Interview With Randy Deutsch, AIA, LEED AP


Gene: Welcome, this is Gene Roe. I’ll be your host for this BUILTR Labs thought leader interview series. I’m very pleased to be joined today by Randy Deutsch. Randy is an associate professor at the University of Illinois. To get started, Randy, can you please tell us about your background and your current activities?

Randy: Absolutely. Thank you for having me on the podcast. I’m a licensed architect. I’ve been one for over 30 years, primarily focusing on the design of high rises and large-scale mixed-use projects. About five years ago, around 2010, I disrupted myself. I saw changes on the horizon, changes in our industry, primarily having to do both with technology and collaborative work processes.

I reshaped myself as a BIM strategist and an advocate for integrated project delivery, or IPD. In doing so, at the same time, I became a public speaker, doing a lot of keynotes. Became a blogger with multiple blogs addressing those issues. I entered the Twittersphere, as well as LinkedIn, and then also a TedX talk.

While in the past I was a part-time educator at UIC, University of Illinois Chicago, I became a full-time educator here at the University of Illinois concentrating on courses in building information modeling, construction, construction management virtual and physical, as well as professional practice. I also led, for a number of years, a Harvard GSD executive education course on BIM in leadership.

Lastly, during those five years, I authored a couple books. “BIM and Integrated Design,” in 2011. This year, in 2015, “Data Driven Design and Construction: 25 Strategies for Capturing, Analyzing and Applying Building Data” and a book in the works that addresses the conversions in our industry, the converging technology and work processes. It’s a book that’s going to come out in 2017 called “Convergence: An Integrated Framework for Architecture.”

Gene: Wow, you’ve absolutely been very busy and we’re lucky to be able to speak with you today. Thanks very much.

Randy: Thank you.

Gene: Historically, the AEC industry has been known for its slow adoption of technology and innovation. What do you see universities doing to change this paradigm, and which is the bigger challenge: technology adoption, or getting people in an organization to change?

Randy: All right, so that’s a two-part question. The first part, universities are still reeling from the 2008 downturn in the economy. They have lower admissions. We’ve all seen headlines telling parents not to enroll their kids in architecture school, and when they do, the students tend to double major to make their prospects more likely to happen. I’m seeing fewer programs teaching building information modeling and other technology tools during class hours.

It’s kind of like what Phil Bernstein said awhile back about being in academia. He said, at Yale, you don’t get credit for learning a piece of software any more than we would give you credit for using a band saw or a water jet cutter. I’m seeing technical schools focusing on technology, absolutely, but in terms of universities, it’s the students themselves, not the universities, that are doing a great deal of the heavy lifting to keep up with the software. What tech – universities are doing, at worst, is not stopping students from doing so and at best, with a few exceptions, universities are telling students, you need to know this stuff in order to get a job and move ahead in your career, so go ahead and learn it.

Learn it in the evenings and the weekends, the online tutorials and free software downloads. Universities are making technology available, but not necessarily teaching it. Then beyond software courses, there are other tools and equipment, CMC machines or robotic arms, 3D printing, access to microprocessors and arduino boards.

Schools and universities have makerspaces and fablabs and they’re going a long way to help work these tools and equipment into students’ workflows, and that’s helping a great deal. In my estimation, students are open to using these tools, work processes, almost despite where universities stand in terms of teaching technology. For many students, especially recent grads, the technology’s become second nature. Once they leave school, they look for opportunities, workplaces where they can leverage these skills.

Then the second part of the question: Which is the bigger challenge, technology adoption or getting people in an organization to change? Absolutely getting the people in the organization to change. Technology adoption is relatively easy in comparison. I know that seems counter-intuitive, but I go back to something that Charles Hardy at the GSA said awhile back, and this led to my book on building information modeling and integrated design, that BIM is ten percent technology and 90 percent sociology.

Habits, in other words, run very deep. If you’ve already learned CAD, for example, Revit is much harder to learn. First, you’ve got to unlearn old habits before you can move forward with many of the new tools. For that BIM book, I interviewed a psychologist who works with people in the AEC industry. In fact, he’s got a background in construction.

