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Only digital tools can fully support today’s complex decision making

Dale Sinclair

Intuition and experience in a lead designer are no longer enough to manage the multitude of factors now involved in design. Can digital tools help build your checklist into your models?

Someone once inquired what questions I asked when designing, and I couldn’t give an immediate compelling response. Several weeks later I realised that the design process does not rely on framing questions; as we sketch and design, we draw deep from knowledge embedded in our mind, shaping a design intuitively until it reaches a point of definition where it can be discussed with the client and design team.

This led me to explore the topic of intuitive decision making and how it could be transformed. I thought of a staircase and produced a mind map of the decisions required to design a stair, trying to remember the smallest of details encountered over the years in discussions with clients, design team colleagues, contractors, suppliers, specialist subcontractors and on site. The result was around 150 decisions. It could easily have been more if I’d pushed further into tolerances and workmanship. Crucially, I realised that there was no written guidance on what these decisions were, who should make them nor when they should be made.

In response, my team developed a ‘mini-model’ of a staircase, converting and capturing these decisions in 3D, allowing us to consider how to better manage decisions. For example, are the stairs made in steel or concrete? Are the perimeter walls drylined, in situ concrete or something else? Is the breeching valve for the dry riser enclosed in a riser or exposed in the stair? What are the accessibility requirements? We added lighting, smoke detectors, break glass points, sensors and other aspects. As we’ve continued to layer more detail to our stair mini-models and rolled this process into other parts of our buildings, they have become checklists for the topics that we need to consider on every project. This approach is not about standardisation, but about consistency of approach from one project to the next.

The simple truth we revealed is that intuitive design would not have revealed the volume of decisions required for every project. The process has allowed us to engage with clients and contractors in new ways, shifting to the Designing for Manufacture and Assembly (DfMA) aspects of balustrading for example. I have always been a fan of Atul Gwande’s The Checklist, which reveals the resistance that professionals have to checklists, believing that they undermine their heuristic knowledge. In his examples, around clinical outcomes, the advantages are stark, and I still smile when I see checklists pinned around hospitals from reception desks to theatres. Of course, in my mini-models, the checklists are embedded in the information contained in the model.

Intuitive design underpinned by knowledge and experience is all well and good, but what happens when that knowledge is out of date?

Through this exploration, I’ve realised the limitations of intuitive knowledge in a world of increasingly fast change. Intuitive design underpinned by knowledge and experience is all well and good, but what happens when that knowledge is out of date? For example, the net zero challenge is asking us all to consider a broad range of topics: from new materials, diverse and new energy sources and the carbon content of our designs. DfMA requires us to understand how to design buildings made in factories, assembled rather than constructed on site. Social value asks us to consider the diversity of the supply chain involved in a building, from designers to suppliers and makers, further underlining the new complexity of the design process.

Previously, the range of topics was narrow, and the depth of knowledge required for most projects did not have to be too deep. Now we’re faced with a significantly broader set of topics that require deeper knowledge to engage with the many experts enlisted in the client’s team. This leads to a key question: can the lead designer role continue to reside in one individual’s mind?

We must all contribute to digital checklists and/or mini models. We don’t all have time to rebuild our inbuilt databases. There are simply too many topics coming at us to do so.  And, importantly, the lead designer role requires knowledge of how these diverse topics interface and affect each other, based on project realities and experience, to improve decision-making earlier in the design process and achieve better outcomes efficiently.

Looking to the future, it is difficult to imagine that achieving ambitious net zero (or better) whole life carbon targets for new and retrofitted buildings, set by initiatives such as the RIBA’s 2030 Climate Challenge, will be possible unless we collectively rise to the challenge, pooling knowledge and experience and capturing it digitally. We must work together to decide how knowledge from numerous projects can be effectively shared and decision making transformed, from the issues encountered in the early briefing and design stages through to the in-use experiences of the client. Knowledge management was a nascent topic in the 1990s but it petered out with the advent of BIM. Now is the time to reinvigorate it.

Shifting away from intuitive workflow in favour of using digital tools to capture knowledge and facilitate better decision-making processes must be central to the design process now. The future of our profession and our planet depends on it.

Dale Sinclair is an architect and director of innovation at AECOM, and the author of the Lead Designer's Handbook: managing design and the design team in the digital age.


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