Digital design and fabrication have been transforming architecture for some time now. To keep apace, large and midsize firms can consider adding a chief technology officer (CTO) to the team. Here, several CTOs relay how their work and expertise have benefited their respective firms.
Consider Your Goals
For CannonDesign, the need for a CTO became clear in 2016 when the 24-office firm opened a private data center outside Chicago for additional digital file storage and computing power. Soon after, the practice hired Hilda Espinal, AIA, to guide its digital design and technology strategies. “Technology [isn’t] something you [can] live without or ignore these days,” she says.
While some firms may have a chief information officer to manage IT infrastructure, CTOs have a more strategic role that is focused on company-wide innovation. The position requires a deep knowledge of not only computational tools and workflows but also of architectural practice and market trends. “You have to be intimately knowledgeable of the profession and technology so that you can marry these strategically,” Espinal says.
But for firms to create such a role, they must be ready to embrace digital transformation. “You should hire a CTO if you’re going to empower them to do what they’re excited to do," Espinal says. "But don’t do it for name, you’re shooting yourself in the foot,”
Embrace New Perspectives
Finding an individual with a forward-thinking, bird’s-eye approach to integrating design and technology is key to leveraging a CTO’s full potential. Cory Brugger, Assoc. AIA, who began as CTO at HKS’s Los Angeles office in February, says his enterprise-level role—meaning it joins those who are responsible for internal workplace management—comes with its share of day-to-day tasks: developing firm-wide policies and procedures for data governance, overseeing the patent process for new design technologies, and ensuring advanced visualizations satisfy client and contractor expectations.The bulk of his work, however, centers on reconceptualizing the role of technology within the firm.
Citing the 2016 McKinsey & Co. report “Imagining Construction’s Digital Future,” which names the construction industry as among the least digitized of 22 market sectors—just ahead of agriculture and hunting—Brugger notes that architecture has much to learn from healthcare, transportation, hospitality, education, and other fields further along the digital transformation curve.
In that regard, one of Espinal’s responsibilities is to forecast how emerging technologies might alter the size, arrangement, and use of physical facilities for CannonDesign’s clients. When she recently accompanied CEO Brad Lukanic, AIA, on a pitch to a prospective healthcare client, Espinal proposed limiting the size of some patient rooms in anticipation of the predicted industry-wide transition to automated health screenings—an idea that helped the firm win the project.
In another initiative Espinal helped advance, CannonDesign recently partnered with Nvidia, a Santa Clara, Calif.–based interactive graphics company, to inform and shape a virtual reality platform called Holodeck that allows architects and clients to enter an immersive 3D building model as avatars represented with rich body language and facial expressions. It is being used, she says, to woo clients and make design development more experiential: “We want to embed ourselves in this new technology and be at the leading edge of virtual reality and immersive technology.”
Diversify Your Offerings
As advanced building models and visualizations become integral to winning business, CTOs can help firms expand their services to stay competitive in an evolving marketplace. "The way technology is applied to architecture practice is just a stop gap," Brugger says. "The real goal is to figure out how innovation is driven not by tools, but by rethinking what we do.”
Shiva Rajaraman, WeWork’s San Francisco–based chief product officer—the company’s CTO equivalent—exemplifies how a CTO may redirect a firm from its initial business model. “We are analogous to an architecture firm in many ways,” Rajaraman says. “We design environments and employ people to learn what works and what doesn’t. But we’re the arbiter of the [occupant] community on top of that.”
Fundamentally, WeWork rents desks, private offices, and larger spaces in buildings they lease and renovate. But the company also harvests data about occupants’s habits and preferences by embedding sensors and digital interfaces into its buildings. “The most exciting part is to create environments that learn and adapt to the needs of the people using them ... and using the data to affect the layout of the space,” Rajaraman says.
Since arriving in August 2017, Rajaraman has helped build the roughly 600-person technology division that now actively uses insights from WeWork’s proprietary occupancy-monitoring system as the basis for automated floor templates and iterative design decisions. He is working to leverage the value of such insights by incorporating them into the suite of design and real estate services that WeWork offers under the name Powered by We. With this program, the company is redesigning the offices of large organizations, such as the financial services company UBS Group—projects that conventional architecture firms might have won in the past.
“Every small thing matters when you’re talking about scale, and when people will be working in spaces eight to 10 hours a day,” Rajaraman says. “I’d love to have as much fluidity with bricks as pixels.”
This story has been updated since its original publication.