Outsourcing in building design is growing, while there are still impediments to widespread adoption. We outline and discuss below the specific challenges our industry is facing as it transitions to a new workforce model which is sweeping the globe.
In what was more than a year to forget, one of the few positives is that we have learned to leverage technologies facilitating remote work, with many employers shifting their perspective on the capabilities of their workforce to operate efficiently from home – acceptance is growing to a changing work environment. You can read more about the impact of Covid on work practices now and into the future here but in summary this year’s events have certainly opened eyes to a new perspective on how work is done.
The Rise of the Freelancing Economy
We don’t envisage an industry solely, or even heavily dependant on remote working freelancers. Outsourcing in building design involves not only individual freelancers, but also smaller specialist firms who can supplement prime consultants.
However, looking at the rise of freelancing generally does present some insightful and related emerging trends. The freelancing market contributed $1.2trillion to the US economy last year. Even prior to 2020 freelancing was already on the rise in many industries with approximately 57million Americans, close to 35% of the working population, earning income through freelancing1. Studies also show that freelancing is more popular amongst the younger population, who are very positive about the prospects for freelancing in the future. Although traditionally heavily dominated by tech professionals, freelancing is also on the rise within engineering and architecture as outlined in the fig below. If current rates continue the majority of the workforce will be freelancing by 2027.
It’s not just the quantity of remote and freelance workers that are increasing, it’s also the quality and this is set to continue. Employees will continue to seek more opportunities to enhance flexibility in terms of work location and work life balance.
Importantly there is evidence to suggest that freelancers and independent contractors are more motivated to upskill as their career opportunities depend heavily upon it. Although freelancers don’t have access to the training and learning opportunities the corporate world offers, freelancers actually participated in more skill training than non-freelancers according to an extensive 2019 survey. In addition freelancing and outsourcing gives access to specialized skills on demand, with less upfront risk and often lower costs. Let’s discuss how this relates to outsourcing in building design.
Outsourcing in Building Design
We are seeing at least some outsourcing occurring more in our industry with the growth of technology adoption – especially when it comes to BIM. A recent report by JBKnowledge9 including thousands of construction respondents showed that out of the 64.3% of respondents using BIM in some capacity, approximately 22.5% of respondents outsource their BIM work, with 11.8% of firms outsourcing BIM entirely.
Many in the industry see BIM and computational outsourcing as a fairly natural transition. There are several emerging computational companies targeting this aspect of outsourcing in building design such as Design-to-Production and VIATechnik. Let’s look at the reasons why the industry is suited to outsourcing before investigating some of the challenges.
Why our industry is suited to outsourcing:
Construction design is heavily project driven and is prone to frequent ebbs and flows of workloads as we move from one deadline to another. One week you’re working 90hrs, the next you’re twiddling your thumbs. There is of course a way to manage and distribute workload amongst in-house staff, but our industry is intrinsically deadline driven and is very inconsistent in terms of workflow that is to a large extent based on forces outside of our control. Having a small/medium in-house team supplemented by experts you can trust is a good model to tackle the fluctuating nature of work in the industry.
Joint venture outsourcing, where two small specialized companies join forces and pool their expertise opens up a whole new market to smaller firms otherwise limited by their in-house expertise. We see outsourcing and work sharing as a great way for small/medium firms to team up and with other small firms/experts in a particular aspect of design so as to compete in a highly fragmented market which is increasingly dominated by giant firms who are able to afford inhouse teams for many specialist design types. The industry is highly fragmented because of high risk4 and has led to an industry overflowing with Individual specialists that can do the job much faster than an in-house team. You can read more about how large firms are dominating a highly fragmented industry here. We also see it as an opportunity to team up with local designers, subject matter experts and seasoned industry leaders to help guide you through a part of design within which you have yet to develop an in-house expertise. This extends your capabilities, reduces your risk and opens up many opportunities without having to invest upfront in permanent staff.
