Skip to Content


Production thinking in architecture

Prefabrication is said to be the oldest new idea in construction. But it is no wonder that it continues to pervade as an ideal. The construction industry is fraught with litigation, inefficiency and waste. The design and construction of buildings are separate acts that are delineated contractually and legally identified and observed. Arguably, the divide between design and production has resulted in increased schedule delays and cost, and a diminished building quality and sustainability because the conception (architecture), optimization (engineering) and production (construction) are not integrated. In response to this inefficiency, prefabrication and modularization emerge and remerge as ideal methods of efficient production. McGraw-Hill Construction’s latest SmartMarket Report, “Prefabrication and Modularization: Increasing Productivity in the Construction Industry,” demonstrates how prefab architecture is yielding improved project schedules, decreased costs, and reductions in construction waste.

Although the ideology of prefabrication—harnessing the reduction of labor, decreasing schedules, and infusing greater control—is well understood, architects lack the structure for determining where and when fabrication is appropriate. Architects must understand the range of choices, opportunities and challenges associated with prefabrication to use it effectively. Prefabrication requires rethinking design throughout the building process. Specifically, architects must consider production thinking as a value-added measure to design, embracing notions of product theory and product design in the conception phase of development. The following are prefabrication production lessons for the design professional:

1. Decouple manufacture from assembly. Conceptually divide offsite and onsite activities, moving as many non-value-adding onsite operations to offsite control. Prefabrication takes the operations of fitting parts from the job site to the factory floor, especially time-consuming finish and detail work, leaving the assembly to larger subassemblies and fewer connections in the field.

2. Design for interchangeability. One manufacturing efficiency associated with the Industrial Revolution was the realization of the interchangeability of parts for a given product. This allowed random pieces to be selected and assembled to form many outputs. A movement toward more interchangeable parts and an increase in the production rate by favoring direct assembly onsite versus fitting parts on-site increases productivity.

3. Reduction in operations. This lesson has two principles. First, reduce the number of operations in onsite assembly resulting in potential reductions in assembly time, error, risk and cost. Second, reduce the number of parts in a subassembly and the number of subassemblies in an assembly. However, designers and construction professionals rely on conventions, which may be consistent from design to design but are not congruent with developments in manufacturing and production. When a part or subassembly is not functional or does not clearly benefit the integrated whole, it can potentially be integrated into another part or removed altogether.

4. Recognize scales of customization. Building fabrication may be standardized or custom. These terms, however, do not capture the complexity of the manufacturing and fabrication industry. The chief concerns in production thinking are costs, lead times and flexibility surrounding custom products. In general, as customization and flexibility increase, so do cost and lead times for product delivery. Mass customization suggests that digital automation has eclipsed economies of scale; however, this has not been realized in full. Instead, digital fabrication allows for a more predictable (just as useful) cost increase per degree of variation.

The terms made to stock (MTS), assembled to stock (ATS), made to order (MTO), and engineered to order (ETO) are used in manufacturing to define the extent to which a product is customized. This is generally considered proportional to the cost and lead time necessary for production.

5. Modularity. Although a fully integrated mass customization model is not entirely possible under current production methods, a few industrial design models can be transferred to architecture, including the following, illustrated through the example of a building product—exterior cladding:

Component-sharing modularity: same fundamental components with appearance variability within each discrete product (changing cladding options initially from project to project)

Cut-to-fit modularity: varying a product’s length, width or height by cutting it to size based on a fixed module (standardized cladding that can be increased or reduced in size in production)

Mix modularity: variation is achieved by mixing products (cladding in which multiple layers can be added or taken away in fabrication)

Bus modularity: a base structure that supports several attachments (a base frame that numerous cladding materials and systems can be attached to)

Sectional modularity: parts are different but share a common connection method (cladding panels may vary, but the connection to the frame is always the same)

Architectural production is clearly different from other types of production: It is unique every time, it is site specific and it uses a temporary labor force. Prefab architecture works to resolve these peculiarities. For building construction to progress and take advantage of the benefit of factory production, fitting must be expedited, taking construction to the factory and leaving assembly onsite. The maturation and market embrace of building information modeling (BIM) and integrated project delivery (IPD) suggest tools and organizational strategies can work concurrently with prefabrication to realize cost-efficient architecture.

Ryan E. Smith is the director of Integrated Technology in Architecture Center, University of Utah, College of Architecture + Planning.


