Design Thinking in Architecture

An Insider’s Guide to Design Process at AKKA Architects

A human-centred approach to architecture

Coming from a business design background and having been surrounded by the relevant terminology throughout my master’s degree such as design thinking, human-centred design and service design; I immediately felt connected with the approach to architecture they have here at AKKA Architects. Stephanie Hughes founded AKKA with the vision of designing spaces that foster three forms of interaction; creativity, collaboration and learning. In contrast to the widespread traditional approach to architecture, Stephanie developed her own interdisciplinary bottom-up approach to design spaces.

The Architecting Interaction Process of AKKA Architects

One of the first things that I realised immediately after I started working at AKKA is that, people here prefer to replace Architecture with Architecting because the latter helps us envision an on-going, iterative process. Architecting Interaction, this is the philosophy that guides AKKA Architects when designing spaces; to deliver an agile space that keeps evolving as the needs and desires of its users change.

The design process AKKA adopts recognises that any challenge we face today is interdependent and it needs the expertise of more than one party to address it. Therefore, it aims at gathering insights from the different groups of people concerned by any project; professionals, experts, users or neighbours. Some call this democratisation of architecture, giving users a voice in the design process.

Impact Hub Amsterdam

Impact Hub Amsterdam designed by AKKA Architects

One of our favourite projects here at AKKA is the renovation of a part of the Western Gas Factory (Westergasfabriek) that is located within the beautiful Westerpark in Amsterdam. Our client for this project was Impact Hub Amsterdam, and so creating a space that fosters interactions between social entrepreneurs was very much in line with AKKA’s philosophy. In addition to that, we have a special attachment to this project as after the completion of the space, AKKA Architects decided to move its office here. As a result, we have the opportunity to experience the space as it evolves everyday, get constant feedback from the users and improve accordingly.

Let’s take a look at the process that AKKA is using more closer:

Stage 1: Appreciate

Co-creative workshops are facilitated by AKKA Architects

The design process at AKKA starts with gathering insight from the users. We go through questions such as: Who is the community that will use this space? What are different patterns within the users based on their needs? Through participatory methods, architects empathise as much as possible with the community members. We believe they are the experts in their use of their own space, thus we synthesise our expertise with the insight gathered from different user groups of the space to uncover the culture of the community and a shared understanding of what the project wants to be.

At the beginning of the Impact Hub Amsterdam project, the AKKA team had conversations and workshops with many different groups that are connected to the building; the hub members, hosts, founders, neighbours, other Impact Hub offices around the world, the global Impact Hub community…

We start from the core groups and expand this circle to get a holistic understanding of the environment. Throughout this process, many different participatory tools are used to capture different needs, challenges, desires and corresponding ideas of the community members. One of the outcomes of this stage is a document we call Home Language that visually captures the culture of the people that will use the space.

Stage 2: Kernel

Visualisations are used as a platform to communicate with the users

In the second stage, AKKA architects transform the understanding created into a vision, a shared vision. Ideas start morphing into sketches, drawings and other visual media which help communicate the vision with the community members. Turning intangible ideas into concrete visuals help to create an alignment as well. Just like the other stages of the Architecting Interaction process, the kernel stage is a participatory process and we collaborate with the community to make sure their insights are included.

What I personally like about this process is, many architectural tools that are alien to us who are not architects are utilised by AKKA as co-creative tools to support a user-centric architectural process. Many of these tools may work similarly to those we use in service design, however they also help architects to consider spatial aspects of the design. All through this process, Impact Hub Amsterdam users can imagining themselves living in this space we created together.

At the end of this stage, a shared vision for the space is created.

Stage 3: Kickstart

Users are included in all stages of the design process

The third stage is where the whole bulk of architectural process begins; schematic design, design development, construction drawings, permits, tender, construction… Along each of these steps, AKKA continued to collaborate with different groups within the Impact Hub community. While some issues only require the involvement of the founders, others would involve the staff or the members. The process does not only focus on creating a space, but also a community. It is a learning process for the community where they become aware of the power of their space, what it can do when well designed and how it can adapt to empower their needs.

The space design is never done, even after it is built. At the end of this phase, we add what is essentially needed and let the users start moving into the space.

Stage 4: Adaptation

Movement of different user groups are mapped to help see the big picture

When people move in, the last stage of adaptation can begin. This is where users adapt to the space and the space adapts to the users. Based on observations and dialogue, the team can continue to refine and fine tune the space.

Even after everything is ready, AKKA doesn’t abandon the building and leave. Adaptation phase continues with an ongoing observation on a longer term. On a monthly, quarterly or yearly basis, depending on the company’s culture, we continue to adapt and refine the space. AKKA approach to architecture is an iterative process. Nothing is static in the world we live, then why should the buildings be? As the needs and desires of the users change, the building should transform accordingly. Periodically, AKKA architects visit the space, gather insight from the users and make required improvements.

As a coworking space, Impact Hub Amsterdam fosters three forms of interactions; creativity, collaboration & learning

Next time you are in Amsterdam, you are welcomed to visit us at Impact Hub Amsterdam and experience this dynamic space we designed for the top social entrepreneurs and change makers in the city!

In the meantime, you can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter to keep updated about our work.