The Practice of the Future

Nine principles for moving from Founder to Foundation.

As the world continues to respond to the pandemic and its dislocations, it has become clear that the practice of architecture itself will remain as important and relevant as ever.

Talk to Nik Karalis about The Practice of the Future

A variety of new approaches and innovations in the design of the built environment — many of them already under way — will enable populations to adapt in practical and imaginative ways to the new realities of coronavirus and other future externalities of significance. In a larger sense, the broad shift to digital and remote interfaces brought on by the pandemic has — not surprisingly —  made people more appreciative of the value of personal, one-on-one interaction in actual physical space. We call this festivals of human experience.

At Woods Bagot, we practice a form of design that we call People Architecture. Fundamental to this discipline is a belief that the values of end users and the values of design are one and the same. The global Coronavirus pandemic has only magnified the importance of staying true to this philosophy. As much as the world around us may change, we know that the human condition and human sensibilities are forever engrained in our DNA.

So, while others eagerly profess their predictions for the future (which, if these last six months has taught anything, is a fool’s errand), we believe it is more instructive to articulate some of the underlying principles that will guide the coming evolution of architectural practice.

Presented in a spirit of provocation and extrapolation, below are nine principles intended not as the final word, but rather as a useful starting place for discussion and debate. We do not offer a precise shape of the practice of the future, but rather a sketch of some of the critical themes, trends, goals, and aspirations that must advance if it is to remain relevant and meaningful as it engages with communities, clients and citizens.

1. CROSS-DISCIPLINARY CREATION: The meshing of architecture with a growing range of other disciplines & expertise.

There has been an appreciation for some time that architecture can no longer practice in isolation, a recognition that has transformed most advanced design practices, which are collaborating more closely than ever with a growing variety of professional and creative partners.  Those partners have expanded over the past decades to include structural and mechanical engineering, city planning and historic preservation, landscaping and urban design, lighting and acoustics, and cultural and performance cultural partners, among many others.  In recent months, of course, Public Health has risen to central importance in our efforts to design the built environment for greater future eventualities.

Long at the forefront of this change, Woods Bagot is among a handful of studios that is now rethinking the shape of architectural practice in even more fundamental and innovative ways. The global studio continues to build on its broad expertise in the design of the physical environment with the formation of an independent experience consultancy, ERA-co. In line with Woods Bagot’s philosophy of People Architecture, ERA-co utilizes comprehensive analysis, planning, and advisory services of spatial and programmatic needs, innovation and workplace consulting, comprehensive branding and marketing initiatives, and urban policy and strategy to better inform decision-making in the human experience.

2. DATA-POWERED DESIGN: Embracing digital transformation to reshape, rethink and recreate the built environment.

Every major discipline in the 21st century has been utterly transformed by digital tools and the data that accompanies them. Central to this digital transformation is the collection, analysis and utilization of data to inform decision-making at all stages of an organization’s output. Architecture is no different. The practice of the future will inevitably be shaped ever more comprehensively by data-informed design, a trend underpinned by advanced digital resources for the analysis, interpretation and planning of interiors, buildings, communities, and cities. Indeed, the Coronavirus pandemic has made the importance of data collection and interpretation more personally tangible, as ordinary people must now make important decisions about their daily lives based on their understanding of the level of threat or safety in their community.

At Woods Bagot, this direction—which has been growing for more than a decade—is being advanced by the studio’s SUPERSPACE group, which offers an array of proprietary data tools that can be deployed for a remarkable range of uses and scales—from the optimization of unit sizes and layouts within a single residential building (for the purposes of marketing and financial return), to complex citywide analyses of land-use, zoning, and transportation to help drive the decisions of planning agencies, developers, and public-private partnerships on the location, disposition, and arrangement of new facilities and mixed-use complexes.

3. EMPATHETIC DESIGN: Moving from me to we.

As the two-decade vogue for “starchitecture” continues to wane, it is evident that the practice of the future will be oriented ever more firmly around the broad principle of empathetic design and away from the singular principle of artistic creation.

