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Editor's Note: After a great conversation with Jason Dries-Daffner, Senior Director of Architecture at EDG, I asked him to sum up his best advice on how to communicate with clients. To learn more about EDG Interior Architecture and Design, check out their website and read my interview with Jason here.
Communication is the conduit by which we transfer design ideas to other people. Fundamentally, successful communication is about mutual understanding. Below are five common elements found in the design process, and some thoughts on how specific communication methods might increase mutual understanding among project stakeholders.
1. Clarify expectations early and often.
Don’t assume all project stakeholders have the same understanding, priorities and access to information. Ask to clarify and confirm at the beginning and throughout each phase of work. For example, one of our senior project managers, Jackson Butler, hands out a kickoff folder to his team at the beginning of each project. This folder includes the project management plan describing project goals, timelines, fees and deliverables. It also includes areas for individual team members to list what particularly high value work they can contribute and what they hope to gain from the project for their own professional development. Jackson’s most recent Marriott Hotel Great Room project just wrapped up Contract Documents a week early, with limited overtime (we are still are designers after all…) and with appropriate contingency fee to handle the inevitable construction phase changes. By clarifying stakeholder expectations early and often, Jackson now has a happy client, a great looking design and a proud team.
2. Work hard to understand the other people.
EDG’s president and CEO, Jennifer Johanson is a leader in the hospitality design world. Why? Because her communication of hotel and restaurant design is always focused on our clients and the end users. Whether in a team brainstorming session, a client presentation or a press interview, Jennifer consistently frames the discussion in terms of client operations and business goals as well as guest experience. Her communication is motivational and persuasive not because she is “selling” anything but because she works hard to understand the needs and values of others engaged in the conversation. Recent examples of the success of this approach are Elena and Pony Line an award winning bar and restaurant at the Four Seasons Hotel Buenos Aires.
3. Face to face, video conference, telephone, and email (in that order)
Communication can only be truly effective if there is a bond of mutual trust. Email can sometimes be a poor medium for communication. Tone is often misinterpreted and it does little to establish or maintain a personal bond between people. Early in a project, try to have face to face meetings, or at least a video conference. Being able to see other stakeholders’ expression and body language will help you better understand them. Once you have established mutual trust, email away, but don’t forget to regularly schedule video conferences or pick up the phone to make the human connection. We are working on several projects in Costa Rica and I had some on-site coordination meetings with client and local architect. Since I was able to meet these people in person, I feel not only a professional obligation to do my job, but also a strong personal commitment to Dennis, Francisco, Ronald and Andrea.
4. Are meetings worth it?
Face to face communication is invaluable (see above). Meetings can be a great way to collaborate, establish and review goals and progress, and create collegiality. However, they can also be a huge, expensive and pointless time sink. Plan your meetings for the right reasons, right length of time and right people. On the successful side, an EDG project manager will regularly meet together with the senior designer and job captain so that the three person leadership team can plan and review a project together. Those 15 - 20 minute informal sessions have huge returns on investment in directly advancing design and serving our clients. On the other hand, I have also been to large (10+ people) meetings where there is no clear goal or agenda and the facilitators are ill-prepared and clearly winging it. If you are going to invest in a meeting please consider: inviting only the critical stakeholders, establishing the goal of the meeting and sending out an agenda and documents to review in advance. This will help keep communication focused and yield a good return on time.
5. Never mind the fine print.
“…the contact says…”, “…it was in the specs…”, “…I sent you that email…”. Eliminate those phrases from your professional vocabulary. Being correct is irrelevant if you or others missed a goal. You will very quickly alienate colleagues and clients if you rely only on the fine print. Instead, be proactive IN ADDITION to having the fine print. For example, if the design or client operational standards require a tight and uniform grout line, yes of course document that in your drawings and specifications. Additionally, though, bring up the point during bidding and preconstruction meetings and walk the site with the GC and sub to see if the existing sub floor is appropriately level. Again, the goal is to establish mutual understanding. Burying important information does not help.
