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Podcast Ep.5: Data-driven Design - Structure Tone
What happens when weeks of robust research and data collection meet workplace design? Find out how Aaron Schiller’s award-winning design firm uses in-depth analytics to help their corporate clients boost productivity.
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Podcast Ep.5: Data-driven Design

What happens when weeks of robust research and data collection meet workplace design? Find out how Aaron Schiller’s award-winning design firm uses in-depth analytics to help their corporate clients boost productivity.

 

TRANSCRIPT

Narrator:

Welcome to Building Conversations, a construction podcast powered by the STO Building Group. On today’s episode, 30-year construction veteran, Rob Leon, will be speaking with Aaron Schiller, founder of Schiller projects, an award-winning design firm that leverages weeks of data for unique approach to each project.

Rob Leon:

So, uh, today we have Aaron Schiller, welcome Aaron, it’s great to see you.

Aaron Schiller:           

Thank you for having me, Rob.

Rob Leon:  

So Aaron, tell me a little bit about your background. How did you get into architecture and design?

Aaron Schiller:    

I started as an urban planner and then I went into work in construction crews. And then I worked in politics doing community organizing for two plus years, grassroots levels up to national political levels. Then I went back and got an architecture degree, so I came at it, um, a circuitously. But each one of those touch points is reflected in a part of how we work today.

Rob Leon:       

I was going to say that that background almost fits perfectly into the things that I’ve read about you and your company. And I just, I love that background. Uh, it’s community-based. It’s a urban development-based, which is great, too. So, it’s all about knowing how people interact with the environment, correct?

Aaron Schiller:      

And networking our solutions. So, uh, not to abuse that word, uh, but finding the different touch points, the different stakeholders in each of our environments, and trying to activate them to give us a robust information set that we can then use to approach the problem or question of design uniquely for those people specifically in that context.

Rob Leon:             

Amazing. That’s great. So, tell me a little about, uh, yourself and your company. Who else was on your team?

Aaron Schiller:      

We’ve got a pretty mixed group. So, if you walk into a typical architecture firm, you’d see almost 90% of the employees being architects, maybe 10% business-side, at most we are 60 to 70% architects and we have a whole lot of different backgrounds, from construction through to um, MBAs as well as graphic designers and data visualizers. So, we’re a small team, but we have a robust, uh, network of, of backgrounds.

Rob Leon:   

Great. And how long ago did the company start?

Aaron Schiller:    

I started the company six years ago while I was still finishing my degree.

Rob Leon:     

Awesome. So, did you ever work for one of the big uh, architecture firms?

Aaron Schiller:    

Prior to school, I worked for a Santiago College Raba, which is a very different type of education in Class A architecture. Not so much what we do, but there’s a way that they approached construction, engineering, and architecture as holistically considered that we definitely have in our practice.

Rob Leon:    

And so, going through this, you know, nice diverse background, uh, the education with architecture, the education with the firm. Um, what was the main driver to lead you to this concept of a data-driven design?

Aaron Schiller:      

The idea of just jumping into a design problem as nothing more than a design problem never really interested me. I didn’t necessarily know how to solve that. If you wanted to make a loop-de-loop or a swirly-swirl or a pyramid out of something, we can do that. But is that really understanding what the issues are in tackling them that way? So, I leveraged my background in these various fields, particularly politics, to try and investigate what the core issues of the program are. So, when you come to us, you might say, I have 342 employees, 60% of whom need offices and I need 12 conference rooms. And our first question is why? And, do you?

Rob Leon:      

Sure. Sure.

Aaron Schiller:    

And then we break it down for them.

Rob Leon:       

Awesome. So, I guess the first part of that “why” is, of those 300 and something-odd people, how many actually come to the office on any given day?

Aaron Schiller: 

That, that is a, a, a statistic we want upfront. You know, depending on how new, how old your company is or how large your appetite is for change, you might have 15% you might have 95%, and some of those people might have committed workstations and offices and a lot of them might not. So we tend to find that our clients skew towards one bucket or another. They’ve either gone all in towards one direction, or all in towards another direction. And that’s what, sort of sets up the question, based on how old they are, whether that’s working for them or not.

Rob Leon:       

Sure. And it leads into a very important business decision of how much very expensive space do they need to lease.

