Episode 069

Redesigning the Practice of Architecture to Reach the 95% with Thomas Fisher

Enoch SearsAug 8, 2014

In today's episode we're back with Thomas R. Fisher as he encourages architects to expand their horizons, think outside the box, and figure out ways to bring the power of design to the 95%. He also shares with us the University of Minnesota College of Design's pioneering works that aims to redefine and redesign the practice of architecture.

Thomas R. Fisher is a Professor of Architecture and the Dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota.

Show Notes

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Interview Transcript and Members Only Resources:

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Enoch: Today’s guest is Thomas R. Fisher. Thomas Fisher is a Professor of Architecture and the Dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota. He leads the revolutionary design program there and he also writes extensively on architecture and design. He’s a frequent contributor to Architect Magazine.

Tom Fisher, welcome back to the Business of Architecture.

Tom: Happy to be here.

Enoch: Great. Well, you know, when we were talking before on last week’s show, you talked a little bit about the disruption that you’re seeing. I think that’s such a great word for what’s happening both in architecture and in academia. Could you tell me a little bit about what you’re seeing?

Tom: Well, The digital revolution and the fact that we’re moving in to a new industrial revolution is really having a disruptive effect in virtually every industry. We’ve seen what it’s done to the music business and to journalism. I think we’re going to see similar kinds of disruption across every industry including the construction industry and including higher education. In fact, there’s evidence of how that’s already starting to happen.

Maybe just a step back: The economist Jeremy Rifkin has been writing about the rise of a third industrial revolution in which we are moving out of a mass production, mass consumption economy of the 20th century in to what he calls a mass customization economy of the 21st century. What that’s doing is, sort of, forcing systems, be it the construction industry as a system or higher Ed as a system, to be much more responsive to individual needs.

For example, in higher Ed, we basically have had a mass production mentality toward education. You come in as a freshman, you leave as a senior. You go through a standard curriculum, and it’s a little bit like a an assembly line which is the characteristic metaphor of the second industrial revolution that Henry Ford started about a hundred years ago.

Now, students are coming in and saying, “No, I don’t want to just go through a standardized curriculum. I want to be able to combine architecture, and sustainability, and maybe some business courses, and maybe a little bit of sociology. I want to be able to, sort of, customize my education.” This runs up against accreditation processes which tend to standardize education, which is, in fact, misaligned with the needs.

Increasingly, students want to customize what they’re learning often because they have very specific goals in mind that they want to achieve. So, higher Ed needs to think about how one does that, and schools are starting to figure out ways to allow this kind of mass customization. At the University of Minnesota, for example, we’ve taken our spring semester courses, divided this semester in half, so there’s a whole series of short courses.

So, let’s say, a student wants to study architecture but have a strong business focus. You can take a whole series of short business courses that would give you a much stronger basis to do work in that area when you graduate. We’re finding students really taking advantage of this ability to, in some ways, customize their education.

Now, architects, should be really good at this, right? Because we’re always doing custom solutions to individual clients’ needs. So, in one level, our industry and particularly the architecture profession is very well-equipped to thrive in a mass customized economy such as the one we’re in.

However, the downside to the profession’s business model is that we have problems with the “mass” part. So, we’re good on the customization part, we’re not so good on the mass customization part unlike other design fields like product design, for example, industrial design, they’re really good at the mass part and they’re figuring out how to mass customize products.

We’re beginning to explore new business models here at Minnesota. For example, the architecture profession has, what I’ve called a “medical model” of practice which is that we serve the individual needs of fee paying clients in the same way that a doctor does an individual analysis of a patient’s illness, and the patient pays for that service through insurance and all of that system that exist there. That’s fine for those who can pay our fees.

I think the dilemma that the architecture profession faces is that we serve, maybe, 2%-3% of the world’s population. So, I look at the other 95% of the world’s population as an enormously promising, untapped market for us. In other words, instead of saying, “Oh, well, there’s no way we can serve most people on the planet,” we should be saying, “How can we serve everybody on the planet?”

I’ve been interested in what medicine did. Medicine gave birth to public health to deal with the health needs of everyone on the planet. Public health didn’t replace medicine. We still have doctors doing customized solution to patients, but public health has brought medical knowledge to everybody.

I think we’re at the verge of giving birth to a public health version of architecture and design where in addition to doing the customized work for our fee paying clients we’ll be doing mass customized projects for potentially millions and millions of people.

So, there’s an enormous market there because our human population is growing rapidly. People are urbanizing at an unprecedented rate. For the first time in human history, more than 50% of the human population lives in cities, and, in a few decades, it’s expected to go up to as high as 75%. So, there’s a lot of need for building, but it’s not going to be by people paying the traditional architectural fee.

