In my previous life as a design engineer, I remember a job where we had a tight fee and timescale to develop a bid for six university buildings. We had software that helped us answer detailed questions about how the building performed but our approach wasn’t suited for such a short timeline. Emails and calls flew for four weeks as the design changed, the questions changed, the answers changed, my bedtime changed. Some of this was interesting and exciting, but a lot of it felt  unnecessary.

The key change in the design collaboration started with a frustrated lock-in session where we tried to solve the problem of balancing each façade’s performance. By that point, we were irritated, stuck in our own processes, and unable to integrate our softwares to find better solutions. During that meeting, we finally collaborated and unlocked the whole project. Ever since, I try to start new projects in a more collaborative way.

Misleading Collaboration


I’m an advocate of writing things down. Emails appear to be collaborative but often have the opposite effect; We tend to talk past each other and note things down for our own selves.

Shared documents are better, but still not ideal! The intent is good – open, less formal, and in real time so that each contributor is equal. They can be collaborative, help  identify issues and errors, and let people contribute across different time zones. However, without any curation they can become a maze of comments, strikethroughs, and old versions while claiming a longer lifespan than needed. Use them for between a day and a week and then burn them! Metaphorically of course…

Some Recommendations


My suggestion is to humanize the process by adding some informality to your project’s framework. There are a few ways to do this:

1. Disappearing documents

Some documents need to last and be searchable, whilst others could be short-term to aid collaboration. For projects with very tight deadlines, why not try a Q&A project update that disappears on Friday at 6pm? People will discuss it. It will encourage shorter messages and more questions. Some team members might not adjust as quickly to this new process, but it can give disparate groups something to get the ball rolling.

2. Spend a full day in each other’s offices

A full day isn’t always  possible but even a three hour time frame where the team could discuss the project and table documents that are deemed unimportant will help. This informal step will help spark creativity, allow the team to develop a rapport and shared language, and humanize the project process early on.

3. Jargon bingo

Relying on internal acronyms can hinder communication when you’re working with external teams.  

It’s very important that everyone tries to communicate in a useful way rather than falling back on acronyms and jargon.  As a team, you can encourage thoughtful use of language by nominating two people to identify project buzzwords, discuss where they’ve  come from, and what they really mean. “Sustainability” can be interpreted myriad ways so it’s worth separating planning/legal requirements from what the stakeholders and the client really want.    

For example, I worked on the sustainability team of a university in Dublin where everyone’s favourite feature was exposed building aspects such as pumps, pipes, wires, and grey-water treatment systems so that the students could see the campus’s mechanical and HVAC systems. We held workshops where we relentlessly pulled apart the sustainability jargon and defined our unique criteria, which changed behavior for the better.

4. Teaching sessions


Image courtesy of the Trimble Westminster Building Project

Similarly, pick a few acronyms and terms with meanings you’re unsure of and have a call with your collaborating colleague on the other side. Be brave. For me, it was “spandrel panel”. I had some idea but was not completely sure if it was a specific type of panel and it was definitely important. It kept coming up. I cheated and looked it up but I bet there were just as many unknowns or “part-understoods” on the other side that would have been helpful to discuss. Admitting what you don’t know can be key to building a relationship with a collaborator.

5. Multi-format communication

Programs such as Layout in SketchUp Pro can make it easier to draw action items out of a complex model. 

If you can’t draw, draw! If you can’t present, present! Changing your mode of communication can help you learn new skills, while breaking down the professional barriers that we put up. Sefaira is one good example where those with little modeling or analysis skills  can mock up a building and show comparative energy and daylight results quickly and change them in real-time. This can help visualize the current design and rank priorities that may have remained muddled in the beginning. Layout in SketchUp Pro is similar: you can mix pictures with sections, plans and details from the live model and note down in simple text what the assumptions and next tasks are.

Looking Ahead


A good framework at the beginning is essential to the success of any project but it must be updated as the project changes. This works best when people are committed to collaborating together–for the entire project. A good rule of thumb is, if I have a choice between emailing and phoning and I choose emailing, I am not truly collaborating yet!

We all have different roles in projects and have experienced bad collaboration in some form or another. Think about what projects you enjoyed or didn’t enjoy and what contributed to good (or bad) collaboration. Common collaboration methods, such as email chains and shared documents, are still useful but can be improved upon. By approaching projects with a human mindset and using collaboration tools in an updated way, we can make our design goals clearer, the design process more fluid, and still meet tight deadlines.