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Professor Randy Deutsch—Discussing the Future of Architects: Convergence and Superusers (Part 1)

Author, architect, and professor Randy Deutsch talks to Architosh about his last two hit books delving into the transformative forces shaping change in AEC and the nature and characteristics of some of the architects responding to those forces he calls Superusers.

This is part one in a two-part series on a conversation with Randy Deutsch. The first part was previously published as the special feature inside Architosh’s Xpresso #07 newsletter on 1 September.


 

ARCHITECT RANDY DEUTSCH APPEARS TO BE ON TO SOMETHING. No other voice within the larger AEC industry has so lucidly laid out a path of inquiry into the evolving nature of architecture, with a depth and breadth of understanding of the current underlying transformations taking place at both the social (generational) and technological levels. His recent books continue to synthesize a vision of the needed evolution of “architectural practice.”

His latest book is called Superusers, and it defines a particular type of person found in an architectural practice who possesses unique characteristics and skills and who, he argues, represents the future of the “general practitioner.”

Randy Deutsch’s latest book is called ‘Superusers: Design Technology Specialists as the Future of Practice.’

Professor Randall Deutsch, AIA, LEED AP,—who is Clinical Associate Professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign—has a written a sequence of books that probe some of the deeper emerging problems in the profession. Prior to Superusers, he wrote Convergence: The Redesign of Design, a fascinating account of the evolving nature of current and emerging technologies and how they are both fitting and affecting transformative ways in which the AEC industry is going to work in the near future. Both books fit a neat sequence that allows the reader to ponder the current state of architectural practice as it looms under the forming shadow of the next decade.

I asked Deutsch to talk to me about his latest two books. What follows is a fascinating perspective about where Architecture as a discipline and profession is maybe going.

The Interview

(Anthony Frausto-Robledo) Can you describe the basic premise behind Convergence: The Redesign of Design and how Architecture, as a field, is being influenced by larger converging factors in technology and culture?

(Randy Deutsch) With Convergence, instead of looking forward like my two previous books, I looked back—specifically, at the 2008 economic downturn—and asked: After massive layoffs, some estimating 30% of the profession have lost their jobs, how did the remaining individuals do the work of 2 or 3?

It turns out that they did so not by working longer or working harder, though this of course still happened. By and large, they were able to accomplish these efficiencies—of reduced time and dwindling fees—by combining their tools and work processes. Doing so resulted in faster results, at less cost, and increasingly with higher quality.

It used to be that we would tell owners they can have speed, lower cost, or higher quality—pick any two. After 2008, no more. Owners—perhaps due to Netflix and Amazon giving them all three—they came to expect this from the service industry. One side effect or, as you put it salient factor that came about as a result, was that at a time during the recession when few were designing, we were able to leverage our collective imaginations by exercising our innate combinatory creativity. By convergence of our tools and work processes, we not only survived the economic downturn but in many cases persevered.

The economy and technology are not the only forces in the story of convergence. You mention in the book the role of Millennials as another force. They are, generally, less interested in rising through the ranks in the traditional time frames. This “less patient” generation has been empowered to just go out there and do it—lead. You mention that the world of bespoke tools, plugins, etc have enabled them to “take matters into their own hands” and they are the generation largely working with visual programming and computational design tools. As experimenters hungry for achievement and success in the field, but without the years of in-the-trenches experience, how does that affect risk and liability in the field, and does this require an aggressive new model of knowledge transfer? 

With each passing year, we have more data, and with it, more proof, to base our decisions on and with which to measure outcomes. Where risk intersects with advances in practice is where designers venture into means and methods—which due to BIM and direct-to-fabrication is increasing—and speculation in pre-design—which with early-on access to information should be decreasing. We really need to have a summit—with architects, attorneys, and insurers in one room—and once and for all hammer this out.

 

 

We still don’t know what is the cause of “lack of productivity” in our industry. If we knew, we would have addressed and solved it but we don’t, and we haven’t.

 

 

One thing that hasn’t changed is design professionals need to increasingly learn from their mistakes—we all need to learn from project failures. As driven-home in my Data-Driven Design and Construction book, when there is a plane crash, the aviation industry documents a thorough report for all to learn from, and because of this, the field advances. We don’t do this in the AEC industry. To save face we bury our mistakes or pretend they never happen.