The question is then: How do I organize a business in a way that allows my firm or me to respond to that need? We’ve been, sort of, working on what a public health version of the field would be, and how firms would get paid, who the clients would be. I mentioned that because I believe it’s an entree in to a mass customization way of thinking about architecture: Develop prototypical solutions that can be adapted by local communities in very different clients and very different cultures to meet their needs. It’s customizable by local communities, but it’s available to the masses.

Enoch: And Tom, you said that you are working on this, that this is something that’s happening at the University of Minnesota – research in to this?

Tom: Yeah. We have funding from the university. We established, well, what we’ve been calling “Public Interest Design Program” largely in our school of Architecture here. We’ve been looking at how can we marry all of the work that we’re doing here, like a lot of schools in digital fabrication, to the needs of the human population around the globe.

So, how can we develop prototypical digital files that somebody could download on their cell phone in the middle of Africa, adapt, fabricate, and build for themselves based on the work that we’re doing here? That, I think, is part of this third industrial revolution.

The ability of consumers to also be producers is enormous. The information that the internet provides and that cell phone technology provides – even in the most remote parts of this planet you’ll find people with cell phones and a cell phone connection. We now have the ability to distribute ideas, designs, to people all over the planet. That’s what we’ve begun to think about here. There’s obviously a long way to go and we’d love others working on this as well, but we believe this is part of the future of the profession.

Enoch: So, Tom, you’ve alluded to some of the details you’re discovering about how this public architecture system would work that serve the 95%. Could you give us more specific examples of what you’re discovering about this process, for instance, who pays for this and a little bit more about how this would work just conceptually?

Tom: Well, we did this project for the American Refugee Committee, which is an organization actually headquartered here in Minneapolis that does in refugee camps around the world. When we first started working with them, we thought that the biggest need was housing and shelter. It turns out they’re pretty good in providing shelter.

What are really lacking in a lot of these informal settlements are power, clean water, and sanitation. In other words, the infrastructure is what’s needed. But, these are settlements that governments either don’t have the money to build infrastructure or don’t want to because they don’t want people to be there permanently, so we began to look at portable infrastructure, basically, infrastructure the size of a small building.

So, we did this design called a “Clean Hub.” A faculty member here and architect in town named John Dwyer led the effort. It was basically put inside a shipping container, the roof unfolded as solar panels to generate power. Then, people could come and plug in their cell phones to recharge their cell phones which is almost as important. Even more important than having an electric light was to have a charged cell phone.

It also gathered and filtered water, clean the water. There was a whole charcoal filtering system inside this container. There were also composting toilets that pulled out, sort of, rolled out of the shipping container that could be used by the local community for sanitation.

We finished the prototype right at the time when Katrina hit. The Department of Homeland Security heard about our prototype, and the day after the students completed it, they put it on a flatbed truck and took it down to New Orleans. It was the first piece of working infrastructure in one of the wards most heavily hit by Katrina.

We’ve since then worked other countries…

Enoch: I’m sorry to interrupt, but how did that go?

Tom: It went fine. It’s still down there.

Enoch: Wow.

Tom: It’s still operating, and it’s now used, I think, for a park, now that New Orleans has its infrastructure back up. It’s still functioning, generating power, and providing toilets, and things like that.

We’ve since had conversations with other countries. Indonesia has been interested in this as a kind of a network system. We also discovered that there are cultural differences so that in some cultures women for example won’t use public facilities so we have to adjust this design for different climates in different cultures.

It’s an example of where this is a group of architects and architecture students who basically designed something at the scale of a small building that actually becomes portable infrastructure widely needed across the globe. There’s an example of how one can, sort of, mass customize a design. The clients are World Health Organization, Homeland Security, NGOs like the American Refugee Committee or the American Red Cross. So, you’re clients are different.

It could be, also, in the case of these infrastructure pieces, the U.S. military where they are often going in to disaster situations. We’ve also done schemes where we provide pharmacies because one of the problems we discovered in some of these disasters is that if you put the medicines in tents, they get stolen. So, we showed how you could, in a shipping container, develop a secure pharmacy so that the medicines don’t get stolen as well as providing facilities for the medical personnel who need to be in these communities but don’t really want to sleep in the mud in a tent. So, there’s a whole set of other designs that have come out of this work that the U.S. Military has been interested in.

It’s a different way of thinking about how to deploy our services. It’s strategic, it’s creative, and it’s not necessarily the way in which the military thinks about things. I mean, they sort of assume… Well, everything’s just, you know, you drop things from helicopters and everyone’s in a military tent. Well, that doesn’t always work or doesn’t really meet the needs of people.

Enoch: Well, Tom, for people, maybe students, who are potentially considering going to architecture school, I’d just like to give you the opportunity to talk a little bit about the University of Minnesota here and about what makes your program unique.

Tom: Well, Minnesota long had this strong humanitarian background. We have a lot of the major humanitarian organizations here like the American Refugee Committee. We’ve got a lot of that work going on globally. So, even though we’re in the middle of the North American continent we’re pretty globally engaged and doing a lot of work in Africa, and India, and down in places like Haiti.

