OneDesign: Blurring the lines between Architecture, Engineering and ContractingAECbytes Feature (June 29, 2015)

John Tobin
VP for Operations, EYP

“…but Sony couldn’t [do better]. It had pioneered portable music with the Walkman, it had a great record company, and it had a long history of making beautiful devices. It had all of the assets to compete with Job’s strategy of integration of hardware, software, devices, and content sales. Why did it fail [to produce the iPod]? Partly because it was a company that was organized into divisions … with their own bottom lines; the goal of achieving synergy in such companies by prodding the divisions to work together was usually elusive."
- Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs, p.407, 2011

Sony’s Segmentation Issue

The nature of many modern industries requires large teams of people, each with widely diverse skillsets, to collaborate and contribute to a common goal. The need to promote teamwork within these ever-specialized groups is critical if companies want to achieve creative synergies in their goods and services.

A notable failure to forge such a synergy was Sony’s inability in 2001 to integrate between its own internal divisions, which allowed Apple to create the next generation music player. At the time, however, Sony was the clear front-runner: they were the known leader in sophisticated consumer music devices (Walkman, Discman), they owned a large swath of media (Sony Music, Sony Pictures), and made a powerful line of computers aimed at the multimedia user. They, therefore, possessed full expertise in 1) devices, 2) content delivery and 3) computing that would have allowed them to create the next generation breakthrough: media integrated with devices.

So what caused Sony to miss the massive opportunity before them?  Internal segmentation. Because they were “organized into divisions,” one could say that Sony was a segmented organization at the time Apple created the iPod; the critical factor in their failure was a deep culture of separate identities resulting in a lack of shared purpose. In Sony’s separate divisions, the success of one group yielded few benefits for the totally separate priorities of the other division, and so a synergy of media content and devices served no single division’s sole purpose.

The consequences of similarly segmented endeavors are explored in this article, particularly parallels in the construction industry. First, we will look at segmentation, and its alternative, specialization; then we will examine how the construction industry has become progressively segmented over the past centuries, an aberration that has had real impact on the quality of the current delivery process. Finally, we will propose a recalibration, essentially a blurring of divisions between modern roles which, while subtle, could have an impact on building design delivery, and ultimately on potential design solutions.  

A Simple Aspiration

When an owner commissions a building, they usually have a simple straightforward aspiration – to translate their organization’s program or mission into a built environment; they would like the ensuing effort to be as seamless as possible.

Because the undertaking is too complex for any single knowledge base however, a diverse group of professionals—often with non-aligned agendas—is assembled, presenting a somewhat bewildering landscape for the owner to navigate. Ove Arup described the problem in this way:

"The problem is … a wealth of knowledge. … This produces specialists [and] experts, and the usual problems arise, how to create the organization, the composite mind so to speak. This is, I suppose, one of the central problems of our time.”
Ove Arup, Philosophy of Design, p.19, 2012

The “composite mind” was an issue Arup grappled with many times in his building career. He notes that while “a wealth of knowledge is inescapable on many modern problems, the auspices under which this expertise assembles is critical to their success and ability to achieve the synergy that many owners desire, and increasingly expect.

Figure 1. A “composite mind” is necessary when a wealth of knowledge needs to be assembled for a single goal. (Image: © Matthieu Riegler, CC-BY, Wikimedia)

Segmentation versus Specialization

When evaluating how to form the composite mind, it could be argued there are two distinct approaches: segmentation or specialization. Both segmentation and specialization are organizational mindsets that shape how people behave together.

Segmenting a workflow can be thought of as dividing it into separate autonomous realms, each “with their own bottom lines,” that is, where each realm has a distinctly separate scope and deliverable. It is somewhat reminiscent of an assembly line mentality, where each factory worker knows their role and plays that delimited role each time.   

Figure 2. Segmentation and specialization is about blurring boundaries between roles in the current segmented structure.

