Sasaki: Firm Profile

What is the history and background of the firm?

Founded in 1953 by landscape architect, Hideo Sasaki, the firm has a long and storied history. From the outset, Hideo believed that landscape, building, and surrounding context are inextricably linked, so he advocated for collaborative practice between disciplines before it was common practice. Today, the firm continues its tradition of interdisciplinary practice, strong in each of its core disciplines: architecture, interior design, landscape architecture, civil engineering planning and urban design, and space planning (Figure 1). The firm continues to grow, opening a third location in Denver in 2020, which adds to its existing locations in Boston and Shanghai.

What is the firm’s current focus? What are the key projects you are working on?

Our founder, Hideo Sasaki, believed in context and a multidisciplinary approach to design and we are carrying this forward into how we use technology today. We are pioneering in the collaborative use of tools, in particular, focusing on the multidisciplinary collaboration between landscape and architecture in their utilization of Building Information Modeling (BIM). We are leading the way in digital collaboration between disciplines and recently migrated to DaaS (Desktops as a Service), which enables seamless connectivity between remote teams.

Decisions often need to be made in complex contexts. We draw on the experience of our clients and Sasaki teams to create representations of reality that can let us test what-if scenarios in real-time interfaces. While never a perfect representation of the real world, these models provide a path forward and can help clients make informed, timely decisions and build consensus. We have developed a suite of tools that allow campus planners to quickly test different mixes of housing typologies. This includes a capital prioritization tool that allows clients and teams to comprehensively work through prioritization and sequencing of projects, as well as an integrated Prioritizer tool that provides a framework for scoring and ranking projects according to high-level goals (Figure 2) The ranked list can then be used to inform decisions about sequencing on a timeline, while also taking into account project dependencies, available funds, and other constraints.

While our in-house software development and data visualization team, Sasaki Strategies, has developed custom dashboards for planning and architecture clients for more than a decade, the demand for an accurate, timely, and intuitive understanding of what spaces we have—and what we may need—has never been more acute. Sasaki was approached by a Boston-based consumer products company to help them analyze their space needs. Since the start of the pandemic, employees have been working remotely and company leadership wanted to understand their space use options once it is safe to return to the office, recognizing this unique opportunity to rethink where and how their employees work. If, as a company, they want to continue working as they did pre-pandemic, how much additional real estate would they need to lease to accommodate growth? If they want to remain in their current space, in what ways would they need to change their current work model? To help answer some of these questions, Sasaki developed a web-based dashboard that allowed the client to test alternative solutions by adjusting any number of inputs (Figure 3). The user can alter global assumptions, such as headcount growth projections, as well as test more granular decisions on workstation styles, work-from-home policies and new program needs by individual departments.

Our analysis tools, models and visualizations help us achieve a better understanding of design impacts and constraints (Figure 4 shows some examples). To achieve designs that are both functional and beautiful, our designers internalize the workings of the design problem so that analytical rigor can be seamlessly woven into the design thinking process. This enables us to ensure that answers to our clients’ questions are readily at hand throughout the design process. The sooner we have those answers, the more informed our designers can be about what matters to clients and their stakeholders, and the more we can align our design efforts with creating value. In addition to hard metrics, technology gives us additional lenses through which to evaluate a design. Simple, visual models can be very effective in helping understand relationships of cause and effect.

Recent advances in tools and hardware are changing the way we engage clients and stakeholders. Virtual Reality (VR) allows us to bring people into designs so that they can see them the same way they would experience them. This helps us and the client think differently about spatial relationships and a person’s experience. A good example of this is in the Boston City Hall Plaza project, where, as part of the public engagement phase, virtual experiences of the new plaza design—right on the plaza itself—helped our team start conversations with passersby, giving the public a better platform to interact with the spatial designs we’re bringing to this civic space. Sasaki equipped two VR stations at the plaza with mobile, lightweight Oculus Go headsets, which enabled users to quickly experience a “before-and-after” moment by comparing the existing view of the Plaza to the one they found in their VR headsets (Figure 5). Their experiences and questions provided invaluable insights to the design team.

When did the firm start using AEC technology, and how is it being used today?

Research is a key component of our practice. Starting with the development of an internal engine for data gathering, analysis, and visualization associated with our planning practice, we have been at the forefront of technological research and implementation for over a decade.

In the early 2000’s, our practice departed from conventional design and documentation tools (such as Autocad) toward the introduction of Building Information Modeling (BIM). As part of those efforts, we developed our own proprietary software (SmartPlan) that allowed us to dynamically integrate project data with physical 2-D and 3-D entities developed in computer modeling, for large scale planning applications (Figure 6).

We have since adopted software platforms and tools such as REVIT, Civil 3D and RHINO among others, allowing us to merge design and documentation into seamless flows and enable development of integrated visual outputs. As part of our research into building science and material applications, we created an internal fabrication laboratory that allows us to prototype and test building solutions at various scales and to explore alternative building and material techniques for our projects.

We have also increased our ability to dynamically collaborate and coordinate with clients, specialists and project consultants, using BIM360 for geographically dispersed teams of consultants consolidating all design documentation in one cloud data repository. As prime designers and project coordinators, we routinely develop BIM implementation plans and best practices to set up ideal collaboration and production environments (with established procedures and standards) for large, interdisciplinary project undertakings.

