Be a builder, not just an owner!

August 11, 2010

Pardon me if I gush too much, but I must urge you to read "Master of the House: Why a Company Should Take Control of Its Building Projects," in the October 2005 Harvard Business Review.

In it, David Thurm, VP/CIO of the New York Times Company, eloquently describes the company's role in working with its Building Team—Renzo Piano, FXFowle, Gensler, Flack + Kurtz, and development partner Forest City Ratner—on its new 52-story, 1.5 million-sf flagship building, now under construction.

From his opening statement—"Coming in on budget and on time isn't good enough"—Thurm makes mincemeat of the accepted practices in the design and construction industry. "Unless your voice is in the mix, you will get, at best, well-intentioned guesses by others as to what you want," he warns.

He urges building owners to "articulate a vision ... in short, be a builder, not merely an owner." He inveighs against "soulless, mediocre buildings that miss two tremendous opportunities—to say externally what the business is about and to say internally what the company aspires to be." Like it or not, he says, "all your buildings reflect your identity."

Thurm challenges owners to "forget the conventional wisdom that a well-designed, well-conceived building that elegantly and distinctively conveys your company's image will cost significantly more than an ordinary structure. It needn't; in fact, it will increase the value of your investment."

Owners, he says, "need to provide leadership to counteract the surprisingly risk-averse nature of the construction industry." One "construction professional" told Thurm, "I want to be the first one who does something for the second time." He was "quickly replaced."

Thurm is a strong advocate of the Building Team concept: It is "all the more important for the building's owner to take special care in assembling the team ... and in setting the tone for its work. Each member has a unique perspective and skill set, and the power of all these independent voices will be greater if the owner has taken the effort to hire wisely and create the proper team dynamic."

You'll learn how the team pushed Lutron and MechoShade to come up with a dynamic lighting/daylighting system. How they invented a new curtain wall that saves energy while opening up the newsroom to the public. How they found the right height for office cubicles.

Thurm concludes with this statement: "[A] business doesn't cede control of its core marketing, sales, and strategic decisions. Similarly, there is no reason to divorce yourself from the process of creating the environment for your business. Buildings are simply too large an investment to ignore. Push your organization to articulate its values. Convey those guiding principles to your consultants. Then work to ensure that those values are translated into a wonderfully designed and innovative structure that is a productive place to work. Whether or not you make these efforts, the financial investment is the same; the effect on your company will be remarkably different."

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