How SHoP Architects is challenging conventions and embracing technology
SHoP Architects is a firm that is pushing the whole industry into the future.
Over the past two decades, they’ve defined and refined digital project deliveries.
They’ve embraced technology throughout the process from design to unique fabrication to construction.
Senior Associate at SHoP and accomplished architect Luisa Mendez let us in on the ethos and workflows that help SHoP challenge conventions and create unique projects like the Barclay Center, the Design Miami Pavilion, the Porterhouse building.
SHoP’s 3 pillars
To understand how SHoP’s team works, you have to understand the ethos that informs their every decision.
“We're multi-disciplinary, we're disruptors, and we embrace technology,” Luisa said.
Luisa said that the firm was founded to harness the power of diverse expertise. That allows them to challenge conventions, embrace different fields, and question typical patterns of practice for an architect.
That has naturally led to their acceptance of technology and the new ways of design it opens up.
“We use technology and digital fabrication techniques, but in a human-centered design approach ultimately for the public realm,” Luisa said.
A well-rounded team
SHoP’s 150-person workforce is made up of a variety of expertise levels and specialties.
Because they've embraced technology and digital tools, many of SHoP's team members are highly specialized in computational approaches. Others are experts in enclosure systems or sustainability.
Project teams are formed at the very start of each project, with a focus on balancing generalists and specialists.
"The decision is made from the very beginning when we're staffing the team, making sure that we're meeting, based on the goals of the project, that we have the right people,” Luisa said.
Each project has a kick-off meeting that includes other teams that have worked on similar projects or used similar techniques.
“We approach it from lessons learned within our own office,” Luisa said. “So there's an opportunity to gain some efficiency. We're not totally restarting from scratch.”
A choice of paths
SHoP advocates for the growth of its employees in whichever direction they choose.
Designers that come into the firm are usually generalists, but you can build expertise in a specialty if you want to.
“Somebody who comes to SHoP usually comes with as a generalist designer. As you move through different projects from different teams, you can either stay that way, which is totally fine, or if you find a skill that you love and you just want to keep kind of pursuing that direction, then there's definitely an opportunity to do that,” Luisa said.
For example, someone might be more interested in computational skills or digital tools, but still want to go to the site and be involved in that way.
“The fact that we have these specialized people doesn't mean that they're the only ones doing that kind of work,” Luisa said.
Most people who work there are connected to multiple parts of the process regardless of their specialty.
3 types of project goals
Just as SHoP's approach to team building is multifaceted, so too is the way they establish project goals.
To ensure that a project meets a client’s expectations, SHoP tracks three types of goals:
1. Value goals
This goal is the project’s purpose. For instance, a goal can be connecting to nature or connecting to a community.
"As we keep designing in every stage of the process, we can come back to those initial set of goals and make sure that we are actually tracking, and we're not dissolving or watering down the idea,” Luisa said.
2. Data-driven goals
These goals are the quantitative objectives for the project, such as square footage. They’re tracked by apps or in charts.
3. Time-driven goals
These goals are the phase deadlines for your deliverable. This includes every piece of the project timeline, from design to construction.
An invested team
A necessary part of meeting goals is establishing a team that is invested in the project and its goals.
Ideally, everyone who joins the project team is excited about it and its purpose.
“As long as the goals and the ideas are very clear from the beginning and everyone shares in it, it makes for a great working environment and it's a very clear way to achieve that goal,” Luisa said.
It makes things easier when everyone on the team has been there from the beginning and has a sense of ownership and responsibility. But excitement can be fostered in new members, too.
“I think it's really important, as the project moves along and you, for some reason, start losing people or adding new people, that all of those new members of the team get the same kind of attachment and an understanding for the overall project goals,” she said.
Digital delivery experts
SHoP is leading the industry when it comes to digital delivery. But it’s a term that doesn’t yet have a solid definition.
“This moves from a more traditional 2D project delivery to a 3D way of designing and executing a project,” Luisa said.