Aaron Schiller:    

And that’s a big argument behind doing this. And we work with a lot of our clients before they take out a lease. The question is how can we align your approach to space to meet your business model and create the work environment that will make your employees comfortable and blossom.

Rob Leon:    

Excellent. I love it because at least if they’re going into a decision to lease X-amount of square footage, you know how much of it is for the space they need today. And how much of it is for expansion or contraction. I mean, because the company may be growing, but they’re not necessarily asking people to come to the office every day.

Aaron Schiller:   

One of our really interesting challenges lately was we were approached by a newly-formed nonprofit. Very successful backer behind the nonprofit, 19 employees at the beginning of 2019. They know they want to have 95 employees by the beginning of 2020, so they came to us with a question. They already had a space. They were thinking about taking more space in that building or finding something new and whether they wanted to know as okay if we know we’re going to quadruple our size in four quarters or less, how can we keep the collaboration and the workplace culture that we think is appropriate for us through that kind of dynamic transition. And so we went through a whole look at how each employee currently worked, what the uh, likely a hire to fit these new roles they were in envisioning–were they coming out of consulting, were they coming out of Google, were they coming out of a law background. And we came up with profiles for each of these new hires and what they probably experienced from a study culture in school or a work culture after, physically in those spaces we go, oh well those people could have a likelihood of hoteling, these people really came from a more traditional “work your way up to the corner office” model, if they’re law school student. And we came up with a, you know, here’s what these people are going to come in on day one and be used to and comfortable with here’s what you want them to go towards. Let’s come up with a plan for doing this with your space so that your hires are comfortable in day one and you get them into the new environment that you want them to have that.

Rob Leon:

That’s awesome. So, it almost sounds like you’re helping them develop their culture as they grow.

Aaron Schiller:  

Exactly.

Rob Leon:      

Which is fabulous.

Aaron Schiller:  

And align it with the business goals, which is–that’s a very unique aspect of it.

Rob Leon:      

So using two words that you did, uh, which was collaboration and culture leads me to the question of well, there’s the we work model. Um, they’re building collaboration, they’re building the, the “we” of the workplace. How do you see yourself, uh, either, um, expanding on that model and using that model as a baseline but also differentiating yourself.

Aaron Schiller:     

I’ll take differentiating first.

Rob Leon:    

Great.

Aaron Schiller:       

WeWork—tremendous company and they’ve had great success and there are a lot of very brilliant people who work there. They’re getting very different data and a lot of it’s about employee satisfaction. When we’re working with a company we are studying, how long is an employee A on a on a call, how many calls a day do they have? On those calls, are they talking or are they listening? How often are they meeting? Where is that happening? Are outside people coming? So, we’re looking at scale, frequency, and duration down to the legal secretary or the, the facility’s team to understand a full picture of how their day is actually spent. Then what we try to do is separate that out from the architecture because we keep architects on our staff as the end of the day that these people are working in and ask the question, is the way they’re working organic and inherent to the way they want to work or are they running around a building full of columns trying to negotiate for space and for opportunity all the time.

Rob Leon:        

So, I mean I think the a, the thing that I got from what you were saying is that there is a tremendous amount of research that you’re doing before you even think about what the concept should be and what the design should be. And it takes more than just sensor technology obviously. So, tell me a little bit about the process that you and your company and your team goes through with the client to get all of that data that you need.

Aaron Schiller:       

We typically work with a client for 15 to 16 weeks before the word architecture comes up. We do a survey, so we go at them initially digitally and we broadly touch every level of employee who’s involved and what the new space could be. And we look at what they’re doing in their current space. And we ask these questions of, uh, scale, frequency and duration. How long are you doing these different things that you do during your day? How often are they happening or who are they happening with. We get that big pot of data back and then we sift through it for patterns. When we have those patterns, we then go and we meet, we workshop an entire team. So, we just finished workshopping 700 employees for CBS to get their sales and network’s teams on a big floorplate downtown. They’re moving out of town.

