Leading architectural practice into the future
KvalhoTalks with Ivo Lenherr
CEO | fsp architekten
Welcome to KVALHO TALKSan online interview platform where innovators, entrepreneurs and changemakers share their experiences, views, trends and projects which transform, move and revolutionize the built environment.
This time I sit down together with Ivo Lenherr, CEO of fsp architekten – one of the most lean and digital architectural practices in Switzerland, known for use of unconventional methods for successful delivery of high-risk building projects. Ivo shares with us how he cultivates an innovation culture in his company and where he looks for inspiration to transform the way we work in the building industry.

Lets get started!

Could you give us a short overview of fsp and what is the core specialty of the company?
fsp Architekten is a part of MIC.MIND.SET which owns fsp architekten with a team of 60 employees in Spreitenbach near Zürich and sattlerpartner architekten with 12 people in Solothurn. We work on complex projects regardless of their size of function. It can be a skyscraper, hospital, campus or a house.

What do you mean by a ''complex project''?

Complex for us means one of the following: projects with high risks; challenges with the acceptance of the neighbours or obtaining a building permission; or a complex business case of the property operator. In such projects we spend most of our time on people's change and performance management; and the rest on designing architecture or infrastructure.
At the entrance to fsp office is a slogan '' Wir bauen nicht für uns'' (ENG: "We don't build for ourselves"). For whom do you build?
We build for our clients and moreover for the building users.
To understand and define the real client's needs, we usually start a project by hosting 2-3 workshops with them, building users and project stakeholders (authorities, neighbours, investors, etc). This helps us to establish a mutual understanding of the goals of the project and its business case. This exercise is in a way a project programming to understand KPIs, pains & gains. So for us architecture means design for value.
What does the design process look like from the first meeting with the client?
Usually we get appointed for projects which have some history. That means we might not be the 1st architect in the project. Often clients come to us by referral when they get disappointed by their current team and are in need for someone who can put the project on the right track. Before we start designing, we facilitate workshops to define a business case and model, target group and value stream.
More often than not clients don't have a full clarity on that so it is definitely helpful to do such work together and define risk and opportunities for a project success. Usually after the 3rd workshop we have enough information to translate the ideas into drawings and visualize the projects in a digital way. For that we use our in-house VR room or BIMx application where clients can immerse themselves into the project we co-created. This way of working leads to a great connection between all project partners and we see a lot of pride and passion in collaborating. We help our clients to express their project's ''WHY'' to a broader audience.
Is the way your practice works your USP?
Definitely. The building planning industry is a mass-market. In Switzerland itself there are approx. 10,000 architectural offices and majority of them work in a similar way guided by SIA. Of course, we have to all comply with these norms but here at fsp we do a few things differently.
First of all, we design spaces with end users in mind – not in ''architecture as a sculpture in mind. And then we use our unique processes (also digital tools) to deliver value for our customers and program a path to a successful project. For us, architecture is just a tool to deliver that value.
Can you please walk us through what technology you use in your planning, design and construction process?
We use VR on project we have in the office. Why? We not only want to help our clients to imagine their future project but also want them to experience the project on the emotional level. Using HoloLens takes us to another level where we can mix VR with AR and interact with the team members at the same time.
We believe that in the future the project information will be displayed directly on the lenses of individual team members not necessarily at the shared screen. For us working digitally means working closer with people, with their emotions and most importantly working collaboratively.
Can you recall the moment when you started the ''digital journey'' at your company?
There were a few incidents in my career which organically transferred into today's digital journey of the company. In 1992 I read a book Smart by Daniel Kündig, which was describing collaborative working on construction projects. This concept was fascinating for me, so I started involving specialist contractors into the planning stage of my projects. In year 2002 I got involved in the 340 mln CHF Infrastructure program by SBB to adapt 620 small railway stations to the future needs in 5 years. It was clear to us that we won't deliver this project with the current tools & construction project processes.
I started looking into the IT and automotive industry for inspiration what can be adapted from them. And this is where another major milestone happened.
After a visit to Porsche Consulting in Germany we adapted the lean management and production processes into our SBB project and at some stage even brought over the lean management institute from Germany to Switzerland and started collaborating with lean experts in Switzerland like Birgitta Schock. Working on the SBB project was definitely a big step towards digitalisation starting with lean construction, followed by BIM some years later and IPD (team collaboration). And this influenced the business and system model we now have for our practice today.
How did you implement digitalization into your company?
When I joined the company in 2011 we were 28 employees. As a first step, we made sure everybody works with the same method which we know will allow us to work efficiently. We believed that they are already great working methods created by others and so we started researching what could we adapt. I personally believe that Herzog & de Meuron has the best method for an architecture office so we decided to try it. The next step was to validate it and make sure this method works for us. The proof came after we won a 1st , 2nd and 3rd competition. Finding the right digital tools came later. Also, while working on an office project for Google, we realised that designing the right work environment for our team will contribute largely to our successful transformation. We invested in 1500m2 space and created an Architectural Office of the Future with a BIM Lab, ICE Room, VR Room etc.
The office concept is based on the combination of Business + Processes + People + Technology.
How did you transfer from analogue to a fully digital office? What would be your recommendation for those who want to achieve this?
First, we need to differentiate between software and technology. We invested in a new software 5 years after becoming digital.
Most of architectural offices have super sophisticated software but they use 5% of its capability. Its like having a Porsche and driving it like a VW Käfer.
Someone just told me recently that 80% of our industry still plans projects in 2D using a computer like a pencil for sketches. And for that they use a software, lets say Archicad or Revit which is capable of doing intelligent 3D models, run throughs etc. In our office we understand what we can do with the software. We have and only after we used its potential to the maximum did we invest in more sophisticated tool like Solibri for clash detection. We also wanted our clients to emotionally connect with their projects therefore we adopted technology and software from the gaming industry – VR, Hololens, Drones, twinmotion etc so they can fully immerse in the 3D model. So for us technology is also an emotional enabler.
Do your customers value the way you work?
The best feedback we get is when our clients come back for another project. We always treat our clients as our partners by involving them in the projects and design process and allowing them to be part of the creative journey.
What skills are among your team members?
Across our team of 70 people we have various architectural and technology skills. But we only employ architects and they then ''learn by doing'' how to efficiently use software and digital tools. A big part of our success is working with partnering companies from our network which we cultivated over the years. By now we are a solid group of appx 300-400 people from various companies with various skill sets. When a new project starts, we look for the right skills and the right team from within our partners.
How do you cultivate the culture of innovation within your company?
For this the team has to believe in the future of our vision and truly be part of creating our brand. And then you need to give them the room to learn and grow and make sure they succeed in what they do.
We also changed our leadership and management style and adapted (and continue doing so) to a cellular organisation structure. We now have 11 cells which are working on projects and the management board which is working on the company's future.
This structure allows a real dynamic in the company, it allows us to go faster into the future. Our working style attracts also a certain group of clients who want to learn from us and be part of our vision.
Do you work with startups ?
Yes we work and we invest in start-ups. When we need a specific technology, we either partner with the right provider or we set up our own company.
What will construction look like in 2030? In which areas do you see opportunities for improvement of the industry?
In the next years the disruption will come fast.
Most likely it will come from the outside of the industry in a form of a data platform (similar to Uber, Tesla or AirBnB). And the second big thing will be Mixed Reality and new tools related to this. I am convinced we will work very differently in 10 years from now. Who would think 10 years ago we will have the entire office available by mobile phone, right?...