The Business of Design

Kerstin Thompson , 5 October 2019

Kerstin Thompson’s recent presentation for the ACA – SA was a thoughtful reflection on the business of design, busting some stubborn myths about architectural practice, and emphasising the need to balance design quality with business practice excellence, financial strength, thriving people and workplace health.

What is the value that design quality brings? Who benefits from this value? How do we deliver this value? In starting to answer these questions, I hope to articulate the indelible link between quality design outcomes and a sustainable business model. And along the way challenge a handful of myths that strike me as an impediment to good business and good design.

What is the value that design quality brings?

‘Business’ can mean the thing we do; business as activity.

It can also mean the organised efforts and activities of individuals to produce and sell goods and services for profit.

As a service that underpins a business, the premise is that there is a perceived value of architecture, there are benefits to others for these services and for which they will pay.

Different clients will seek out and pay for different aspects of architectural value. For example, the developer will probably seek out architectural service that extracts yield, floor space and branding; our institutional clients the functional accommodation of their operations and connecting of their people; the one-off house client delight and protection, amplification of a beautiful environment and accommodation of family dynamics; the apartment dweller quality of amenity and the right connectivity with or separation from neighbours; the city a positive interface with street, enhancement of the public realm and so on.

There is also the obvious service of technical compliance, certification and project management. And, of course, delighting too, that small matter of beauty.

We define KTA’s value as the provision of architectural service to deliver inventive solutions that enrich human experience.

Who benefits from this value?

The client obviously benefits from this value in us satisfying their aspirations and functional requirements. But the extent of stakeholders for the built environment is broad and without due care some can be overlooked. Therefore, importantly, KTA places considerable emphasis on the notion of the civic, to expand the benefit of a project beyond the client to a broader range of future beneficiaries.

For us architecture is always a civic endeavour. Every project is a chance for extracting civic opportunity even if in modest ways.

Civic relates to citizens, and it is interesting to note that civility means to engage with another person’s point of view in the self-interest of improving our civic life.

Public projects presuppose the civic but we have also embedded the civic within the design of private projects too. For example the design of a single house at Lake Connewarre enabled ecological restoration and repair while Balfe Park Lane, a multi-residential development, will deliver neighbourhood benefits via an enhanced public realm through strategic precinct planning.

As RMIT’s Peter Brew suggests, good design is provided in a transactional sense. The role of locking in the design is to forge an agreement that only by doing it this way does this benefit accrue. The design’s stability is the most important thing to us (architects), as this is what we profess to do, make available. It’s our obligation to deliver this benefit to the other.

This relates to what I have described as an ethics in practice based on Jeremy Till’s definition of ethics “To assume responsibility for the other in his book Architecture Depends.

Who are these others?

They are the extended group of stakeholders – anyone or thing that might be impacted on by the project or who might also recognise and enjoy its merits. They are all of these stakeholders that we have a contract of sorts with, our business with; neighbours, broader community and, importantly, the environment.

New Zealand’s legal systems recently redefined Whanganui River as a living entity. An other.

“The reason we have taken this approach is because we consider the river an ancestor and always have,” said Gerrard Albert, the lead negotiator for the Whanganui iwi [tribe].

“We have fought to find an approximation in law so that all others can understand that from our perspective treating the river as a living entity is the correct way to approach it, as an indivisible whole, instead of the traditional model for the last 100 years of treating it from a perspective of ownership and management.”

The new status of the river means if someone abused or harmed it the law now sees no differentiation between harming the tribe or harming the river because they are one and the same.

In this sense, the civic is also a recognition and acknowledgment of our contribution to a lasting cultural legacy rendered through and in place.

To finish on this question of who benefits from design value I extend our remit to the actual discipline of architecture. Beyond service provision our additional purpose and value is to develop and contribute exemplars to the greater body of knowledge that is architecture the discipline.

What is quality design and how do we benchmark it?

That’s the subject of another entire discussion, but for the purpose of this one I’ll proffer that on balance the value of design improves its situation; elicits client satisfaction in that the design meets their aspirations and functional requirements; and the extended group of stakeholders I mentioned before recognise and enjoy its merits. A further benchmark, especially in terms of its value to the discipline, might be obtained through peer review and recognition – say, through awards programs.

How do we deliver this design value?

KTA deploys a series of processes to enable the quality of design that provides for this extended notion of value, and to a wide array of stakeholders. We maintain that the quality of this design practice is indelibly linked to quality of business practice, health of workplace, thriving people and business. The way we do architecture as business and process can and should be as high quality as the much applauded, awarded and enjoyed output itself.

