A recent report by the British Council for Offices (BCO), following a survey of over 2,000 of property industry clients concluded: “the property industry is lagging well behind other industries in the customer service revolution”. The report went on to say, “occupiers would like … a far more sophisticated approach…to see attention switch from a one-dimensional focus on [contractual] capital value and/or income appreciation to finding the ‘performance sweet spot’ – the point at which the owner, manager and occupier are aligned ...and where potentially greater value can be realised.
Another more recent study by property specialists Cushman and Wakefield went further to suggest that traditional development of commercial property needs to up its game with co-working disruptors like WeWork providing the incentive for change. The office of the future is not a Taylorist factory full of desks; it is a flexible space that drives interaction, innovation, productivity and social bonds. In a world of shortening leases, the intangible and non-contractual bonds of community, differentiated proposition, brand and excitement are what will keep tenants coming back to buildings. It seems consumers are beginning to call the shots and they want to be involved, appreciated, entertained. Long lease transactional approaches are dying fast. The question is, how can we guarantee that users will love our buildings and keep coming back? How can we design them in the knowledge that we know they will love them once they are built? How do developers meet the expectations of modern tenants with rapidly changing business models over the life of the property?
To introduce a more customer centric design approach to the design and procurement of property, Ollio has introduced a new user centric property procurement methodology which we call Agile in Buildings. The methodology is taken from the digital technology sector's already well understood Advanced Project Management (APM) agile methods. APM methods have been around for half a century in most product design sectors, just not in property. To test if our new methodology works in the design of property we undertook two case studies with real project clients and their users. Both were about to embark on a property procurement process. The new methodology gathers deep dive data on how all users across their respective organisations use their existing buildings, unearthing what works thematically and what does not work, who the user organisation personas are, where and what they want the new building to achieve for them as users. The Agile Methods replacement to standard RIBA 2013 Stage 0 to 2 and PRiNCE 2 linear project management processes meaningfully engages all stakeholders in the occupant organisation from top to bottom to provide their input.
The process depends on co-design teams of users and designers being able work together to arrive at the new buildings design then to generate Minimum Viable Prototype (MVP) of it. The MVPs usually take the form of immersive visualisations, allowing users to transport themselves into the new building, to imagine what it will be like, and to test in use product scenarios for what they have just co-designed. This is where testing using Augmented and Virtual Reality AR, VR technologies come in. The advent of these advanced participative technologies allows building designers to closely work with users in a rich visual environment to build working demonstrations of the co-designed internal environments, to test them, de-risk them, and even distribute them to all stakeholders and their organisations for feedback.
The outcome from both case studies was beyond the project team’s best expectations. Users excelled in the agile methods design environment, providing design teams with unparalleled insight and opportunity. They brought on the spot validation, reduced the risks of designing the wrong thing, defined the opportunity to design just what was needed, no more no less. They brought enthusiasm, new knowledge and new skill sets that were additional to those of the professional design team, and with this came new opportunities and innovation.
We found designers became braver, more creative, felt validated, more empathetic to client’s needs, closer to the problems they needed to solve. Together designers and users formed tight knit teams, filled with motivation towards quality, value and totally aligned around common objectives that were so much more clearly defined. Within the project the use of BIM, 3D design, Virtual Reality (VR) allowed our users to experience their designs, rapidly building prototypes of what they designed within a few days, literally allowing them to walk through them, test them, and validate them while technically still in RIBA Stage 0 and 1. The most surreal moments came when our users as clients kitted out with VR headsets went on snagging strolls around their new virtual workplaces, providing detailed feedback as they toured.
But what seems to have mattered more is that the process developed two communities of users who now know precisely what they need from their building once they move in. Who can't wait to get it, who feel already that it will be their building made their way? Who feel bonded, closer to the designer teams and each other, because they have learned who they are and what they do, how they do it and what the building they are about to procure needs to do to help them excel beyond handover.
When the Agile in Buildings project team met to discuss the outcome, all agreed that the implementation of the methodology had been a complete success. In review of what had happened, the following were deemed to be the key learning points:
Users arrived at a better and more definitive understanding of their requirements for the new building.
Users immersivity experienced what they wanted upfront, rather than on handover, providing them with more comfort and certainty of product quality even before the detailed design and construction had happened.
Quality of the output solution is bespoke to the need, better than a designer assumed solution.
The method facilitates reduced procurement risk, more certainty, no changes during construction.
Project cost certainty is established early and can be much lower than using traditional methods.
Market Value of the product raised; value engineering is informed by user data and is more effective in driving value per unit cost spend.
It is clear the methodology serves to create stronger and more meaningful partnerships between property professional or designers and users. There is greater bandwidth on information exchange between the design teams and users. Confidence and trust grow, which translates into greater agency and investment by users with the solution, which means they will be more secure in entering the final property transaction, and more forgiving of minimal defects post-handover.
For developers and clients this should translate to; -
Developers/owner occupiers getting closer to users. Partnerships between developers and clients/users become stronger and more durable in negotiation of terms.
The process shows clients that developers stand for something, not just words and marketing spin. Developers receive more detailed insights on sector customer business trends affecting take-up and market direction. Better insight into how best to get to greater occupancy density (lowest cost per occupant), where value is placed on floorspace and where trade-offs might exist to minimise the ratio of net to gross area.
Greater opportunity for lower cost solution. Users identify minimum requirements, and happily accept trade-offs.
Closer contacts with customers provides the data for place-based solutions to counter effects of a rapidly changing possible substituting customer market i.e. co working, more home working, business concerns that agile methods are creating reasons to not want to visit workplace.
Agile in Buildings engages customers in a distinctive and memorable way. Sets up repeat business virtuous circles.
Agile creates opportunity and validation for developers to introduce differential disruption in the market. The methodology de-risks the whole of design, construction and post-handover process. Prevents things from going wrong for tenants. Is a vaccine against the future failure of the property development process.
Leads to a more valued building product, longer more enduring leases, at a time when the trend in lease lengths is for them to get shorter.
The Audience of the Future Agile in building case study projects worked well. Users loved the process. Architects and designers loved it too. The experience for all involved was memorable, productive and beneficial. If the key objective was to arrive at a process that allowed designers to design a building to achieve 90% user satisfaction levels, we achieved the objective and more. Both sets of users cannot wait to get into the building that they helped to design and have already experienced in an immersive virtual reality environment.
In a post Grenfell era, we hope and believe Agile in Buildings can lead the industry to respond to this rapidly changing marketplace.