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Fail fast for success

Eliot Postma

Flexibility that permits change as a project progresses and creates a building capable of future adaptation is essential for architects, says Heatherwick's RIBAJ Rising Star Eliot Postma

Bund  Finance Centre tassel tests at Heatherwick Studio
Bund Finance Centre tassel tests at Heatherwick Studio

The saying ‘fail fast, fail forward’ and its many variations – ‘fail fast, fail often’, ‘fail fast, fail better’ or ‘fail faster’ - is often used among tech workers of Silicon Valley. It has become a mantra that drives the innovation and entrepreneurship for which the Californian region is so well known. Though the wording may differ, the message is the same; in order to reach the desired outcome, an idea goes through a series of failures during the testing process. The more times the idea is subjected to the testing process, the better the prospect of reaching something excellent. The more the process is accelerated, the faster this excellence can be achieved.

‘Failing fast’ can easily be applied in an industry where products can go from concept to delivery without ever needing to be manifested in the physical world. When a new application might go from idea to a working prototype in a matter of days, the process of designing a building can appear frustratingly slow. As architects we are bound by gravity and the physical materials required to design things for a 3D reality. Adapting the way we work to keep pace with these organisations at times can seem like an insurmountable challenge.

It isn’t just in Silicon Valley that digitisation is affecting the way people work, it is vastly changing other industries too. From education, where you can obtain a PhD from the comfort of your bedroom, to hospitality, where the explosion of restaurant applications means that you can choose what where and when you eat with a few taps and swipes, to retail where shops are having to adapt to, or compete with, the online marketplace. These industries make up some of the most common architectural typologies, so we’ll see an increasing number of our clients with rapidly changing requirements too. This might mean that what a client requires at the outset of a project could be completely different by completion.

1000 Trees massing models at Heatherwick Studio.
1000 Trees massing models at Heatherwick Studio.

So how do we remain adaptable enough to keep pace with this world?

One way is to design the spaces themselves to be flexible. This will be a familiar notion to many, stemming from Frank Duffy bringing home Nordic ideas of flexible office landscaping in 1960s. This approach has been used for industrial buildings, and has spread into office space design, but the industry needs to be prepared to apply this without losing a sense of materiality and detail that keep spaces feeling ‘human’. An interesting example, although non-intentional, was Building 20 at MIT. Built in 1940s, it was never considered adequate as it started life as a temporary war structure. However, this meant its occupants felt free to adapt it according to their needs. It became a hotbed of experimental thought, much of which had longstanding influence. This is in itself testament to the virtues of flexible environments.

Another solution could be to bring some of that Silicon Valley mantra into our own work. At Heatherwick Studio making is an integral part of our design process. In a similar way to ‘failing fast’, our teams spend time in our workshop iterating, scaling down large ideas so that they can be tested at a manageable scale. In this way, our research and development process resembles product design: ideas are quickly manifested physically, aided by digital manufacturing technologies such as 3D printing or making by hand, using materials like clay. Using this method we start with a large number of ideas, some of which fail, but which serve as important lessons. Having this ideas archive helps us to remain agile, able to re-visit concepts that had been developed to a point, or ready to explore new ideas that emerge – often in reaction to a client slightly changing tack.

If agility is the key to allowing architecture to be adaptable, we as architects can't be precious about trying to design the perfectly finished building. In order to create sustainable work we need to accept that the future will offer an unforeseeable, ever-changing environment. Our challenges are to design our projects so that they can reinvent themselves as their users’ needs change, to be flexible enough to adapt our designs during the process as our clients’ needs transform, and to tease out the failures and successes during the early stages, like the ‘fail fast, fail forward’ mantra counsels. Perhaps then, with this agility, we will keep abreast of the revolution unfolding around us.

Eliot Postma is a 2016 RIBA Journal Rising Star and group leader at Heatherwick Studio. The 2017 winners will be announced in November.


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