In a globalized economy we are increasingly using similar software to collaborate, analyze and draft drawings. This facilitates access to remote workers from across the globe to assist with tasks and operations that are not as foreign as they once were. Even before the advent of BIM technology (see our BIM article), the gig economy was already well established in fast-paced industries such as computer science, finance and product design. This has spread to other industries through the help of open source and Big Data, generations of software optimization, cloud platforms and communication apps. These technological advancements are already blurring the geographical differences and are making remote work much easier. As noted above, 2020 also enhanced trust.
The number and quality of freelancers is rising as noted above. In the building industry there are particular tasks which require knowledge of local codes and/or experience in a particular type of design. Much more professionals are understanding that they don’t have to work under the umbrella of a larger firm and get paid a fraction of the actual value they add. As this market of experts grows, the challenge of finding the experienced designers with the experience you need is reduced. As digital platforms that guarantee a constant stream of lucrative projects grow, so will the quality and magnitude of outsourcing talent seeking greater flexibility and pay per hour worked. 75% of freelancers stated that freelancing increases their earning potential.
Challenges associated with Outsourcing in Building Design
There are challenges that need to be addressed. Whilst some of these obstacles can be quite easily shifted as the perception of outsourcing changes and clients become more amenable to at least some degree of outsourcing by firms taking on large contracts, challenges associated with quality, lack of local code knowledge and life safety concerns are perhaps the biggest impediment many detractors voice.
Unless you are a global giant, attempting to assemble a specialist team for all the challenges a construction design project presents is virtually impossible. However, many small and medium sized firms have difficulty trusting the quality an outsourced professional can provide. In this industry when people hear freelancing/outsourcing, some view this work model as simply a process of carelessly subcontracting part of your work over to another part of the world with a lower cost of living, where a heedless, low quality design solution bereft of crucial local experience or code knowledge is cobbled up. This is not how we see it and understand it. As an industry where life safety concerns and regular threats of litigation are present, it demands a workforce who are extremely thorough ,diligent, qualified and understand the ethical concerns of the architectural and engineering practice.
In every design project there are levels of complexity, level of completion, level of local knowledge required. We see early stage design deadlines and tasks which are not dependent on local expertise – such as early stage BIM work- as a good example of where many design firms have already started to outsource successfully. The leading EOR or AOR will need to have complete control over major deliverables, especially at the construction documentation phase of the design. But between those times there is a window of opportunity for outsourced, highly talented and vetted staff to set you on your way and supplement an in-house team during high pressure deadlines.
Having access to a trusted platform which allows you to build teams with other small firms and compete with bigger designers will facilitate the gig economy and its creative potential. Vetted experts may enhance your expertise and ability to tackle a project within a specialist field they are more familiar with. Contracting a vetted local expert for projects where you need local experience or specialist knowledge for a project to supplement and guide your inhouse team can also expedite the design process, help build in-house expertise and lower risks.
A Platform for Outsourcing and knowledge exchange
As outlined above, for employers trust is one of the key issues associated with Outsourcing. Another issue is convenience – how do you find the designer with proven experience in the specialization you need? Relying on contacts and friends referrals work to a certain degree, but wouldn’t it be much better if you have a pool of experts that you can choose from, at the most competitive rate and with the exact credentials, and experience you need?
For the outsourcing firm, or individual designer having a constant stream of projects, from trusted clients with industry experience is important. Another important resource, especially for individual designers, is having access to a community of other experts with whom you can build teams and learn from their expertise.
On our platform you can connect with designers and engineers with passion and levels of experience and knowledge you can trust. You can find individual experts or team-up with another specialist firm. We have minimum entry requirements and we vet community members individually. We also rank and badge experts based on credentials, so whether you need a BIM professional with extensive knowledge of the latest emerging technology or a 30 year industry veteran you can easily find them on our platform.
We are also about community building and advocating innovative, sustainability focused design trends. We guarantee quality expert outsourcing and facilitate access to a community where you can learn, collaborate, connect and grow. Read more in About Us and please share thoughts if there are ways we can improve or meet the needs of the industry better. We hope this article has opened your eyes to the future of outsourcing in building design.