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The Young Architects Forum (YAF), a program of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the College of Fellows (COF), is organized to address issues of particular importance to recently licensed architects.

Q1 2020 Connection - AIA Wisconsin Practice Innovation Workshop

By John J. Clark AIA posted 04-06-2020 16:15

by Stacey Zwettler Keller, AIA, NCARB

On Oct. 4, 2019, AIA Wisconsin hosted a fall workshop focused on Practice Innovation. The topic of the day explored the future of the profession, the practice of architecture, and the industry trends that affect us. Kicking off the day, local expert Chandra Miller Fienen, of StartingBlock Madison, shared how her company supports start-ups and entrepreneurship, how entrepreneurs’ characteristics compare to those of architects, and how experience working with architects helps develop a space conducive to entrepreneurs. Tom Fisher of the Minnesota Design Center discussed the architectural industry’s foresight, explaining the evolution of our practice, the economic trends happening around us, and the emerging concept of the “Sharing Economy.”

With these new ideas in mind, the participants broke out into small workshop groups to explore and construct the ideal architectural practice or innovation for our profession’s future. Facilitators assisted the groups in identifying strategic goals and services, as well as strategies for messaging and communicating services to a target audience. The day then culminated in “Shark Tank” style, with group pitches to a judging panel. Following the workshop, there was an optional tour of the Spark Building and the StartingBlock Madison offices, led by Miller Fienen and the designers from Eppstein Uhen Architects.

Entrepreneurs versus Architects

Miller Fienen shared her perspective on working with entrepreneurs and architects as the director of StartingBlock Madison. Although both may be creatives and optimists, the most striking difference lies in our views of failure. Entrepreneurs believe in Thomas Edison’s axiom “I have not failed, I have just found 10,000 things that do not work” or John Maxwell’s “Fail early, fail often, but always fail forward.” Whereas the architect’s reference is in building or structural failures, something to avoid. This has a real effect on the architect’s ability to pursue practice innovation strategies.

The key to innovation is not only to understand the problem to solve, but also to have the foresight to think outside the box. As Henry Ford said, “If I asked people what they wanted, they would have said ‘faster horses.’ ” Instead, he developed something they had never even considered. This analogy ties closely to the role of the architect and will be to our benefit as we approach our profession’s future. Miller Fienen discussed three entrepreneurial companies having an effect on architecture right now: Arch Virtual, a virtual reality rendering firm; Curate, which uses Artificial Intelligence (AI) to identify and aggregate public information and records; and Build It Fab, which uses visualization scenes to sell its lighting. She also conveyed the importance of architects communicating according to their clients’ preferred communication style.

Architects and design professionals advancing practice innovation at the AIA Wisconsin Fall Workshop (Photo Credit: AIA Wisconsin)
Architects and design professionals advancing practice innovation at the AIA Wisconsin Fall Workshop (Photo Credit: AIA Wisconsin)

The New Economy Flips the Old One on Its Head

The reality of the current practice of architecture is that its delivery methods are still based in the post-Industrial Revolution era. Tom Fisher detailed the shifts in our 21st-century life and economy that are affecting the role of the architect and what is designed and produced: environmental/sustainable practice needs; evolving work patterns that incorporate flexible schedules, remote/virtual officing, collaborative learning and workspaces; vehicle expense and new commuting patterns, Uber and AirBNB; 3D-printing production evolutions; Amazon delivery models; on-demand and subscription services, etc. These new patterns have contributed to Fisher’s definition of the “Sharing Economy, an umbrella term for similarly emerging concepts that capitalize on new methods of interaction facilitated by centralized online platforms:”

  • The Gig Economy — Connecting employers with contract-based roles (Freelancer & Udemy)
  • On-Demand — Delivering a product or service through an online platform that matches expressed supply and demand in real time (Netflix & Spotify)
  • Crowd Economy — Connecting participants to achieve the goal of mutual interest (Mechanical Turk & MyCrowd)
  • Collaborative Consumption — Sharing, swapping, trading, or renting products and services (Thredup, Zipcar, & Helpling)
  • Peer to Peer — Buying or selling assets or services in a decentralized economic model of peer-to-peer networks and platforms (EasyRoomate & Small Business Barter Exchange Services)
  • Collaborative Economy — Unlocking the value of underused assets by matching needs through peer-to-peer networks (ParkFlyRent)

Practice Innovations

After the presentations, participants broke out into small groups to develop their own innovative practice models, brainstorming new ways to deliver services or perform work in the architectural profession. They selected topics/models that fit their interests: profit, process, product, or philanthropy. The following are some of the results of the brainstorming session:

Inte-Great! (Profit)
This team developed a subscription business model in which clients pay a monthly fee for facility “asset management” over the typical single-project delivery services. They could advise on a regular basis when maintenance projects or programming updates need to occur, monitor/evaluate system performance, and decide whether to remodel or build new. They believe they could provide better services because of the long-term knowledge base of the facilities and enhanced relationships. This idea was revered for developing better relationships between architect and client and offering more roles for the architect than just design.

A-Harmony (Process)
This team modeled its business after eharmony, but instead of matching couples, they proposed to connect the public to architects. They saw challenges for the public in finding compatible partnerships with architects, and this company would “take the mystery out of working with a design professional.” They would set up an application and algorithm platform to create the matches and generate revenue through subscriptions by architects and advertisements. One reviewer thought this could give good exposure to different design problems.

Willow (Product)
This team identified communication as a major challenge in the architectural profession. Their business would develop an enhanced meeting software that would also track design decisions and approvals. Rather than searching through endless emails or meeting minutes, they envision a virtual, topic-based system that would branch together the timelines and decision-makers like a “willow tree.” Reviewers thought this would be an extremely useful tool and would make design decisions much easier for clients.

DetailIT (Product)
This team brainstormed a subscription-based, smart, building-detail library. They see the challenges of the profession, with increasing retirees and younger staff, less experience, and requirements for faster production, all with fewer errors. Through a series of prompts and questions, it would auto-generate details to a CAD 2D or 3D format, which would allow adjustments by design professionals. Reviewers liked the idea of automation to save time for doing things that require their thought and energy.

Sharette (Philanthropy)
This team’s mission was to develop a company that connects architectural volunteer opportunities with firms and design professionals, incentivizing volunteerism and enhancing the visibility of architects in their communities. They envision an online platform to encourage virtual collaboration and networking. Reviewers were impressed with their unique business name and believed it to be a plausible idea.

Looking to the Future

These events and exercises are so important as we consider the future of the profession. As architects, we need to be agile and resilient to keep up with the changing economy. The most important revelation of the day may have been that it is helpful to take a step out of the grind and commit to rethinking the profession’s future and potential. We are so appreciative that AIA Wisconsin provides that opportunity.

Author Bio:

Stacey Zwettler Keller, AIA, NCARB is a Senior Project Architect at Mead & Hunt, Inc, and has served as a past Young Architect Regional Director and past president of AIA Southwest Wisconsin.

This is a modified version of an article first published here by AIA Wisconsin.