Agility isn’t just for software, Part 1: Architecture

Over the past nearly two decades, I have been fortunate enough to work with clients across different verticals. I’ve also been mostly in agile consulting and agile coaching which is mainly relegated to software development and at most information technology divisions. I would like to suggest, however, that this isn’t the right approach. Yes, we have heard about “business agility” but most of the time this still is the way that agile IT organizations influence business divisions. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to share some more “white-paper”-ish writings that outline experiences with agility outside fully of software development and traditional IT departments. Hopefully, these stories will help many become introduced to the culture and values of agility.

Business Case

One of the leading light commercial architecture firms in the eastern U.S. had a problem.  With increasing technology in buildings driving additional demand from MEP (Mechanical, Electrical, and Plumbing) and architecture services, timeline constraints, smaller margins for contractors, and ever-changing state and local building codes, agility practices needed to be applied to improve collaboration, provide an economic view and increase responsiveness.

Increasing technology

As this firm started building more large community buildings and venues, more sound reinforcement and video distribution, network and wireless, and security equipment were needed.  Unfortunately, these systems were always last in line behind the initial design/floor plan and MEP.  This meant that spaces had to be carved out or there actually wasn’t enough space for the complex equipment needed.  Also, this complexity required an additional team member to “get to done.”  


As with most industries, increasing speed to market and decreasing waste is key in architecture and building.  Waste and delays are exponential in the building industry and can happen at any time in the process.  Changes during building plan review?  Yes.  Code enforcement changes?  Of course.  And the further you go down the process, the more that has to be reviewed and formally accepted by all the parties involved.  All of this leads to delays in reaching the value of the facilities.


The firm decided to hire an agile coach to assist after reading an article about agility.  The coach worked with the firm to create a collaborative model rather than an “over-the-fence” model.  This meant several key themes:

  1. More thin slices of the plans.  Instead of trying to fully complete the architectural plans and then sending to MEP and then sending them to other competencies, the architect did a rough line sketch and met with MEP and the Automation Team on any changes necessary.  From there, the architect could continue working on refinement while MEP and Automation had enough information to get started on researching the best solutions.  All competencies intersected as planned for building department review, but at an increased speed and with less reconciliation.
  2. More collaboration.  It isn’t unusual for floor plans to take months to complete and get approved. Once plans are done, they are sent to MEP where the engineers create a solution over the next several weeks.  In the new model, there were weekly and sometimes closer-together design touch bases that allowed for a clearer understanding of the timelines and the projects overall.  This helped solve issues that would generally not be identified until well after plans were released.
  3. Consuming change.  In architecture and building, change occurs constantly throughout both the design and building processes.  Maintaining an ability to consume this change while minimizing the downstream impact is key.  Unplanned changes on top of planned changes further increase impact.  While no one will ever be able to stop clients from requesting changes, having practices that allow for change early and often reduced the impacts of design changes from equipment needs.

Overall, agility (iterative work, collaboration, and the ability to consume change) was applied to a design and build process which typically is very linear and fraught with constant rework.  One win specifically was a large multi-use facility in Los Angeles.  Because the architect was able to provide rough sketches of the design to the engineer and automation expert, not only was a design challenge solved – specifically where to put the massive 6-foot-wide central control unit for the sound reinforcement – but it was also identified that power to the facility location was inadequate.  Identifying this during the design process allowed the general contractor to start the multi-month process of improving the utilities, effectively saving the owners $250,000 in rush and contractor costs. 

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