Keeping the goal of mutual understanding in mind, we will be prepared to communicate effectively. Pay attention to people who consistently get the most out of their teams and fellow stakeholders. These are the people who lead projects with beautiful design (including functional, innovative, delightful…architecture, products, systems, animations, ffe, graphics…). You will see that they clarify stakeholder expectations and put in effort to understand other people involved. They know how to harness communication opportunities and technology to build trust and rapport, how to leverage time spent in meetings and how to avoid something crucial getting lost in the fine print. If communication is the conduit by which we transfer design ideas, let’s do our best to keep it flowing.
Rincon Park - San Francisco, CA - Office of Cheryl Barton
Novedge: Tell us a bit about who you are and what you do
Jorge Abich: I am a Registered Landscape Architect, LEED Accredited Professional and Associate with the Office of Cheryl Barton (O|CB) in San Francisco, CA. I came to the profession through an appreciation for the environment and a deep-seated interest in the effect of physical environments on the human psyche. As a proponent of robust community participation and investment in public open space, I am also actively involved in promoting sound environmental practices that support a sustainable and inclusive economy. At O|CB, I manage a large portion of the construction documentation and construction administration process for our projects. I am constantly on the lookout for ways to implement technological advancements in our everyday procedures to optimize quality and efficiency in our work.
Novedge: Can you talk about your creative process? How do you approach each project?
Jorge Abich: As a landscape architect, my creative process is inherently responsive. My specialty is implementation and I consider my work similar to solving a puzzle: finding elegant and functional solutions for design problems. It’s not unlike how we work as a firm: O|CB’s process begins by defining a clear problem, responding to the client and stakeholder groups’ needs and helping to establish goals against which to measure design alternatives. We then delve into understanding the natural ecology and spirit of the site, taking into consideration scientific metrics and the site’s physical, cultural and historic characteristics to guide our design decisions. Throughout the process we provide a transparent and engaged workflow, allowing our clients to be active participants. This ensures that we achieve the best results when our designs become reality.
One of the things I appreciate about O|CB is our open dialogue in the early stages of design. At the inception of a project we typically perform a firm-wide design charrette. This process allows us to vet a spectrum of ideas efficiently, taking advantage of the experience of staff outside the project team. It also promotes an inclusive culture where our team’s thoughts and ideas are valued—something that I believe is critical for maintaining healthy relationships within the firm.
AT&T Park – Willie Mays Plaza - San Francisco, CA - Office of Cheryl Barton
Novedge: How do you collaborate with your team?
Jorge Abich: At O|CB we work in an open office plan. Our spatial and organizational layout allows us to collaborate freely at any time. Whether it be a scheduled review, impromptu design charrette or a simple discussion at someone’s workspace, our office culture allows us the ability to interact when we need to in order to work through design issues.
Novedge: What is a recent project that you worked on?
Jorge Abich: We recently completed an intensive master planning project for a major high tech company’s 1-million-sq-ft R&D center on a 42-acre site in an environmentally sensitive area adjacent to San Francisco Bay. Our master plan utilized various sustainable practices in a “systems thinking” approach to establish a robust green infrastructure that included a gradient of healthy and stimulating workplace environments, stormwater management zones, pedestrian networks and viable, ecologically appropriate wetland and upland habitats. We integrated aspects of the Sustainable Sites Initiative, Living Building Challenge and LEED Platinum requirements in our planning process to produce an ecologically advanced master plan for the client’s first ground-up campus design.
UCSF Sandler Neurosciences Building Courtyard + Pedestrian Ways - San Francisco, CA - Photo by Marion Brenner
California Shakespeare Theatre - Orinda, CA - Photo by Bruce Damonte
Another recent project is the De Anza College Media and Learning Center. In keeping with the College’s mission to foster socially responsible and environmentally aware leaders, the project’s goals stipulated a fully integrated building and landscape, outdoor teaching and assembly areas, and reinforced connections to the campus. Our final design provided a multi-layered landscape in which outdoor classrooms, study gardens and a student piazza along a green promenade augment the instructional capacity of the college, establish connectivity to the larger campus infrastructure and serve the diverse academic and user groups. The project received LEED Platinum certification from the Green Building Certification Institute, making it one of the nation’s only community colleges to achieve LEED Platinum certification.