Rob Leon:

And that was a three-week process to do all those data points. And now we’ve talked to you and we’ve asked you to write stuff down and we can cross reference those things and come up with a third data set that feels a little more accurate in like the truth and the facts on the ground. So, I can see a couple of challenges. You could be talking to longtime employees that can tell you how they’re working today but may not know some of the options of how they could be working. So is part of the process the education or visualization for the employee say, you know, here are some other ways that you can work. Are there tours involved? Is there uh, are there, uh, you know, schematics that you can draw out while you’re going through this process? Or is that sort of the second stage of the, of the journey?

Aaron Schiller:    

It’s the second stage for most of the employees, and for the team that’s dedicated to driving the project it’s the first stage. So, while we’re doing this, we’re doing tours with that leadership group and that leadership group is asking questions and seeing all the different models out there and learning about them. At the same time, we’re learning about the whole company and we’re looking at these models and we might come back at the end of this strategic analysis and go, these are three models which we think actually apply to you. You’re not in one cleanly, so we would suggest looking at those two things and then at that point, as the leadership gets super educated on these things, if we use their time appropriately, then we can go and make these decisions and as we start to design it, we start talking to the bigger company and getting the whole company on board. And that doesn’t stop until move-in and often a few weeks to a few months after move-in, we’re talking to those people through the whole process.

Rob Leon:      

Right. And in that design, are you building in flexibility in order to make adjustments after the move-in?

Aaron Schiller:  

We are always looking at and what we’re going to leave them with and then how they’re going to redefine it for themselves. There are some fun ways that that happens. One of our early projects, we designed some flexible office furniture pieces, so instead of having a fixed situation on a wall, you had things you could move. We thought there are probably three ways that people will use this, right? As designers, we were pretty sure we knew the three ways that the office was likely to be used. We came back a year later and found 11 different configurations, all independent, repeated, you know, different amounts by 200 different people in all of these offices and they all loved it. No one complained. They just adapted. But the space still had the same furniture. It met the branding requirements, it looked great. So that was a big aha moment for us very early. So there were some things we, we focus on as we do these designs that we can build in flexibility on day one as well as might have the bigger idea of, you know, if you have expansion space, how that’s going to change in year 5 or year 10.

Rob Leon:          

I think that’s great. Especially when we think about, you know, the new generation of employees that are coming in, right. Everyone was focused on the millennials and now is a, it’s Gen Z I guess. So there’s a lot of research that you may be doing or may not be doing, uh, behind the scenes to say what are the high schoolers and college kids, uh, what are they going to ask, what, what’s going to be the driving factor for them? Do you do that as well?

Aaron Schiller:  

Well, so we are an office full of millennials. We have some Gen Z I teach often Gen Z students at the architecture University at Columbia. So, we are quite well versed in the things they want and that they are used to. They’re certainly not focused on the corner office and you can understand that, and they are focused on flexibility. Not just hour to hour, but day to day and where they can do it. So, every company has, and every culture, has a choice to make about what’s the right balance for them. How often does physical proximity lead to new ideas and how to balance that against, uh, the idea that people might be working from Idaho Falls and Manhattan in the same job.

Rob Leon:  

So, one of the things that we struggle with in our business, because we’re a very, uh, face-to-face industry, right? It’s all about client relationships, right?

Aaron Schiller:         

100%.

Rob Leon:   

And so, you know, you try to say, how do you keep the company’s culture right alive, but have you even established a culture when people are not necessarily office?

Aaron Schiller:    

Let me give you our example of what we’re going through and experiencing. So, I have MBAs and architects in the same office on the same team. Those are two very different backgrounds. That MBA portion might be heavily involved in the architecture side, but I find them to do very competent, collaborative work remotely. Uh, with consistency and execution. My architects want to be in the office, they have to be in the office. They want to be on paper and on a screen pointing it at the person next to them. It might just be a quick question about a command on, on, on a computer program or it might be an in-depth charette. So, it is industry to industry and I also think its personality type as has been developed over time by the career and the work that those people have sought out. So, it’s, it really varies. And what’s important is being able to understand it and manage to it.

