CTA’s latest design forum explores ‘integrated design’

By: CTA Staff
12 February 2018

In early October, I was fortunate enough to participate in a unique work meeting. CTA design leadership put together a design forum including team members from Denver, Seattle, Boise, Minneapolis, Bozeman, Austin, Great Falls, Billings, Helena, and Missoula. The forum took place at the CTA Minneapolis office with the main goal of analyzing and improving our current integrated design process. As a firm that possesses in-house architectural and engineering consulting services, we were able to have a wide variety of disciplines covered. In the ever-changing building industry, this brings up some obvious questions:

  • How does integrated design benefit a building owner and end-user?
  • Why would a company plan a design forum?
  • What is integrated design?
  • What happens at a design forum?
  • And finally, how will that affect CTA building designs?

I’ll address those questions and touch on a few highlights from the forum throughout this post.

Benefits of Integrated Design

As an owner of an integrated building, you can expect lower operating and maintenance costs, more flexibility, and a higher return on investment. Building tenants have become more and more demanding. They expect all the bells and whistles when looking for rentable space. Integrated buildings meet more expectations than standard buildings, which increases demand and value for owners looking to rent. I’ll say that most, if not all, integrated buildings have fairly advanced control systems. Current technologies will be more adaptable to future design enhancements and building system improvements, which decrease building lifetime costs and add flexibility. Integrated designs are one way CTA is leading the way to realize these benefits for our clients.

Integrated design is a term used loosely in the design field, but from my perspective, it rarely happens. A fully integrated team will interact and provide input throughout the process. Truly integrated buildings provide end-users with many benefits. They have better lighting, indoor air quality, acoustics, security, aesthetics, and overall positive feelings for the building environment.

Why conduct a Design Forum?

That’s a good question with a straightforward answer.  As a company, we are always working to improve, become more efficient, and strive toward design excellence. We believe improvement comes from analyzing current design methods from all perspectives and CTA’s Board of Directors strongly believe in the value of the Design Forums. The Minneapolis Forum is CTA’s 7th since 2010. In addition to improving our design process, the events allowed CTA employees from multiple offices to get acquainted with each other and meet face to face, strengthening our internal relationships as a team.

What is integrated design?

Here is one definition (via dictionary.com) addressing “integrated” in the building design sense.

Integrated: combining or coordinating separate elements so as to provide a harmonious, interrelated whole

In my mind, that sums up what we do on a daily basis at CTA. The “separate elements” are walls, equipment, lights, plumbing, ductwork, steel, landscaping, and all other pieces and parts comprising a building. Each is essential to the function and operation of any building. By working closely as a team, all disciplines are able to frequently communicate and coordinate with each other, thereby creating a project (building) that is “a harmonious, interrelated whole.”

What happens at a design forum?

The design forum was a way to analyze and get feedback from various disciplines regarding our current process. Through different exercises spanning a day and half, the group was able to identify obstacles currently preventing us from improving the process and becoming more efficient. Those exercises started on day one with an architecturally-led discussion, analyzing the history of architecture and engineering, hosted by Director of Design Jim Beal. The presentation focused on the events in history, mainly the industrial revolution, that led to the divergence of architecture and engineering as specialties derived from what previously had been a single discipline/individual role. If we do not study history, Beal stressed, we are bound to repeat it.

The next session, coordinated by associate principal Joel Anderson, was an exercise to help attendees determine their own respective definitions of integrated design. He asked attendees to provide examples of their work illustrating the concept. Each person was then asked to place the project on a grid with the spectrum ranging from simple vs. complicated on one axis, and standalone vs. integrated design on the other. This led to some interesting results.

By and large, a majority of the projects the team felt were highly integrated were also simple, but highly coordinated amongst other disciplines. Following these two sessions, the group took two tours: one to the Minneapolis Central Library, and one to the Guthrie Theater. Both were fantastic examples of integrated design and they provided inspiration to the group.  The tours concluded day one of the forum.

On day two, we got into the details of the design process with the group hearing an excellent presentation from structural engineer Dane Jorgensen relating the design process to a mathematical formula. Although a design process has no strict definition from start to end, there are essential functions or inputs that need to be included for it to be successful. Jorgensen walked the team through several examples of equations that could potentially define the design process with architectural and engineering involvement plotted versus time. As the discussion progressed, the formula for an ideal design process was refined to reflect a cyclical graph with intersecting nodes to denote communication.

The largest takeaway was the more we communicate, the tighter our inflection points (nodes on the graph) become, bringing us closer to the desired solution over time. Ultimately, through the magic of math, his equation showed that frequent and consistent communication directly impacts the convergence or completion of the project. It was a very interesting and well thought-out take on the overall design process.

After Dane’s presentation, the group spent the rest of the time identifying and discussing how a multi-disciplinary approach to design can be a weakness, a strength, what are the obstacles, what is the ideal design process, and what is the plan of action moving forward. There was consensus on a number of future actions including involving engineers early and often. In a typical design process, engineers are brought on board after the architect has a floor plan concept and programming with the owner has been completed. As an engineer, I’m always pushing to get involved earlier in a project — from day one.

Another focus from CTA’s leadership is empowering engineers to get involved early and provide critical input before buildings are conceived. Engineers are encouraged and even expected to get involved when they hear about projects. If engineering is involved at the inception of a project, we can provide guidance and parameters to the architectural teams. This input can be incorporated into floor plan designs and help avoid the time it takes to make changes and rework plans. With some input upfront, we become more efficient overall for the life of the project. That input also allows the architect to design around or with essential engineering features (louvers, equipment locations, transformers, lights, plumbing chases, etc.). Forcing these and other elements into a building design after it has been created makes it much more difficult to become “a harmonious, interrelated whole.” That truly only happens with good and meaningful communication.

CTA Building Design Process

CTA’s in-house architecture and engineering is fairly unique in the building design industry, and it provides our firm several advantages over non-multidisciplinary firms. Having technical leads from each discipline in the same office inherently promotes frequent communication amongst team members. We often (daily to multiple times per week) hold team “scrums,” during which everyone gets up from their desk to gather around a table and provide the rest of the team a quick, two-minute update of their status and/or needs on the project. These are intended to be short updates (no more than 15 minutes total) to maximize their efficiency and minimize downtime for participants.

At certain points, formal meetings are conducted to work through heavy coordination items, but those are limited to critical junctures of the building design process.   Formal meetings have their place, but CTA promotes the scrum on a more regular basis. Additional communication leads to stricter coordination and a better overall design. Another advantage of being an in-house design firm is having all pertinent design information housed in one location. Most CTA projects utilize a three-dimensional design program called Revit. Each discipline is able to get into the Revit model and physically see elements from all other disciplines, allowing for a higher level of coordination and less chance of conflicts in the field during construction.

I personally found great value in attending and participating in the design forum. It is encouraging to know that as a company, CTA is committed to pushing the quality of our constructed environments forward for the benefit of our communities and clients.

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