Why Outsourcing Architectural Design Development Can Work For You

How common is outsourcing design development in architecture practices? We think it happens all the time, for big brand-names and small studios alike. It may not always be formal outsourcing, but it carries the same core principles. One way of basic outsourcing is using interns and graduates that work in temporary roles but handling much of the design development work and less of the more demanding creative and conceptual design work. One more sophisticated and organized form of outsourcing is hiring an outside firm, either local or international. Such a firm effectively becomes a design partner, seamlessly integrating in the company’s architectural design team.

An company abroad, for instance, would handle all the drawing/modeling tasks but is not usually in direct contact with the client, nor is it present in meetings and basically works hard to deliver on the lead architect’s requirements. That’s why using “outsourcing” as a term to describe working with interns and graduates is warranted, but as we’ll see, it may often not be the best approach.

Almost all companies fit in one of the two categories above as a natural market adaptation to reduce costs with tasks that, by their nature, are fairly easy to delegate. This is a common practice nowadays and it is a perfectly fine approach, especially when there are proper communication channels in place between the low level and high level staff. Managing an office and/or a suite of projects is a task in and of itself, leaving little room for the drafting or modeling work.

So the question now becomes which one of these work forms is the most optimal? The short answer would be that each company has specific needs and a specific culture, but if we look closely we can easily determine a general trend. Whilst the use of interns and graduates may solve a problem in the short term, the need to constantly re-hire and retain them can be a major distraction. Instead, using outsourcing firms for the architectural design development phase means that you are partnering up with highly skilled professionals, with zero overhead costs. Such firms are often specialized in specific domains where they’ve honed in-house systems that allow them to work extremely fast, relying heavily on advanced BIM solutions. Outsourcing firms can also guarantee on schedule delivery since they typically have buffer resources and larger numbers of employees.

When looking at outsourcing firms, there is little to no distinction between the interaction workflow you will have with local versus international companies. The problem can arise when you limit yourself to a small market, the local one, and you end up constantly swapping providers of outsourcing services and thus rely on new firms to pick up where the previous ones left. The solution is to tap into the international market and chose a quality, reliable partner for long term collaboration. Looking broader as opposed to narrower has the added advantage that you will likely find providers with lower production/management costs that will translate in a much better pricing and therefore a more competive offering.

In today’s hyper-connected global economy, communication is a non-issue and offshore collaborations become opportunities instead of challenges, allowing design leads to focus on the core aspects of their businesses.

Outsourcing vs. Completing Retail Designs In-House

When planning store refurbishment exercises or when opening new stores major retailers across the world face tough decisions about their design process and whether to handle all (or a part of) the retail design and documentation work in-house or to engage the services of a skilled outsourced CAD services provider to assist them with some or all of the retail design and drafting process. Choosing one of the two options is not only a difficult task but also depends upon several factors unique to each retail firm and the availability and selection of an outsourced design partner.

For retailers, looking inward at their own team it is of course good practice to evaluate the internal design support capabilities vis-à-vis the retail chain’s strategic goals. The evaluation should be two-pronged: firstly, the availability of in-house skills with respect to the expected design standards and secondly, on the basis of the speed of the design cycle the internal team can provide to support the firm’s growth objectives. Any shortcoming in one of these two areas is a strong reason to partner with an experienced offshore retail CAD team to successfully drive the retailer’s strategic objectives.

Entering into an architectural CAD / BIM outsourcing services model can also help the retailers accelerate their time to market especially in cases where the internal design team has the requisite skills but finds it difficult to meet the rapid turnaround expectations of the fast-paced retail environment. The key point, however, is to choose the ‘right’ service partner – a partner that seamlessly extends the in-house capacity, meets the design standards and fits into the required workflow. The vendor should also have established work processes, virtual communication tools and quality control procedures in place. The best way to evaluate all the above factors is to meet offshore partners on a face-to-face level.

Meeting the offshore partner in their environment in face-to-face meetings allows interaction with the management and drafting/modelling team of the potential partner in a way that cannot be replicated remotely via email and telephone calls. This will also allow the retailer an opportunity to review and validate the skills, processes, technology backbone, experience and quality levels of the outsourced partner. A face-to-face meeting or set of meetings will also allow the retailer to understand and familiarise themselves with the underlying culture of the partner organisation and whether it is conducive to an effective working relationship. The outsourcing partner’s culture and way of working will dictate the success of communication for the relationship. Communication is arguably the greatest challenge facing firms that engage outsourcing models and it is only with face-to-face meetings that the retailer will gain an understanding of communication effectiveness. In most cases the retailer may also wish to understand the social values and aims of the partner in both a formal and informal environment. This will provide further insights into the culture of that partner and allow the retailer to understand the potential partner in a different context.

Whether face-to-face or remotely another factor that retailers need to review is the relative experience of their internal resources versus the outsourcing team, especially on projects that the firm is embarking on for the first time. For instance, if the in-house design/documentation team has been using AutoCAD as a preferred drafting tool and the retail firm decides to adopt the building information modeling (BIM) process across all the new projects, it is advisable to partner with a vendor which has suitable experience in handling projects having a similar scope. It is also worth checking whether the firm is familiar with the requisite processes associated with BIM, including worksharing, IFC linking, family modeling, interoperability, material takeoff, clash detection and support with other CAD/BIM tools. An experienced team that has relatively more experience than the in-house team can help the retailer to smoothly transition to the new process with ease.

