Best practices from remote architecture firm DSP

Best practices from remote architecture firm DSP

Long before the coronavirus forced thousands of architects to work from home, one US-based firm had already been doing so for years. Design Service Professionals – or DSP for short - are an entirely remote architecture and design company with a network of employees and contributors around the world.

We caught up with DSP’s co-founders Devan Porter and Amy John to find out why they opted for a remote business model, to get their tips for architects new to this approach and to learn about an innovative new service they are offering for remote design staff. 

The story behind DSP

DSP was conceived in 2016, when its founders were working in a traditional design firm with a centralized HQ. Co-founder Devan Porter explains: “We were collaborating with a firmwide team to develop a concept for an all-virtual design studio. This studio was to be an internal resource comprised of past firm cohorts who were no longer connected to the firm geographically, meaning life had pulled them away from the firm's physical office.”

As the concept evolved, the founders realized they no longer needed a physical office at all. “By enlarging the internal pool of shared design resources, this all-virtual design studio could leverage a more expansive and diverse team of ‘quality-trained’ talent from anywhere in the country”. In the Fall of 2018 Porter separated from the traditional office to fully realize the all-virtual studio model with partners Olivia Porter, the firm’s in-house counsel, and Amy John, a Brooklyn, NY based service designer.

DSP has gone from strength to strength, flexibly working with designers around the world to support different projects. Porter describes how this works with one of their current clients. “We've been working on a museum grade, European modern home being built in Paradise Valley, AZ. The homeowners currently live in California. The design architect works out of Tel Aviv, Israel”.

In the past, this remote way of working would have posed a number of difficulties – the customer would normally have needed to hire an architect based in Arizona. DSP’s model allows for total freedom: “We leverage our locally licensed architect in combination with our virtual team to coordinate and facilitate the local activities required to bring this home to life.”

Nevertheless, this is not something that can be done “off the bat.” “Without the processes we've developed for working remotely, we'd find it very difficult to meet the challenges posed by a local build with a distributed design team,” says Porter.

Processes and techniques for remote architecture

During Covid-19, many companies have had to adjust overnight to remote working, with all the chaos and uncertainty involved. For Porter, DSP “were some of the lucky ones. When it came to moving forward with our day to day communication and project development, we already had a plan instituted.”

Over the years, the company has honed its process for remote working. One crucial thing they have discovered is just how important communication is. John explains: “Our process relies on clear, concise, correct, and complete communication. We have policies in place that guide both our internal and external communication.” She lists exactly how this policy works when sending an email, for instance:

  • Clear: use short sentences and bullet points to highlight key thoughts
  • Concise: one major idea at a time. A few shorter email requests will be easier to manage than one long email with many separate requests
  • Correct: use facts first. If you make a mistake, own it, apologize, and move forward with the steps required to recover and succeed
  • Complete: consider all the resources available to help explain. Words often fall short. Instead, take a screen shot, share an image, or make a Loom (camera, microphone, and screen) video to help 

It also requires plenty of flexibility and an openness to continual improvement. John explains that “we are always working to optimize team structure and communication to make sure that we have the most appropriate team working in the most efficient way possible.”

Remote control

Any company that has recently begun working remotely will have encountered some of the challenges of this approach to work. “Let's face it,” says John, “working in the space we live and living in the space we work is hard! Dogs bark, children shout, and delivery people ring doorbells!”

While she acknowledges that this can occasionally be difficult, “We embrace those bits of life as welcome reminders of why we choose to work on an all-virtual team. We've traded a quiet, dedicated office to be closer to our families, to spend mere seconds commuting, and to work on great work anyway.”

Customers are also sometimes skeptical as to whether a fully remote company can really deliver. “As they say, ‘the proof is in the pudding’” says Porter. “With many clients, we have to begin with a small project to help them get acquainted with working virtually. These small projects help build confidence.” That said, now that the world has become accustomed to remote working, this is likely to be less of a barrier in future.

Despite its occasional challenges, DSP have never looked back since going remote. Porter explains that they have decreased costs, improved efficiencies and expanded recruiting possibilities. With remote working, you can “hire the best talent from almost anywhere, provide them higher flexibility and watch productivity soar.”

It is also essential to have the right technology set up to enable remote working. As an architecture and design firm, DSP uses designair as a core part of their technology stack. “We use Designair to help us bring new team members onto our distributed team without the heavy costs of providing physical equipment. Instead of buying a new computer for each person, team members use virtual machines that provide all the speed, power, and software they need to do the work required.”

Porter explains that DSP uses a variety of BIM and visualization software on Designair machines, including Adobe Creative Cloud, Unreal Engine, Autodesk Revit and BIM 360.

Designair provides virtual machines to support BIM in the cloud. A virtual machine can be “spun up” in minutes and closed down when no longer needed. In this way DSP only pays for the computing power they are actually using. “Designair provides affordable high-quality virtual machines” says Porter. What’s more, “they are willing to work with us to come up with custom solutions as needed for DSP and for our clients.”

New VDI service for architects from DSP

Drawing on their years of experience as remote working architects, DSP has begun developing a new Managed Service offering focused on design professionals who are working remotely. Built on Designair, the new service called “dsp.vdi” is targeted at “smaller firms without an IT department, an existing cloud infrastructure or VDI solution”.

The aim of dsp.vdi is to offer an affordable service for smaller design firms which “takes the headaches out of on-boarding new, returning and temporary staff”. Besides providing a remote BIM solution for BIM designers, DSP will also offer training and ongoing support.

The future of architecture?

When DSP launched in 2018 they offered a truly unique and unusual service; many people simply could not imagine an entirely remote architecture firm. However, with the right processes in place, DSP have shown just how effective this approach can be.

And, with new tools like dsp.vdi they are laying the foundations for a future where many more architects and designers can easily work remotely, too.