For SHoP, it's had major benefits compared to the disconnected analog delivery systems of the past.
“The traditional tools that architects and engineers have used for decades to coordinate the delivery of projects, they're just not efficient, especially when it comes to communication,” Luisa said.
“By making this transition from the more analog to centralized tools, we have really been able to coordinate massive amounts of data among the trades involved. So not just the design teams, but really the people who are ultimately going to build this.”
They can coordinate designs at very high resolutions, which wasn’t a possibility before. They can also move through the project's timeline with ease.
“We can seamlessly move from a concept model, like a 3D model, to a digital fabrication model, the digital twin, and then ultimately into manufacturing,” she said.
The firm is constantly experimenting with new techniques, refining the process to become even more efficient.
SHoP has worked on projects where their 3D designs are fabricated and then put together on-site with instructions, almost like an IKEA furniture kit.
They’ve also worked with 3D printing specialists to construct projects from unconventional materials.
“At Barclays, we then started creating our own tools, our own apps to be able to track with, barcode each piece, every single facade panel of the like 11,500 or so that are in the building,” Luisa said. “We're able to track from the design to a manufacturer to delivery, finally to install. And so it's pretty amazing how you can keep this entire data set and so it informs future projects.”
A high level of involvement
The digital tools let SHoP retain a high level of involvement throughout a project’s timeline.
They start with detailed designs and see it through with meticulous attention to the last step of construction.
“We love being involved all the way through construction. It might be seen as a risk in some ways, but at the same time, it gives us a lot of design freedom and control,” Luisa said.
Having the tools on hand to track each element like a facade from design to delivery lets them spot problems quickly.
“For instance, we were able to go to an active construction site with an iPad scan and overlay the drawing that's supposed to be getting built. Or if it's already underway, we can track and see if there's anything that needs to be fixed,” she said. “We were able to address issues before they become actual problems.”
A space to explore
It may seem like SHoP is technology-focused all of the time. But they also encourage exploration and creativity.
“We have a SHoP in Brooklyn with a woodshop and welding capabilities, a robot arm. But then we also have a pretty extensive fab lab within the office, which is great because then it allows everyone's teams to go downstairs and make a model,” Luisa said.
While the offices have VR and AR rooms for creating designs and believe that digital platforms are the best way to make the whole construction process more efficient, Luisa said designers also see the value in hands-on model making.
“Ultimately, we still like to get our hands dirty and make models and what it feels like, looks like. So having this space where we do that, it's very important,” she said.
That goes along with the ethos of letting employees explore specialties and get involved in various parts of a project’s design and construction process.
SHoP’s approach to design and work isn’t conventional, but it’s pushing the industry toward innovation - and winning great projects while it’s at it.
Join us on Thursday, November 5th 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 Luisa Mendez. Luisa is a Senior Associate at SHoP. She led the design and coordination of the Fulbright University Masterplan and campus design for Vietnam’s first independent, not-for-profit institution of higher education. Luisa led the design of 475 W 18 ST – a high-rise condominium project with a mass-timber structure, the east-coast winning entry for the USDA-sponsored Tall Wood Competition prize. She also led the design and execution for Design Miami 2016, a pair of pavilions showcasing novel 3D-printing techniques from Oak Ridge National Lab & Branch Technology, considered at the time to be the largest 3D-printed objects ever produced. Luisa received her Master of Architecture from Columbia University GSAPP (2012) and her Bachelor Degree in Design from the University of Florida in Gainesville (2008).
In this 45 minute chat, we'll talk to Luisa about lessons learned across large projects and leadership within remote teams.
- What does optimized project management look like?
- How to develop a personal leadership style within an architecture firm?
- What tools can facilitate remote collaboration?
- and More!
About SHoP Architects
SHoP Architects was founded to harness the power of diverse expertise in the design of environments that improve the quality of public life. SHoP's interdisciplinary staff is proving—at sites around the world—that intelligent, evocative design can be made with real-world constraints.
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