How Design and Architecture Firms are Diving into the Early Stage Planning Process

By Meghan Hall

Melissa Hanley. Photography courtesy of Blitz

One may think that the design of any space is approached with a more artistic eye than a pragmatic one, as it can be easier to notice color palettes and design accents than the calculated methods necessary to construct physical spaces. However, firms in the design and construction industry are looking at far more than just end finishes to guide their design principles, including San Francisco-based design and architecture firm Blitz. Established in 2009, the nearly 10-year-old-company is relying increasingly on measurable metrics and extensive client interview processes to create innovative and effective designs for a variety of commercial workplaces.

“The San Francisco Bay Area has a very data-driven consumer, and they’re looking for meaning behind their projects and data to back up their decision making,” explained Melissa Hanley, co-founder and managing partner of Blitz. “This market has a very particular interest in the ‘why’ behind the ‘what.’”

Hanley established the firm with her now-husband Seth after the pair was laid off from their previous company during the Great Recession. The couple noticed that as they won project bids, the normal methods architecture and design firms used to communicate with their clients were ineffective, prompting them to begin exploring other means of interacting with their clients about project milestones. 

“The San Francisco Bay Area has a very data-driven consumer, and they’re looking for meaning behind their projects and data to back up their decision making. This market has a very particular interest in the ‘why’ behind the ‘what.’”

“We were doing a lot of really big projects for schools and healthcare, and it was taking a long time to create something,” said Hanley. “Traditional project delivery was disenfranchised. We wanted a process that more than anything engaged our clients and created an outcome that was very specific to them, their processes and their own well-being.”

According to Hanley, Blitz’s design process is comprised of two primary parts. Hanley found that Blitz’s clients were — as is expected when entering a new industry or project — unfamiliar with the more technical aspects and terminology of architecture and design, and that they would rarely ask for clarification when confused.

“We talk like humans, not like architects,” said Hanley. “If you use fancy jargon, you’re going to have clients glazing over and nodding along, even though many of them are absolutely brilliant. This is a completely different set of skills, and so we try to keep a level playing field with a new language that is universally accessible.” 

Hanley chose to keep the specific language that Blitz uses with its clients close to the vest, stating that the specific lexicon the company uses is an important factor in differentiating Blitz from other firms. Hanley did say, however, that the point of this new communication process was to allow the client to become a co-designer on the project.

“Starting off, it is inherently theirs and inherently of them,” explained Hanley.

What follows is an extensive discovery process to get into the nitty gritty of who the company is, how Blitz’s design will impact the day-to-day operations of the firm and how the end result will work for everyone in the company, not just a select group of stakeholders. Blitz gathers data on a variety of metrics such as card reader data, desk usage and room booking data as well as conducting a variety of onsite observations to get a feel for their clients. Interviews with employees at all levels of the company are also conducted and incorporated into the methods Blitz uses to design work spaces.

“Any client can put together a requirements list, but that is relatively meaningless without context of who they are as an organization and why they function,” said Hanley. “We conduct a fairly intense investigation into who the company is, not who they say they are, to get into the ecosphere of the company.”

All of Blitz’s employees, even the junior designers, are involved in the evaluation and data collection process so that they are just as familiar with the project as the senior members of the team. Hanley also believes that their processes allow for better decision making early on in the design process — saving companies both time and money in a region of the world where construction costs rise daily.

In addition, the firm uses building information modeling (BIM) systems to produce designs in advance of construction to identify any challenges that may arise with the structural, mechanical, architectural or electrical aspects of the project prior to the construction team’s arrival on-site. The process makes the delivery of the project much smoother and also encourages stakeholders to think about the project first.

“We put the project at the center, because we need the project to be more than what any one person is looking for,” said Hanley. “It gets everyone involved thinking about what’s in service of the project.”

For Blitz, this methodology has been very successful and has allowed them to win major clients like ZenDesk, Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft in San Francisco. The firm recently opened up a Los Angeles office after a Southern California presence was requested by several of its clients, and to top it off Blitz was named as a member of the Upstart Class of 2018, which recognizes visionary Bay Area entrepreneurs. To date, the company has worked to design over 4,000,000 square feet of office space.

Blitz has more than 200 projects under its belt, and Hanley has slowly watched office design trends shift dramatically since her company’s founding in 2009. More and more, however, Hanley said that companies are truly looking for work spaces that are unique to their missions. Hanley says Blitz will keep working to continue refining its processes to provide clients with the best possible service.

“I’m seeing our clients thinking more about longevity and the value of quality,” she said. “They are recognizing needs are different and require different experiences throughout the day, and we really rally against the idea that one-size-fits all.”

  • Blitz, San Francisco, Bay Area, ZenDesk, Google, Yahoo, Microsoft
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