When design firm Six Degree Architects were engaged by Victoria’s Department of Education to transform the existing heritage listed Sandridge Post and Telegraph Office (JJ Clarke 1887) and Naval Drill Hall (1911) in Port Melbourne into a new environmental arts hub for year nine students, their brief involved maintaining the heritage aspects of the original façade but creating spaces within that which inspired students to learn.

When going about this, the architects carried out research where they analysed students whilst they were learning and looked at how they went about their activities. They also worked with the school’s principal to ensure that the design responded to student needs.

As a result, what is now known as the Albert Park College Environmental Arts Hub is an inspiring learning space which has won a smattering of awards.

That process of analysing the students is known as ethnographic research – a qualitative research method which involves analysing how people approach challenges in their ordinary environment.

It is one strategy which Kirsten Mann, Global VP Product Experience, Construction and Engineering, Global Business Unit at Oracle, says Australia’s construction industry could borrow from the software industry. Speaking her company’s Construction Technology Summit held in Melbourne last month, Mann talked about five techniques which are commonly used in the software sector which could be applied in construction.

First, there is ethnographic research. As mentioned above, this involves going into the field and observing how people approach various challenges in real life. Doing this often yields insights beyond simply talking to people or relying on surveys, Mann says, as it reveals what people do in reality as opposed to what they simply say they do.

According to Mann, such research is common in the software industry and is used to enable developers to create products and programs which best assist users to resolve their challenges. In construction, she says understanding the people for whom we are building is important in creating places which best suit their needs.

This is important not just for architects but also for other project team members who can use such insights to contribute to design.

Next, there is the need to use and harness data. Whilst terms such as data warehousing, data mining and big data can appear to be overwhelming, Mann says data which is collected is valuable only when it is used to drive better decision making.

In the software industry, one important type of data is usage data. This shows companies like Oracle and others how people use or apply certain software or applications when going about solving their problems.

This, Mann says, is particularly useful when combined with ethnographic research. Usage data indicates what people are doing with certain products. Only when combined with ethnographic research will this also yield insights about why they are doing it.

In construction, Mann says companies such as Bosch, Reconstruct and others are doing significant things with data which is raising productivity on site through real-time reporting and predictive analysis.

Third, there are experience maps, in which insights from both usage data and ethnographic research are combined to map the journey people take when attempting a specified task. This includes all of the ‘touch-points’ which they have both within their organisations as well as externally as they go about their work as well as the emotions which they feel along the way.

In the software industry, Mann says Oracle uses experience maps to illustrate customer journeys when using and purchasing Aconex. They have also created maps for experiences the firm wishes to create at its Oracle Construction and Engineering Innovation Lab.

In construction, an example of how to apply this can be seen through the approach used to design the Flinders Gate project in Melbourne opposite Federation Square which will be used to house John Holland as an anchor tenant. Workplace strategy consultants Calder Consulting analysed John Holland’s workforce to look at different patterns of workforce behaviour and what the workplace of the future would most likely look like. From there, design firm Decibel Architecture generated a list of experience maps to identify how the office could adapt and promote collaboration among teams who are of different sizes and who are at varying stages of projects.

Another example is Perth Stadium, which was developed by Arup and delivered by contractor Multiplex. Here, a BIM specialist team was set up to develop and overall design, construction, operation and maintenance strategy for Multiplex to use. Their objective was not just to create a landmark stadium but also amazing experiences. A fan-first design approach was taken and techniques such as pedestrian modelling were used to analyse how people would engage with the assets and what they could do around them. From that, they created not just a stadium but a precinct featuring ovals, restaurants, running/walking tracks and playgrounds. Experiences were mapped for transport, including how people would access the stadium, through cars, busses or trains. Given a desire to make all customers feel like VIPs, the final design resulted in rail commuters dropped right outside the stadium entrance. As a result, patrons have been spared the need to walk often one or two kilometres between the station and the stadium entrance.

Ethnographic research was employed by Six Degree Architects when designing the Albert Park College Environmental Arts Hub in Melbourne (image source: Six Degree Architectects

Whist the aforementioned points deal with building users and end customers, Mann says the last two techniques deal with how project teams themselves work together.

One strategy known as ballet boxes involves a box into which project team members can deposit suggestions about how to work together more effectively.

The last one involves retros – meetings which occur every two weeks and which focus around four areas: what’s working and should be maintained, what is not working and requires change, ideas for improvement and commitments for the next two-week cycle.

According to Mann, these should focus not only upon work-in-progress but also how the team is working together. They should not be driven by managers but rather owned and led by the project team.

Speaking on this last point, Burcin Kaplanoglu, Executive Director, Innovation Officer, Oracle Construction and Engineering, said these type of activities are rare in the construction sector as project participants struggle to find time amid the ongoing need to attend to more urgent matters.

That is a pity, he says, as construction project teams tend to work two to three weeks ahead. In light of this, he says the value of looking objectively at those four things every two or three weeks should not be underestimated.

Kirsten Mann, Global VP Product Experience, Construction and Engineering, Global Business Unit at Oracle, says Australia’s construction industry could borrow five techniques from the software industry

Finally, Mann says leaders in construction need to champion cultural change so that both project team members themselves and those for whom the sector is constructing are suitably valued.

“Leaders in the construction industry and of organisations need to champion change for the culture into organisations which value people and also value the people they are building things for and making sure that project team members understand that,” Mann said.

Australia’s construction sector excels at working with tangible objects to create physical buildings and infrastructure.

By learning from the software industry, we can drive greater focus upon both those for whom we are constructing and those with whom projects are being delivered.