On the need to advance projects: Or how I learned to hate accounting and love manufacturing

Several years ago I peer reviewed a large project during the Schematic Design phase.  This entailed sitting down with a progress set of drawings to look at the overall scope of work, life safety basics, and to ask about the building systems we anticipated using.

 Many on the team were young and using Revit, a fairly new platform at the firm then.  Understanding the importance of early setup for modeling with BIM software, I asked the more seasoned project manager when an experienced project architect would join the team.  “Our current accounting “Plan” doesn’t support adding a PA until the Design Development phase.”  Seeing my expression he added that “The hours we have available don’t support a PA until then.”

 I responded that you don’t wait until Design Development to begin thinking through the issues of how a building is put together – there are too many model implications.  Put another way, the “foundations” for a good set of CD’s are established early in the design phases.

 The project manager listened thoughtfully and continued on his way.  Several weeks later the project architect joined the team and found the Revit model developed in such a way that they needed to scrap it completely and start over.

 The good news was that the accounting “Plan” then supported the PA’s involvement and it was acceptable at that stage to waste the time and fee.

 In addition to work experience, my thinking had been altered through reading the book - Made In America, Regaining the Productive Edge © 1989 by Michael Dertouzos, Richard K. Lester, Robert M. Solow, and the MIT Commission on Industrial Productivity.


 During the 1970’s and 1980’s the Japanese developed a reputation for building small cars that were reliable, fuel efficient – and fun to drive.  With the Oil Embargo in the 70’s, gasoline prices had reached all-time highs and customers were increasingly looking to purchase smaller vehicles.

 The “Big 3” American automakers - GM, Ford, and Chrysler made repeated efforts to stem the loss of market share and improve the quality of their work.  General Motors in particular boasted they would outflank the Japanese with new fuel efficient vehicles of their own.  This effort culminated with development of the X-Body series of cars – the Chevy Cavalier and Buick Skylark among others.  Released in 1980, the X-body cars were famously dismal with failures of both quality and reliability.

 So what were the Japanese doing differently?  Why couldn’t well-resourced manufacturers from the worlds’ largest economy produce equal or better products?  The answer it turns out was not a lack of technology, willpower, or the worker’s abilities.  One key factor was the Japanese had an entirely different approach to new car development.  Another was their unique relationship with parts suppliers.

 American manufacturer’s utilized a Serial Development process that included 3 teams – Design, Engineering, and Manufacturability.  Each team had a manager and the teams worked apart from one another.

 The Design team developed the automobile’s aesthetic concept and general specifications.  At a certain point the design was handed off to Engineering.  This group then worked out the specifics of how the automobile would be built, developing detailed requirements for all components and systems.  However, a significant amount of re-design was necessary as what was conceived couldn’t quite be realized as originally thought.  Once Engineering completed their work they in turn passed the engineered design to a Manufacturability team whose task was to figure out how to build the car.  They in turn found that many aspects of what Design and Engineering had approved could not be readily fabricated or assembled with the result that additional re-design and re-engineering was needed.

 The entire process was sequential and iterative and it took American manufacturer’s over 5 years to bring a new car to market.  This was in marked contrast to the Japanese who were able to develop a new model automobile in 19 fewer months – or just over 3 ½ years.  One benefit this afforded the Japanese was the ability to respond quickly to new design trends and changes in the marketplace. 

 Japanese development teams were organized under one “heavyweight” manager who presided over teams of Designers, Engineers, and Manufacturability specialists.  Rather than progressing work that might have to be “undone” later, they worked together from the onset to simultaneously design and engineer an automobile that could be built. 

 Another difference was that American manufacturer’s tended to have adversarial relationships with their suppliers (think consultants) and work was awarded based on the lowest cost.  The Japanese culture placed great value on working together and long standing relationships formed between different companies.  It was common for the larger corporations to work with their suppliers to improve the quality of their products.

 So what can architects learn from this?  One takeaway is to prioritize the progressing of a building’s design concurrently, simultaneously addressing issues of function, aesthetics, life safety, and constructability – and working to help ensure it is within budget.  Another is to work with consultants as partners by seeing they have sufficient fees and that needed information flows between all team members at the right time.

 Of course the Japanese methodology sounds a lot like IPD – Integrated Project Delivery or the Design-Build process.  The reality is that architectural firms are likely to encounter a variety of project delivery methods as well as deal with large and small projects.  It makes sense to not be dependent upon the project delivery method in order to do work well and understanding why those methods often yield good results, we can seek to weave that into all our current practices.

 Looking back at the project, the PM’s decision to allow the project development effort to be determined by financials hindered it by allowing unresolved issues to accumulate.  It also affected the jobs profit margin.  Accounting software can provide the ability to track a team’s efforts over time and measure against financial goals.  However, if the goal of the work is to complete projects in order to get paid, we are wise to do so with as little rework as possible.  It is then worthwhile to consider how we might progress the building’s design in a concurrent manner by simultaneously designing, engineering, and making it constructible.