Where founder firms seek to impose a singular, distinctive, and extravagant “look” on the work that emerges from their studios, the approach of empathetic design that comes from foundation firms seek to evolve architectural solutions from the distinctive character and quality of the program, sponsors, location and (most importantly) users of each project.  Significantly, empathetic design celebrates the contribution each project makes to larger environment and culture in which its sits—urban or rural—and regards each design as an opportunity to celebrate, in its own distinctive way, the festival of human experience.

To deliver empathetic design, Woods Bagot encourages every member of its studio to become multi-lingual in the perspective of others: client, community, passenger, patient, parent, student, shopper, guest, employee, artist, designer.

4. LOCAL SPIRIT AT SCALE: Connecting global experience to local opportunity.

In a tightly interconnected global firm, best practices or innovative solutions developed in one region can be readily transferred and modified for use elsewhere—or, put a different way, any single project can build on the learnings of a world’s worth of related efforts.  In this way, a global practice inevitably promotes among its teams the most expansive possible mindset—one that readily grasps the cultural and technological interconnections that, in today’s world, regularly leap across oceans and national boundaries—especially among younger people. Sizable in-house teams with highly specialized expertise (such as aviation planning, laboratory design, or data interpretation) can be assembled in one studio and then mobilized to support others, bringing world-class capabilities to even the most unusual or demanding types of projects.

What has become increasingly clear in the past decade—and perhaps even more so in the past few months—is that this globalized approach must be finely balanced with a fiercely localized spirit, responding to the particular needs of each region and city: its climate, topography, culture, history, planning structures, construction techniques, social and behavioural traditions, and other distinctive patterns and qualities.

The institutional structure of Woods Bagot—a tightly interlinked assemblage of seventeen design studios, located in cities over five regions around the world—represents an effort to respond these two complementary forces, marrying the sweep and scale and flexibility of a major global practice to the fine-grained sensibility and skill-set of a boutique design studio.

5. NARRATIVE DESIGN: Knowing every meaningful idea comes with a story.

Architecture, like any creative endeavour, benefits from compelling narratives to engage its audience. From the details of design to the craft of materiality, everything communicates. Yet the hardest thing is to justify these decisions and write them down convincingly for others to understand their foundations. But when projects are described as a story that connects users, clients and design as equal actors along the journey, multiple partners can engage in true collaboration. Whatever their format, source of inspiration, or completed structure, these narratives have in common the effort to elevate projects from seeming merely a series of design decisions, to being a structure—or complex of structures—that tells a distinct and compelling story.

At Woods Bagot, these narratives are developed early in the project, and are typically presented to clients for review and approval in the planning and program phases.  They then guide the design process as it evolves through to completion and operation, where they may even prove to be of significant use by the client in marketing, sales, and promotional efforts.

6. PEN TO PAPER: Humanizing the conceptual process.

Nothing communicates like a hand-drawn sketch. As much as our daily lives become digitized, the analog world of pen & paper is becoming increasingly rare – and therefore more impactful.

The past three decades have seen a transformational shift in the impact of the computer on the practice of architecture.  From early computer-aided drafting, to full 3D modeling, to the inclusion of a dense array of parameters about components and systems through Building Information Modeling (BIM), the design of most large buildings has become largely a digital affair.  Newer technologies, including performative facades and parametric design, have carried digital influence even further, and made it ever more formative in the shaping of buildings and spaces.

Woods Bagot has always championed a creative balance between digital and analog practice, recognizing the unrivalled value of human creativity matched with the speed digital tools provide in the delivery of bringing a concept to conclusion. Across its five regions, Woods Bagot designers are encouraged to conceptualize their projects and to communicate with clients through the use of hand-drawn sketches as a means of creating a more personal connection to the plans and promoting a collaborative design approach.

