Ryan Smith on moving from Service to Product Theory


By Ryan E. Smith, Director ITAC School of Architecture, University of Utah

Personal Motivations

I don’t remember exactly when I decided to write Prefab Architecture[1]. There were altruistic motivations such as an obsession with the subject matter for nearly a decade and the love of research (not to mention a looming tenure case in which I had to show my validity to a group of otherwise unforgiving faculty). What I do clearly remember is that I was having thoughts concerning mass customization, taking advantage of productivity of mass production and the seeming flexibility of customization desirable by architecture’s thirst for uniqueness, when it made me question, “how might a full time educator and researcher in an architectural school be able to take advantage of the financial incentives implicit in mass production?”. How might one provide a service once and benefit many times over? How can one make money while sleeping? I must admit that this is a very unorthodox way of thinking in architecture, and for professor at that.

I compare the motivations of writing a book to the ethics I was raised on in architecture school. Every single one of my classmates and I thought we were going to be the next Howard Roark, featured on the cover magazines, wearing black, having just landed an incredible museum commission. Most of my classmates are working for decent offices or have hung their own shingle offering architectural services to clients day in and day out. The long hours and underpay becomes unglamorous very quickly. And yet, there is still something in me that loves this work, this readership is committed, and architecture schools continue to be overrun, so I am clearly not alone here. Perhaps the perpetual problem with architecture not living up to its hopes and aspirations of creating unique buildings and making a business of it is that we see the profession primarily as a service and not a product enterprise. Let me explain.

Peculiarities of Construction

Design and construction can be viewed as a series of activities, where some add value and others do not. There are numerous time-consuming, non-value-adding actives in the design process, such as correction of errors and rework, the physical handling and organization of documents, and transportation, inspection, and movement during the construction process.[2] Construction is essentially the design and assembly of objects fixed-in-place. Therefore, buildings are site-produced goods, unique every time, and employ temporary teams – this triad might be called the peculiarities of construction, distinguishing it from other production industries.

To make this process more efficient we can remove the site, not make the building unique, and keep teams in tact from project to project. Removing the site altogether is clearly not possible – every project has unique site conditions, from natural forces of climate, soil and topography to man made forces of zoning ordinances and CCR’s. Keeping teams in tact is an idea that has brought success to design-build entities and architects who continually engage with the same engineers, contractors and subcontractors. But these are discussions for another time. This discussion focuses on the uniqueness of the building design and production as a variable that may in fact be controlled, adding value and removing waste in the process.

In order to take advantage of the opportunities associated with production technologies architecture and building needs to:

1) claim from construction what actually belongs to product manufacturing utilizing the latest in digital design and fabrication thus minimizing the peculiarities of construction thereby (the crux of my book) and

2) the remainder that is not able to meet the first claim, place within an integrated framework (a social unity) of management and apply product theory, to the process of design and construction.[3]

Service and Product Industries

This suggestion can be better explained through business theory, which is broken into two types of operations: services and products. Service industries have a high degree of client interaction relying heavily on customer input at various intervals. As interactions and inputs increase, inefficiencies in outputs do as well. Product industries on the other hand have less direct customer interaction and are more focused on leaning time invested for output generated. Construction is both a service and product industry involving service processes and non-service activities. Architects rely on a service model of delivery, measuring their value in meeting client needs and generating design ideas, while constructors typically value moving the service process toward non-service oriented practices of production, realizing true productivity in the process – increased output per unit of input.[4]

Using the words customer or consumer in place of client or owner may appear to architects as blasphemous, degrading architecture to the art of production. I must admit that it is uncomfortable as I write this now, however the loss of perceived control over uniqueness and individual outputs of building in order to reach a wider market, increase market share, and make money while you sleep, may be the price that architects must be willing to pay to avoid irrelevance. In this vein, architects may have to be “willing to automate not just the means of manufacturing but design itself”.[5]

Returning to lessons of ECON 101 taken my freshman year of college I propose the two models of product theory: supply and demand. Supply driven products link a capability with an application or the ability to do something with a problem that can be solved with that ability. Supply driven products risk the potential that the problem does not really exist. Service industries such as architecture are supply driven, as are research organizations such as the center I direct. On the other hand, demand driven products connect a market problem with a solution. The risk is on the product provider to actually find the solution to the problem, that the market will continue to “push”, and that the business can accurately assess this demand. Therefore, product theory concerns itself with risk assessment and mitigation. Supply risk is managed with inventory control and careful management of process and players. Demand risk is managed by good market analysis and awareness of the greater economic environment. In the end, the point is that architects know very little concerning the attributes of supply and demand products. [6]

Lessons from Product Design

So what are architects working today missing by way of moving from a service-oriented enterprise to a product, customer centric design practice? Beyond the recognition that architecture is service oriented and must acknowledge and mitigate risk by embracing product theory principles and infusing process control, the following are addition lessons to be learned from product design and development practice.