Preparation and communication—Keys to successful leadership transition

Whether prompted by the need to expand or contract the size of the partnership in response to firm growth or reduction, or by a change in direction of the practice such as entering a new market, or the desire to hold on to key senior staff, leadership transition is inevitable and healthy for architectural firms wishing to last beyond their founding partners. No firm is identical, and each transition is unique and needs to be treated as such. But there are two common themes to successful leadership transitions: preparation and communication.

Preparation for major transitions, which are critical to the lifeblood of a firm, is ideally initiated years in advance of the change. A well-managed firm will have a strategic plan that outlines the firm’s mission, vision and goals, as well as a succession plan that frames the rate of change among owners. Often a firm develops written criteria defining the requirements to achieve leadership as well as ownership positions within the firm.  Criteria may include professionalism, values and ethics; attitude toward risk; ability to attract and retain clients; strategic thinking; project management skills; and design ability. These attributes will reflect both the current reality of the firm as well as the long-term goals and allow new leadership candidates to be evaluated thoroughly and fairly. This process requires consensus within the partnership, a vital component to preparations for leadership change.
When a potential candidate is identified internally and early, a firm can take a structured approach to providing the mentoring and professional development the individual often needs and surely deserves. This cultivation will allow the prospect to eventually be considered for partnership. Searching externally for an appropriate fit and interested candidate takes time, and also benefits from the guidance of a strategic plan and partnership criteria.

Whether the leadership transition involves promotions, new hires or even mergers and acquisitions, to be successful, it must be well conceived and well communicated. Bringing up new leaders—or importing them from outside the firm—can affect a firm in myriad ways, from the functioning of the partnership group to the chemistry in the studio. With the understanding that change is inevitable and can be healthy, and with the appropriate preparations, the change can have a dynamic effect on the practice, staff morale, the quality of the work and the reputation of the firm.

To maximize the benefits of the change, the same thoughtful approach should apply to communicating the transition. Just as the principals should begin mentoring and selecting their successors years before they will become partners, the preparations for the transition should begin in marketing well before the announcement of new partners. Positioning the candidates identified for promotion as experts within their field takes time. They need to develop their market or define their expertise, identify their client base and establish their own profiles within the firm and the industry. Often the “senior partners” need to share some of the limelight to allow the next generation to be recognized. Orchestrating this outreach effort during the years preceding the big moment lays the groundwork for the announcement of the promotion. Done well, it helps staff and the broader community to understand why an individual was selected for a new leadership position, the value this person brings to the firm and his or her accomplishments. The announcement of the promotion should build on this, articulating how the promotion fits within the vision of the firm and clarifying the benefits the individual’s new role will bring to the practice and its clients.

The internal communications plan deserves as much attention as its external counterpart.  Formal announcements of the change to consultants, clients, and the press are essential, but a great deal of a firm’s reputation is gained through more casual connections with those within the firm. If a client asks the project manager or if a consultant calls and asks the receptionist about the recent change, and that person cannot communicate it clearly, that would carry more weight than the well-crafted website announcement. To ensure that the message is conveyed consistently, appropriately and sufficiently by everyone at the firm, the message needs to be shared with the staff in a variety of formats; depending on the size and culture of the firm, this can be done through an office meeting, an all-staff email, or the firm’s intranet, or all three. Communication to the staff can be completed within the weeks leading up to the formal announcement, so that any questions can be answered and any concerns vetted before the news goes public. The media releases and announcements to clients can be shared with the staff as well, as they are distributed externally. This allows the staff to help carry the message for the firm.

Oh, and, as soon as you think you are done with the transition, it will be time to start on the next round.

Kirsten A. Sibilia Assoc. AIA, LEED AP has spent 15 years helping architectural firms with marketing, public relations, communications and strategic planning. She is Dattner Architects’ chief marketing officer and previously was marketing principal at FXFOWLE Architects and chief marketing officer at JCJ Architecture. Kirsten serves as the director of publications for the AIA New York chapter and wrote the “Public Relations” chapter for The Architect’s Handbook of Professional Practice for AIA National. She coauthored an SMPS National white paper, Fast Forward: Marketing Through Leadership Change.

Starting your own business? Things to consider before taking that step

Like most architects, you’ve probably entertained the idea of working independently at some point in your career. The thought is quite understandable, since schools of architecture tend to inculcate concepts of autonomy, design brilliance, prestige, etc. throughout the educational process.

Dreams of fame and designing landmark buildings often dance in our heads, even though we know that for most in the field, that won’t become a reality. Nevertheless, each year, many designers still choose to take the plunge and open their own offices. If you’ve read various articles about the do’s and don’ts of starting up a firm, you may wonder if this article will be different. Well, my purpose in sharing these words is to address the things to consider before deciding to work independently.

