Co-Founder & Director-Urban Frame (Space Matrix Group Company) (Interview part 1)

Anup Naik is a pioneering force in the world of architecture. Bringing design and design practice into perspective, this article is a recall of an interview conducted by the Best Creators. The entire conversation has been broken down into comprehendible portions loaded with information, that everybody in the fraternity, from all walks of life can surely benefit from.

To explore the people behind this wonderful industry, a set of questions were asked to the Anup, the Founder Director of Urban Frame Pvt Ltd.The pointers recorded were an eye-opening experience intended to be shared with the fraternity, to learn and grow from each other’s experiences Anup expressed the ever-evolving nature of thought, in an industry that is driven by the creative.

User-centric design philosophy

“As an expert in the field of design, what would you say are your top philosophies that have helped you remain at the top of this industry?”

Anup expressed the ever-evolving nature of thought, in an industry that is driven by the creative mind. He expressed that a set of philosophy evolve and grow with your professional career. When you’re in architecture college and getting out of college, you have a set of philosophies. In professional life, the first 10 years you have a set of philosophies, the next 10 years, you carry another set of philosophy and these philosophies keeps maturing. The experiences you have gained in the journey, is the thread which binds these philosophies together., in the creative world, you are constantly looking at different scenarios, different kinds of engagement, different client base where the nature of project changes. What anchors these philosophies together as a continuum or a common thread is High Integrity.

For Anup, another key philosophy was working on user-centric design, where he believes that any kind of architecture, must be convenient, comfortable, and engaging across a plethora of users, from toddlers to the elderly who may use the space. The idea of driving user-centric design is something he and his team have always pushed hard, trying to excel and better their experiences every single time. User-centric design represents a strong base of his creative world, where user experience is the foundation to fulfilment. Anup states that putting the user first is the kind of integrity that holds his project and design practice together.
Further Anup was asked about his professional life, where he was responsible for implementing certain aspects to impact the efficiency of his organization and clients. To this, Anup delved into his exciting career of experiences that shaped the world around him – He began with the philosophy of design excellence.

The goals of design excellence

At his organization, they push the envelope of design excellence and this A runs across the organisation and not a top-down process. This laid down the foundation to run a horizontal organization, with limited hierarchy wherein every employee is in the same mental space and always carrying the same drift. Most of what they do stems from conversations, Anup attributes improvement in his organization through conversation which is a key to design excellence.
Further elaborating on the channel of communication, he mentioned that it is important to keep the communication channel always open. It does not matter who is working on the project from architects to engineers to digital designers to interns, everybody becomes a contributor to the design process. He believes a flat organisational structure allows for qualitative design conversations and communication. From his experiences, considerable improvement happens through the process of communication. Sometimes, in a design process, architects tend to look at things in one direction a myopic view is reinforced, but when there are a lot of people contributing to the design, the qualitative aspect of design enhances.
He further expounded about his reflections on organisational agility. Agility in running an organization is very important, wherein agility in operations, agility in meeting technology demands, agility in situation management are critical functions.
He says that his team and him ask themselves every morning, “Are we relevant?”. Which is an integral part of keeping the organisation agile

Accelerating the design process and decision making

At Urban Frame, everything internally is based on C A R – clear communication, agility, and reflection. With our clients, we follow an open communication policy. Design is done through a workshop mode, such that there are equal contributors. It is not just the decision makers of the company or the bosses, or the project proponents, but an entire group of people who contribute, including the finance, marketing, and the salespersons. He insists that such an ecosystem helps in design formulation, accelerates the design process and design decision making.
For Anup, it is a practice they have followed, and he loves everything done around chasing design excellence. He further elaborates that a project could have a sales handicap, a marketing handicap, or a program-based handicap, but when a lot more people contribute, it is an enriching experience. As much as it enriches the design process, together they make sure it is an enriching process for their clients too. That way, there’s a higher value created in the project cycle.
“Play it like a sport, because then you play for the love of it. You may have an opposition, but the opposition becomes part of your project. You learn how to mark the process to reach effective decision making.”- Anup Naik.

Project is King.

When asked about his learning, that he would like to share with people in the same segment of the industry, he responded with vigour and enthusiasm. Stemming from the thought process in his organization, he stated that today every business is chasing a signature design. When people ask him what his signature design is, it puts him in a reflective mode, pondering on whether there is a necessity for a signature at all in the design world or does a project determine the signature eventually…

Project is king, the project is the patron, the project determines what and how it manifests itself. With this perspective, a lot of what a team thinks they could add value to, is reflected against the project and for whom they are designing. His team constantly looks at detaching themselves from what they themselves think they are, to look at the needs of the project. The project proponent is different, the patrons of each project are very different, they all come from different synergistic information and source bases. He reminisces that, when we reflect ourselves to the situation with clear project goals, it gets the best out of us. Anup continues about the mantra that sets a project in motion – when his team is going haywire, when their egos become bigger, they reflect their egos against the project and ask themselves, “is this what the project really needs?”
The sense of detachment is something they constantly ask of themselves. Otherwise, he says we are running behind a signature, where it is not about the project but the individual person’s creative pursuit. When your projects are in the public domain for public consumption, you’re just somebody who’s guiding the project, adding value to take the project forward. The way you nurture a project, is by keeping the ego out and looking at the project as the bigger entity, a lot of clashes happen just because of strong ego. When the mission is clear about the project, egos can be eliminated.