In a segmented workflow, each player operates according to their own separate rules, and then passes the resulting work product to the next player. This segmented approach, however, presumes that a group can tackle a problem as isolated subsystems, then put the subsystem together to produce a desired unified whole. Ove Arup, once again, is not so sure:

“If you split the design of these entities among a number of specialist designers each acting more or less independently, you won't get an entity, but a hotch-potch. There must be coordination, integration, a proper assessment of priorities based on the true interest of the community.“
Ove Arup, Philosophy of Design, p.150, 2012

If we look at the current process of creating a building, it is clearly segmented—in fact, it exhibits compound segmentations. First, there is segmentation of intent and execution between contractors and designers; then, within each of those realms, there is commonly further segmentation between architects and engineers, and among contractors and subcontractors. Each segmentation creates a separate culture and set of values that impacts the integrated approach.

This is where specialization offers a valuable alternative. In contrast to the separate realms of segmentation, specialization can be defined as areas of focus within a unified whole.
Specialization assumes first, that everyone belongs to a single group, and second, that each person has knowledge that is part of that group’s scope of work. This is critical: in specialization, knowledge does not reside outside the group identity. Specialization is a model that allows people to work on large complex problems under one roof, and know their role in the process while still having the same overall priorities.

A useful case study comparison of segmentation versus specialization is to contrast how some real world professional groups are organized, specifically medicine versus construction. While buildings and medical patients are problems of similar complexity and both often demand a similar size spectrum of professionals, there are key differences in how these two diverse communities organize themselves.

Medicine enthusiastically adopted specialization as its knowledge base continued to expand over the past century and, as a result, kept healthcare’s growing expertise largely within one profession. Architects did not embrace specialization, however, opting instead to reject technical subsets of design such as structure and environmental services, and as a consequence, create separate professions and entirely new engineering disciplines. The result was a segmented workflow that persists today.

Let’s examine in more detail how building design became segmented over time.

The Segmentation of Building Design

The written history of construction spans several millennia and is a history of escalating segmentation. In the earliest accounts, architects were integral to construction site activities, but gradually, over time, began to drift away from their primary role as craftsmen and towards a role favoring the arts.

The first significant detour away from construction emerged in the Renaissance when architects began to focus on drawing techniques—“disegno”(Spiro Kostof, The Architect, p.134, 1977)—as a way to plan their work, initiating a split between intent and execution, and causing the architecture profession to separate from the trades or crafts. 

Figure 3. Starting in the Renaissance, architects identified their role as more about drawing than building. (Image: © copyright expired - Wikimedia)

This initial segmentation entered its second phase during the industrial revolution when architects eschewed the emerging fields of technology that were then growing in number.  This second wave of segmentation further fractured building design between architects and engineers.

Segmentation in building design reached epidemic proportions in the early 20th century with the electrification and air-conditioning of buildings.  By the end of the 20th century, there were entire professions in electrical, mechanical, fire protection, data/telcom engineering, all dealing with buildings, but all part of an “alien culture,” according to Reyner Banham’s The Architecture of the Well-tempered Environment:

"Because of this failure of the architecture profession to - almost literally - keep its house in order, it fell to another body of men to assume responsibility for the maintenance of decent environmental conditions: everybody from plumbers to consulting engineers. They represented 'another culture', so alien that most architects held it beneath contempt, and still do."
Reyner Banham, The Architecture of the Well-tempered Environment, p.11, 1969

The net result of the past centuries is a fundamental problem that currently besets the industry today—internal divisions within important design roles that should never have existed in the first place.

Reversing Segmentation

It is clear that the roles of architects, engineers, and contractors in building design have become increasingly segmented, creating aberrant divisions within the building industry, which interferes with its overall effectiveness. The path towards unification of design was not helped by Le Corbusier’s view that:

“… an engineer should stay fixed and remain a calculator, for his particular justification is to remain within the confines of pure reason …”  
Le Corbusier, Urbanisme, p.48, 1926

However, there have been other commentators and practitioners who balk at the separation between architects and engineers, and want the professions to be more unified.  Reyner Banham, once again, lamented architects’ rejection of heating technology as an architectural matter, and their bias towards aesthetics above all else.

