constructivist ideas in practice

fiona duggan Fiona Duggan is founding director of FiD, a London-based consultancy set up in 2006 to work with organisations and institutions undergoing change. Using a combined background in architecture and organisational psychology, Fiona works independently and in collaboration with others, seeking ways through which the design and use of space can support organisational change over time.

Mary: Fiona, we’ve had many conversations about our consulting work over many years, but there are two interesting features of your work that I would like to explore today: firstly I am aware that, more concretely than most of us, you need to help people anticipate and imagine their future as they consider plans for enduring built spaces, and the other question is how you help to generate the kinds of conversations that are needed across the competing interests, roles and responsibilities involved in all stages of planning for academic environments.

Fiona: The starting point is often one of understanding different timescales - the providers of buildings who tend to focus on the long-term (how will space meet the changing needs of users over time?) and the users of buildings who tend to focus on the short-term (how will space meet my everyday needs?). So, from the outset, I'm trying to gather information in a way that gives people an experience of the kinds of conversation they will need to have. For this to happen, it seems to be more helpful to have some ideas and information available right from the start. Introducing some 'ideas to think with' into initial conversations (these are some of the things I’ve been hearing recently from staff and students on other projects ... are you experiencing anything similar? ... can you help me better understand what might be going on here?) tends to generate more open discourse. I guess what I'm trying to articulate via this approach is that users need to listen to their buildings as much as buildings need to listen to their users. Buildings and users learn from each other by adjusting to each other needs over time. Without a good understanding of this process, buildings and people can inadvertently ask each other to do very difficult things.

I can understand that users’ contributions will tend to focus on current priorities – how do you start to move that on?

I've learnt that asking people about what they want tends to focus conversations on their current environment - this provides a useful familiarity for reference but it's not always the most helpful starting point for considering future requirements. Buildings take a long time to come into being. Asking people about what they do tends to lead towards more exploratory consideration around different ways in which space might support activities. However, there can still be a tendency to limit explorations to familiar solutions. I've found that users get less hooked on space requirements where conversations are around we're these kind of people, and this allows me to put forward space possibilities that users may not have considered.

Could you describe an example?

For academic environments, ideally I would like the first conversation with users to be about exploring learning and working as a social process, finding your tribe, as it were (what are the cultural rules and norms of your academic group? ... what do people need to learn in order to become fully accepted as a member of your community? ... what are your characteristic ways of thinking and relating? ... how would I recognise a scientist, a geographer, an artist? ... and so on). The answers start with some stereotypes and some fun, but go on to generate really useful information. For example, an academic recently told me that even his pure science colleagues (the ones who might feel shy about looking you straight in the eye) want to be part of a community, and I was already thinking about the kinds of spaces they would be likely to feel more or less comfortable in and the possibilities there might be for responding to their preferences or extending them. Another example would be in care homes where socially diffident people like to sit just off the main circulation routes - to watch and be connected, but to have a bit of distance. A knowledge of how space tends to work makes it more likely that the desire for community can be met in ways individuals feel comfortable about.

And people are telling you this by describing the kinds of people they are rather than ‘knowing’ how they use space?

Yes, they are talking about personalities and values, the kinds of things that define who they are and what's important to them. They are talking about what they know well, and I'm converting what I'm hearing into spatial ideas that I can reflect back to them. In this way, I can prompt conversations towards various ways of looking. We can explore how people might seek to belong to both communities and networks, the former by defining and strengthening identity, the latter by extending opportunities to interact and collaborate. It's pure Kelly and PCP. By exploring personalised and permeable space, we can talk about ways of meeting individual and group needs. This might include the need for privacy as well as the need for transparency, for solitude as well as collaboration. We can have conversations about inviting in and reaching out. The focus tends to be around both/and rather than either/or. For example, we hear a lot about the need to break down silos in today's workplaces. In this both/and form of discourse, we can explore the positive role silos may continue to play in defining our identities while also being aware of the dangers of overusing them.

So options are not presented as opposites we have to argue for, but dimensions of choice worth exploring?