Challenges that shape a project’s design and execution

Challenges are plenty every project comes with its unique set of challenges. Anup decided to pour his experiences into three buckets.

Clarity about the project

First, how you do you get absolute clarity about the program of the project. Most often the project program is not very clear, it is ambiguous and left to a sense of interpretation, which could lead to an ambiguity. His team tend to go back with multiple solutions, put them on the table and create resolutions, to provide clarity to the project’s program. Application of Design Thinking processes help in obtaining resolution to the most complex problems.

The mind and hand gap

The second bucket comes from what he calls as the ‘mind and hand gap.’ At the creative end of things, there is a mind side, and then there is the hand that executes it. Your drawings are read by somebody in charge on the site, or read by a bar bender, or by a plumber, when there is a gap between what the mind thinks and what the hand wants to do, leading to varied interpretations leading to friction. Before we start a project, we speak to people who are the hands of the project. We share the philosophy and intent of the project and how the hands are responsible for the project, just as much as the creative team. This is something Urban Frame constantly keeps pushing, to reduce the gap between mind and hand in executing a project.

Eliminating project fatigue

The third bucket is to keep an eye for project fatigue. When the project stretches over a sizeable period, there is a fatigue that creeps into the project. This is due to the high momentum that is created initially, and then slows down, and this is when you need to pick it up again and put it back on track, resulting in a lot of challenges. The team needs to refresh themselves in the project cycle. When there is a team working on the project and it hits fatigue, they get some fresh legs onto the project, we find someone who can rethink the project in a different way, without losing the initial intent. There are a lot of people who are digital designers, making drawings for the project. The team allows their digital designers to visit sites and witness their drawings come to life, this enhances ownership. They give us their insights and the team rethinks together. It becomes insightful when there is a different sense of ownership to the project. One way to cut down project fatigue is to look at ownership at different levels.”

(Interview Part-2)

Rolling out design excellence

“We strive excessively for design excellence in the organization. We are always grappling with design excellence. What happens in the design process emerges from the third eye that comes to see the project, adding a refreshing angle to how we perceive the project. The whole dimension to a project comes from role-play. Within a set of teams from which we operate, we assign a kind of role play within the teams.” Anup elaborated upon this unique approach to tackle the project requirements.
“Let us say there’s a team of 5-6 members, which is inclusive of the client’s side. We say, today you play the role of a three-year-old. Somebody else might be a government official in the project. Someone else will play the role of a buyer who wants to buy into the project.” Anup’s team then can look at this idea of role play within the project team. Each one aligns himself or herself to a role that brings clarity to multiple stakeholders of a project. The questions that arise are tough. It is a process of improving oneself constantly. For Anup, this works. He always looks at very high collaboration.

“In a complex project, there is a minimum of 21 or 22 consultants, like a structural consultant, electrical consultant, landscape consultant, piping consultant and more. This consultant is a key contributor to the project cycle. You need to be open as an organization, to be collaborative, accepting of varied opinions to achieve a fruitful outcome. Along with collaboration, a key component is technology.” The design excellence that Anup explains is a merger of collaborative effort and a skilled study of the project requirements. Pairing his experiences with the collaboration of his team, Anup attributes the success of a project to the third eye that reveals the strength and weakness of a project execution.The next question that came up was about staying updated with new trends and designs. When asked about his process, Anup broke down the knowledge story in his lab of creativity.The knowledge story of his organization“We position ourselves as a knowledge-based company. This is fundamental to our existence”.We are always trying to push the bar where knowledge is considered, it is not limited to one kind. It is about how you keep yourself abreast with what is happening around. As a horizontal organization, we have realised a 20-year-old is far more aware of what is happening than an older person in the organization. Their adaptability to newer learning is different. A lot of us get challenged, at the senior level of the organization, with newer ideas. The internal mechanism of running a flat organization has helped a lot, because a lot of the innovation happens with the younger lot. The younger lot keep challenging the senior lot with technology-based design. The different perspectives are enriching. We keep the perspective of knowledge common across the organization. We engage with vendors, a set of video series, lectures, to add different dimensions to knowledge acquisition. We try our best to stay relevant. We keep ourselves open to what happens around us, when you keep a porous, osmotic organization, the knowledge transfer happens smoothly.”

The most defining moment in Anup’s career

It is nostalgic, for Anup, in professional life there were no Godfathers. He jumped into practice the day he got his degree. The learning curve was quite exceptional. Anup recalls the beginning of his tremendous journey in the world of architecture and design.

