The digital practice revolution: How your firm can embrace true digital integration
Most architecture firms are grappling with the question of how technology and data fit into their practice.
For many firms, the solution is a self-contained design technology team, similar to an IT department.
But at KPF, they’re championing a true digital practice. Technology is an operational linchpin for delivering projects in the best way possible—not a supporting role.
Here, BIM Practice Manager Veronica Quintero and Senior BIM Specialist Alex Wilson share how their team is integrated into KPF’s practice, allowing them to solve problems for every department.
Keep the focus on the practice of architecture
The choice to call KPF’s team of tech wizards a “digital practice” instead of design technology was purposeful.
“What we do is about how we deliver our projects,” Veronica said. “It's about the practice of architecture. The sole focus isn't just around technology.”
The team’s goal is to deliver projects on time and to make sure the client is happy with the product. Technology is a means to that end.
KPF has the digital practice team interwoven into all aspects of the office, not operating separately.
“You're not sitting in a different area of the office,” Alex said. “We all sit together, we all hang out together. We have weekly meetings and catch-ups. I think that collaboration definitely helps the teams, because everyone knows what everyone else is working on.”
Every project team knows that members of the digital practice team can be pulled into meetings to office their expertise.
“Even before a team starts, we have a digital practice kickoff meeting,” Alex said. “So it'll be with the designers, the project managers, the people running the team.”
Even though the digital practice team does have a help ticket system and is able to troubleshoot issues, their involvement in the day-to-day practice is much richer.
“It's about looking forward, trying to find the solutions before the problem even occurs,” Alex said. “Or just looking for interesting ideas and ways that we can test new software or implement some new workflow.”
Work with other departments to improve efficiency
One of the ways they help is by working with other departments to find ways to make things more efficient using technology.
For example, the digital practice team has worked with the peer review committee who marks up all of the drawings to create templates.
“We essentially ask them, ‘what are the things that you're always marking up on drawings?’” Veronica said. “Okay. Let's make this into the template so that you never have to mark it up again.”
This creates consistency across all projects as well as saves time.
Veronica said people in the firm don’t see her and her team as outsiders. In fact, they’re excited to talk about Revit and how it can automate more mundane tasks.
“Like safety drawings, code checking, all of the tedious things,” she said. “So that, again, the designers spend more time designing and less time wrestling with the piece of software.”
Create a centralized flow of data
A key initiative of the group is to create a flow of data that can be accessed in one central place.
They pull data from Revit as well as from different departments like billing to build a complete health model of each project.
“It's really tying useful information from different areas to have a single source of truth in a way,” Alex said.
They’ve built a dashboard that pulls in key performance indicators, key dates, project managers, and other information so that teams have access when they need it.
The amount of data was overwhelming at first.
“When we showed it to the staffing committee and some of the key leaders, they were like, whoa,” Veronica said. “At first they’re like, what do we do with all this information?”
They’ve since created various view versions in Tableau that show team members and lead architects only what they need to know.
Meanwhile, the digital practice team oversees the full view version that contains all of the data.
Train with accountability
One of the responsibilities of the digital practice team is to teach team members how to use software.
When Veronica surveyed people on what kind of training they preferred, she learned most people prefer a method with accountability.
Her colleagues essentially said, “we want to be babysat and told you have to sit in this room and do training for three hours or however long,” Veronica said. “So they liked the hands-on approach. They liked that there was someone there for them to ask questions.”
Those are things you can’t really get from an on-demand video course. During the pandemic, they had live virtual classes where questions could still be answered.
Going forward, they want to make sure that people continue to make training a priority.
“We're working now with our HR department to almost integrate this into your yearly performance review,” Veronica said.
Just like an architect has to fulfill so many credit hours to maintain their AIA license, there would be a certain amount of training hours that staff would be expected to complete each year.
HR would check in if those hours were not being met, and show them how those hours were tied to their career progress like becoming a director or senior associate principal.