 "... a vast range of historical topics extremely relevant to the development of architecture is neither taught nor mentioned in many schools of architecture and departments of architectural history. … mechanical environmental controls are [some of] the most obviously and spectacularly important, … yet they are the least studied."
Reyner Banham, The Architecture of the Well-tempered Environment, p.14, 1969

Figure 4. Architects rejected engineering work as being part of their design realm. (Image: Image: © EYP 2015 Free to Share)

Similar to Banham’s comments on architects, there were noteworthy advocates in engineering urging a more integrated identity.  In his 1992 acceptance speech for the RIBA Royal Gold Medal, for example, Peter Rice, the structural genius behind Sydney Opera House and Centre Pompidou, described his own personal “Iago” dilemma, echoing Corbusier’s earlier thoughts. 

“The problem with engineers is they’re all Iago’s [the manipulative protagonist from Othello]… by using only pragmatism, by using only rational thought…we destroy the very basis upon which the very good or noble things in our lives exist…I began to ask myself: what is the proper role for an engineer? … I believe we are ... Iago’s and have got to escape.”
Peter Rice, RIBA Gold Medal Acceptance Speech, 1992

Rice’s commentary probes what he sees as the engineer’s tendency to use only numerical arguments to guide their designs. He imagines a role that balances numbers with artistic considerations, producing a more integrated endeavor.

A similar appeal for design integration was a favorite and frequent topic of Rice’s former employer, Ove Arup, who for decades wrote about what he termed “total architecture.”

“The idea of a composite mind is useful. To be effective [however], the participating minds must collectively span over an area of knowledge and experience which covers all the knowledge needed to produce the best possible design. ... But equally, or even more important, they should share a common aim, that of creating ‘total architecture’. “
Ove Arup, Philosophy of Design, p.155, 2012

“Total architecture” was Arup’s vision of all building design disciplines working in synchronicity to create a design; his words and his integrative vision resonate deeply even today.

Building Professional, with Specialty

But there is another step to further enhance Arup, Banham, and Rice’s desired outcome: besides having a common aim, building design participants should share a common identity, where they belong to a single group, and have ‘the same bottom line.’  The proposal put forth here is that this common identity, termed as oneDesign, would be an umbrella identity for all professionals who each understand that there is one design in building design—one building, one project, one client aspiration—a single, aligned set of design priorities. The key attribute of the oneDesign proposal is the ability to willingly cross lines of demarcation to once again focus on the entire solution. The current segmented model creates boundaries, which often means that players see shared issues from totally different vantage points.

In oneDesign, each person’s main identity would be as a Building Design Professional, with Specialty. “Building Design” is emphasized because it is the current overarching activity that unites all the players involved in today’s construction world.  The “specialty” in oneDesign arises because every member of the group— architecture, structural, energy, contracting—has a unique training and skillset, and that skillset is essentially their specialty within the continuum of oneDesign, which has an industry-wide purview.

A working definition might be:  a Building Design Professional is a person educated in architecture, engineering or construction management who sees their natural scope of work as encompassing all activities that go into the creation of buildings, from the owner’s first wish to the ribbon-cutting, and beyond.It is a mindset and an identity that bridges design, technical engineering, execution, and operation, and from the viewpoint of an industry rather than individual professions. This last point is critical: our epoch seeks mindsets that span the entirety of an industry, helping to bridge gaps and interdisciplinary differences and looking for the highest synergies between all the groups.

If oneDesign appears to be largely a refocus of identity, it’s because that’s exactly what it is. But identity is often what establishes bottom lines, and in this industry there needs to be one bottom line, not several. In the bibliography of construction, considerably more is available on the split between Architects and Engineers and has been easier to document here. But much of the same segmentation is similarly apparent in the design and construction partnering that is growing in importance today.

In our recent experience, we are increasingly being commissioned with more and more projects requiring teams to become comfortable in tasks that usually fall outside the architect or engineer’s normal traditional duties, for example, leading the process of cost modeling that guides the building cost parameters.  These projects are often structured as normal project teams, but project success depends on tapping everyone’s skills so we willingly adopt new roles. Similarly, contractors often help us with design input that we vet but are willing to include, so that on these expedited projects, roles can be blurred.