Rob Leon:  

I think it’s great because every problem that you need to solve, identify and solve for the clients, the best way to go about it is really that cognitive diversity. Yeah. Right. Getting people in the room that may not necessarily be the experts that are on the frames, the adjacencies that are, that are to the real problem but can offer some amazing solutions that you wouldn’t think about. And also, to come at it as different way. You know, an architect is really to come at it as a design solution and where an MBA is really coming at it as a business solution. Um, so going back to the, uh, the new group of employees that are coming into the workforce, we’ve seen a lot of amenities, spaces, uh, you know, collaborative areas, but also, you know, like a vertical campus in a way. So, they want to have more things available to them in their workplace because the lines between workplace and, and personal space is kind of getting blurred. It’s like a nice gray area. Is that something that you find the um, the new generation wanting?

Aaron Schiller:      

The new generation wants flexibility first and foremost. How they define that differs. Largely people resort to, okay, well that means that they want to come in a little late or they want to work from home some days and other days it can mean that, but it can mean a lot of other things. The office should be a point of attraction. The things that can happen there must happen there because there really aren’t enabled to happen elsewhere. And that’s how you turn it into an experience. The same demands are being made of retail that they are of workplace right now at their very core. So, the way we do that is we start with those leadership groups and we try to deconstruct the idea of the desk is your office. Even for those who do hoteling and working around the office, there’s still a bit of a laggard there to think your desk is your office instead of the whole office being the workplace. And sometimes you want to lounge and read and sometimes you want to stand at a coffee bar and sometimes you want to have focused heads-down time as we call it. And those three spaces can all coexist in the same space. And if you free up the emphasis and the spend on the personal space as the end-all, be-all of the office experience, then you enable all other types of environments into the workspace to take on these, the multitude of ways you’re interested in working and that you feel better and more effective when you work.

Rob Leon:    

Which I think is great. So that allows the person to make an individual choice. And when I came into the business, which was a little while ago, you know the big office was behind the wood door. You didn’t see what the boss was doing in the back. Right. And that was your aspiration.

Aaron Schiller:  

One of the really fun conversations we’ve had with the big bosses that we’ve seen turn the lights on before on this issue was, I asked, um, a “big wig” how he used his office cause he had a 2,000sf office. And it had a couch section, it had a table conference section, and it had a private desk section. He said, well I start in the morning at my desk, I, uh, I walk around for a while on calls, I’ll then work at my table. I’ll then take a nap, uh, briefly. He wanted to make sure we knew and, and then I’ll work on my couch and I’ll read on my couch in the afternoon and then I’ll wrap up again at the table. And all we said was, so you work the way all of your employees work except you’re the only one with space to do it.

Rob Leon:

Right.

Aaron Schiller:    

And when we said that he understood we weren’t trying to shrink people’s offices or take away their private space, we were trying to democratize the space. And take those couch moments and those table moments and the walking moments and the desk moments and stretch them out across their entire workspace.

Rob Leon:      

Give it to everybody.

Aaron Schiller:        

Because everybody feels that way and everybody works that way. It’s not, uh…

Rob Leon:      

And it’s actually a good business plan as well. So, 2,000sf, you know…

Aaron Schiller:    

Not so effective.

Rob Leon:   

Right, multiplied by the cost per square foot and now you’re, you’re spreading it around.

Aaron Schiller:    

But it is very important to understand for the people that are building new spaces and thinking about these spaces that yes, we’re doing more in less square footage but we’re doing more always. And that’s what it is. It’s really about, and it’s not just about shrinking square footage and making people feel like they’re giving something up.

Rob Leon:  

I think the interesting thing also is the uh, the way we go about, uh, from a construction manager’s point of view, uh, developing the metrics, right? The cost per square foot is not as important. It’s still a barometer, but there are other, uh, ways we can be giving that information and that data to the client. Have you discussed that with clients?

Speaker 3:  

So, we get into the room and those are cost per square foot and then, likely a broker’s and also added a metric for efficiency per square foot. How much square feet per employee type A, per employee type B. That, that metric is what a lot of people are used to. We don’t use that internally after those initial conversations and the lease is signed, we ditch that entirely in what we look at is how much diversity uh, per square foot. So how much collaboration space, how much private heads-down space, how much lounge space, how much general collaboration, how much cafe space. And then we come up with a metric that is looking to support all these different experiences people are looking for. And as a plus, it tends to give our clients a national metric. So, if we’ve designed their New York City office to that metric, then they can go look at Chicago, which might have half as many people and tweak the metrics to know that whether working in the Chicago office or the New York office, the same level of support per employee is there.

