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Building Back Better - What needs to happen

Updated: Nov 8, 2021

It's August 2020. Here we are in the midst of a pandemic. Its been here since March causing every human on the planet to live through a health emergency of immense proportions. One that's leaving us wondering what the future holds. After health the next concern will be personal finance in what remains a very uncertain world.

Who knows what state the construction industry is in but we all know it can't be good. Years of tendering near the bottom of what the market can tolerate has left its toll. Meanwhile the latest session of the Grenfell Inquiry is drawing to a sorry close. My heart goes out to all involved as I watched back the testimonies of incumbents tasked with making decisions in an industry whose culture and way of doing business has like a tsunami of lassitude consumed them.

From failure and uncertainty comes hope, that somehow as humans we can learn some lessons, pivot how we do things, acclimatise to the new reality. Voices of hope have been from our industry's matriarchs, Ann Bentley, Dame Judith Hackett, Helen Gordon, all advocating not just change that brings on more legislation and tighter controls, but change that leads to a fundamental shift in the culture of the industry and how we do business. The kind of shift that can cope with an uber connected world where change is the only certainty.

All of this must surely lead to re-evaluation of what the property industry is for. Why do we do what we do and who do we do it for? When Boris, or Dame Judith tell us we need to build back better, build back better for what and for who? If we stuck to business as usual, where would it take us? Would we still manage to provide a level of serviceability our clients and customers appreciate? Probably yes. Would we attract the brightest minds to come and work in our industry, learn to work within the limits of a resources of the planet, reduce our emissions in keeping with COP22 limits, keep up with the changes demanded by society and our customers, even prevent another Grenfell..? probably not. It's time for a rethink on property and construction. Time to rethink what it's for, where its value is, for who and how the creation of value can be reinvented such that it creates the commercial oxygen for the things it needs to do. The key ones being sustainability of the industry and the planet so what we do becomes more rewarding and compelling, ultimately more successful for everyone.

The time is now for everyone in the industry to step off the naval gazing merry-go-round of Latham, Egan, the Transforming Construction Agenda and others for a second. To take a long hard look at ourselves from outside. Here we are, producing a product for a customer who at the time of purchase has not the foggiest idea what he/she is buying, what it's going to do, how it's going to perform, how much it will finally cost to buy run, and what's worse we have no idea either. But hey, don't worry we are the experts we say, everything will be fine, we'll build it to the latest codes (exercising reasonable skill, care and due diligence). Only for post occupancy customer surveys to tell us on the less than 1 % we bother to conduct that 30% of our products are shown to be abject failures with the end user customer. Somehow, because we can fall back on the buildings being assets or commodities to be traded in bond markets, we manage to get away with all of this. But what other product based industry could do this and get away with it so flagrantly?

Do we need to build back better? Yes we most certainly do. Can we build back better? The jury is out? Is it possible to build back better? Yes it is, but it needs the kind of culture change that has until now eluded us. Partly because we are being yanked back on the chains of the bond markets who are happy with our malignant efforts, partly because government has not yet worked out what needs to be done, partly because our supposedly best practice professional institutions have not come together in unison to make culture change a condition of membership so the customer recognises competence at all levels of the industry. Mostly because we are all too busy just surviving.

So what should we do?

So what do we need to do to bring about the kind of culture change needed to build back better?

The first thing is to understand the enormous value we already bring to society but that we are still just scratching the surface of what that value could be if we learned to stretch it further. To work with our customers as users to build more value for them, the silent majority. To realise that buildings don't have to be just commodities, they can be so much more than this. Once we understand where our customer's as users value is, we can then learn to create it more efficiently and with less cost.

If we want to learn about the world of customers, and value creation, and marketing to them, of finding out what they like, how they could get more and pay less while leaving us with more, we need to look outside our own industry to those that are doing it already. The tech and retail industries seems like a good place to start. They are not the same as our industry in so far as they make in bulk then sell it. But there are nuggets within them like the tech giants, Facebook, Google, Google, Apple, Nike, Microsoft. Retailers Starbucks, McDonalds who we can learn from. These corporate don't just exist in their industry they have come to re-define it, and in the process redefine our world. But cast your mind back to when Facebook set out, they were valued at a lot on the stock exchange but they were not making a great deal of profit, they had to pivot what they did in a way that was acceptable to their customer base- advertisers. How did they do it? They, like all of the others listed, decided to work more closely with their customers - to get them to tell them what they wanted. Opening up a dialogue does two things, it builds relevance with the customer, and it builds early intelligence of the market direction. It's hugely sophisticated but its also hugely profitable. Insight to know how you can get the customer to put their hand in their pocket to affordablely buy is what they have developed into a fine art. They work to a simple formula. Find out what the customer wants at a price they would be willing to pay and build it, as opposed to build it first and work out a price and how to sell it later. It's that simple. Modify that in the case of Apple to find out what the customer will pay a premium for, while selling in billions of units, first, then once discovered build it and refine it through customer feedback over time. Underneath all of this runs a way of building and selling that panders not to the fixating on how to build the product faster but on how to augment the lifestyle and business choices of customers. You will all be watching the Apple adds now on UK TV. They show great inspirational people, creators of the UK, movers and shakers of this innovative country as they work in front of their Mac's. People with purpose and passion producing products that make you feel something and for that not only sell, but will sell in large quantum.