Whilst it is essential to focus on building a strong internal team, there are scenarios wherein retail design outsourcing adds significant value in terms of increasing success rates on projects never undertaken by the in-house team, speeding up the turnaround times on high-priority projects and extending the capacity of the in-house team without increasing direct overheads.

At XS CAD, we work with retailers across the globe, supplying retail construction drawing sets, 3D BIM models and computer-generated images that are used for pre-construction planning, construction build and project management purposes. We have experience working seamlessly with our clients’ local design teams and providing production drawing services for a range of retailing organisations operating in the apparel, fashion, banking, fast food, restaurant, electronics, telecoms and IT sectors.

Identifying the Right Retail Design Outsourcing Partner

Retail companies operating in the modern and fast paced retail environment have two key challenges when designing their outlets. The first is to get the latest outlet open and ready to trade as quickly as possible, whilst keeping the project cost under control. The second factor is to ensure the optimum use of space in a way which maximises the leasable areas but ensures that the retail brand is consistently served to customers. These two challenges apply to new and existing outlets that require continual updates and complete re-designs in most cases. The need to get the outlet opened or re-opened quickly and the need to maximise space mean that the design and design process needs to be more accurate than ever before. The use of modern design tools, including BIM software options for retail provides many advantages but the challenge is to ensure ample, skilled resources for the detailed planning that is required in the modern outsourcing world. Large retail firms typically have in-house architectural design teams; however, the need to scale their operations without increasing direct overheads means that many firms are increasingly looking to outsource some of the design process. Where an in-house team is not in place, retailers typically use specialist architectural and store design firms that also require the additional resource that outsourcing can provide.

Deciding to use the services of an architectural CAD outsourcing services provider into your workflow is a positive move to drive profitability, cut delivery times, maintain retail design standards and keep costs in check. However, it is very important to exercise due diligence when selecting the most aligned offshore design support partner for retail projects. Factors such as the complexity of the project involved, the elements that are considered options for outsourcing and the core expertise of the partner will have a bearing on the selection. The following provides guidelines that no retailer can ignore:

  1. Domain experience and track record

The importance of evaluating the core areas in which the outsourcing partner specialises cannot be emphasised enough. For instance, if the client’s design team seeks expertise in CAD design support for retail extension, refurbishment and upgrade projects for a fast food restaurant chain, it is best to select an offshore CAD team which has a track record of working on similar projects. Besides project expertise, the offshore provider should have expertise on the software platforms used by the client team to deliver schematics, concepts, detailed designs and construction documentation to facilitate seamless collaboration and interoperability.

  1. Compatibility with your in-house design team

The cultural fit between the client’s in-house design team and the outsourcing team is a vital factor that can make the client/vendor partnership successful. Both the in-house and offshore teams need to be on the same page on aspects concerning CAD/BIM design standards, project workflow, brand direction, sustainability objectives, project goals and time schedules. The best way to ensure team compatibility is to ensure that face to face meetings take place – especially at the pre-selection stage. Such meetings should include a formal and informal get-together so that the business culture and the social culture can be evaluated by the retailer/retail design team. By taking the opportunity to meet the partner at their own location, the retailer/retail design team can review a number of technical and non-technical elements. However, the opportunity to meet the management and design team, that will in effect become an extension of the retailer’s team, is the most important aspect of the face-to-face meeting. Indeed, as well as the initial face-to-face meeting, the most successful partnerships also involve continual face to face meetings as part of the ongoing governance of the partnership.

  1. Technical expertise with requisite tools and processes

To serve as a reliable retail design extension to the in-house team, the vendor should have a team of technically proficient resources as well as well-established work processes and quality control procedures with quality accreditations (such as ISO9001:2008 quality control standards) in place. Again it is advisable to visit the partner/vendor and see their team and their processes in person. This will provide a clear picture of whether the firm has a diverse mix of architects, design consultants and project management professionals that have an in-depth knowledge of modern CAD and BIM tools (such as AutoCAD, Revit and Navisworks) and if they can handle your quality and time expectations. It is also very important to assess the relationships that such partners hold with key software resellers. For instance how does the partner purchase software from Autodesk and is the software purchased with subscriptions.

  1. Communication tools and methods

Evaluating whether the outsourced CAD services provider has systematic processes and protocols for day-to-day communications, file sharing, query resolution and quality control is critical to a fruitful partnership. Having virtual collaboration tools in place indicates that the firm is available for continuous interfacing with your design team. Also important is the cultural and linguistic fit so that the offshore support team is not just ready but also aware of the discussions and resolutions whenever the need arises. Communications tools, frequency, modes and timing are all important elements to consider. It is the underlying communication culture of a partner and his employees that will dictate the flexibility of team members to discuss their issues openly and honestly with your own in-house design teams. It is very important for example that partners understand and respond to your own culture when it comes to communication. For example, communicating potential delays very early on in the process is not something that some cultures understand while others will just not be ready to say ‘No’ to a request which is impossible to deliver upon.

  1. Local market presence

The availability of local contacts for an outsourcing partner is an important consideration. Although not always possible, the availability of a local partner (in the retailer’s own region) provides additional benefits, such as a standard time zone, local contacts and local insurance requirements being met if needed. The local contact can also facilitate the process of project start up, ongoing project management and regular communication. In cases where outsourcing is new to a retailer/retail design team, this level of local support may be useful when selecting a retail design outsourcing partner.