7. ARCHITECTURE FOR ALL: Demanding more just, equitable & inclusive representation.

One of the most beneficial impacts of recent months has been a vocal resurgence of interest in social equity around the world.  Sparked by widespread and impassioned protests against systemic racism in the United States and elsewhere, this movement has rapidly expanded in multiple directions—not least in direction of the built environment, where so much of the social and economic inequity of contemporary society is embedded.

The pandemic and social equity demands of recent months call on the profession to re-evaluate its purpose, rediscover its best heritage, and contribute in a range of ways to enhance the ethics of design.

The response to this call for equity can—and should—take many forms.  Within the structure of architecture studios themselves, it should encourage—and, indeed, insist upon—appropriate representation of diversity at all levels, but most importantly management and leadership.  In the design of projects, it calls upon architects to actively seek out and listen to the concerns of minority voices that may be impacted by design decisions of the project. Whether working private development groups or government agencies, it calls on all parties involved to build in a manner that best promotes a more just and equal culture.  And at the largest scale, it calls on architects to help lead the effort to imagine and develop new economic, social, and urbanistic structures that encourage a more fair and inclusive society.

8. CALL TO CRISIS: Responding to the tidal wave of climate change.

The climate crisis is real. Recognizing the worldwide consensus on the outsized role that the building and construction industry plays in accelerating this existential reality, all forward-thinking design firms—not least Woods Bagot—must assign the highest priority to guiding their clients to lowering the carbon footprint of their projects.

This includes rigorous analysis and design approaches to minimize the adverse impact of construction materials and techniques, reduce energy consumption during a projects’ operational lifetime, incorporate environmentally sustainable features wherever possible, encourage the use of recycled and natural-growth components, and—at the largest scale—encourage higher-density, transit-friendly, and generally urbanized ways of life.

For the major coastal cities around the world, where so much new development remains concentrated, this effort must be supplemented with a realistic acknowledgment of the growing impact of rising seas from global warming already in progress. Flooding and other weather-related events, which will pose an ever-increasing challenge for low-lying areas for the foreseeable future, demand that the built environment be designed for resiliency.

9. BUILT TO REACT: Accepting that the future is increasingly fluid and unknown.

In a sense, designing to meet the issue of rising sea levels and other resiliency challenges is a particularized case—though obviously an especially critical one—of a wider and more sweeping goal: to “future-proof” designs to meet the demands of an environment, and culture, that is changing faster than ever.

Even before the Coronavirus pandemic upended the landscape of architecture and urban development, the pace of social and technological change had been increasing for many years: so much, in fact, that the patterns around which projects are designed—especially large-scale projects, with extended, multi-year planning and construction schedules—can alter dramatically between the time of conception and completion.  The stunningly swift rise of ride-hailing apps, for example, was transforming the demands of terminal layouts and car-rental halls even as major airport rebuilding projects were still in progress, while the sudden growth of coworking in the same short span has upended traditional office complex planning.

The design practice of the future will need to employ a variety of approaches to remain ahead of these changes.  It will include knowledgeable futurists and professional forecasters as an integral part of their planning teams to anticipate social and technological shifts as they are still in their early stages; it will use advanced data and design resources to model alternative uses and possibilities for all new projects and interiors; and it will employ strategies for “loose-fit” design, flexible wide-span structures and adaptable service cores, and modular and “pop-up”-type facilities. Working with their private clients and civic partners, The Practice Of The Future will encourage a long-term sensibility that sees any new project within the larger continuum social, technological, economic, and urban evolution.

Given the pace of recent change, the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic, and the dramatic increase in the sentiment for social equity and empathy, all design studios will need to explore radical adjustments to their traditional methodologies of delivery and modes of practice, carefully re-evaluating their purpose and relevancy.  Woods Bagot, with 150 years of experience behind it, will continue to look ahead to the years to come and pursue the principles outlined here, while never losing sight of our core belief in People Architecture. The global studio will seek to chart the future of practice in architecture and design with the understanding that the greatest human endeavor is our passion for celebration – those festivals of experience.

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