THREE MYTHS

This process requires rejecting three important but somewhat stubborn myths of architectural practice and architectural excellence:

Myth 1

That high quality design practice is necessarily achieved under sufferance; only possible via long hours, no personal life outside the office, low pay, and suffering as sign of commitment to the cause of architecture.

The absurdity that the people charged with creating places for quality of life do so by diminishing their own.

Early on, after living the myth in other practices here and overseas, I resolved to start my own practice in part so I could set the rules of engagement. It hasn’t always worked, but as KTA has grown in the last five years a considerable project has been the development of the practice as a business: in such a way that high quality design and high quality staff life are mutually supportive endeavours.

Myth 2

That design is a solo vision from a single hand.

Even if the initial, sometimes ill-formed idea comes from one, it will take a team to develop and enable its realisation.

The idea can be easy sometimes; the realisation is usually the challenge that will test its resilience, rightness and quality. Sometimes the various attempts to develop it will, in fact, reveal that it’s not actually a very good idea or is a poor fit with the broader context of the project – its timeline, budget, planning, client aspiration, procurement and so on.

Later l outline how KTA makes design the task of many.

Myth 3

That to deliver exceptional, exemplary buildings, it is necessary for the architect to be a bully of sorts – ala Howard Roark.

I want to propose that one ethic of architecture is the accommodation of difference, the accommodation of conflict and the contingent with intent. Not dogma.

By intent, I mean a set of principles to guide the structuring of space in ways that synthesise the forces of the project.

The act of accommodating is entirely contextual. It takes account of the particular set of circumstances and the various contingencies that make up the situation — time, budget, existing conditions, briefs, etc. It is not a passive process but a highly rigorous exercise of interpretation, negotiation, and weighing contingencies and needs into hierarchies. 

Significantly, to accommodate is, I think, a constructive alternative to the much-derided practice mythologised in the heroic figure of the 20th-century architect: bullish, resolute, didactic, (likely) male, unyielding in the face of others’ desires.

To design without dogma, to accommodate with intent is quite distinct from compromise, which I would argue generally necessitates the abandoning of intent. I would suggest clarity of intent is where we also begin to meet our responsibility to the discipline as knowledge. It exists beyond mere service obligations.

Clarity of intent is fundamental to enabling the making of decisions. And design is about timely decision making. As is business. So, I’m going to finish up by outlining some of the ways in which KTA enables design clarity, as foundation to quality and timely decision making, and in turn how this enables us to deliver in a timely fashion for the client and to manage studio resourcing.

4 - KTA

KTA DESIGN PROCESS FOR DELIVERING DESIGN VALUE

In many ways the processes we’ve developed to assist us yield design quality are drawn from years of teaching, helping students identify what the drivers of a project are, and how to diagram and describe the intents to meet these. The practice now comprises a team of around 30 staff. Having delivered complex architectural and urban projects for more than two decades, it’s become absolutely critical, as we've grown, that we can enable everyone to proactively contribute to maintaining high quality design outcomes.

Here's how we do it.

We aim to be a collaborative studio. Underpinning this is the expectation that everyone contributes to the design process. Everyone champions and guards KTA’s design intent at every step of project delivery: from its earliest inception through construction to post occupancy review. Everyone is equipped with the necessary resources to progress the resolution of the design. The project lead manages this design process.

In addition to the design leadership of me and Director of Projects Kelley Mackay, Associate Claire Humphries is positioned as a design enabler who supports design development. There are various forums for design review and development which include:

  • Weekly design meetings with formal timeslots;
  • Peer review of initial design directions;
  • The facilitation of design explorations and options;
  • Coordination of weekly studio design crits, ideally with the whole studio;
  • Drop in ad hoc design discussions.

We also undertake design reviews at the end of all project stages, with a couple of people to review the whole current package and identify shortfalls to address in the next stage. Parallel to these activities is general design advocacy in-house and beyond with readings, visiting talks, etc; And, of course, day to day mentoring of early career staff.  

Weekly project plans submitted by the project lead to our Commercial Associate Toby Pond clarify resourcing, goals and milestones, project risks and suggested actions, resource requirements and strategic overview (i.e., what is needed to propel the project).

Importantly, they cover not only the quantative aspects of a project – benchmarking of time allocations against fees and profitability – but also raincheck on the qualitative ones. These include the EQ needs of the project, the team’s disposition – in-house and extended, encompassing the client, consultants and contractor.

