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Lecture Review

2006 Rowlett Distinguished Firm Lecture 'Beck: Tearing Down the Silos’



By David G. Woodcock, FAIA, FSA, FAPT
Professor of Architecture
Director, Center for Heritage Conservation
College of Architecture, Texas A&M University

Editor’s note: The 2006 Rowlett Lecture, "Beck: Tearing Down the Silos,” focused on the Beck Group, a 93-year-old architecture, construction and real estate firm headquartered in Dallas. The following review, penned for Texas Architect magazine by David Woodcock, is reprinted here with permission.

On 3 February 2006 the CRS Center in the College of Architecture hosted the 2006 John Miles Rowlett generously endowed by the founders of CRS and Mrs. Virginia Rowlett in 1979. Once again, the afternoon event explored the inner workings of a major firm in the design and construction industry. The focus was on BECK, known to many as the general contractors on such outstanding projects as the highly-acclaimed Nasher Sculpture Gallery in Dallas, but gaining much attention on their dramatic transition to an integrated approach to “better buildings, better built, “ as their business card proclaims.

Managing Director and CEO Peter Beck’s philosophy is contained in his article published in Design Intelligence, 9 November last year. His article “Collaboration or Integration: Implications of a Knowledge-Based Future for the AEC Industry,” described the drawbacks to traditional design/bid/build project delivery, and suggested the use of computer-driven tools (many already existing in separate application modes) to allow a greater and more effective rate of knowledge exchange between all members of the design and construction team, to avoid wasted effort, and therefore high costs, in the creation and delivery of buildings. The article notes that major clients, like the General Services Administration in the U.S. and the British Airport Authority, are demanding a Building Information Model (BIM) as the common platform for all participants in the process.

The Beck Group, already a major player in the world of real estate, construction and technology, entered a new, and daring phase, when it merged with the well-respected, and design-oriented firm, Urban Architecture, in 1991. Rick del Monte, AIA, became a Managing Director of the newly integrated firm, described the integration process as challenging. Betsy del Monte, AIA, a Principal in the firm noted that their first project was a crash-deadline project to create new offices, using a process that gave equal status and equal value to the architects, engineers, estimators, and project managers. Modeling techniques that provided instant cost data allowed the design alternatives to be explored rapidly, and components, assemblies, systems and finishes to be proposed, priced, and coordinated, allowed the project to be delivered on time, though Ms. Del Monte also agreed that the process was challenging!

The discussion on case studies combined the perspectives of architects and project managers responsible for multi-million dollar projects. The SBC Headquarters had the added complication that the client did not want to own the building, putting Beck in the position of being owner but not user, and having to work backwards from the financial pro-forma and the client’s fixed expectations on the cost of the lease. The integrated approach, including Beck’s familiarity with the economics of development, allowed the firm to produce an exemplary piece of architecture, on the accelerated timescale demanded by the client, and meeting the exacting financial specification that allowed Beck to make a long-time success of the project. Like many of Beck’s major clients, SBC was also keenly interested in operating costs, and the new headquarters also met stringent LEED standards. Case studies for a major shopping center and a large church complex also demonstrated the unique opportunities for savings afforded by integrating the experience of seasoned professionals across the design/build disciplines. They also demonstrated the need for willing clients as well as a talented professional team!

The afternoon concluded with a demonstration of the software package that drives the Beck Group’s decision-making process from site selection to building management, described by Peter Beck as “technologies (that) radically improve current processes by integrating knowledge through encoded rules and algorithms.” The demonstration was made by Stewart Carroll, Director of Beck Technology, who admitted at the outset that, prior joining the firm, he had never seen a set of drawings for a building, never read a specification, and never been in a job shack! As Carroll provided site information, restrictions on building area, variations on plan and structure, interior configurations, and alternate materials for the building envelope on his laptop, the software provided instant data on their impact on building costs, efficiency, and other information that could guide decision-making by the team. Asked about the reliability of the cost data, it became clear that, like all good companies, Beck gains its information the hard way, they work at it! The Director of Pre-construction Services leads an experienced group of cost estimators, who maintain an effective finger on the pulse of construction and material costs.

In looking to the future Peter Beck made it clear that the integrated approach was “a work in progress.” The concept of integrating selected sub-contractors, whose work could be part of the initial design decisions seems attractive, but might call into question basic issues of open opportunities for trade. Nevertheless, the Beck Group’s attempt to develop a design and delivery process that relies on open communication and a single company provided much food for thought.

Inevitably, the academic setting raised a question about the education that would best prepare those who would enter a newly integrated field. Wisely, the Beck panelists spoke only generally about the need for individuals who were creative, open-minded, and who were skilled communicators.

Perhaps the only caveat about Rowlett 2006 would be the title of the event. Far from “tearing down the silos” the Beck Group relies on its staff to be some of the brightest, and most skilled and experienced in their fields. What is being ‘torn down’ is not the silo itself, but limited and constrained communication, based on ‘traditional’ models of business practice. It is being replaced with a real-time synergy within the process of designing and building. Bill Caudill, one of the founders of CRS, never faltered in his belief that the team relied on the individual strength of the players.

As with many exposures to the world of practice, academics must be sure to draw the right lesson. Success is based on in-depth understanding of one’s own field, and a willingness to respect those with whom you interact, and whose own preparation and experience comes from other fields. In a college like that at Texas A&M University, the advent of our second century must recognize that the strength of a team member derives from professional awareness, understanding and ability. Strong academic departments and curricula are essential to preparing future leaders. The ability to communicate and create begins with the discipline, and requires thoughtful and intense learning. Once the aspiring professional has acquired sufficient knowledge and confidence then, and only then, is it possible to begin developing opportunities for integrating educational experiences between disciplines. The Beck Group and senior students in Architecture and Construction Science successfully undertook such an integrative process in a fall 2005 design studio. Education for future practice is not a mirror image of practice itself. The Rowlett Lecture Series is indebted to the Beck Group for sharing their experiment, an experiment that reinforces the value of disciplinary strength, experience and judgment as the basis for any future practice mode.

• David G. Woodcock, FAIA, is professor of architecture at Texas A&M University and a Contributing Editor of Texas Architect.


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David Woodcock

Peter Beck delivers the 2006 Distinguished Firm Lecture

Peter Beck meets a student from the college of architecture