October 22, 2009

Can the Toyota design approach help make great places?

  • By using set-based design, projects in the built environment can be fully investigated as opposed to following the central idea-scheme-based process common today.
    VOA Associates


    Occasionally there is a minor shift in perception that suddenly reveals a distinctly different view of how decision making can affect our physical world.

    In the mid-1990s, Toyota Motor Co. embarked on a brave new approach to product design after having spent many years following standard product development methodology. Much has been written and analyzed regarding the use of set-based concurrent engineering principles that led to a new generation of automobile products enthusiastically embraced by consumers and later copied by the competition.

    The challenge now is to derive a compelling methodology applicable not only to product design, but to the design and development of our communities.

    Set-based design

    The basic stages in set-based design
    • Early establishment of a vested collaborative team.

    • Engagement of a diverse group of authors with clear leadership.

    • Clearly stated, joint-authored, overarching guiding principles.

    • A well-defined development program.

    • Creation of a comprehensive list of variables.

    • Establishment of sets of assumptions, each with varying priorities.

    • Rigorous generation of alternatives based on the assumption sets.

    • Evaluation and selection of set-based alternates.

    • Development of alternates in greater detail.

    • Collaborative authorship in detailed development and evaluation.

    Currently, design and development of our built environment follows a point-based design mode organized around the goal of creating one central idea-scheme. Set-based design supports creation of multiple idea-schemes. Point-based design may look at many alternatives, now popularly created in design charettes, but aims to narrow the direction to a singularity as quickly as possible.

    The aim of set-based design is to fully investigate multiple idea-schemes concurrently through a high level of detail — the equivalent of design development — with the intent of creating one solution that is thoroughly understood, vetted and born of common authorship.

    Several key aspects of set-based design distinguish this process from our current methodologies for design, development and delivery of the things we build:

    1. The essential ingredient of diverse and pervasively applied knowledge by experts and stakeholders throughout the process.

    2. Leadership guiding creation of overarching guiding principles that serve as the measuring stick for the process.

    3. An intense drive to create alternate solutions by applying variable sets of influences and priorities.

    4. The commitment to develop a range of solutions to be developed in parallel to sufficient detail and then objectively evaluated against the guiding principles.

    5. The creativity to see connections and hybrid solutions that elevate the process beyond pure analysis in an ordered and systematic progression, from concept to completion of the product.

    Creating alternatives

    Designers and often engineers traditionally develop alternate models and enter into a process of elimination/selection with varying degrees of vigor and collaboration. Typically, in traditional methodology, a single point “hybrid direction” is adopted at an early stage in the design process and carried forward to ultimately become the final product. In the case of complex, multilevel decisions the weakness of this approach is that until the design decisions can be fully developed, the process is heavily dependent on the collective intuition of its authors.

    Use of the set-based design and decision-making process offers an alternative aimed at early engagement of diverse and meaningful input by a consortium of experts and stakeholders rigorously applied at each stage of design development. Several “alternatives” are developed representing variables in the set of assumptions and priorities. Eventually, all but one is eliminated, but not until each is fully evaluated against the guiding principles.

    Set-based design decisions

    Set-based design rejects the fast design of a one-time charette, instead insisting on ongoing multi-disciplined participation. It is not limited to design principals and owners reviewing alternative designs and intuitively settling on the concept that best suits the program. In lieu of fast-tracked design, set-based design offers thoughtful collaboration aimed at eliminating backtracking over early decisions.

    Ultimately, set-based design may use the charette as a tool, for it is good at generating alternatives and optimally transcends collaboration and essentially becomes co-authorship — the antithesis of the traditional “heroic” designer/grand master. The rigor of the process and analytical evaluation, always within the context of the guiding principles, avoids the tepid results of consensus-based design.

    With great intentions, the design-review process in Seattle attempts to coerce collaboration, but is simply an early infusion of intuitive suggestion and ultimately stifles the creative process. Where the system falters is that ultimately the design-review committee is a board of representatives administering generic ideals rather than vested participants.

    Set-based design is by no means a cure-all for any design weakness in our community, but if the development and design community truly embraced the goals of set-based design, design review in Seattle would not exist.

    Best for all situations?

    It is commonly accepted that there is an inherent duality running in parallel throughout all methods used for building delivery. The opposing forces of the creative impulse and pragmatic responsibilities establish a conflict-based process. Without intervention, it will find its inevitable collision points. Set-based decisions offer multiple intervention points where the decisions must be evaluated by the development team against the project’s established and commonly held guiding principles.

    In the alternative point-based decision process, the typical intervention would be a value-engineering cycle. At this point in the process, the analyst is handed a potential solution (occasionally with alternates). The job then is to be as creative as possible in researching and developing alternatives that increase the value of the project, all done however without the foundational experience that led to the proposal being evaluated.

    With set-based decision making, participants meet regularly to evaluate multiple concepts which are developed in parallel until one is selected for final development. It is expected that the overlapping aspects of parallel concepts will not only cross fertilize, but also open vistas into hybrid solutions that would not otherwise have been apparent.

    In a design-build delivery with a proactive owner/user, it is very likely that this approach will yield similar checks and balances. It is however, missing participation in the formation of the essential guiding principles in the design program. The design/builder assumes the principles without the benefit of fully understanding what underlying forces shaped them. Eventually, this handicaps the design-build team’s input to the project — the most visible outcome would be inefficiency, yet far more subtle inaccuracies will arise.

    Where project programs are not complex or require very specific technical solutions, point-based design with a proactive development team can be quite satisfying. On the other hand, when there is a broad range of variables influencing the project — such as complex user/occupant functional criteria, potential multi-layered applications for technology and diverse site/community issues — the situation calls for a more disciplined, whole system approach that sorts out the hinge points and opens the way for creative ideas.

    An example

    Among the many complex design/decision-making opportunities facing our community, none more imperatively deserves application of the set-based approach than developing our built environment. Consider the broad-based dialog about the guiding principles in progress for redevelopment of Seattle’s urban waterfront. More than likely, a set-based approach would uncover all aspects connected with the notion that the waterfront is simply a segment of the larger urban need.

    On a scale not before achieved in this city, we may be able to devise a plan that connects Seattle Center to the stadium district, makes the east/west connections useful to the urban core, and sets the stage for our central park.

    Ultimately, the design/development team for this effort will reveal competing interests that drive design priorities, a situation ideal for set-based design and decision making. The eventual investment, not only financial, and ultimately the significance of this opportunity, can best be manifested through rigorous set-based design.

    Peter G. Anderson, AIA, LEED AP, has been a practicing architect in Seattle since 1977. He spent 25 years in private practice involved in community design, health care, hospitality and destination resort master planning. In 2008, he merged his firm Imago de Lineo with VOA Associates Architects, where he serves as Northwest regional director.

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