He said, unless the feared pain of changing is less than the feared pain of not changing, I’m not changing. People, in other words, don’t change because it’s good for them. They don’t change for people. They change due to negative emotions. It all comes down to a firm’s culture, and that includes mindsets, attitudes, identity and roles.

Gene: Very good, yeah. I couldn’t agree with you more. It’s really the people issue that is the big, big challenge for the industry. As a leader in this industry, can you tell us about your vision for the future of the built environment over say, the next ten to twenty years. Kind of a pretty long horizon here. 

Randy: Sure. I’d like to address, first, my vision for the AEC industry, and then segue to the question that you’re asking directly. In terms of the vision for AEC – I think it’s going to make a difference, in terms of where our focus is in the industry and design professions. We’re going to see a great deal of consolidation. We’re already seeing mergers and acquisitions. In other words, in the next ten to twenty years, our industry’s going to become less fragmented and we’ll see less specialization.

We are going to see a convergence. Other fields have gone through a similar transformation. To the extent that we, as an industry, look to other fields, we’ll have a better idea as to where we’d headed. The AEC industry tends to lag behind other industries by five to ten years, generally speaking. Firms that are willing to take on smart risks and invest in research and development will certainly benefit from this. Another thing that, of course, we’re seeing a great deal more of now is automation.

We’re automating to increase efficiency, any time we’re working with software, we see a lot of repetitive tasks. We ask ourselves, how can we spend less time doing things over and over again and get this automated? We’re going to increasingly turn to a model where we design, instead of going through the old phases, schematic design and so on, we’ll simulate, perform analysis, synthesize, optimize, and then model. This will be an integrated loop.

To respond directly to your question, given how we’re going to change in terms of how we work, we’re going to be addressing some very specific needs in the built environment. We’re going to address much more adaptive reuse of existing buildings than new construction. We’re going to be addressing of course the impacts of global warming and climate change, the resilience of cities.

We’re also going to be focusing a great deal on sustainable housing for untold millions or maybe even billions of people in the next ten to twenty years. We’ll of course see less new construction and increasing adaptive reuse of existing structures, and those will involve a great deal of energy retrofit projects. The reason why I think the question has to be addressed in a holistic way is because architects in particular and design professionals overall currently play a relatively minor role in the built environment.

We’re involved with or touch maybe three to five percent of the new construction that’s built. For this to increase, in other words, for our role to change as design professionals, we’re going to move from solely being design professionals, creating design intent, to information intermediaries. In other words, we are going to see ourselves connecting the dots from the early phases of project developers, people that have the resources and the vision and the requirements, all the way to the other end, to the owners and occupants and operators of buildings.

In working on less new construction and more adaptive reuse, we’re going to have to see ourselves less as content providers of design intent than playing a new role in the next ten to twenty years as facilitators, orchestrators, collaborators and integrators of information.

Gene: Excellent. Yeah, I think that leads us right into the next question which is, how are some of your research projects helping to move the industry forward? I assume some of these things you’re talking about are things that you’re working on.

Randy: Yes, absolutely. My primary role is connecting the dots and connecting people. Since I come from practice and I’m now a full-time academic, the type of research I do is practice-centered research. Now, practice-centered research is a fancy way of saying talking to people in the industry, seeing what they’re doing.

I mentioned I connect the dots. That type of research can be frowned upon by academics because it doesn’t necessarily always involve citing other academic papers and research that came before. I see our industry moving so quickly and it’s evolving, even the time we’re speaking right now on this podcast it’s changing.

Some forms of communication and research can be in the form of essays, podcasts like we’re doing right now, conference presentations, webinars. I participate in all of these. My job is to really recognize patterns that are going on in the industry, help to bring a trend to the fore or into the foreground, give it a name, and then help start a dialogue, whether through social media or face to face at these venues.