1. Input Control: Architecture is service oriented, depending on client input at various stages, reducing the efficiency of the design process. Automating the input process through digital means of data capture, social networking tools, and survey interfaces that link into spatial organization bridging program information with design output can expedite the decision making process. (See Onuma and Manufacturing Emergence)

2. Scope Control: Value stream mapping of the current stream of the “product”, or the building, waste can be identified, plans for removing the waste and the process is further optimized for the future. This is iterative, requiring teams to constantly be working to refine and optimize the design of the project delivery, rather than reworking at a later date.[7] [8]

3. Cost Control: Target Value Design is a lean construction tactic that brings building designers together with building producers to determine early on to design to a detailed estimate. All decisions regarding scope, schedule and quality are designed based on a detailed target cost rather than estimating based on a detailed design.[9]

4. Schedule Control: Lean production uses Just-In-Time scheduling that organizes each portion of the process so that it arrives just as it is needed to complete the final product. In architecture, set-based design may be employed that enables a range of discipline specialists, including constructors, to develop a set of possible solutions to product design and production design problems and then to decide at the last responsible moment. Deciding at the last responsible moment allows the project team time to develop a number of design options in parallel and then choose between them with agreement among stakeholders. All of which reduces the need for later rework.[10]

5. Operational Control: Construction’s project delivery systems consists of three domains of the project organization – how the parties participating in the contract are organized; the project operating system – how the project is managed on an overall and day-to-day basis; and the project commercial terms – the contractual responsibilities and associated compensation.[11] IPD was developed as a method to allow the construction industry to overcome current operating system roadblocks through improving project organization and commercial terms.

6. Marketing Control: I have often wondered if architects are marketing to each other, to clients or to future customers. The point is that architects need a very specific marketing strategy beyond “graphic communication”. Marketing is the process of creating, satisfying and retaining customers. In this strategy it is all about the market: segregating, targeting and positioning business practice to focus a service and product of architectural practice on price, placement, and promotion.[12]

7. Intellectual Control: IP has historically been difficult to manage in the architectural profession. Borrowing ideas is part of the market. This is suggesting a much more rigorous development of ideas that can become processes for design and construction. As architects move from service to product theory and practice, they will need to become astute at the patenting process in order to protect their long-term interest in materialized ideas. This is unfamiliar territory for most building designers.

About the Author

Ryan E. Smith is Director of an interdisciplinary research group dedicated to lean and sustainable design and construction inquiry called the Integrated Technology in Architecture Center (ITAC). He is a researcher, educator, author and speaker on the integration paradigm and building technology.  He is author of Prefab Architecture: a guide to modular design and construction published by Wiley in 2010, serves as the educational liaison on the AIA Center for Integrated Practice Leadership Group, and is a member of the Lean Construction Institute. He is currently President of the Building Technology Educators’ Society (BTES), an academic group of building technology and building science educators.

[1] Smith, R.E. Prefab Architecture: a guide to modular design and construction. (Hoboken: John Wiley and Sons, Inc. 2010)

[2] Eastman, C., Teicholz, P., Sacks, R., and Liston, K. BIM Handbook: A Guide to Building Information Modeling for Owners, Manager, Designers, Engineers, and Contractors. (Hoboken: John Wiley and Sons, Inc.) : 8-10.

[3] Ballard, G. & Howell, G. What Kind of Production is Construction? Proceedings IGLC – 8, 1998.

[4] Sampson, S.E. The Unified Service Theory: a paradigm for service science. P.P. Maglio et al. (eds.), Handbook of Service Science, Service Science: Research and Innovations in the Service Economy. (Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2010) : 107 – 131.

[5] Bernstein, P.G. Marketing and Positioning Design. Deamer & Bernstein (eds.), Building (in) the Future: recasting labor in architecture. (Princeton Architectural Press, 2010) : 190.

[6] Belz, A. Product Development. (McGraw-Hill, 2011) : 7–16.

[7] Salem, O. & Zimmer, E. (2005) Application of Lean Manufacturing Principles to Construction. Lean Construction Journal. Volume 2 #2 ISSN: 1555-1369

[8] Yu, H., Tweed, T., Al-Hussein, M., & Nasseri, R. (2009)  “Development of Lean Model for House Construction Using Value Stream Mapping.”  Journal of Construction Engineering and Management. American Society of Civil Engineers. Volume 135 No. 8, August 2009 : 782 – 790.

[9] Ballard, Glenn (2009). “TVD Update”, a presentation at the June, 2009 Lean Design Forum, St. Louis, MO. Available at www.leanconstructionorg/files

[10] Sobek, D.K, Ward, A.C. & Liker, J.K. (1999) “Toyota’s Principles of Set-Based

Concurrent Engineering.” Sloan Management Review, 40 (2) 67-83.

[11] Thomsen, C., Darrington, J., Dunne, D., & Lichtig, W. (2010a). Managing Integrated Project Delivery : 48 – 58. Accessed December 2010.

[12] Belz, A. Product Development. (McGraw-Hill, 2011) : 44-54.

Posted: March 29th, 2011 | Filed under: All Posts, Guest Posts | Comments Off on Ryan Smith on moving from Service to Product Theory

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