Begin by taking a long, hard look at yourself and what you want to accomplish through your practice. This may sound like a no-brainer, but owning your own business is going to require a lot. You need to clarify what you want before investing time—not to mention blood, sweat and tears. Otherwise, disillusionment and dissatisfaction are sure to follow. A friend who operates a psychology practice provided an excellent piece of advice: make a list of questions to ask you and answer them honestly. Here are several suggestions to get you started:

“How do I want to spend my time on a daily basis, and what do I need, expect and want to receive in return?”

“Where do I plan to be professionally, financially, strategically, personally, physically, etc. in 10 years?”

“How does running my own practice fit into that scenario?”

Next, consider your identity. What makes you different? There’s no shortage of brilliant, imaginative and highly qualified design professionals in Boston (and in other areas of the country, for that matter), so how will you become the orange in a field of apples? I had to ask myself that question lots of times before coming up with a credible, comfortable answer.

What are your strengths? From where will you draw your client base? What kinds of projects are not your cup of tea? Think of at least three professional qualities you’d like people to attribute to you before establishing your niche in the marketplace.

Patience is a factor that should not be overlooked. Do you crave instant gratification, or can you wait for success? Are you willing to keep moving forward until your business is profitable? Someone once told me that it often takes five years for a business to become fully functional. So it may take many years of steady work to ensure that your network is strong, you have the expertise that clients seek and you are a confident businessperson. Although some may achieve those goals in a much shorter time period, usually they are exceptions to the rule.

After a detailed self-assessment, I strongly encourage you to enroll in at least one business course. It may not be necessary to return full-time for an MBA, but it’s smart to fortify yourself with additional knowledge about business. I enrolled in a business course for creative professionals at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), and it turned out to be a very wise investment of money as well as time. I learned how to develop a business plan, identify client personality types and better understand contracts, marketing, etc. The course provided what I needed to prepare for success as an entrepreneur or a freelance worker.

If you decide not to study, at the very least, read. An excellent resource by Albert W. Rubeling is How to Start and Operate Your Own Design Firm (Second Edition): A Guide for Interior Designers and Architects. I was lucky enough to hear him speak at an AIA conference, and after that I wanted to know more.

If you’ve followed these steps, you now know who you are as a potential businessperson, you’re clear about your brand and you’ve decided how to operate your practice.

The next thing to consider seriously is legal representation. The AIA offers its members LegaLine, a service for small businesses that provides unlimited consultations on contract interpretation and negotiation, addresses ways to improve communications with clients, deals with risk-management issues, and much more, for about $500 per year.

Although every penny counts when you’re starting out, consider how much legal fees may cost if someone sues you over something that could have been prevented if you had had the proper advice in the beginning. Take a look at the AIA Trust website, and judge for yourself.

Speaking of money, what about fees? Finance may not be the most comfortable subject to discuss, but your business cannot survive without it. First, you must acknowledge that you provide a vital service, no different from that of doctors, lawyers, etc. Never undervalue yourself because in doing so, you diminish the importance of your profession, damage the vitality of your business and end up broke! If you’re unable to sustain yourself, how can you manage a practice? Although few architects and designers enter the field expecting to become wealthy, you shouldn’t allow potential clients to haggle with you over your fee structure because you’ll risk losing their respect. Doctors and lawyers rarely bargain with the people they serve. People pay for what they value. The client who tries to argue up front over fees is sending a strong message that shouldn't be overlooked.

Finally, I would encourage you to not only get involved with your local professional chapter but also consider those organizations that may appeal to your clients. Seek out a mentor, and remember to network, network, network. When you think you’ve done enough, network some more! Many great architects and designers start out or continue to be shy or introverted, but in today’s marketplace, if you’re uncomfortable speaking with people, you need to work on your social skills, or keep an updated resume in circulation.

If you’re serious about establishing your own business, remember to do your homework, consider the suggestions in this article, and then go for it. There’s no reason why you can’t build a sustainable business. Best of luck!

Aisha Densmore-Bey Assoc. AIA, LEED AP BD+C is a Boston designer exploring architecture, lighting and furniture design, graphics, branding/identity, and art and film production. She is also currently working on illustrations for an upcoming children’s book series. Visit her at or on Twitter @AishaDBDesigner.

All images by Aisha Densmore-Bey.

Syndicate content