Transforming the business of creating buildings
KvalhoTalks with Christoph Kellenberger | Co-Founder and Managing Partner of OOS AG
Welcome to KVALHO TALKSa series of interviews and discussions with experts, innovators, entrepreneurs who are actively contributing to the improvement and transformation of the AEC & real estate industries.
This time I spoke with Christoph Kellenberger, Co-Founder and Managing Partner of OOS – a Zürich based architectural practice, known for creating spaces to deliver value for the corporate clients and the building users through architecture.
Continue reading to learn about OOS's approach to innovation, consulting and running an architecture practice in the Digital Age.

Enjoy the interview!

You positioned OOS as a practice for corporate architecture, interior design and urban planning. How did you pick the niche?
It was a natural process. We started 18 years ago and right from the start we knew that we need to position ourselves on the market to succeed. After 10 years we took a close look at our business again and decided on the direction we wanted to take, which is creating value for our clients beyond aesthetic aspects. We realised that architecture and interiors can be used as a ''tool'' to create identity, differentiation and atmosphere which matter to people, brands and companies and supports them in achieving their strategic business goals. For us it was always more interesting to work with companies, institutions, brands and non-governmental organisations. They address a much wider audience than private housing, where we would design for 1 family only. For us there's more room to experiment with corporate clients, they have more appetite for innovation. Additionally, we knew that the market for corporate architecture accounts for 25% of the entire building industry in Switzerland, which for us was a solid business case.

You mentioned corporate clients are open to innovation. What is the most remarkable change in the field of corporate architecture in the last decade?

Definitely the leaders of companies are more aware of the importance to provide a good work environment and/or experience for their employees, partners and clients. They realise the work environment has a direct impact on productivity, performance, internal culture and the external image of the company. Switzerland is quite special due to its size. The market is economically small but culturally very diverse. Many companies struggle to find highly skilled employees. Therefore, besides offering financial benefits, they also have to provide an attractive work environment to keep their good employees.

Who are your clients?

It varies from specialised SME's in the IT, finance and manufacturing industries to very big global players and brands that have a global market share of up to 30%.

Your practice goes beyond the conventional architectural package. On your website you write that ''OOS transforms the values and positioning of clients into a customized spatial environment''. How do you do that and when do you get involved in the project?

We do more or less what other people do when they analyse the stock exchange, but we do it in another way. We observe how companies are performing (good, bad or stable) and based on that we call and ask them what they will need in 1-3 years in terms of space in relation to their development. According to our philosophy architecture is an investment good e.g. you need an ''architecture'' to place your machines in the new space when expanding the production line. Beyond that, architecture has the capability to reach differentiation and create identity. When the company is doing well and growing, probably sooner rather than later it will need new office space, laboratories, hotel rooms, production facilities, etc. for their employees and clients. They also need to develop growth strategies and plan financial resources. This is where we support them by developing scenarios how their properties can ''grow'' to follow the growth path of the company.
We use architecture also as a "tool" to create experiences.
Currently we are designing the Swiss Pavilion for the world expo in Dubai 2020, where we basically transfer the image of Switzerland into a Pavilion. The expected 2.5 Million visitors should experience and remember the beauty of Switzerland.
How do you measure the impact of your design solutions?
When we design an office building we conduct an employee survey before they relocate into the new space, right after they have moved in and again 2 years later. We ask questions like: ''do you think you are more productive in this new space etc''. The result of the survey is similar for all projects: 98% are satisfied or very satisfied with the new space and 2% are completely dissatisfied.

OOS is also working on XL scale projects like the Allergy Campus in Davos. Where do you begin with such project?

This project is a great example of how we work. We read in the newspaper that the clinic has a problem. We called the new owner, who then invited us to a meeting where we presented concepts for market re-positioning through architecture and a new operating concept with a new offer of services. We created a vision for the space and the client saw an added value for the patients, scientists and the medical staff. Currently we are working on various projects on the entire campus area in the fields of urban planning, architecture and interior design.
How large is your team and what internal know-how does the OOS team have?
We are a team of 16-20 people with strong skills in Design, BIM and lean planning, focusing on 3 fields: urban design, architecture and interior design. We focus on 3 main R&D topics and tools, which we are developing further and incorporating into our design methodology. These 3 topics are: corporate architecture, BIM and Drivers of Sustainability. Since we work and consult clients in the very early stages of design and planning, we need internal know-how to ask the clients the right questions and navigate them towards the right answer and solutions. Sometimes the solution is not a new architecture but a new boss or simple things such as decluttering an existing office. As a solution provider we are interested in the "wellbeing" of our clients on a normal, daily operational level.