We’ve had the first, full-time design studio in Haiti after the earthquake. We saw other schools of Architecture come down, spend a few days, and then leave, and do designs back at their home campuses that were completely inappropriate for the community. So, we felt the only way to really understand a community is actually set up a studio in the place, and have the students living there with others and got a sense of what is really doable.

While other schools were designing, you know, heavy timber buildings in a country where there is no timber, or expensive steel buildings when there is no steel, we were figuring out how to use concrete rubble of which there was- it was everywhere. How do you make buildings out of concrete rubble?

So, when you actually put students in a place, and they really listen to people, and they see what the materials are, that’s when you come up with the really creative solutions. That’s really been a lot of our Public Interest Design work that’s been led by two of my colleagues Jim Lutz and Virajita Singh.

One aspect of Minnesota is the sense of global responsibility and participation. Another side to it has been this redesign of practice, which I’ve talked about in the previous session, where we had this research practice consortium underway – a partnership with firms.

We’re one of the few [Inaudible] universities in a big city, so we do our best to get our students exposure to and working in firms either as employees and/or as research assistants. We’re starting to have a real impact on changing the relationship between practice and the schools. So that’s another of a strong effort here.

We also have a few research efforts underway that I think will also be transformative to the architectural profession. For example, we’ve developed, with Microsoft and NSF funding, the largest virtual reality environment certainly in any university – maybe the only other big one is at Hollywood.

What we’re doing is we’re bringing in design teams with their clients and have their clients walk through facilities. You can have the client walk through your SketchUP model and make real-time changes.

A lot of the liability and litigation in architecture comes from clients expecting one thing and being disappointed or even angry that it wasn’t what they expected. So, what we’re finding is that when you can have your clients walk through the building, you know, walk down the hall, look out the window, make sure that the widths are fine, and that they can reach this cabinet or whatever it might be, and then you can make the changes real-time, you get a kind of buy in and understanding on the part of clients which is transformative.

So, we’ve been working with several architectural firms and healthcare clients. We did a big project where there was a hospital with a large emergency room suite that was being redesigned. We’ve brought the medical personnel in, and they put on the goggles, walked through the emergency room, and made changes real-time. In a matter of few hours, they basically went through a design session where they have walked through all of the issues that the people using this space had about it. So, it greatly accelerated that process.

We also had a contractor come in a building that had already started construction. They walked through with the goggles on and identified about a $1 million dollars worth of change orders that needed to happen.

Enoch: That’s great.

Tom: In a matter of about 15-20 minutes they saved what would have been about a $1 million dollars worth of change because there were some things that clearly weren’t working once they were able to walk through it. So, then, the return on investment is enormous.

We’re, right now, in the process of developing a portable model so that people don’t have to come to Minneapolis to do this. We will be able to make this available to firms, to communities around the country, and even to a job site.

One of the other areas of interest is for the contractors (who are, as we know, sometimes they have a hard time reading our drawings) to be able to walk them through the project. If they can actually go up to a detail, and actually look at how it went together three-dimensionally, and look at it from different directions… We also developed it so that you could be an avatar, so that you could be in a space with many other people. You can have conversations while you’re in the virtual space as well as the ability to move things around so that contractors can sort of practice doing tricky things before they actually have to do it live on the site.

These are all things that we’ve been doing research on that we think is just about to hit and will transform the way in which we communicate with clients, we engage clients, and we reduce the cost and errors of construction.

Enoch: Tom, two last questions. For people who may want to collaborate with you or with the University, please tell us how to get a hold of you and also for people who may be considering furthering their education at the University of Minnesota. Where should they go to get information?

Tom: Well, you can come on to our website. It’s College of Design – University of Minnesota and it’s http://www.design.umn.edu.

You can also send me an email and I can route you to the appropriate person. My email address is tfisher@umn.edu.

You can also go on our website and contact people directly. Renee Chen and Lee Anderson are two of my colleagues in the school of architecture who have been working on the virtual reality work, and they’d be happy to give you more information about that. Jim Lutz and Virajita Singh are doing the Public Interest Design work. All their emails are on our website, so people should feel free to contact them all directly.

Enoch: Well, thank you, Tom for being on the show, and thank you for being on the cutting edge of redefining and redesigning the practice of architecture. I know I look forward to hearing more about your research and your pioneering work in this area.

Tom: Well, thank you for the opportunity.

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Enoch Bartlett Sears is the founder of the Architect Business Institute, Business of Architecture and co-founder of the Architect Marketing Institute. He helps architects become category leaders in their market. Enoch hosts the #1 rated interview podcast for architects, the Business of Architecture Show where prominent guests like M. Arthur Gensler, Jr. and Thom Mayne share tips and strategies for success in architecture.


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