I want to mention a very specific question from the book on Convergence. You note Koomey’s Law, about efficiency, not power, that doubles every year and a half. As you know, the AEC industry as a whole has not produced positive productivity gains in over 30 years, compared to other non-farm industries. You mention the convergence of trends like Agile project management (scrum) and lean as promising solutions. Isn’t the main culprit for lack of productivity coming down to information silos and that the industry is still under a 20th Century mode of management style? 

We still don’t know what is the cause of “lack of productivity” in our industry. If we knew, we would have addressed and solved it but we don’t, and we haven’t. We thought it was CAD, then BIM, then collaborative BIM—but none of these so much as tweaked the now flat, now downward trend of non-farm [AEC] productivity. Each generation thinks they have the answer: today, it’s computation—but until computation goes mainstream and is more widely leveraged, we won’t know.

No Agile firms that I am aware of in our industry exist—but examples of Agile in the workplace are legion. Last semester, I took my graduate students into 32 practices throughout Chicago and most had evidence of Agile in the workplace, from flexible seating arrangements to Scrum to walking meetings. Some firms are more advanced in specific practices than others. In Superusers, Shane Burger gives us a look inside some of the Agile practices he is responsible for on his teams at Woods Bagot but also cautions about trying to scale these ideas within a global practice. No doubt disruptors like WeWork are Agile workplaces. It all comes down to a firm’s culture. There are some excellent yet traditional firms that still practice a 20th Century management style. As with anything, Agile works for those who believe in it and are committed to it, when it is a good match for a firm’s culture.

Let’s talk about Superusers from your book. Who are they, how do you characterize them, what skills set them apart?

I elaborate a great deal about this at the start of the book, but in a nutshell, Superusers leverage a combination of design technology and interpersonal intelligence—an ability to work well with and by means of others—to provide 20% of the effort yet achieve 80% of the results. They’re the folks who take an assignment that normally takes a week and complete it in just hours. They’re design professionals with the wherewithal to recognize a tool, curiosity to inquire into a tool, confidence to mess with a tool, capacity to learn a tool, the creativity to combine tools, and importantly, the interpersonal intelligence to connect with others to achieve actionable results.

Superusers are very much a type of T-shaped individual, a particular type, with a common, identifiable set of characteristics and skills, predominantly soft-skills and attitudes that couple ideally with their programming, visual-scripting hard skills. T-shaped individuals are also more capable of excelling in a world that is converging.

 

To put it another way, they’re design professionals who leverage tools and technology to do more and be more, with the people skills to accomplish all they do with and by means of others. One thing I was surprised by in the research findings, is that of the 20 characteristics (referred to in the book as 10 C-factors and 10 Superpowers) that make-up a Superuser, only one is a technology skill: Coding, scripting, or programming. The other 19 are considered soft skills, mindsets, and attitudes.

These soft skills or mindsets discussed in the book are very interesting when contrasted against the layers of focus, attention and historical understanding of famous architects who move the needle in the field—the so-called “starchitects” living today. You emphasized that there is a problem, in architectural culture and academia, in that there is too much focus on design and not on what design is for. But culture and the media focus hard on design for design’s sake and the power of the individual brand. Doesn’t this really work against the spirit and literal actions of the Superusers in architecture? 

Students go into architecture to design buildings, not to be project managers, or design technologists. That said, I don’t think in schools today students are being taught to be starchitects. I think the media has a lot to do with the perception that becoming a hero architect is something both real and desirable.

 

 

Superusers leverage a combination of design technology and interpersonal intelligence—an ability to work well with and by means of others—to provide 20% of the effort yet achieve 80% of the results.

 

 

You can teach history/theory, building performance, and professional practice in such a way that it connects back with people, human needs, and basic humanistic principles including systems/flows/context (i.e. integrated design.) And in terms of soft skills—this is how I teach these subjects. If they are not in the end about people—then what are they for? Even if becoming a starchitect is what students were taught, if architecture school was the only influence on students, then perhaps it may work against students thinking in terms of working with others, and adding value for others—or concerning themselves with what the design is for.

Speaking of the academy. Given the broad transformational changes confronting the built environment and how it is programmed, designed, manufactured, constructed, and operated, how must schools of architecture change to better position the future of architects and allied professionals?