You are one of the early Swiss adopters of BIM. How, when and why did you start using it?

The first time we used the BIM process was 10 years ago on a project in Brazil. It was a house for a Swiss movie producer, who wanted to have a house in the Atlantic Forest. There was only 1 builder in this little village. So we asked him what materials he is able to use and what construction method he can apply. He explained everything verbally – in Portuguese! Beside the language barrier additionally there was a distance of more than 9000 km between us. The issue was that there was no printer in this town, so he couldn't print the plans we wanted (as usually!) to produce. But we knew that his son had a laptop and "Sketch Up" on it. So, we started sending him a 3D model with incorporated information. The son then was sitting with his laptop next to his father on the construction site in the jungle and they built directly from the 3D model. This method is a great example of the "design to production process". This was a magic moment for us. We realised the benefits of using BIM processes and since then invested a lot of time and education into our team.
It's been a decade now that we are using BIM and constantly adopting it to fit our way of working. Now we use BIM to manage design, planning, costs and time.
Do you come across clients in Switzerland who request BIM?
More and more. Especially corporate clients. In the end BIM helps them to handle data better when it comes to facility management and they have a better overview of the property portfolio. OOS was involved in the development of SIA 2051 document – basics for using BIM method. This now provides a ground-breaking, generally understandable application for planning in the digital age – also for clients.

How do you apply the latest digital trends and business strategies into your business?

To us BIM is a method and a process of managing information. Before using BIM the project related information was scattered all over different files and much of it was lost. Now we manage information like visualisation, list of quantities, material lists etc. in one place, which is the model and a database linked to it. It's also easier to provide more accurate pricing because we avoid the chaos which usually exists in construction projects.
Additionally, we choose our strategic partners like specialist engineers wisely and we work with those who work with the BIM method. This way we jointly provide added value for our clients in terms of cost and time security, more transparency and better processes for decision making.
How innovative is your business model?
Our business model is rather conventional since we deliver a service. But the way we deliver it is highly innovative. We deliver value through our design solutions. We are more strategic architects in that sense, not only creative minds.

The building industry is undergoing transformation. Where do you see the biggest room for improvement?

In my opinion architects and engineers in Switzerland have not yet realised that we are going through a very fast transition. One important aspect is sustainability – the building industry accounts for 50% of the energy consumption in Switzerland. We at OOS design buildings that have low or zero energy consumption, low or zero CO2 emissions and therefore also low operation costs over their lifecycle! We develop and design architecture that with an investment of 0.9 create operating costs (energy, cleaning, renewal of technical equipment, etc.) of 2 to 3- in contrast to "regular" architecture with investment costs of 1 and operating costs of 4 to 6. The energy and cost savings over building lifecycle for any company are substantial and the benefit for our environment is huge!
Can you please emphasize on that and give an example of how you do it?
We apply the rule first no-tech then smart-tech. Probably 80% of worldwide architecture is no-tech. There are many regions in the world where you have very clever, local designs that are suitable for the climate. These buildings work perfectly, they don't overheat etc. In the developed world, especially in the cities you have buildings that look nice but are absolutely unpractical to use. They overheat in summer, are uncomfortably cold in winter, they have too much glazing, no comfortable landscaping around, etc. Buildings need to be cleverly designed in the first place and smartly improved by using technology which create genuine added value.

How will construction look like in 2030? In which areas do you see opportunities for improvement of the industry?

I think the planning and design industry will change due to digitalisation. There will be more transparency. There will be innovators (I hope we are one of them) who will lead trends on how to create design, how to innovate and which processes are needed for this.

INTERVIEW BY JOANNA DEMKOW-BARTLOMÉ