Rob Leon:              

I like that. And I think the technology is allowing us to do that. So, it used to be that, you know, the, the standard metal stud sheet rock construction was driven because you had to put a lot of things in the wall, mostly wires for power and wires for data. Sure. And with less power being required as a plug in, you know, more USB type power, less structured cabling because we are on a wireless, uh, network, it’s allowing the design to become more flexible. Once they move in, and there is that ongoing collection of data, whether it’s through sensors, interviews, a combination of all of the above, it will then tell a client that, listen, you know, we can reevaluate the space in one year, three year, five years. We can make these adjustments. We can continually enhance the efficiency of the space that was designed in the first place.

Aaron Schiller:      

So, from our conversation a second ago when you were asking about, uh, our, our, our nonprofit client who we’ve taken and planned their culture, we’ve planned their culture and it’ll happen over three to four to five years or two to three moves. And right now, what we’re really doing is moving furniture around on the board and it’s, it might not be called “architecture” if you look at it with a capital A on the table, but it is cause it’s architectural planning for that kind of flexibility. And that is just a whole new realm in which we can work in another scale with rapidity that we haven’t had in some of the past with all the heavy construction.

Rob Leon:   

Absolutely. I agree. So, in collecting the data and interviewing, um, the many clients that have been working with, is there anything that, uh, has come as a surprise that said there was like another “aha” moment, whether it was across the board or one specific client.

Aaron Schiller:          

go in with no preconceptions. That’s what makes the process work. The client always has an “aha” moment. So an aha moment and our Hudson Yards project was the client very much wanted an alternative to the traditional legal model, but they, half of the people in that room didn’t think one existed and one of the things we could point to them from a data perspective is yes, your associates are on the phone during the day frequently. However, 40% of the time they’re on the phone, they’re not talking. What do you mean they’re not talking? Well, you’re the partner, you told them to get on the phone and take notes and then bring them to you after the call. So that’s actually what they’re doing is they’re learning by your leadership on the call with the clients and then the clients they have, and their other work that equaled out to about 35% of the time. Okay. If they’re at their desk, but less than 60% of their day is actually phone calls where if there’s a noise interruption in the background, it’s less than desirable, oh, we can plan for that. They don’t have to be tethered to that desk all the time.

Rob Leon:    

That’s great. I remember, you know, one of my first projects happened to be a large law farm over probably about 120,000sf. And the biggest issue was confidentiality between office to office. So, there was a lot of soundproofing. There was, uh, white noise put in. Uh, how is that being solved in the new way that we are working?

Aaron Schiller:        

So acoustics are always privileged, but there’s glass, there’s curtains, there’s screens made of wood or other filigreed materials so that we allow light and air to penetrate. But we stopped sound where sounds should stop. So, with law firms, there’s more casement storage. Things need to be obscured. But it’s also unrealistic to think that any kind of information can be stolen or abused, which isn’t, it’s not really about steaming within the office, it’s about those firewalls for your client’s sake, that when you’re walking down the hallway from the screen, 15 to 16 feet away from you, it’s just not practical. So, when people get into these environments and they see it, they’re more excited by the upside of new ways of working than by the conservative concerns of yesteryear.

Rob Leon:

So, we talked a little bit about the cognitive diversity that your team is bringing. Uh, MBAs, architects, designers. Uh, as a construction manager, we always like to know where do we fit in to that process and how do you see us bringing value to that process?

Aaron Schiller:  

We like to bring in a CM as early as possible. We bring them in. Clients traditionally want to draw everything, design everything and then bid it out. However, the pace of change and the pace, especially in New York and cities like it, of needing these things done quickly and executed have made it that model of full bid set and out the door difficult because it doesn’t give you the flexibility to change, to reconsider, and reevaluate your pricing as you go along. We’re always an advocate of getting a CM in early and we like to work with them as partners. So, like I said at the beginning, my background, I worked as a steel welder and then uh, one of our partners was a finish and frame carpenter. So, we’re versed in that language and the more people we have in early, we always see value on the client side.

Rob Leon:      

So that’s music to my ears obviously, right? Cause we’re always trying to get in early. And for that reason is because we want to affect the documents, the design, let’s just say the bid package that goes out to the subcontractors, but also to set the expectations, you know, the expectations with the client, the architect, uh, that what’s being, you know, visualized and put on paper that actually can be brought to fruition.