The beach house in Chennai and the structural engineer

“One of our initial projects was a beach house in Chennai. We started rolling on this project, and in one of our sites visits we realized that the reinforcements were very tightly packed with very little space for the vibrator pin to function. We created a little noise with the structural engineer, who was a 65-year-old gentleman, he did not say much, and we thought the matter was settled. He saw us as youngsters, butting him around. The client calls us the next day, and says we won’t be working together on the project. It was a big learning because you can’t play boss all the time. You have to be far more accepting.
It’s teamwork and not just about you. It is how you take your team together. We isolated the structural engineer from us at that time. It happened very early, but it was a big guru mantra for us, take people along” Anup continued.

A people’s profession

“Ours is a people’s profession. We intellectualize projects at one level, at another level, we are rubbing shoulders with the brick mason to understand his work and working ground up. We learn how to be as humane as possible. It is a humbling profession. It has the ability to get you to ground zero, before you have realized.”

Trust the people who trust you.

Anup further delved into his experience working on a temple project –
“We were working on a temple project design. We wanted it to be completely different from conventional design. People were pushing us to a corner, inciting that we were building a tomb monument. But we stuck to our ideas because we had faith in our team. We were backed by the patrons of the temple to continue with our ideas. As it stands today it is an appreciated and recognised temple in the city’s fabric. This project taught us, a key ingredient in design process called Trust. We built trust between the stakeholder’s, the patron, and the creative team, even though we received ample flack for the design in the early stage of the project. The patron believed in our idea and the idea of trust got embedded very early. You must trust people with whom you work. Don’t allow the trust deficit to come in the way of professional life. It will become a stumbling block.”

(Interview Part-3)

Constantly learning to impart information

“I believe that wherever we are in today’s profession is because of early learning. You learn from everybody. Just because you’re at the apex of an organization doesn’t mean you aren’t learning. For example, we were driven in a way to deliver drawings in a very corporate manner for one project. On site, the engineer found it difficult to read the drawing. He found too much information on the drawing. For his task, he found it hard to utilize the information presented. In your eagerness to deliver a project, you must always consider the person who is consuming the information you are sharing. How you dissipate information is very important”

The wonderful insight into how learning is directly associated with your ability to impart information is vital to the core of his profession and the industry. Once again, Anup stressed on the knack for communicative pathways that direct a project in the right direction. His immersive experiences are a reflection of challenges that were met and redefined through effective communication. The next question was about his vision for the future of his industry.

We asked him, “What are some tips you would like to share with aspiring architects?” To this, his conversation imparted wisdom and resilience in an industry that has taken leaps and bounds into the future since his journey first began.

Respect is fundamental.

“Be respectful of the project you undertake. Be respectful of the ecosystem that your project touches. Push design excellence because that’s what makes you relevant. Push the boundaries of design. Be a collaborative worker because that’s the essence of the new business world. And, don’t give up.”

Never give up on the beauty of your profession

“This is such a beautiful profession. You can impact a lot of people by what you do. You can employ a lot of people by what you do. You can be supportive of the art and craft in many ways. You are in the position to develop new skills and skill types. You are in the apex of a lot of things, so don’t be impatient with yourself. The virtue of patience is very important. And don’t let go.”

Be a knowledge creator.

“Dissipate as much knowledge as possible. Don’t hold your knowledge to yourself. Be a knowledge contributor. Have happy people working for you. When you have happy people working for you, they do a great job. When you have happy people, you have happy projects and happy people living in your projects. Let everything be positive. Positive energy around everything you do is important. That will spread joy to whatever things you do.”

A message to the vendors and suppliers of building materials

“Be innovative. From a product manufacturing point of view, be relevant to the market needs of today. Go green and commit to mandates of sustainability. Let us be softer on the environment, sensitive to our ecosystem, ecology and environment that supports us all. Continue to keep innovating sustainable modes of engineering. Be relevant to the changes that lie ahead.”

A message to the turnkey contractors

“Contractors are such an integral part of our ecosystem. They are the people who end up building what you conceive. In our ecosystem, a contractor is always looked at negatively. That’s not the truth, it’s just the way people are portrayed. The big exercise for the contracting teams is to educate your people of what value you add to a project. You are the ones who build – What will an architect do other than dream? You’re the builders of that dream.

Contractors are doing a phenomenal job today, owing to technological adaptability. It’s important to look at the architect as a collaborator. The building team should be engaged in a project from day one, including the creative ideation. The builder builds efficiency. There must be a sensitivity to the project execution. The minds and hands should work together to make every process better. They are a big part of the knowledge creation process.”

His in-depth understanding is very thorough to the core. A commendable insight into the world that shapes the world we live in, Anup Naik’s experiences are to be shared with all. Thank you for the detailed insight on how we can really change, as humans working in the industry and contributors to the industry.