Playing Catchup

The question becomes, when will the property industry catch up. When do we start to deliver products that help our customers to want to be in spaces we build for them, to do their best work, to feel part of a community, to touch very essence of their sense of being, to be passionate about. Things other industries have shown us our customers might be prepared to pay more for, that we could begin to create a virtous circle of value and quality around. That would improve the productivity of the nation and drive us all forward faster and better. To build back better.

So what is it that Amazon, Apple and others do that we could be doing. Well in a sentence what they did 20 years ago was to ditch PMI, PRINCE2 linear milestone methods of product development and concentrate more on customer centric product development methods like Agile, Scrum and Last Planner System. We don't need offsite construction, more POE or BIM or huge advances in technological delivery which mean nothing to clients. Don't get me wrong, I do think these can be important new tools for us, but what we really need is to think about how we think about projects and improve our thinking of how we do our our thinking. So that we learn on the job, not after it. Include the best information into the product before we start building not after it. Give a client a clear understanding of what they are getting before we start building not after it. Tell our client what the cost of the product is at the signing of contract, then live with it to the end more often than not. Provide the customer with the keys to the product and be there with an after sales care package that also provides us with the data we need for future product and cost improvement. Give them a virtual copy of the product to aid their training and transition to the product before they take possession. Impossible, idealistic, stuff of dream world, I can hear the scepticism out there.

To those who think it impossible I would invite you to read Jeff Sutherland's book "Scrum: The art of doing twice the work in half the time". It was Jeff, when hired by Easel to came up with a different way of thinking, that led to a different way of doing, doing less, with greater value, and more effectiveness, through insights gained from customers at the time of concept thinking. It was this thinking that became the bedrock of all of the largest tech corporate in the world today.

All sounds great, but Easel made the digital tech hardware for Ford and Apple Macs, which might seem little to do with construction. It turns out the making was not what the problem was for better business. It was the defective early thinking about the doing that made for bad business outcomes. Early is the only place that value can be conceived unless you want to find out too late that you are building the wrong thing and it won't sell and more importantly won't do what it is was supposed to. You have missed the value for the customer.

The culture change Jeff brought to Easel is what we know today as Agile Methods or Scrum. Can Scrum be used in the design and construction of buildings? Yes it can. We have just undertaken three case studies of the proof of concept of Scrum in building design. It not only worked, it has the potential to completely disrupt our industry and how we do what we do for the better of our customers and our economies.

How do we do it?

So what happened when we tested Agile Scrum on our projects?

We will get to the detail of that later but the first piece of alternative better thinking was to suggest that workplace buildings can be so much more than four walls and a roof.

They could, no should, be places that positively and purposefully connect business culture to people and place. We believe buildings as workplace settings possess the immense and largely untapped potential to support our client's business behaviours in favour of vastly improved performance and productivity for them. Yet few of them do.

Leesman and other studies show failed buildings happen because of the poor early stage thinking in most client briefs where:

  • clients spend little time in the creation of them

  • write only from a headline strategic corporate or budgetary, rather than operational or in use perspectives

  • are largely unappreciated or alive to the needs of business and their users as value creators.

  • abdicate the responsibility for the generation of them to middle managers, who fail to include wider strategic planning or business purpose in them.

I am guessing all of this sounds familiar. From here, architects and designers are left to conjure a warped version for how the completed building will be used. Design assumptions are based on initial briefings which turn out to be wide of the mark and often counter-productive, where after they are shoe-horned into a budget determined by the client, who seems equally absent minded to the issue that in a PRINCE 2 scenario, cost, time and quality form three sides of a triangle that only allow you to pick two.

Only with the immersive top-down and bottom-up collaborative inputs of all users of the building can design brief development begin to capture how a new or upgraded building can be a true advocate for business effectiveness and efficiency that:

  • taps into the deepest recesses of users knowledge as customers

  • has users thoughts and experiences embedded within design team thinking

  • validates design in favour of a more successful business downstream

  • incorporates developments in BIM, 3D Printing, Augmented Reality (AR), Virtual Reality (VR) and the accompanying revolution in Mixed Reality (MR) technologies, all readily available now to modern-day construction customers.

