Have you ever viewed a building or design as a product?
In this post, I aim to share the various aspects of the supply chain of architecture by establishing the parties, flows, products in the industry.
Linking supply chain management to the practice of architecture might seem distant for some of you, however, I hope that you have an open mind and take away information that is relevant to you and your work.
I will also identify the elements of supply chains and trends/forces of change that will affect the way we ‘supply’ architecture. Enjoy!
- What is a supply chain? Why is this important to know?
- The Supply Chain of Architectural Practice
- Parties involved and relationships along the supply chain
- Types of products & services in the building industry
- Forces of change that will affect the supply chain
- Emerging trends for Architectural Practice
What is a supply chain?
A supply chain is a network between a company and its suppliers to produce and distribute a specific product to the final buyer. This network includes different activities, people, entities, information, and resources. The supply chain also represents the steps it takes to get the product or service from its original state to the customer.
A supply chain involves a series of steps involved to get a product or service to the customer. The steps include moving and transforming raw materials into finished products, transporting those products, and distributing them to the end user. The entities involved in the supply chain include producers, vendors, warehouses, transportation companies, distribution centers, and retailers. 
Why is this important to know?
The definition of architectural services is increasingly becoming more fragmented (small firms) / integrated (large firms) and more specialised.
I hope that you, by understanding that there are opportunities to improve the ‘operations’ through at each stage of the delivery of architecture, will give you a better idea on how our industry can move forward to become more productive.
The Supply Chain of Architectural Practice
We start by understanding what a supply chain is - the sequence of processes involved in the production and distribution of a commodity. It consists of a network of entities and the bi-directional flow of materials, information and money.
Knowing and understanding the various parties, products/services and flow will help us understand the opportunities for improving the efficiency of 'supplying' architecture.
Where are you in the supply chain of Architecture?
1) Building as Product
Here we see the actual constructed building as the end product. Thus, we have the various suppliers for raw materials at the start of the supply chain followed by manufacturers, distributors (who sell the product - contractor and sub-contractors) and the customer (client).
2) Building Design as Product
Now, if the building design becomes the end product, we as architectural designers become part of the supply chain.
We become the suppliers for architectural design at the start of the supply chain followed by manufacturers (who will help finetune and check the design), distributors (who sell our services) and the customer who needs a design scheme (client).
Products and Services by Architectural Designers
The image below shows the various products and services that we architectural designers provide.
By summarising the end-products into stages, I want to highlight to you that sometimes clients want us to perform partial services based on certain design stage with the deliverables as applicable.
Understand the Flows within a Supply Chain
This is the most important concept and reason why we do what we do as architectural designers and architects.
The supply of architecture can only work when there is three bi-directional flows along the supply chain, material, information, financial.
People pay money in exchange for information and material.
Without either flow, the supply chain will not work.
Elements of the Supply Chain
After understanding what a supply chain is and what makes a supply chain, we shall learn more about the four elements of supply chain management and see how we can apply it architectural practice.
In this post, discover how a solid planning and execution of integration, operations, purchasing and distribution can help keep the supply chain strong and sustainable.
Each of these elements are all important and should be considered while managing a design and construction project.
Think about the constraints and resources available - make the best judgement, make necessary steps to reach a optimal (quality) output of the 'architectural product'
Where all parties should have the means to work together through communication and collaboration.
The opposite is to have different departments work in silo - this is why we are seeing an increase in interdisciplinary in-house building design companies.
Where the objective is to keep the supply chain strong and sustainable by monitoring the flows of resources to complete the product and getting it to customers.
Project managers play an important role in measuring workhours, timelines, costs and progress.
Where the objective is to ensure a ready supply of resources by spending money to hire and buy people and equipment respectively.
Being able to forsee when to spend and not to spend is crucial - it may lead to overspending or underspending, with the latter resulting in delayed or poor production.
Where the objective is to get the product to the customer, involving a well-planned shipping process.
Be it design as product or building as product, foresight is required to translate the input into outputs and also to actualise them.
Emerging Trends in Architectural Practice
In this section, allow me to describe the 4 main trends I see that are happening in the architectural industry.
By understanding these concepts, I hope you understand why some firms agree to merge, buy over other firms, diversify or establish certain speciality to stay ahead.
Separating or outsourcing resources.
Example: Separating architectural design studios into sub -teams: Research, Site Planning & Feasibility, Massing and Concept Design, BIM Modelling, Visualisation, Drafting
Combining various design fields.
Example: Combining various design services under one umbrella - architects, engineers, quantity surveyors and project managers
eg. DP, Surbana Jurong, CPG Consultants
Narrowing scope and doing it well.
Example: Choosing to only perform one type of service but doing it really well while neglecting the rest
eg. Digital fabrication, Transport Architecture, Rendering, Integrated BIM services
Branching out into other fields.
Example: Choosing to branch out into other forms of design, sometimes to look for opportunities to expand markets or having another creative outlets.
eg. WOHA Being (furniture),
FARM (graphic/print design)
Forces of Change (What will change architecture?)
After learning about the supply chain of architecture, we end with the understanding of the emerging trends that arise from the various forces of change.
The forces of change are technological, environmental, social, political and economical which involves the agents of change - client, government/authority, designers as well as all of us.
All of these changes lead to largely positive outcomes - a faster, better and stronger supply chain of architecture.
Advancing technologies for designing, visualisation & production of architecture. (eg. AI, data analytics, digital fabrication)
Changing market demand and prices of materials and costs of resources
Changing lifestyles and expectations
(eg. Sustainable design, Public spaces)
(eg. temperature, resources available, weather conditions, air quality)
Changing policies and laws regarding building design and construction
(eg. increased landscape replacement, construction efficiency)
The outcome of all these changes should be:
1) Faster - Increased speed of production due to technological advances or policy changes
2) Better - Higher quality output due to better checking systems and integrations/specialisations of various design expertise
3) Stronger - Sustainable and adaptable production of architecture
I hope that this series has exposed you to a different perspective on the practice of architecture when we distill design and/or building as product in terms of supply chain management.
As you learn about the forces of change, I hope we can be part of it and not left behind.
We are all agents of change and architecture will change, no matter how we like it.
Note: This information is my take of the way architecture is supplied. To avoid confusion, the product here is typically referred to the design and construction of the building(s) - unless otherwise stated.
Let me know in the comments if you find this analogy interesting or have other suggestions.
I love to hear from you!