Technical excellence in architecture: A top-level commitment.
When I became CEO at Hillier, slightly more than two years ago, a Specifications Department led by Martin Bloomenthal was already in place, ensuring standardization in that area. But there was no formalized strategy, organization of policy, nor firm-wide oversight, to make sure that Hillier's standards were being met in Princeton and the seven new Regional Offices, across a broad geographic base. We needed to assure our clients that we could deliver Hillier core competencies, from a project's concept to completion, firm wide. The question became, "How do we export a uniform level of design and technical excellence beyond the Princeton/Philadelphia office culture to every office and studio that carries the Hillier name?"
Our objective and solution was to invest in a coordinated, comprehensive program for architectural technology, administered at the principal level -- in effect, an autonomous shared studio, led by a dedicated principal, capable of raising the bar for technical excellence. That principal is William Waffle, who joined Hillier in 1998 to create and direct a new Technical Resources Studio comprised of technical project reviewers, specifiers, field inspectors, and an architectural librarian. This comprehensive program of The Hillier Group has six key elements:
* The Technical Quality Assurance Committee, composed of a technical leader from each of the Leadership Groups (Princeton and Regional offices), plus the CAD director, head of the Master Detail Library (see below), the Director of Specifications and Bill Waffle. In a monthly teleconference, committee members discuss technical and process issues, set policy, and achieve consensus about procedures. The committee communicates new technical processes and standards to the firm's eight operating units, fostering unity and consistency.
* A plan to develop individual expertise in each of the "technical lead" members of the TQA Committee. Each operating unit's technical leader is encouraged to become the Firm's expert on a particular computer or building technology-related topic--sustainable design, the wireless workplace, curtain wall technology, for example.
* Regular Quality Control Meetings within each Regional Office. The technical leads in each office sit down often with their teams to review projects. Meetings are held "as needed" to promote efficient workflow. Scheduling is flexible, geared to the client's expectations, status of the job, etc. Since capabilities of different teams vary, Bill Waffle attends many meetings to bridge the gaps.
* The Master Detail Library. When complete, this overarching computerized data bank will include 700 to 1,000 details of building components like masonry cavity wall, precast concrete, doors and frames, partitions, drywall and more. The E-library will aid in the rapid, consistent design of project details, without the need to "reinvent the wheel". Though several firms have such libraries in progress, Hillier executes a consistent program by maintaining a salaried employee who devotes full time to this project (which will continue until every possible detail has been included). The library allows people with developing skills to organize a project in an experienced way, without the experience. Since there are too few architectural mentors in the profession these days, this library enables us to pass on technical information achieved through the efforts of a seasoned senior staff.
* Modular checklists. We have also stored on the computer a comprehensive group of modular checklists based on project types (office, K-12, etc.) that aid in tracking a project through each phase: schematics, design development, construction documents, or three of three. There are modules for site, food service, acoustical, and other elements. A project team can pull appropriate modules from the computer and check off the completion of each task at the end of the deliverable. Like the Master Detail Library, the checklist is a great educational tool for a young architect still learning about practice, because it shows what is involved in putting a building together. Also, with the new economy emphasis on speed, we are now able to meet and exceed our clients' expectations faster.
* Independent Quality Assurance Reviews of deliverable documents before or as they go to our clients. Such reviews used to be done only sporadically by the various studios, with no centralized monitoring. Now, experienced reviewers within the Technical Resources Studio look everything over and submit a written report to each project team. This process ensures consistency of details and system assemblies. The teams, in turn, respond in writing; and all is recorded in a log and, in the future, on extra-net sites. The review is the final step in the Technical Resources Program: It challenges the project team to be sure it is using the Master Detail Library and the Checklist, and if they are following the procedures established by the TQA Committee.
The Technical Resources Studio is also charged with professional education at Hillier. It has standardized the firm's project management process by updating the pre-computer manual, instituting a training program and a continuous cycle of learning. Since mid-1999, the course has been offered quarterly to Project Managers. The full program involves eight two-and-one-half-hour sessions taught by firm principals. The first phase will train 45 Project Managers; the course will be offered yearly thereafter.
Technical Resources also initiated a 12-person Professional Development Committee that organizes weekly programs on topics ranging from sexual harassment to building and information technology. This committee also oversees a Toastmaster's Group, as well as computer training for all employees.
Because of the nature of technology itself, the mission of the Technical Resources Studio is ever changing. The new E-economy may soon offer an entirely different information flow relative to the way we deliver technical details now. We have to be open to change and the opportunities that will result.
Having a comprehensive program for architectural technology at the principal level has proven itself rewarding for both Hillier and clients alike. The client benefits by having a building free of technical defects and delivered in the shortest possible time. Hillier's benefits include reduced project overhead due to rapid completion, as well as decreased litigation, easier recruitment, and longer staff and client retention of staff.
How have clients reacted to the program? That's hard to quantify, though Hillier is experiencing a near hundred-percent increase in marketing success from a year ago. We can demonstrate to potential clients our technical programs for quality assurance, technical programs for Architects, Interior Designers and Project Managers, and the continuing education programs we offer. These are reassuring initiatives, since clients don't take the assurance of technical excellence for granted. In January, we'll begin a measurement program to gauge the effectiveness of our efforts to produce defect-free projects. This is one of our primary Hillier value proposition elements. Some of the things we'll look at are the number of claims on a project, as well as change orders, time delays, and feedback from contractors, suppliers, and subs.
The commitment to technical excellence can be the platform for Architectural and Interior Design innovation and must be holistic -- embedded in the core values and strategy of the firm. In truth, it must be who we are and who we want to be, as professionals.
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|Author:||CHASE, DAVID ERIK|
|Publication:||Real Estate Weekly|
|Date:||Jan 10, 2001|
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