This process has allowed us to co-author building and landscape models in the cloud, expanding work sharing to any location, defining team workspaces to allow for better coordination. The final outcome is an accelerated project delivery with better informed decision making.

The same modeling we use to generate physical models are the sources for the use of Virtual Reality as a three dimensional design and experiential platform. We now regularly deploy VR as part of our design efforts and also use it as a tool for design verification at client workshops and presentations, and as a coordination tool for the work developed in collaboration with consultants from other disciplines. We deploy these tools and processes from initial scenario planning to prototyping of building components and furniture. They support the development of total environments where space, experience, furniture and technology are considered in relationship to each other. Merging design and documentation through integrated tools allows for efficiencies throughout the process and for more efficient coordination of systems and integration with open spaces and infrastructure.

What is the firm’s approach and/or philosophy to AEC technology?

Technology can help people make better decisions. Sasaki’s powerful design thinking tools enable our teams to gain insight and quickly iterate on potential solutions to optimize design outcomes and performance. There is no singular ‘right’ answer for a design solution, but design can be measured across a broad spectrum of factors. The earlier we can start measuring our designs and understanding and discussing their impact, the more confident we can be that the design will succeed on multiple fronts. As technology tools continue to advance and computation can offer deeper analysis across a broad variety of factors, we run the risk of letting design become too focused on optimization. We are mindful that there is seldom a perfect alignment between what we are able to measure easily and what matters.

What are some of the main challenges the firm faces in its implementation of AEC technology?

Sasaki is challenged in the same way most organizations are in this day and age. How do you keep up with rapid pace of technological change? How do we appropriately invest in infrastructure to support the business objectives? How does IT support our Sasaki Strategies group and other technological innovators without bloating the technology footprint and outpacing the staff and budget? How does technology help achieve business objectives? How does it add value, but not distract from the main value we deliver?

Frankly, a one-off bespoke innovation is pretty easy to generate. The real challenge comes in when you need to evaluate the success of the tool and its value to your customers and then figure out how to scale and integrate the new tool into the business operations.

How does the firm see AEC technology evolving in the future?

Where other firms often treat technology as the thing that gives you better answers or improves processes—viewing tech as a driver of efficiencies in construction (materials, costs, etc) and collaborative tool between different consultants and contractors, for example—we see the real potential for technology to be much bigger than that. We are constantly asking: how can we employ technology to ask new questions, not just to get better answers to the questions we already have?

As a field, we need to learn how to better incorporate our technology tools into the whole business process. Here is a specific example: for the Colby College Stadium Project, we were able to put the client into the designated accessible seats to experience what the view would be like. What we found is that the pony wall, the short wall in front, obstructed their view (Figure 7). It leaves you wishing you could go to every chair to see what you notice. If you create a sample of just 20 seats and their viewpoints in VR, you already have a much deeper understanding of what the problems are, so you can be creative about how you solve the challenges. Then we need to focus on how technology can change our understanding and get to a better design, rather than just selling old design process with shiny newest tech.

If the firm had a wish list for AEC technology, what would it be?

High on our wish list would be an open platform for design performance analysis. Right now, firms either hire a team of specialist subconsultants to run metrics on their designs (if the project is large enough) or they just don't run the analysis. Many of those specialists are just taking the design models and running them through their own numeric models, then offering a layer of interpretation. We would love to see an open marketplace for design analysis that allows consultants to create analysis tools. We're seeing many closed systems starting to emerge that allow this kind of analysis to be automated, but this could really benefit from open standards.

Standards are not only needed on the performance analysis but also for the tools used during the whole design process. Different design tools and their outputs do not easily talk to each other, resulting in extra—and often redundant—steps in the design process. While a lot of the friction has to do with different softwares being used for totally different purposes, the lack of data standards is ultimately the barrier to interoperability. Currently, AEC tool providers are vying to be "holistic solutions" — or even worse, software ecosystems. This monolithic approach to software design leads to cumbersome codebases with large historical technical debt that make it hard for these companies to rapidly innovate and ultimately limits the AEC field’s ability to innovate. This approach is not only costly to AEC firms but is an anathema to innovative, creative, inclusive design. It's taken an iterative, herculean effort to get to where the field is today — but with glimmers of hope coming from the likes of open-source tools like Rhino.Inside and Speckle.

Are there any additional information/observations/insights on AEC technology from the firm that you would like to share?

AEC tech needs to figure out a proper value proposition for their work. Whether it's performance-based (post-construction analysis of how well the built result lives up to the initial expectation) or something else, it needs to be shifted from the current "creative IP" idea. Firms are all creating similar versions of the same tools instead of building upon each other's work. The redundancy of effort on building similar tools is holding the architecture field back. Shifting the focus away from what tools we create and focusing instead on what we create with those tools is what benefits us all.

Acknowledgments: The responses to the questions for this profile were provided by Holly St. Clair, Chief Technology Officer for Sasaki. The profile itself was facilitated by Paul Doyle and Cameron Loeschner of Nickerson Companies.


Have comments or feedback on this article? Visit its AECbytes blog posting to share them with other readers or see what others have to say.

AECbytes content should not be reproduced on any other website, blog, print publication, or newsletter without permission.