Yes. This is a very different process from taking a position and defending it. A situation is created where a variety of alternatives can be held in play. Space doesn't prescribe behaviour, but it can certainly enable or hinder activities, so it helps to be clear about the kinds of behaviours and activities that are important to people. This brings us back to values. Space is a neutral canvas upon which we express our values, both consciously and unconsciously. I feel it's important for those discussing their space requirements to understand this. So, a conversation about academic offices would, in my view, need to explore symbolic as well as practical needs. A helpful way to start this conversation is to ask people to complete a series of sentences (functionally, my office is important to me because ..., emotionally, my office is important to me because ..., symbolically, my office is important to me because ...). While people tend to argue their case on functional grounds, I've found that the emotional and symbolic conversations are more important. They're also more difficult. How do people respond to these unfamiliar explorations? Most people seem to find it energising - they experience a freshness to what has sometimes become a tired debate. Those who are drawn to more than one point of view are relieved to have the opportunity to voice possibilities that lie outside of strongly held opposites. Others can get frustrated, especially if they were expecting very detailed conversations around space requirements. And some, usually those who have very fixed viewpoints on what's required, can be upset by a style of discourse that's not debate-led. But I've found that, for this type of work, a debating-style approach tends to reinforce the status quo rather than open up the possibility for reflecting on current practice and looking ahead to the future. I proceed tentatively (these are the kinds of things we can consider), trying to turn some of the conversation into a story, a story about who they are and what they might want to do, and perhaps do differently.

So you are steering the conversation in a way that takes some of the emotional heat out?

I'm generally working in situations that are complex and unclear. I need to do a lot of listening and I'm increasingly wondering if I may also need to do a lot more leading. I'm still finding my way on what the balance might need to be in each particular instance. The search for clarity and focus can cause anxiety and frustration, while unrealistic expectations can lead to disappointment. Everyone knows more than someone. By bringing together information, ideas and values from different sources, I hope I am creating an enhanced understanding of context, enabling people to work more confidently and calmly with their own unique situation. I use spatial information to reflect back what I'm hearing (you have said this, spatially it would mean that). I’m not questioning right or wrong. I'm simply giving people a picture of the spatial implications of their position by sharing with them what space does and doesn’t enable.

You mentioned leading as well as listening, and I guess you are referring to how you blend this kind of facilitation with your own technical expertise?

I can use a general knowledge of space to open up the possibility of what some would consider to be no-go conversations. For example, few people realise that up to 20-30% of space in any building can comprise circulation space. This can be a useful starting point for exploring the opportunities this amount of space might provide for contributing to the kinds of environments people typically say they want (a sense of belonging, feeling welcome, pride in our work, opportunities for interaction, natural light and views, awareness of others, and so on). The idea is to get people to stop and think, rather than automatically repeat the common academic building typology of double-loaded corridors with hidden offices on either side (similar to, say, bedroom corridors in hotels). I'm not for a minute saying that offices may not be required for academic environments. Rather, I'm suggesting that 20-30% of a space budget has the potential to be used for more than simply getting people from A to B, and that this particular building typology might be worth unpacking to incorporate additional ways of supporting the complexity of academic work. And I'm sometimes taken aback by just how threatening this suggestion is - there can be a lot of energy invested in keeping things as they are.

I have often been aware when we discuss our work that while I am dealing in intangible imaginaries such as leadership or collaboration, you are working towards a fixed and long-lasting building. I am guessing that will affect people’s sense of investment in what’s at stake, and perhaps the threat of getting decisions ‘wrong’.

Discussions around time can be very helpful here. We can explore what a building might be expected to do for users over its lifetime and, in doing so, demonstrate how a building is likely to have at least 3 times the life-span of an academic career. This helps to explain why those responsible for providing and managing a building need to be mindful of a bigger picture, in addition to the day-to-day working lives of its current users. There can be considerable tension between academics (those who use space) and estates (those who provide/manage space) over defining optimum space requirements. Part of my role is to suggest ways in which space can support more than one set of requirements - the every-day needs of users to carry out their work effectively and enjoyably, the long-term needs of a building to accommodate change over time in affordable ways. What this amounts to is a bottom-up/top-down approach that seeks to support both natural and planned change. So, for a new building, I will be exploring the specific requirements of the intended first users as a subset of typical requirements for possible future users. I try to keep shifting the conversation between exploring general ideas for guidance and considering specific ideas for testing (e.g. by looking at possible floor plans). It’s about putting forward scenarios and asking people to engage in ‘what if ...?’ kinds of conversation. Facilitating the process in this way, I'm also an opinion and an expertise.

Whose power will shape the space? A big issue in these conversations?

The ownership and influence of power generally depends on the level of commitment being addressed, e.g. decisions with long-term consequences, such as introducing a major new discipline or creating a new building, will tend to be top-down rather than bottom-up. But there is considerable scope for voices at all different levels to shape space. I've seen one institution deal with departmental conflict around competing requests for space by hosting a meeting on the issue in the public entrance to the department. Those present were given scissors and invited to take the space they needed. But there was no unallocated space available to take. So people started discussing and negotiating with each other, looking for opportunities to swop and/or share space. By collectively exploring their space needs, users were able to meet their individual needs within the collective constraints of the overall space available. In another project to pilot a new type of academic environment, users and estates have worked together to create both a space-model and user-model of their new environment. The space-model is owned by the project team, supports top-down strategic objectives and sets guidelines for space effectiveness. The user-model is owned by the users, supports bottom-up day-to-day activities and sets protocols for space allocation and use. In this way, it is hoped that users will be able to shape and change their environment in sustainable ways over time. I'm interested in processes that encourage people to think about overall fairness and flexibility so that we can keep choices open rather than closing them down.

