an Airtable base,” Jackie said.
Now, she can use Airtable’s Web Clipper extension that pulls the product name and URL.
“I could add the swatch and then also maybe the in situ shot and then I could fill out as much or as little information as I want,” she said.
2. Customize projects with Airtable records
As you track a project, you can get as detailed as you need for each line item thanks to Airtable’s expanded records.
“A record is almost like this horizontal packet of information about this one thing,” Jackie said.
For the FF&E research described above, she tracked manufacturer, color, materials, price, and number of rubs. But over the course of any given project, you may realize that you need to layer more information in.
“That's something that's really powerful about Airtable. You can come in and customize and add additional fields or information that you want to track,” said Jackie.
3. Streamline the approval process
It’s easy to build in a process for approving or rejecting products or materials.
Simply add an approval field in your AIrtable and then allow project managers to weigh in. Once those fields are filled out, you can filter the table so that you only see which products are still in the running.
“I can go in and start to see at a high level how many are actually still in play,” Jackie said. “These are maybe our top contenders.”
It’s also easy to share a project’s progress by using the different view options.
“One of the really powerful things about Airtable is that you have all of this information and then you're able to visualize it in a number of different ways,” she said.
There are five different views depending on your needs: grid, calendar, gallery, Gantt, and Kanban.
4. Use Airtable as a multi-user workbench
Once you have created an Airbase for FF&E research or any other database, other team members can use that data for their own purposes.
“You can think of this as almost like a workbench for whoever's working on this project,” Jackie said.
If someone is working on something similar, they can use the information in their project and customize it to their needs instead of starting a whole new sheet.
Any work that has already been done can be leveraged by other employees in the company.
“You can filter it to just your project. And again, we're still working off of the same set of information, but then you can go in and maybe you just have a completely different process,” Jackie said.
5. Automate recruiting tasks
Design projects are not the only thing that can benefit from this type of platform. It can also help streamline the hiring process and employee onboarding.
If you’re hiring for an internship or full time position, you can set up a form for people to fill out with all of the application information.
When the form is filled out, that information is added to a table, but you can also set up automatic messages for when that happens.
“I see this going both ways,” Jackie said. “They could send an email automatically to the person that applied to say, ‘thank you for applying,’ acknowledging that it's been received, letting them know that somebody will follow up that they are a fit.”
“And then on the flip, it could send an email to whoever is in charge of this internally, or can send a Slack message.”
Airtable frees up your time so that you can focus more on design
Architects spend a lot of time on operations that they’d rather spend on design.
“75% of architecture firms in the U.S. today are 1-10 employees,” Jackie said. “That is nuts. Because not only do you have to be a really talented designer if you're running these firms, but everyone has to wear so many hats.”
That time spent on so many different tasks adds up quickly.
“Operations is the type of thing at that scale where it's almost like death by a thousand paper cuts,” she said. “You don't really experience it full on until you sort of zoom out and see, whoa. We spent 20 hours doing X thing.”
Some large companies like Google carve out 20% of employee work hours for creative work, but that’s a luxury small firms can’t afford.
The good news is that digital tools like Airtable can give you some of that time back without much added cost.
No one is using digital tools just for fun, they’re using them because of what they can unlock.
It is a learning curve to figure out a new platform and get it configured so that it does what you need it to do, but the effort is worth it.
“You're able to use this toolkit to hopefully design the things that would help give you back your time, whether it's that one hour a week that you use to review applications and manually copy and paste all of the portfolio PDFs into wherever you're tracking them and automate some of that,” Jackie said.
Ultimately the goal is to reclaim time for creative work and reduce administrative tasks.
Choose a digital platform based on your needs
There are many project management tools out there, and it can be hard to choose which one is right for your firm.
Jackie recommends making a list of “must-haves” for your work and finding a platform that has that functionality.
“For instance, as a project manager, I need to do XYZ in order to do Y. Or as a marketing person at the firm, I need email,” Jackie said. “I think it's getting on the same page, identifying what's a need to have versus a nice to have.”
Another thing to look at is referrals or customer stories from people working at firms similar to yours. Check to see what their experiences are.
Did they need more options? Were there lots of features they didn’t need?
The benefit of Airtable is that it can be customized into whatever you need it to be.
It takes a little sweat equity to get started. But once you have systems in place, you can go back to focusing on the work that brought you to architecture in the first place: design.
Join us on Thursday, December 10th 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 Jackie Park. Jackie is passionate about helping architects find better ways of working through technology. She currently works at Airtable, a low-code platform to build collaborative apps, where she enables the sales team with the skills, content and training they need to sell more effectively. Prior to Airtable, she was part of the team at Architizer focused on creating a platform to help architects source building products and materials. Jackie has worked at Architecture Research Office and Ehrlich Architects. She has a BA from the University of California, Berkeley and received a Masters of Architecture degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Design.
In this 45 minute chat, we'll talk to Jackie about her journey from architecture to tech, and the opportunities that exist for architecture-specific workflow tools.
- Which workflows can architects optimize first with tech?
- What tools already exist to make a practice more efficient?
- How to disrupt practice operations with new tech implementation?
- and More!
Airtable is a cloud collaboration service headquartered in San Francisco. It was founded in 2012 by Howie Liu, Andrew Ofstad, and Emmett Nicholas. Airtable is a spreadsheet-database hybrid, with the features of a database but applied to a spreadsheet.