We’ve all been there – we near the end of a project, often beyond our fee allotment, with a great amount of work left and realize we’re not where we need to be. Project requirements are missing, systems aren’t properly coordinated, and the cost estimate is out of control. A week from deadline and out of budget, the project is still weeks away from completion.
At the project interview, you and your consultants made promises about collaboration, communication, and your ability to work together. At the project kick-off meeting, we all agreed on the fundamental goals, schedule, and design requirements of the project. Sustainability and energy efficiency might have been discussed, but we can’t be sure because that all faded as we began the work in a business-as-usual approach. We are all talented design and technical professionals. How did we end up here?
There are a few possibilities of course, but it’s probably less about what you are doing than the way in which you are doing it. A conventional design approach no longer matches the complexity, speed, and requirements for most projects today. There are too many stakeholders, partners, and interested parties involved in any project now to limit means and methods to only those we’ve used in the past. You might think you are collaborating and delivering a project in an integrative way, but if even one party isn’t involved or committed, you’re probably not.
Integrative design is distinguished from conventional design by its use of a highly collaborative, multidisciplinary project team. While design is typically an iterative process, it is all too often done separately within each discipline and then handed back and forth between the full team so they can add their experience and work product. Meetings are held just often enough to share information – but mostly as a check balance tool to avoid conflicts.
By contrast, the integrative design process forces deep collaboration, with all team members working collectively to develop the fullness of the design, while still allowing each discipline to contribute their own skillset. In this method, each team member must consider how the choices they make will impact all other design elements, sometimes yielding healthy friction between disciplines and team members. It recognizes that while individuals play essential roles, better solutions often come from a cross-fertilization of ideas and disciplines because no one person knows all the answers.
This can’t be done by meeting occasionally. You need to meet in some fashion frequently, if not nearly constantly. Does this add time to the project? It might – but typically it simply redistributes time from the end of the project to the beginning. While this initially takes more effort, the process fosters innovation through the coaction of the team and gets easier over time. The integrative design process partners well with the LEAN delivery model as continuous optimization is integrated into the normal course of the work.
What’s the value?
Project success using an integrative design process is not measured only by meeting the project schedule, budget, our creating a quality design. This collaboration yields better performance around issues of climate, building design, energy use, systems, carbon emissions, and equity to name just a few. It’s no secret that most of the decisions affecting environmental performance are made within the first few weeks of design.
Success is marked by the creation of a building that deeply satisfies the owner and is environmentally responsible and socially fair. Clients and owners want a team that thinks through every aspect of each project, including how all those elements come together to create solution multipliers and deliver higher value than the sum of the parts.
A word of warning
The integrative design process’s strength can also be its weakness. The process is dependent on people and collaboration. Everyone needs to be on board with the process. If any members have not participated in an integrated design process or worked on a sustainable, high-performance building before, the process will feel foreign to them. There may be resistance to sustainability goals, the process, or both. This can subvert the design process, and correcting its course can be difficult. It is important for team members and other participants to explain their thinking when they’re advocating design solutions and reference how they support or reinforce project goals. Trust is implicit in an integrative design process. Teams that have worked together and trust one another have greater success.
10 key tips and strategies
- Collaborate early and often.
Make your meetings meaningful. Collaborate outside of meetings and charrettes. This is about the process and a way of working. You can’t have just one design charrette. Rather, have as many as you can manage. Remember that collaboration starts before your first meeting and doesn’t end with the end of design.
- Include the right people.
Nature both demands and rewards diversity. There is strength and resiliency in diversity. In addition to regular team disciplines, consider including user groups, code officials, contractors, estimators, community members, etc. who will bring a wider range of insights to the project.
- Unlock the experience, knowledge, and creativity of the group.
Be creative and willing to explore ideas. Ask how you might solve a problem or reach a goal before developing answers.
- Set goals – and work to achieve them.
Be aspirational but remember that dreams beget responsibility. Test, improve, and repeat. The process includes the idea of continuous improvement – like LEAN.
- Accept ambiguity.
As you test multiple ideas and solutions in the early phases of a project, things may feel a little unresolved. That’s normal. Enjoy the exploration.
- Trust your team.
Rely on joint decision-making and problem-solving, rather than integrating individual assignments into the whole. Think about what you are doing and why.
- Participate and be responsive.
Effective communication and interaction needs to occur throughout the entire project, including when meeting face to face isn’t possible.
- Be open.
Be open to ideas, expect challenges and disagreements, respect differing views, and work to build consensus as you find the best solutions.
- Use tools/technology to your advantage.
It can be difficult to schedule large in-person meetings. Meet virtually as often as needed in addition to any face-to-face meetings you have. Use the appropriate modeling, visualization, Life Cycle Cost Analysis (LCCA), and project management tools to help you perform your work effectively.
- The tools are important, but the value is in the people.
Everyone is accountable and everyone can shine.