“I think that incentive for people will help, because there are people there that they think they know it all,” Veronica said. “They don't need training. Or the designers with the theoretical thinking, oh, I don't need Revit, that's for documentation.”
“No, you need it because you want to be an architect and that's part of your role.”
Keep people engaged
Once people have learned the basics, it’s important to keep them interested and progressing.
Alex said that they have various ways of keeping that engagement so that people uplevel their skills.
“We have a couple of user groups specifically for Revit,” Alex said. “We have the BIM leaders group. We have a visual programming group. And we also put on a lot of learning events.”
People come in and talk to the teams about new software and plugins and ways to use the technology.
But their most successful program is having teams share their successes with their peers.
“A really successful initiative we have is teams just presenting their own work,” he said. “So whether it's about visualization in Revit, getting teams to show what they've done, or workflows or models or particular problems that they've overcome.”
Harvest journals to understand what problems are recurring
The team also tries to stay on top of what struggles architects are having and which skills need to be taught.
A creative solution they came up with is looking at the journal entries from the computers and seeing what problems are being run into consistently.
“So you could take one person's journal, see what they're doing, see problems that they're encountering, how many keyboard shortcuts they using, what particular tasks,” Alex said.
“Then you can also kind of extrapolate that out to the entire office to see at a very global scale, what are the things that are coming up?”
This can inspire new trainings on adaptive panels, keyboard shortcuts, or model audits, and warnings.
“You get this insanely big dataset at KPF because the firm is so large,” Alex said. “That's great because you can start to see things trending.”
All data feeds back into the dashboard, so the full model health can be assessed.
Collaborate as an industry
There are many other firms creating similar digital practice programs to KPF, but Veronica said that they don’t really compare themselves to other firms.
It’s good to check to see if they’re on the right track, but they don’t get competitive and try to outdo other companies.
Instead, they look to do the opposite: collaborate and share information.
“When we do speak to some of our peers and colleagues it’s more, oh, you're doing something cool,” Veronica said. “Can we tag along, can we collaborate?”
They have built relationships with engineering firms and other big firms where they take on problems together.
“It doesn't matter about who's getting credit or who wants to shine,” she said. “It's a problem in that industry. It's a problem within our firm. Let's just figure it out together and move forward and help maybe someone else who's struggling.”
The goal of digital practice is to take your firm’s processes and performance to new heights. Experimentation and collaboration are the ingredients that make it all possible.
Join us on Thursday, June 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 Veronica Quintero and Alex Wilson of KPF.
Veronica is the BIM Practice Manager at KPF, where she raises the firm’s level of BIM maturity within the Digital Practice Team. Her experience spans large scale, complex projects domestically and internationally. She works with teams in the early stages of a project to strategize and implement a successful BIM workflow. Her focus at KPF is on leading BIM implementation across the global offices and integrating design technology tools into the team’s workflows. Her work involves continuous improvement, development, standardization, support and education—all to increase efficiency, productivity and innovation. Before KPF, Veronica worked at leading design firms like SOM and Gensler as a Senior Digital Design Specialist. She received her B.Arch from NJIT and M.Eng in Product Architecture and Engineering from Stevens Tech.
Alex is a Senior BIM Specialist at KPF and a speaker at Autodesk University 2020. He has over 14 years of experience pairing the architectural design process with computation workflows at firms such as Selldorf, SHoP and Robert A.M. Stern. He works under the hood of programs to craft custom workflows for geometry transfer, task automation and data mining. At KPF he supports multiple projects of varying scales and programs. He spearheads the use of Dynamo in the office and other emerging technologies.
In this 45 minute chat, we'll talk to Veronica and Alex about how to manage a BIM practice.
- What are the different levels of BIM maturity in architecture firms?
- What is the relationship between the IT and BIM team?
- What other parts of practice do you see the BIM paradigm being applied to?
- and more!