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How engineering giant BuroHappold democratizes tech innovation

The firm's Computational Collective initiative presents employees with “a different way of thinking and working.” 

August 27, 2019 |
How engineering giant Buro Happold democratizes tech innovation, Jewel Changi Airport project

Buro Happold has been building up to the Computational Collective initiative for a while: its Jewel Changi Airport project (shown here with its rain forest and floor-to-ceiling vortex), which predates the Collective, required five of the firm’s offices around the world to work together. Photo: Buro Happold


Four years ago, at one of its technology gatherings, the engineering firm BuroHappold concluded that “we weren’t connected enough as a company,” recalls Craig Schwitter, PE, a Partner who has been with the firm since 1992 and leads its multidisciplinary projects.

To take advantage of available communications tools, Buro Happold formed its Computational Collective, which Schwitter says presents the firm’s employees with “a different way of thinking and working.”


Buro Happold's feedback loop

The Collective now has 400 members across all of the firm’s practices and offices. “It’s a way of democratizing technology, and all you have to do to be in the Collective is to contribute to it,” says Schwitter.

Where the Collective is about encouraging employees to interact, BuroHappold has also recently established a data exchange framework BHoM (for Buildings & Habitats object Model), which Schwitter says emerged from the Collective and allows for practical interfaces among teams. Last year, the firm unveiled its open-source website, BHoM.xyz.

BuroHappold has been moving in this collaborative direction for a while. One of its recent signature projects—the 1.4 million-sf retail and lifestyle complex at Jewel Changi Airport in Singapore, with its 131-foot-tall indoor rain vortex that pours from an oculus within a glass-domed roof—required the engagement of several of the firm’s offices, including New York, Boston, London, and Hong Kong. Schwitter agrees that this project could be viewed as a precursor to the Collective.


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The ultimate goal of these changes, he says, is a process for tracking, measuring, and predicting human behavior for the purpose of designing and engineering better buildings. “How do you measure happiness, wellness? We see a future where we can measure the human experience. That’s like a light bulb going off for an engineer, and it’s a very motivating concept for me. But without data, we wouldn’t be able to even ask these questions.”


Innovations include digital twins for hospitals

Schwitter says BuroHappold is “very close” to being able to create digital twins for hospitals and other building types that incorporate human behavioral data. And one of Schwitter’s colleagues, Wolf Mangelsdorf, a Group Director and Partner with the firm, has formulated a “science of place” design strategy to multifamily housing, in what he calls “Wechselwirkungen.”

The intent is to reconcile design models and “interventions” that stem from community input with occupant and community needs, to create a continuous feedback loop that would define the criteria for deciding which design will works best.


Craig Schwitter, PE (at left), a Partner, says the Computational Collective has changed the way people within the firm communicate and work together. Photo: Buro Happold 

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