Transitions in construction

Transitions in construction

Whatever you thought, think again.

What do you mean by design?

ReflectionsPosted by Dan Engström Wed, November 09, 2011 01:38:51
Today, I’d like to discuss the value-creation by designers in systems building. Designing more or less from scratch is a very different task from designing from a set of given platforms. Let’s first put the model (below) developed by Siemens of production strategies in different process situations to use. I borrowed this from Gustav Jansson and his thesis on Industrialised Housing Design Efficiency. It illustrates the level of prefabrication versus the possibilities of adaption to client requirements. It all depends on how we’ve decided to do business and when the client comes into the process.
Let’s first look at the strategy Configure to Order; the dashed line above, representing for example a typical Swedish timber-framed housing manufacturer. This is systems building taken fairly far. These companies rely on well-prepared and packaged products, with modular options for clients to customise the product to their needs. The question for the designer (architects and engineers) is where product development ends and design of the unique project begins. Is it important? I think it is. The one is made between projects, the other in projects. The one has in mind the generic properties of the existing platform and what can be achieved with the existing production facilities. There is only a typical site and a typical client, fairly generically described. The other has a client and a site in mind. For design, the client has a name, a mortgage and requirements, and the site has an address.

If we are to focus at the value the designers create under this strategy, we are ignoring the value inherent in the platform, the product. This is not only semantics either. Helena Johnsson showed that the 50-year-old platform of the housing manufacturer Älvsbyhus can be considered have created worth around 2.3 Billion Euro. That is after 400 Million Euro representing the unique client adaptations of the houses has been deducted. The platform (addressed by product development) is worth five times the parts unique to projects (addressed by design). Design logic seems to be less valuable here than product development logic. The logical conclusion is that we should start looking at industrial design methods to complement of our regular methods for building design.

In Configure to Order, most designers (architects and engineers) are in-house resources and are also the product developers. They know what their role is; to create value for the client with as little cost as possible to the factory. The successes and failures of sales, production, logistics, assembly and so on are their successes and failures too. Being early in that value-chain, they know their job is to support their colleagues downstream. In the ideal world, they are well experienced with the standard parts and modules they have to work with. They know what buildings these parts can and cannot make up. This goes for engineers as well as for architects. They know the situation in the rest of their value-chain, and who will be subject to dealing with any poor solutions of theirs. The value they create would in fact best be measured by how well their colleagues can do their work.

Karin Gustafsson recently wrote her master’s thesis at Luleå University of Technology on architectural design in such an environment. The subject area was the architectural development of a new configuration of the NCC building product P303. Let me elaborate on that thesis for just a little while. Karin started out with the traditional architectural methodology, which is going from the big picture to the little picture via increasingly detailed draft designs, comparing functional requirements with her designs. Finally, when she came to the level of detail that involved the technology of the system, she had to stop and reengineer her whole process. The functional requirements, her designs and the technical properties of the product just wouldn’t fit. She had to start from the core of the building system and work both up into major issues like room organisation and then down into the nitty-gritty details. Karin points out in her thesis that there is then the risk of not being able to motivate the resources it takes to work the overall concept of the project, but getting stuck in the smaller issues. In order to safeguard the quality of her results, Karin therefore used Ola Nylander’s method of assessing immaterial architectural values. The combination of systematic, (even tectonic if you will) process and verbalising architectural qualities is innovative and should be complemented.
So far the builder with a factory at hand, or at least with a manufacturing-based logic. Karin did architectural product development. Such products will be configured to clients' requests by designers. Where does traditional building design fit into this picture? Does it even fit in?

So, let's look at a general contractor on the other hand. This company would typically be found in Engineer to Order in the Siemens model. This traditional strategy is not our subject of this blog. But what happens when a contractor moves from this traditional strategy to Modify to Order? Many of them do. When they have developed product structures? Suddenly, there are ground rules for what products can be used and how they fit together, where they should be bought and how the designs should be communicated. But the building-blocks do not make up products, they are only product structures, like a standardised connection between a wall and a floor. There is still quite a lot of work to be done in order to finish the designs for the unique client. There is the thus risk that the project logic is retained, that we keep the piecemeal value-chain with outsourced, temporary teams and goals set from each project.

In our project-based logic in its current state, the drivers for the outsourced resources (including designers) can be found in their cost-plus business strategy. Because of this ubiquitous stone around our neck, there is very little incentive for a designer to be involved in maximising client value with minimal resources. Let's be blunt here. The job of outsourced designers, who have to fight for each project with five other designers, is to prepare the blueprints and then send the invoice. That is a non-starter in the developing new context; Modify to Order and certainly in Configure to Order. Again, more and more of construction is moving there.
In this context, we need to take a long, hard look at what value we designers are creating in systems building. We need to start with the issue of we in fact are designing, or if we are we developing products. We need to look at what education, experience and personal traits we value in our employees. We need to start developing business models that utilise the combined strength of all involved in each building system, and in each project. Because the blueprints, models and descriptions we are used to creating are only means to an end. In systems building, the end, the goal and the merits of anyone’s work is always defined by the well-being of the people further down the value-chain.

- Production strategies by Siemens, via Gustav Jansson and Graham M. Winch
- BBB low-cost housing, Kvistgård, elsinore, Denmark. Architects: Tegnestuen Vandkunsten, 2004-2008, by seier-seier
, Flickr Creative Commons.
- Cobra telephone by miheco, Flickr Creative Commons.