One of the things I’m trying to do is to help make the future less scary. We’re seeing a lot of stories having to do with robotics. A lot of people are concerned in my field that their jobs will be taken away by robots or machines and algorithms with machine learning. Trying to make the technology more approachable and better understood.

Even as a professor, I remember going years back, I learned technology through Fortran, the stacking of cards in a computer, and I was able to design a high rise or print a high rise, at the very least, using Fortran. Where I’m going with this is that when I graduated and went out into the world, that same year that I graduated, I saw that people were using these computers called Macintosh, an Apple computer.

I was pretty upset to think that I was using this antiquated technology in college, when there was this advanced way to work out in the world, with a friendly user interface. What I try to do is help my students envision the future, where they can create roles for themselves and make a difference by helping them understand, once they graduate, what the world will look like.

Gene: Excellent. What are some of the key issues that you believe are holding back the industry and this vision that you have?

Randy: A few I already mentioned, having to do with market fragmentation and professional specializations. The big three are probably risk aversion, a focus on first costs, and low R&D investment. Contractors in particular, rely on past experience to make decisions and take future action.

I love what Tyler Goss, formerly with Case, now Turner Construction, said in my data book: “In proposing platforms, what I ran up against culturally was, show me 150 projects where this has been deployed successfully.”

Gene: Right.

Randy: In other words, past experience is what it’s all about for many contractors. Focusing on first costs versus life cycle costs, we have this issue with owners as well. We’re doing it ourselves. We’re not addressing the long-term bigger horizon when we make decisions today. It’s all about schedule and budget. Finally, more and more organizations are going to need to invest in research and development.

Gene: Two critical issues shaping the built environment are sustainability and urbanization. What are your thoughts on how we’re going to address these trends?

Randy: I see sustainability and urbanization as one and the same. With mass migrations of people to urban areas, cities getting larger, more and more people living in cities, we’ll find that we use less resources in doing so. Living in a city is the most sustainable thing you can do. Urbanization or city life will certainly have its challenges, especially as cities grow increasingly larger, but generally speaking it reduces our impact or our footprint and it’ll be the future of living sustainably.

Gene: Individual firms are generally part of a larger team when it comes to delivering a successful project. In your view, what are the keys to collaboration and having that team work well together?

Randy: Collaboration is a big focus of the work I do and the teaching I do. A couple key things is to recognize when to collaborate and when not to, when it doesn’t make sense. In other words, if you’re working on a very complex problem that doesn’t have obvious solutions, that’s an ideal situation for collaborating. If you’re working on a rollout, a design of the next Trader Joe’s or something you’ve done 100 times, and this is your 101st time, chances are you won’t need to collaborate.

Recognize that not all collaboration is good. I love the quote from Morton Hanson who said that bad collaboration is worse than no collaboration. Challenges to collaboration that involve technology including interoperability, workflow, but also people issues are things that people need to recognize when they’re collaborating.

The firm’s culture is the largest issue. Do you have a culture in your organization that encourages collaboration, or it does have a top-down, do-it-yourself approach or one where it recognizes stars in the organization, versus valuing the working with others? It makes a big difference. Architects and other design professionals need to answer for themselves whether collaboration can help assure their survival, because we’re at a time right now where we’re not seeing as much do-it-yourself.

We’re needing to lean on each other. I’m generally against the return of the design professional as the master builder, and instead working towards a composite master builder or master builder team, where you let the team be the architect or designer.

I love this quote from William Caudill from CRS in a book that he wrote called “Architecture by Team.” “The so-called great man approach must give way to the great team approach. From now on, great architects will be on great interdisciplinary teams.” What’s fascinating about that is that he wrote it back in 1971.

Gene: Wow.

Randy: Yeah, which is really amazing. Let the team be the architect. I believe that design professionals know they need to collaborate to succeed, that by not collaborating they’ll become marginalized. Again, when I was talking about negative emotions, that may help them and not knowing how to effectively collaborate will lead to their irrelevance.