As a demographic, I think academics work in very independent ways, so this is counter-cultural?

Very much so. In any conversation around academic workspace, the focus quickly moves to the importance of the individual office as a place for quiet, uninterrupted, scholarly work, where space (book shelves in particular) acts as an important cognitive resource, as well as providing a setting for tutorials, academic meetings with colleagues and confidential conversations. However, there is a growing academic voice which says the individual office can be isolating, especially for early career staff who want to share their experiences and who need the support of more experienced colleagues. Lack of staff visibility can be a problem for both colleagues and students. Tutorials in academic offices can be an intimidating experience for some students. There's also more talk about the potential value of more flexible environments to cope with greater interdisciplinary working, increased mobility and fluctuating requirements. This is largely supported by the voice of those providing and managing space, who point out that the individual office is inflexible (for everyone other than the individual occupant), often has lower utilisation, is more expensive to build and/or change, and has higher operating costs. Requirements tend to be presented in terms of either/or conditions to choose between, rather than both/and conditions that might require skillful monitoring.

The issue of private office space seems to be one of the most sensitive issues in every organisational change.

The office is described as a place for uninterrupted, scholarly work, but when I ask academics if they keep their phone on, keep email alerts on, operate an open door policy and/or do their main research there, the answer is generally yes, yes, sometimes and no. I'm also told, often by those who've never experienced it, that open-place is noisy, distracting and totally unsuited to concentrated work such as marking and writing. It reduces communication because people are reluctant to talk to each other for fear of disturbing others. It compromises confidentiality. It restricts students' access to staff. In short, open-plan destroys individual identity and forces people to work elsewhere. I'm left wondering how scholarly space might be explored in ways other than open-plan vs individual office. One possibility I'd like to test is the idea of scholarly space, accommodating both owned and shared scholarly resources, where people can come to work together in silence, supporting each other through co-presence and shared appreciation of the solo part of scholarly pursuit.

The office is a symbolic construct I guess, as a concrete validation of a role and its meanings.

Yes, absolutely, and we cannot have a useful conversation about its ongoing effectiveness until we share an understanding of the construct. Only then we can see what alternatives there might be for validating that construct. It's almost as if the office has become an enduring symbol for what it means to be an academic. The typology of the all-encompassing academic office has a long history - an individually owned, cellular room with space for carrying out private study, conducting individual and small group tutorials, meeting colleagues, receiving academic visitors, acknowledging status. Today, even if many of these activities increasingly take place in more diverse locations, it's hardly surprising that there is deep resistance to engaging in a discourse that, within the private sector, has shifted its focus over the past 30 years from my office to my space, our space, any space. I'd like to hear more conversations around the academic of tomorrow and the kinds of environments that might be required.

So I’m thinking, this is hard work to explain to a potential client - an emergent process in a building project which is otherwise dominated by hard data specific and concrete decisions.

Yes, it is, and increasingly so as procurement processes become more prescriptive and anonymous. There are fewer opportunities to explore the potential for relationship (how well do we understand each other? how might we be able to work together?) yet, for this kind of work, a shared understanding of the particular situation first needs to be established. In my case, this ideally involves a face-to-face meeting (sometimes more than one) and a space familiarisation visit. I can then begin to explore the types of interventions that might work, the types of individual, organisational and spatial constructs that might be important to consider. Generally speaking, people only really understand this way of working in the experience of doing it - of having unexpected conversations and feeling the difference they make. People begin to appreciate complexity, when the alternative is closing down possibilities. They begin to see the value in staying curious, when the alternative is a possible stalemate between strongly held positions. My goal is to create, and protect, an evolving conversational space that brings user and building requirements into clear focus, and to do so while being mindful of building programmes, budgets and the need for timely decision-making. In any building project, four key parameters have to be aligned if the project is to happen at all - user requirements, space (amount and quality), budget, timeline. These parameters influence each other in a variety of unexpected ways, so there's generally a lot of shifting and experimentation required to reach alignment. When people recognise this, and the value of discussion rather than debate, they realise that there are always ways to resolve even the most apparently contradictory conditions. The most rewarding projects are those that find their voice in ways which surprise and delight everyone involved. In the words of one client, we didn't expect to end up here, but what a great place to be. Unexpected things happen when users and buildings learn how to listen to each other.

August 2014

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