  • captures value at an affordable price for the business.

Ollio won a competitive Innovate UK award of £60,000 to undertake a series of rapid project trials within three live case studies with three of our clients now embarking on new workplace/community building projects.

Our three chosen proof-of-concept case projects were:

  • Cemetery Road Baptist Church,- a 10-year masterplan for a community-led campus in Sheffield

  • Kollider Technology Incubation Hub – a new technology start-ups incubation hub at Castle House, Sheffield

  • Hippo Digital’s new offices – a remodelled office fit-out for a leading digital business in Leeds

Each of the three client teams and their user cohorts was taken through our new modified Scrum Agile in Buildings process. A process that invited them into the heart of the architectural team’s creative activity to help them identify where the value in their new building is and what successful operation post-handover would look like for them. The results were staggeringly successful in developing the brief to set up outstanding built outcomes.

By way of example, Cemetry Road Baptist Church user group members condensed a waffling aspirational brief down to the six core essentials needed to deliver a master-planned campus that worked for the whole of the stakeholder community. Where the initial client brief was open to multiple interpretations, the latter was a set of prescriptive objectives founded on a clear common understanding.

Kollider wanted a highly technical TV and Music recording venue. But funding was constrained. Floor area a premium. Prototyping in Virtual Reality allowed a group of perspective tenants a complete understanding of what was proposed before they fed back to us the most optimally viable floor space to deliver a state of the art experience to the tenant's A-list entertainment and media customers.

Hippodigital quite literally through user input turned their existing office layout back to front then tested it in VR headsets to see how it would work for them. it did… fantastically. Hippo like all three projects was staggering in its outcome. User Satisfaction with the office went from 60% as is the norm for traditional projects to over 90% for our Agile Methods enabled project. See our website for more details of all three projects.

In undertaking these projects our project team of

  • Ollio – Building Performance Consultancy

  • DLA Design – Lead Designers and Architects

  • Playwerks – VR and Gaming and Gamification Design Specialists

  • Copper Candle – VR specialists to theatre and visual arts clients

  • Hippo Digital – User design and Scrum Specialists

obliterated the usual silos of the construction industry, dumping its traditional industry project management protocols of PRINCE 2, concentrating not on risk or blame but on user outcomes and value creation capture in RIBA Stage 0 to 2 a VR fuelled common understanding of what exceptional looked like- for our clients, for everyone.

The success of the methods was plain to see the faces of users as they stepped into the virtual reality world of their prototypes. The wonder and awe became apparent as they explored their new workplace, made real in a safe virtual reality test sandbox were for some it was an emotional experience. We saw tears run down the cheeks of one participant as they appreciated the magnitude of what they had co-authored with their colleagues and our teams. This was user ownership and understanding like we had never seen before. This was design owned by those who would use the buildings as much as those who had the privilege to lead it.

We had no doubt, immersive in VR design prototyping coupled with Agile Methods design management was a game-changer in procurement brief development.

Our architects agreed. For them, the deeper inclusion of users in the early RIBA Stage 1 and 2 prototyping process led an instant validation to design decision making. Our designers felt “braver and more daring” in producing their concepts, knowing that there was no wrong solution, only ideas to be explored and boundaries to be broken within the safe boundaries of the VR testing sandbox.

Did it Work?

Did it work? Did our clients users as "arbitors of value" think the process helped them to get to a better building. Well, Agile in Buildings comes with its own built-in outcomes evaluation and lessons learned “retrospective” as a final action before signoff. This happened with Innovate UK as part of a final project validation meeting with lead IUK Monitoring Officer and Delivery and Insight Manager. Both independent auditors were glowing in their praise for the project and its achievements.

To evaluate its effectiveness with users, Ollio conducted a project follow up survey and interviews with those users who took part in the case studies. This was complemented with a user demonstration day of the final designed prototypes where we asked users for their views. The survey figures and our plaudits received from clients speak for themselves with over 90% expressing satisfaction with the VR enabled brief, 100% satisfaction with the process. The process built knowledge, confidence in the product, ownership, loyalty, even raw emotion for some. It was clear we had hit the Steve Jobs' Apple zeitguist of a product that made our customers feel something.

So Construction Innovation Hub, those in the Transforming Construction Agenda, those who think like some sections of the industry that culture change is needed, I would say take a long serious look at Agile Methods and Scrum as a means to effect the kind of change we want to see, so we can and do Build Back Brilliantly.

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