A major key for design professionals, saying this as a building designer myself, is one of the key things is they’re just going to have to forget about their brand erosion. In other words, a lot of design boutiques or “starchitects” or individual designers, they’re overly concerned that by working with others, they’ll water down their ideas by having too many chefs involved, when it’s really the opposite that’s true.

Designers need to see themselves less as the originators of the ideas on collaborative teams, and much more so as working in design development and refinement of the ideas that grow out of the teams.

Gene: Yeah, that’s going to be quite a change. Yeah, I hear what you’re saying. You mentioned in the introduction that you’ve been involved with social media –

Randy: Yep.

Gene: That leads to the next question and we’ve – going to be running out of time here pretty quick, but what role is social media playing in the changes taking place in the industry? How do you think that will change over the next three to five years?

Randy: Just like the AEC industry is late to come to a lot of topics that are out in the world, the AEC industry has something working against it. We’ve built our industry largely with introverts. We tend to enter the field of architecture, engineering and construction because we like working with things and objects and not necessarily people.

One of the things I tell my students is they’re very focused on objects, buildings and technology very early on in their career. As they grow in the professions in the industry, they’re going to be much more focused on people. We’ve barely begun as an industry and profession to leverage the capabilities of social media. Some of the social tools that are out there, Twitter and so on, will eventually change, evolve or die out, and some will survive of course.

The way we’re communicating with each other is changing. There’s going to be more and more of an emphasis on mobile, for example, we need to make our platforms mobile-friendly. Many people missed the peak of the blog movement, but as you’re doing right now with podcasts, they’re building audiences, building momentum, and still going strong. Podcasts is are a great opportunity for people in our industry to get the message across.

Gene: Final question. What concerns you the most about our industry today?

Randy: I say this to my students: No one reads. I don’t say this because I’m an author and write books, I say it because it’s true. It becomes apparent when you talk to people in our industry. They have legitimate reasons. They’re time-challenged, they have a lot of demands on their time. To me, it personally comes down to values. I try to read a book every day, or every two or three days, I’ll finish a book and move on to another one.

I’m a professor, yes, but on the other hand, I’m also very busy. I think it comes down to curiosity, and for me, curiosity wins out in the end. I give up sleep in order to learn how other people think, so I can think in terms of their language and how they operate and see how I can apply it to my field. In order to keep up, we need to read more.

Then the other thing is, if you’re not reading, how are you learning? A lot of people are learning primarily by lunch-and-learns, or attending continuing education sessions or earning learning units within the profession and industry. You have to ask yourself whether that’s really the most effective way to learn and keep up, because the world and our industry is changing so quickly. Does it make more sense to listen to an audiobook when you’re commuting, and so on.

Gene: Yeah, I couldn’t agree with you more about the reading. I really have to force myself to do that more, but it’s really rewarding. There’s so much important information out there that it doesn’t get transferred any other way, for the most part. Any final thoughts, just in closing, that you’d like to share? Anything that we’ve left out? We could go on for days I think, with – I know I could.

Randy: Just to build on what we were just talking about, I would say, what you’re doing is great with your podcast, disseminating information in architecture, engineering and construction industry knowledge and wisdom. Keeping people up to date on things, people who are pressed for time, social media is a great way to do it.

Your online feed is a wonderful way to read the headlines, see what’s out there, and dig in when you really have time to do so. I thought I’d just mention really quickly, in addition to the BUILTR podcast, there are three other podcasts out there in the AEC industry that I think are really making waves.

One is “Designalyze” podcast, that features Brian Ringley and Zach Downey, primarily talking to professionals in the computational world, so it’s more on the design end. It’s a fascinating, funny podcast. Another one is “AutodeskAEC” podcast that’s got great snippets, short takes on people and professionals who are doing really interesting things, moving our industry forward. One other is BIM Thoughts – also worth checking out. 

Gene: Excellent. Randy, I’d like to thank you for taking the time to speak with BUILTR Labs and for your valuable insights.

Randy: Thanks so much, Gene, I appreciate it.

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Jessica Gracey

Interior Designer – Gensler

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