IPD: A Case Study

One might argue that segmentation can simply be overcome by carefully building and managing teaming arrangements between existing industry units. A good example of this is the IPD trend in the last decade which has shown that, when called upon, segmented groups can respond and work in close alignment with new contracts and new processes. Because everyone is within one group, teams are free to imagine all manner of new workflows that would expedite the final result. 

IPD, in fact, can be viewed as a sort of “skunkworks” of oneDesign, a model where teams are free to practice all manner of new processes and methods, erasing lines that were previously held between professions and conjuring up new working arrangements. IPD benefits from the fact that it is still “fringe” enough to be non-threatening to the established process, but established enough to have become the delivery of choice for more and more difficult projects. The advent of IPD addresses a need that has not been previously available in the industry.

Much of IPD’s innovation centers on the use of BIM, because BIM is increasingly the lingua franca of design delivery. Designers and contractors each leverage BIM in their process and so the integrated process often looks to BIM for ways to streamline a project. One increasingly common example is how mechanical design is handled with BIM. Instead of the typical process where designers establish design criteria and then model or draft the proposed solution for bidding, in IPD, teams are free to seek “shortcuts” and to produce ways to get intent to fabrication as soon as possible.

Often, this means a “trade” partner modeling a “design” partner’s intent and skipping the entire “bid-docs-to-market–to-shop-drawing-to-fabrication” route, which is long and wasteful. The streamlined approach in IPD crosses previous boundaries for everyone’s shared gain.

Figure 5. IPD is a hotbed of innovation in design delivery with the Big Room approach. (Image: © EYP 2015)

This mechanical example adopts a “specialization” mindset where each person plays their part with the larger goal in mind. This contrasts with the more normal segmented approach of using models to produce drawings, to produce models, to produce fabrications.  This first generation of delivery innovation through BIM shows that there is much more possible when barriers are blurred.

But in truth, while IPD affords advantages over today’s norm,  “managing teams” to bridge segmentation in the industry misses a larger potential opportunity and does not address deeper issues of separate identities and culture.  Though IPD is a welcome unification of design and construction, it is a special arrangement for a single project, and is a model that still struggles to bridge the issue of separate identities. Unification needs to be more comprehensive, for one overarching reason: the owner’s singular aspiration. To owners, segmented delivery is an ugly reality of the building enterprise, not a sought-after feature.

But within the industry, there is an equally important benefit, the creation of an integrated, next-generation of delivery through synergies in design and execution, as well as the elimination of enormous waste in delivery in the building design industry. The current separated identities of architects, engineers and contractors in building design are a sad historical aberration that conceals the important role everyone plays in creating the overall design solution.

The mindset of the oneDesign proposal therefore seeks to blur the lines between architecture, engineering and construction, and to create a single identity that sees itself as unified, not as adversaries.

Figure 6. oneDesign imagines building design not as a series of professions but as a single industry.


OneDesign is not an imperative; it is a suggestion. Construction is not in a crisis; it is merely challenged to do better. The world will continue to build—and adequately at that—in the old tried and true segmented workflow, just as the world could have limped along with MP3 players, music companies, and millions of disconnected songs unable to leverage the computer’s power to transform music delivery.

But in an era increasingly craving synergy to leverage new possibilities, opportunities and efficiencies, it may be time for a fresh look at the wisdom of maintaining separate cultures in the building industry when the goal is a single mission.  Our current segmentation is not inevitable and is relatively recent in origin. New delivery synergies will require a shared identity and a culture that is not segmented, does not view building design as a series of separate professions, but as a single industry.

About the Author

John Tobin is an architect and is VP for Operations at EYP, an architecture/engineering firm headquartered in Albany NY. He has more than 25 years of design, practice, and technical experience in architecture. At EYP, he oversees the architecture and engineering groups, advancing the technical direction of EYP's work and spearheading the integration of architectural and engineering design. His previous roles were devoted to technical execution, particularly to BIM adoption and new tools. Prior to joining EYP, John was at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute School of Architecture where he taught design and technology subjects for almost a decade. This article is based on n earlier article written in 1995 while at Rensselaer. 

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