I believe one of the most overused and least understood words in architectural practice today is Quality. Firms speak of quality, we write about it in RFQ’s, but do we really understand what it is or what constitutes quality service from the perspective of our clients and how to provide it on a consistent basis?
WHAT IS QUALITY?
Quality has both objective and subjective aspects and it can mean different things to different people. Quality is generally perceived and measured by comparison to a like product, standard, or service. We evaluate the quality of on automobile based on its reliability but can also appraise it by the type of materials used along with their fit and finish. Yet another comparison can be of the vehicles performance and road handling characteristics.
Similarly, quality in architectural service is reflected through design by the use of proportion, form, spatial character, and the choice of materials. It is displayed in the technical appropriateness of building systems that meld to “meet and greet” versus “smash and clash”. It is found in the sufficiency of our documents and the clients experience with us along the way.
Clients can place value on differing aspects of our work. One may favor design while another prioritizes the speed of delivery. Some clients savor their participation in the design process itself; all seem to be interested in getting the lowest fee.
Steve Jobs leadership of Apple was interesting in that he built a company with a reputation and culture for providing superb products along with a remarkable customer experience – and they do not distinguish between the two. Not only is great care exercised in product development, design, manufacturing, and supply chain management - but they equally obsess over the packaging and presentation. Unboxing my first iPhone (and each one since) was a delightful event in itself. Removing the textured, white, substantial cardboard box top that was tight - but not too tight, revealed a new iPhone conspicuously positioned – and not hidden within.
Have you considered what your client’s experience is when working with you? When perusing your Schematic Design (or Design Development) documents, is the information that is most important to them readily found and easily understood? Is it attractively laid out and well organized? Does your firm effectively communicate ideas and intent, and document clearly the dialogue and decisions?
The organization and presentation of information is almost as important as the information itself.
One of Adolph Hitler’s attributes was a very strong sense of direction and purpose. While beneficial in leading his country to rebuild the German economy, when combined with his contempt for others, it unfortunately led to the destruction of many lives including those of his own country. Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 initially met with great success but after a time his forces became bogged down and for very good reasons his generals wanted to rest the men and resupply. Hitler would have none of it. He ordered them to pursue and conquer at all costs – and thru the sheer force of his will they accomplished far more than they thought they could. Amidst many contributing factors, including not knowing when to strategically pause and regroup, his armies ultimately came to defeat and ruin.
While certainly not advocating for the invasion of neighboring countries(!) - there is a place within our profession for those who are fierce in their determination and unwillingness to compromise that work must be done well.
A few observations:
- Individuals who will accept nothing less than a high standard of work tend to get it – and get it consistently
- Knowing what good work is provides a benchmark to be reached
- The practice of having projects peer reviewed inculcates a sense of accountability and the expectation of good work. Many architects are passionate about what they do and knowing it will be subject to another’s appraisal can be a great motivator.
MORE AND LESS THAN YOU SEE
Signage consulting has developed into Wayfinding, the art and science where professionals seek easily understood and intuitive ways to guide people through a facility or campus using graphic communication.
In our flattening world with international teams and projects, it is not uncommon for people from around the world to either contribute to or use your documents. Graphical information can transcend cultural and language differences to better communicate ideas, instructions, and intent.
Information today has also become cheap in the sense that one can copy and paste with little or no understanding of what the information actually means or how it fits. The inclusion of placeholder drawing details from standards libraries or from other projects can provide an appearance of document completion but too often results in an accumulation of unrelated and uncoordinated information. By contrast, the purposeful absence of, or incompleteness – also referred to as “holes” in drawings or models can be an invaluable indicator of issues needing to be thought through or a lack of specific information.
If you don’t know it, don’t model it or draw it.
Engendering quality into our processes and products of service requires understanding how to better work and communicate with clients, upstream customers (consultants), and downstream customers (contractors and code officials) by considering how they will utilize our work products – and some ongoing thought on how to improve their experience.
Some thoughts for making improvements:
- Understand that quality is dependent on each preceding action
- Prevent mistakes from happening versus detecting & correcting later
- Plan and design it into the ways that you work
- Recognize the inter-dependencies between tasks and choreograph them.
- Know what your consultants need – as well as when they need it, to do their work well.
- Produce work products that are visually uncluttered, intuitive to navigate, and attractive
In my experience, quality project delivery is difficult to precisely define and measure but I seem to know it when I see it. With pressure increasing to meet shrinking schedules and the firm’s financial goals, it is still worthwhile and a lot of fun to pursue excellence in every aspect of the work one does.
There are presentations available on this website which you can view or download, detailing specific documenting methodologies and project management approaches. Many of them are also discussed in depth in the chapter 10.6 Construction Drawings section of The Architect's Handbook of Professional Practice - 15th Edition – www.wiley.com.