Building the Architecture of Tomorrow with Seamless Communication Today
Even if you wouldn't consider yourself an architecture aficionado, there's still nothing quite like that feeling you get while looking at a beautiful building.
Every piece of steel represents countless hours of care, passion, and attention to detail. Each accent symbolizes the hard work and innovation of a team of people who make it look effortless—even though we know it isn’t.
What you don't see while craning your neck to take in that building is the 200-reply email chain filled with people trying to decide on the exact color scheme of the floor in the lobby. You weren’t there for the never-ending messages of people arguing about why it's so important that the atriums on the first, third, and eighth floors go together—even though most people won't experience them that way.
The sheer level of collaboration necessary to bring that incredible building to life is immense—and, with old technologies, it's a lot more painstaking than people realize.
My journey into this field began years ago, when I started my career as a carpenter. During that time, I was able to gain an understanding—and even an appreciation—of architecture through the eyes of a builder.
After three years of my apprenticeship as a carpenter, it became clear to me that my real dream was to be an architect. Making a move like this is never easy, but it was particularly difficult. My career took me through multiple internships as a technical drawer and, at the end of all that, I finally made it into the School of Architecture and then became an assistant at ETH Zurich. I then did the Executive MBA program at HSG during my job at the Swiss Federal Railways SBB, and subsequently became professor at the Bern University of Applied Sciences on Virtual Design Construction.
Then, in 2011, I joined FSP at a time when we had 28 employees. Today, we have four different offices with over 70 employees. FSP is a architecture company working all over Switzerland for leading customers such as Swiss Airlines, Google, and ABB. We've had our hand in office and campus projects, healthcare buildings, commercial and industrial buildings, school buildings, residential structures—you name it.
While our history is essential, it's also a bit of a liability. Today, FSP is over 40 years old, which leads to a number of issues—the most pressing was that we were an analogue company in an increasingly digital world.
The Dangers of Falling Behind the Curve
In architecture, everything from design principles to construction best practices constantly evolve. The definition of ‘quality design’ changes often, and companies are always looking for ways to do more with less and create leaner, more efficient processes whenever possible.
At FSP, the lack of new technologies became a constant uphill battle. Not only that, but mistakes happened often due to the outdated communication infrastructure.
Email is adequate to a point. But we had essential messages getting lost due to the sheer volume of communication in our system. If you can't communicate, you can't collaborate.
Buildings aren't constructed by an individual—they're brought into the world by a team of people. This is a particularly severe issue for an architect, where all key stakeholders need to be on the same page before the ground on your next project is even broken.
More Than a Transformation—An Evolution
At the beginning of our digital transformation, seamless collaboration was our main goal. We envisioned a world where staff worked together from different places and even on different projects at the same time. We knew we lacked the tools necessary for that, so we began our search.
My idea was about more than simply finding a system to let us communicate. I wanted us to create a unified language, both verbal and nonverbal, that would allow both employees and their clients to come together to form a collective. In our search, I felt like Cisco was the first company who not only understood what we were trying to do, but also why it was so fundamental to the next decade of our business.
This was interesting, because Cisco is normally sold to IT departments and that's definitely a different mentality from ours. IT people tend to think in terms of hard facts. I liken what we're doing to building video games: People who are developing video games understand not only the goals of the project, but the emotion behind it. They're not creating software—they're creating an experience.
That's what I wanted to be able to do through better communication and collaboration: sell emotions, not projects. Cisco understood my vision immediately, which made them the obvious choice early on in this process.
Building a Better Solution, One Brick at a Time
Architects are a different breed altogether, but this is especially true when you compare them to everyday people. We don't just speak a different language—we see things differently. To us, a house is not a house. It's a series of smaller ideas that eventually add up to a house. But when you're talking to a client about a roof, if they can't deeply understand and envision what you mean, it's going to lead to breakdowns in the system.
But when you begin a project with your average client, the only tool they have to use is their words. There's no such thing as a "simple misunderstanding" in that context. If they can't explain what they want, we can't understand what our end result should look like. If we can't understand that, we can't draw it; we can't make a pitch. Things only get worse from there.
To avoid these issues, you have to rely on two different channels of communication. First, you have words. But more importantly, you need to make your ideas visible. You need to rely on digital 3D models and other nonverbal forms of communication so there are no misunderstandings that end up costing time and money.
We were dealing with a lot of these issues in the past, but since partnering with Cisco and deploying Cisco Webex, the difference is night and day. Not only can our various teams now finally work together from any location, but we can also have more beneficial one-on-one conversations with clients.
We can use physical models to show people what we mean, supporting our verbal collaboration with nonverbal methodologies. Words no longer get in the way of creating a unified concept. Our clients can finally become a part of our team, all of whom can now cooperate faster and with more clarity than ever before.
We didn't want to sell projects; we wanted to sell emotions. Now, thanks to Cisco and Cisco Webex, we can do exactly that. Teamwork with FSP has become so efficient and powerful that I actually plan to stop using email as early as next year. There's no point anymore—Cisco Webex provides everything we need.
True Company-Wide Communication
More than anything, the changes brought about by these new technologies have trickled down into just about every aspect of our daily work. It's created an opportunity to instill a larger degree of personality into what we're doing—that human element that wasn't there before. Because we essentially have face-to-face meetings with clients, it's easier to sell those emotions and get everyone on board with what our vision of the future looks like as early in the process as possible. If we can visualize it, we can schedule it. If we can schedule it, we know how we're going to build that bridge between where we are today and where we want to be tomorrow.
When leveraged properly, technology should support your idea of the future. Because it's easier to bring people together, you get more time to work with those people instead of for them.
This is especially important for the younger generation of workers in this field. For Generation X and Y in particular, it's important that they have a purpose in their lives. They want a reason to get up in the morning. Technology like Cisco Webex helps give them a sense of purpose and a community that both unlocks their potential and makes that cohesive whole even stronger. It creates the type of modern day, effective working environment that can lean into the constant evolution of design, building, and architecture. It's no longer held back by those changes. Instead, it's propelled forward.
If you think back to the last beautiful building you looked at, it's hard not to appreciate all the hard work, care, and dedication that went into its construction. A lot of mistakes went into bringing that building into the world, too—but those days may be numbered.
New buildings of the future probably will not be the product of such an arduous process. In all likelihood, it will have been the result of many passionate people coming together for a string of face-to-face conversations. Each talk will be more exciting than the last, with people who are eager to put their own unique stamp on the world. It will start with a conversation and end in beauty.