Aaron Schiller:        

Well, it can always be brought to fruition, at least 99.9% of the time. Whether they’re going to afford it or not.

Rob Leon:

Correct.

Aaron Schiller:  

And so, we have found early as a young firm, we draw, draw, draw. The more you draw it, the more the construction team can understand it, the more feedback they can get. And then that’s how you make it affordable. It’s a different industry than yesteryear where, um, architects might’ve afraid of letting that a builder in the door to comment on anything. The speed and the change in the capacity for design today in the built environment means you have to have all these people at the table, and you have to have them in early. Otherwise, I really believe you are leaving value off the table that could otherwise be there.

Rob Leon:   

I would agree and I think you said it before about, um, you know, what do your designers or architects really do? And it’s a different skillset, let’s say, uh, again, coming up in the industry, uh, late eighties, early nineties, there were architects who could, you know, hand draw in-detail, you know, very, very intricate stairwells, for example. Uh, that’s not as important these days, right? It’s, uh, it’s important to understand how it goes, but it’s maybe not as important to physically draw it. Uh, we talk about bringing in even subcontractors on board early to, let’s just say design assist or finish that design. Because when you’re collaborating and you’re doing very intricate stairs, for example, you do have multiple trades that have to come together and those touch points, those meeting points are probably best figured out with the trades in the room and the construction manager in the room. So, I like to hear that. Um, you know, your philosophy and your team philosophy is to, is to be collaborative not only internally and with the client, but also with the construction manager and even with the trades.

Aaron Schiller:     

We require it in order to build the most outcome from all the data we processed, the client has to be at the table, the builder has to be at the table. Because there’s just so much opportunity from this way of working.

Rob Leon:         

So, I’m going to change our direction just slightly to technology. The technology and the tools, let’s say, that we have at our fingertips as designers and constructors, uh, do you see anything currently as, uh, assisting or aiding in that process?

Aaron Schiller:      

Well, I’ll tell you what, I think a general misconception is at this time: that architecture and construction has been changed by technology. I don’t believe it has, I don’t think to air quote the popular phrase, we have been fundamentally disrupted. I think we are more effective, and we are moving towards new models. Less people needed to do the work, broader people needed to do the work–hence the multidisciplinary approach. Also, we’re moving towards a model and this was one of the things we do almost exclusively in New York where we don’t deliver drawings. We deliver three-dimensional, fully-realized environments on the computer and then the contractor looks at those and the client is getting now a little more used to looking at those and it’s an entirely different speed with which we can work and conceptualize, uh, problems in construction and how to solve them that way.

Rob Leon:      

Do you guys use, uh, any, uh, augmented reality as well to, to visualize and help visualize?

Aaron Schiller:     

Our favorite moments so far was we had 150 lawyers in Oculus Go headsets wandering around the Coach space in Hudson Yards looking at their new office as if they were actually in it while it was in construction. And now was part of your earlier question to me about how do we communicate, uh, the design and what they’re getting used to. So, change management, we use augmented reality to show the employees what the new environment is going to look like what their new office is going to look like six months before they’re ever in it. So, expectations can start getting set.

Rob Leon:         

That’s awesome. And I think that to take it, another step is to actually get the tradesmen as well to, to go through that process to see what they’re building.

Speaker 3:               

So, we’ve done that two ways. We’ve held up iPads on a construction site while we’re looking at a demo room with a, with the screen on there that changes it into the reality of what we think the built environment will look like. And we’ve also put some, we’ll say more traditional, old school builders in augmented reality. And they’ve said many things that you can’t say on your podcast.

Rob Leon:        

Uh, I can only imagine what those are.

Aaron Schiller:         

They love them, they just can’t believe they didn’t have this in 1979.

Rob Leon:            

That’s true. That’s true. Well, this has been a great conversation, Aaron. I really appreciate you coming in.

Aaron Schiller:          

Thank you for having me, this has been a delight.

Rob Leon:              

And we will definitely be continuing this conversation as we, uh, as we go through and see the, uh, the development and the evolution of the business. Thank you. Okay. Thank you.