De Anza College – Media and Learning Center - Cupertino, CA - Office of Cheryl Barton
Novedge: What software do you use?
Jorge Abich: To be candid, one of the difficulties I’ve encountered is the lack of information modeling software relative to landscape architecture. I have been an advocate for BIM software since Autodesk announced their first Revit release. I find that there is a high level of detail and accuracy in Revit in regard to buildings that does not translate when utilized for exterior environments. I’ve even tried the LANDCADD and Siteworks Revit add-ons from Eagle Point but found them to be lacking in respect to final construction documentation. I considered developing Revit’s features to produce documentation to meet our standards but the resources it takes to accomplish this makes the endeavor financially unfeasible. This has been a thorn in my side for years! In the absence of a comprehensive LIM platform we utilize AutoCAD for our drawing production. In addition to AutoCAD, we use Sketchup for modeling conceptual design studies, Rhino with V-Ray for advanced modeling with rendering capability and the Adobe Creative Suite for everything in between. I’m still (patiently) waiting for the day that a landscape information modeling platform is released that fully encompasses the scope of our work.
Council Circle at Mindego Hill - Russian Ridge Open Space Preserve, San Mateo County, CA - Photo by Marion Brenner
Novedge: What are some of the rewards and challenges of working as a Landscape Architect?
Jorge Abich: The reward part is simple! The greatest reward in my work is seeing a project come to fruition. Whether it is the creation of a small community park or the reestablishment of a natural habitat corridor, I find great satisfaction in realizing projects that enhance our environment and quality of life.
The greatest challenge is to establish relationships with clients who understand and appreciate the role of landscape architects as site planners. In my opinion, landscape architects are distinctly qualified to be site planners due to our cross disciplinary understanding of site systems. With the exception of Integrated Project Delivery (IPD) projects, a majority of clients select architects to be lead consultants and task them to develop the site plan. This is not to discredit architects as site planners, but to say that I find that landscape architects are underutilized in this respect.
Cavallo Point – The Retreat at Fort Baker - Sausalito, CA - Photo by Michael Venera
Novedge: One last fun question: as a Landscape Architect, what is your favorite city to visit?
Jorge Abich: This may be cheating, but it’s San Francisco! I know, I know, I live and work here but the first time I visited I was awestruck. There is a fantastic history here. It’s a major city with a bohemian twist. The cultures and subcultures are vibrant, varied, proud and accepting. There is always something going on and there is a place for almost anyone to enjoy themselves here. There is an appreciation for open space and a high level of community participation. The region is rich with amenities and San Francisco is the beneficiary of some of the best wineries, breweries and artisans around. Plus the music scene rocks!! There are days I wish I didn’t live here so I can relive that overwhelmingly joyous feeling of being a visitor.
Thanks for giving me the opportunity to let you into my and O|CB’s world. I’ll be on the lookout for the fabled LIM platform. Give Autodesk a nudge, would ya?
Curious to see more of Jorge's work? Head over to the Office of Cheryl Barton's website and Facebook page.
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Artlantis Give Me 5 Promotion
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How To Succeed in Architecture: Innovative Workplace Design
Our Google Hangout On Air Series: How to Succeed in Architecture has reached episode #10. We are celebrating big, with an all star line up. We invited Gregory R. Mottola and Rosa Sheng from Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, Doug Mehl from FENNIE+MEHL Architects and Olle Lundberg from Lundberg Design to talk about the way they designed the workspaces of some of the most innovative technologies companies, such as Square, Twitter and GitHub. Make sure to register to watch the live broadcast, to ask questions live to our panelists.
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