The monitoring of design quality is key to this weekly planning and in particular the checking against the Project Strategy, a key document for the team which defines the key objectives and Design Intents of the project.

A key test in these weekly reviews is: How is the current iteration of the design meeting the Key Design Intents? Towards answering this, we assess whether the key areas for design impact and focus are being met and benchmark other pertinent KTA projects to guide design documentation, approach to buildability and detailing and procurement and so on.

By deploying these processes, the business of architecture – design – is aligned with the financials of business, in a mutually supportive way. Fundamental to this is that the process of enabling and producing quality design is made transparent and transferable to everyone.

Design is timely decision making, as is business

Design is decision making, timely decision making, to maintain a preferred client program, and for efficient studio resourcing. These various processes have enabled us to make better design decisions sooner and, importantly, ones that meet our design intents. They also enable everyone in the team – from most senior to most junior – to be empowered and instrumental to the progression of a project and development of its design quality and value. Imparting methods for developing and progressing the design thinking is also a way to mentor and to teach; to see the wood for the trees under the guidance of the design intents, and in this way stay open, not resistant, to the vicissitudes of a project; to work productively with these while maintaining the big picture.

The various mechanisms and forums for review encourage and embed self-reflection and critical thinking, foundational to critical practice, throughout all of the organisation and across all members of the team.

By dispersing the design thinking load across more hands, they also reduce the roadblocks that can occur when a team is otherwise waiting around for the big ‘ok’ that only one or two people can give.

Design advocacy

One last thing – design is advocacy. It’s about a better way.

Because every project has the opportunity to progress the built environment towards a vision or at least to take an intentional step towards other opportunities that will. This advocacy is something we do within and beyond the practice. Of course, talks are an obvious way of spreading the word on the value of good design. But everyday presentations to our clients, authorities, planners and so on are also forums for challenging and changing the terms, the outcome, the context, expectations of architecture as advocacy for improved design outcomes.

Remember that every building is part of a street is part of a suburb or a city, so every building matters as part of a greater composite. Advocacy for a better world via buildings of value to many and to our cities.

Sometimes it means we do need to push back and yes, take a slightly more difficult path – as guardians of quality design. In this sense, Practice is advocacy. We must also advocate for better processes. This responsibility is especially so for practices in positions of authority: to advocate not just for a better designed world but also better business, contract, engagement practices.

So when a contract, competition or regulation strikes you as unfair, unreasonable, not in the interests of our profession and more broadly the public or civic interest then speak up, agitate, reject and negotiate for a better outcome.

I have been surprised over the years that it has been us, the little practice, that has spoken up and tackled a larger corporation or government organisation to change something like a contract condition. Only last month we successfully appealed (for the benefit of all competitors) to the competition manager and the local Institute chapter to revise their terms of the EOI to not include a design submission as part of the EOI pre shortlisting but rather to base selection on a written/illustrated approach and relevant projects. Because why give away our most valuable commodity, our design value?

We all have a responsibility to enact and enable better practice, which will support us all.

As a profession, when we act from a position of financial precariousness and sense of under-value we live in fear of losing a job, no matter how problematic the terms of our engagement or dubious the likely fulfilling of our obligation to the civic, our expanded sphere of stakeholders.

It’s frankly easier to advocate and take the more ethical position for our business, our profession, our others, when one is more empowered. From a position of financial and business strength we can best deliver quality design.

Kerstin Thompson is Principal of KTA and Adjunct Professor at RMIT and Monash Universities. A committed design educator she regularly lectures and runs studios at various schools across Australia and New Zealand. In recognition for the work of her practice, contribution to the profession and its education, Kerstin was elevated to Life Fellow by the Australian Institute of Architects in 2017. She plays an active role promoting quality design within the profession, and the wider community, through her position as Panel Member on the Office of the Victorian Government Architect’s Design Review Panel and Board Member for Melbourne Housing Expo, a research group led by The University of Melbourne.

KTA was founded in Melbourne in 1994 with the practice focus on architecture as a civic endeavour, with an emphasis on user experience and enjoyment of place. Current and recent significant projects include The Stables VCA, The University of Melbourne; Arthur Boyd Riversdale Creative Learning Centre, Accommodation and Gallery; 100 Queen St, Melbourne tower & precinct redevelopment; Jewish Holocaust Centre redevelopment; Whitehorse Performing Arts Centre; Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria Melbourne Staff Building; and a number of exemplar multiple and single residential projects.

This article is based on a presentation given by Kerstin Thompson on Tuesday 27 August to the ACA – SA’s annual luncheon on the Business of Design.