Not every graduate goes into practice. In the U.S. upwards of 50% will take part in non-traditional practice—eventually working for owners, contractors, for WeWork, Disney or Pixar, or going into academia. Ten percent of schools and 10% of boutique firms can remain traditional—thus antiquated, set in their ways, more or less ignoring the future: they’ll be an exception and will always have patrons. The lion’s share of firms in both the U.S. and UK are small—10 people or fewer, the vast majority of these being sole proprietorships. These—and the graduates who eventually join, form or lead them—can probably get away with remaining traditional practices receiving a traditional education. No one is going to AECOM or Stantec for a kitchen redo.

Here I’m addressing the other 90%. If you know you want to become an architect and work on the design and fabrication of buildings, there will be a place you can go to get educated and prepared for this career path. These schools will prepare you for practice. A growing number of schools have signed on to a program, IPAL, integrating the licensing process with architectural education, enabling students to get licensed upon graduation, ostensibly making them even more attractive to employers. Architectural education must change by no longer treating every student the same, and to better position future architects by asking for whom and what the school is for. Who are we educating and what are we educating them for? Then design and deliver an “education” to that student’s needs.

This chart shows the various forces at play leading to convergence happening in the AEC industries. (click on it to zoom in and see the individual elements. )

 

As critics have pointed out, architectural education in the U.S. is in flux due to disruptive technology, changing demographics, and the realization that schools need to re-engage with the world, with humanity, and its growing list of needs. Due to increasing demand for highly skilled workers, I’m a proponent of the 3+1+1+ type program where students take a deep dive into becoming design/fabrication professionals for three years, then—once they have direction and know what they want to concentrate in—at regular intervals throughout their career return to school for a year at a time. I recommend they return for a tune-up and a change every 7 years. This “fundamentals + differentiator” model recognizes that knowledge evolves, technology and work processes change and that we as humans change: our interests, focus, and priorities. Building on what you’ve learned and mastered before, it’s the 7-year career model that I talk about in my TEDx talk and workshops.

Adding education about the evolving world of “making and fabrication” and combining that to a core architect’s education seems very demanding and perhaps too thin. Today’s schools are teaching digital tools perhaps too much. How do schools ramp up for increasing technology-based practice while fitting in the core requirements? 

A recent DesignIntelligence survey noted that 50% of architecture schools are increasing design technology offerings while 50% are decreasing or maintaining the number of these courses. Schools complain that they can’t fit everything that an architect needs to learn into their curricula. But it’s not a time or capacity problem, it’s a design problem: How to work critical content into multidisciplinary course offerings? Architects do this every day with impossible-to-fit-in building programs—why can’t we do this with our curricula?

 

 

They don’t see themselves plugging into an architect, engineer, fabricator, manufacturer, contractor, or real-estate developer position, but want to contribute to the entire vertical.

 

 

Courses need to be multi-disciplinary, and can no longer be isolated, or stand-alone—that is not how students learn today. It’s more about social learning—learning from each other—than learning from a sage on the stage. Professors need to become more like facilitators. For tomorrow’s design professionals we need to emphasize four things: working with the past, working with the planet, working with technology, and working with each other.

The way we address each of these is through design. And design has changed, deriving not only from our imaginations. “Design” has become autonomous: data-driven, generative, and predictive. Architects will increasingly be needed to be synthesizers, with a greater emphasis on design development. School’s are absolutely the right place to emphasize both hard and soft skills, the importance of both critical thinking, creative thinking, and interpersonal intelligence. A school’s ability to blend or fold such vital content into other courses is a sign of both the content’s—and school’s—relevance and ability to sustain itself into the future.

Schools need to wake up to the fact that we’re in an experience economy and need to cater to and deliver better experiences for our students—and those who employ them. You only have to look at the rising cohort of graduates to see how education must change. Few Gen Z’s want to be limited by identifying with and attaining titles or roles. They don’t see themselves plugging into an architect, engineer, fabricator, manufacturer, contractor, or real-estate developer position, but want to contribute to the entire vertical. What is that called? They want to graduate quickly—not because they’re impatient, but because they want and need to start contributing—to work hard, pay their dues, being paid while they learn. They’re entrepreneurial and are not interested in rising to the top of organizations. Schools need to recognize this new world of students and their needs or face the consequences.

 

To read the rest of this interview go to Part 2 tomorrow, 17 September 2019.

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