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Iceberg Logic

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Like buildings, icebergs come in all shapes and sizes. They can be beautiful and also a little mysterious. On average, only about 12 percent of an iceberg’s volume sits above the water line. What’s visible is quite small compared to the whole. The part that really matters, the part that provides buoyancy, is hidden from view, though we can sense its presence.

This is not a bad analogy for how design is often perceived. Architects tend to focus most on form and aesthetics — what you see is what you get. But a building is so much more than that. It’s impossible to tell just by looking at a building what it cost to construct or how much it takes to operate or how efficient it might be in terms of space utilization. Unlike cars, buildings don’t come with dashboards that provide real-time feedback about speed, fuel consumption, oil pressure, and so forth. But perhaps they should.

Studies have shown that over a building’s useful life, the original capital cost accounts for only about 12 percent of the total — just like an iceberg. The true cost (and the real value proposition) lies below the waterline  — out of sight and out of mind. It’s territory worth exploring.

Capital cost matters a great deal, of course, because it’s most often the gating issue that determines whether or not a project gets built in the first place. But it’s only a small part of the overall picture and, considered by itself, tells us relatively little. Capital expenditure reflects market dynamics at a given point in time. The cost of labor and materials can vary significantly over a relatively short period. To be meaningful, first cost must be measured against something. When considering the location, size, and program of a building, savvy owners understand that it’s not what you spend up front, it’s what you get back that counts. That’s why building lots in prime locations cost more and why zoning regulations matter so much. The largest possible structure built on the best available site will naturally generate the most cash flow and hence create the highest value. It will also consume more energy to operate and cost more in staffing, taxes, and maintenance. All these factors and more go into calculating the underlying value stream of a project. And it’s this underlying value — the part below the waterline — that provides the buoyancy needed to float the project.

Design matters, and of course this includes form, function, and aesthetics. But there’s more to it than that. For too many years, true value creation has not been part of the design dialogue between owners and architects. Remember that design can be both a verb and a noun — a process as well as a thing. The how is often just as powerful as the what. Great designers are always on the lookout for hidden meanings and new ways to inject something extra into the equation. For example:

- For a new office building, an architect managed to design a floor plate that was 90 percent efficient compared to the expected 84 percent, delivering more useful area (and resulting revenue) per square foot.
- For a new dormitory, an architect managed to include one additional floor while still respecting the height limit imposed by zoning. This created space for 50 additional beds, making it possible to finance the project.
- For a new hospital, design for nursing unit that required fewer staff to run efficiently saved $1 million in staffing and operational costs annually while still improving overall outcomes for patients.
- For a new hotel, compelling design helped raise the average occupancy from the normal 75 percent to nearly 85 percent. This increased sales in the restaurant, lobby bar, and shops.
- For a multi-tenant research lab, sophisticated metering systems allowed the tenants to monitor their individual energy use, saving more than 10 percent each year.

You get the idea. These are all real stories from real projects that have won multiple design awards. They were successful in unexpected ways because the design teams took pains to truly understand the owner’s underlying value proposition and roll it into their design approach. By considering all these factors, they were able to create more thoughtful, sophisticated solutions.

The lesson is clear: Focusing only on form, function, and aesthetics is forgetting the 88 percent of the iceberg that sits below the waterline. Ignore it at your peril.

by Scott Simpson , 2010

Published with permission of Design Intelligence­

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