Break free of the stone age: Innovative ways to adapt your architecture firm to the modern world
The common issues that architects struggle with -- getting paid, project control, long hours -- have been around since the dawn of the profession.
The world is rapidly changing. Yet in many cases, traditional ways of working remain stuck firmly in place.
Jacob Reidel, Director at Saltmine and assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, thinks it’s time to embrace a different way of practicing.
His take? Firms should close the loop between design and outcomes, build teams that focus on customer success, and accept that design doesn’t have to be king.
Close the feedback loop between design and outcomes
Jacob has spent years researching the history and techniques of architecture for his magazine, CLOG. That’s where he first noticed how outdated the profession has remained, even as styles and techniques modernize.
Jacob believes that one of the fundamental things architecture firms are missing out on is the feedback loop between design and outcomes.
That’s why he took the opportunity to work at WeWork. He wanted to explore a different way of working and practicing design where performance was measured.
“WeWork really was creating a different potential practice model that was really integrated,” Jacob said.
“It was one of the closest things I saw at that time, this is like 2017, 2018, to really a full-stack model where you had design, delivery, and operations and then crucially bring those three together.”
Jacob wanted to test out different ways of working and how architects could be involved in the operations of a space.
“Where the real potential is, is closing the feedback loop and being able to create structures where we can truly learn from the performance of space and really see how to connect design to outcomes,” he said.
Recognize that design doesn’t have to be king
A foundational lesson Jacob learned at WeWork is that a design practice doesn’t have to value design over everything else.
At WeWork, all teams and disciplines were important to the final product, not just designers. People could just be good at what they were good at, from sales to interior design.
“Culturally, within architecture, there's still the sense that there is design and there is support,” Jacob said.
A lot of that comes down to how architects are trained and taught in school.
But it’s possible to have a firm where all skill sets are weighted equally and the outcome is the same.
“I would meet people in the sales org for example, who were not good at design, had no interest in design and totally didn't have anything about that,” he said. “That was totally cool.”
Be open to different vocabulary
In architecture, there are terms that are considered dirty, like saying “customer” instead of “client.”
Jacob said that being open to vocabulary shifts can open up new opportunities to shift the industry.
“[When] I went to WeWork, I was still clinging to the word client,” Jacob said. “I’d be in meetings with people in the sales org, I’d be referring to them as clients. My colleagues in the true sales org were referring to customers.”
Over time, he realized there was a fundamental and valuable difference between the two terms.
“The use of the term ‘customer’ implies a certain level of service,” he said. “Certain attention to their use and their experience, which ‘client’ doesn’t have.”
That’s something architects should be thinking more about -- how their work is experienced.
“I think that that was really powerful,” he said. “It shifted my thinking. I think it's no longer a dirty word.”
Make a path for researchers
Jacob has spent much of his career researching architecture and taking deep dives into specific techniques.
He believes that research roles should be included in architecture practice, but there will have to be different models for how it fits in.
“So much of what architects do is not taught in schools,” Jacob said. “The only way one learns that is through practice. As a result, the early stages of one's career is not so dissimilar from an apprenticeship,” he said.
That makes it hard for someone who wants to come in as an entry-level researcher to then be able to practice as an architect.
“You'd go in to become a researcher at an entry-level, as opposed to doing the things that a junior designer does,” Jacob said. “I don't know if necessarily that’d set you up to become a practicing architect.”
The current way it can work is to have research and strategy groups that work in parallel with designers. That would place practitioners on a different, yet equal, path.
Make room for customer success
Architecture firms should take a page from software companies and have customer success teams.
“What the role is of customer success in a software company is an interesting role,” Jacob said.
“It’s really focused around making sure that users understand what the thing can do, and equally importantly that the company, like Saltmine, or any customer support, the engineering team, understands what users need it to do.”
The customer success team often acts as a translator between customers and engineers.
That type of team would be very valuable in architecture, but it would require some cultural change.
Jacob envisions a role like a sales engineer, who could represent the designs to the client as well as make sure the client’s needs were translated to the designers.
“The question then, and the challenge to get over, is how do you create an organization within the firm that's seen internally as really true parts of the team?” he said. “Not just seen as just support to the core functions.”
Getting clients to trust that group as representative of the practice would be another hurdle to solve.
Tie performance bonuses to NPS
A way to incentivize closing the feedback loop between design and outcomes would be to use something like a Net Promoter Score (NPS), or how often clients recommend you to others, to measure design performance.
“Could you tie your bonuses and performance of your team members within the project team to an NPS score of that client?” Jacob said. “What if you actually did run real NPS scores, track it, and set goals with your clients?”
That performance could then factor into a bonus or compensation structure for team members.
This would create a connection between the user experience and the designs and have a financial upside for the design team.
“More and more I'm interested in models like that. I think that across the board, there's a sense that when you talk to many practitioners, especially in the earlier stages of their career, there’s an enormous amount of work. And the connection between their compensation, their value within the practice and the actual output is tenuous,” Jacob said.
Use data to measure building performance
Traditional practice doesn’t have a way of measuring how a design performs once the firm-client relationship is over.
“That's the holy grail now. Everyone is trying to figure out how to truly leverage data to design buildings, spaces, anything,” Jacob said.
It’s so sought after because when you do know those results, you can easily repeat the things that perform well.
“One of the challenges when it comes to traditional practice models is that if you don't have any of your hands in the end result in an extended period, it can be difficult to actually get findings from what works and what doesn't,” he said.
“If you designed a space, it's out there in the world and you don't get to talk to it again.”
But data and tech tools can help firms to do that.
At the end of the day, improving architecture practice in innovative ways will have to include embracing new ways of doing things.
As Jacob’s insights show, “new” doesn’t just mean using new technology.
It means thinking holistically about the way your firm operates, taking cues from other industries, and paving a new way forward into the future.
Join us on Thursday, April 1st 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 Jacob Reidel. Jacob is an Assistant Professor in Practice at Harvard's Graduate School of Design and the Director of Customer Success at Saltmine. He served as Director at WeWork on the Powered by We team, and was Director of Special Projects at Ennead. Jacob also is the co-founder of the wildly popular architecture publication CLOG.
In this 45 minute chat, we'll talk to Jacob about how the profession emerged over the years and the forces that are shaping practice today.
+ What Jacob learned from working on OFFICEUS
+ What alternative models of practice are possible that might be started within traditional services
+ and more!