We sat down with FuseBox resident Michael Hammond to discuss how his business, Built Environment Media, has been supported by the FuseBox and to learn about the exciting AI led research they have been conducting to give architects a head start on potential projects.
Hi Michael, thank you for joining us! Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background?
So I get asked a lot if I’m an architect, and I’ve got a bit of a one liner which does describe my changeable career: Basically, I spent my entire life trying not to be an architect. My father was an architect, and he was doing some amazing stuff but this was back in the days of drawing boards and very much pre-electronics. I grew up around models and drawings which got me really excited about architecture.
After I graduated college I had to find my first job. My father set me up with an interview within his government department. However, I had been offered another job and I made the decision not to join my dad's department because I thought it was wrong to just follow in his footsteps. It probably was the wrong decision, because I’ve been working in architecture pretty much all my life, not as an architect, but on the periphery. In the end, I started in engineering but I always wonder what would have happened if I had made the other decision.
How did you become a FuseBox resident and what projects brought you here?I’ve always been excited about IT and digital transformation. Even when I was working in construction I was always involved in the IT side. I actually set up one of the very first intranets for construction companies to coordinate deliveries to big construction sites. Ever since then, I’ve been looking at ways that new digital technologies can actually make a difference to the architecture and construction world. Eventually we started looking at a product which would use AI and big data. Peter Maddelana is a FuseBox resident and a personal friend who invited me for a chat and a coffee in space. After that visit I applied for residency and was accepted and I’ve been a resident ever since. I love the space here, it’s amazing.
What drew you into working with AI?
While working in architecture, without being an architect, I ran a company called World Architecture News for about 13 years. I was totally absorbed in it, I used to read, listen and watch every bit of architecture news. Obviously, inevitably, I read about this “AI” technology in the same newspapers and journals and that simply grew my interest.I’m also fascinated by VR, and we are surrounded by headsets here which is just unbelievable but I feel that immersive may be too hard for me to grasp. However there is a lot of data out there and some of the big construction manufacturers are really getting ahead of the game. Elevator companies interest me, they are doing some really mind-blowing work in using algorithms to predict flows of people through buildings, and even identifying them as they’re walking down the street so the lifts can prepare themselves. The net result of that is that some of these buildings can actually have less space dedicated to lifts because they are so much more efficient. I love that and I think it’s a great inspiration.
Do you think the advancement of AI technologies has made it more accessible to other industries?
I definitely believe it is more accessible now, we are launching an AI product which, frankly, five years ago would have never had dreamt of.
What is this latest project you are working on?
Our business is Built Environment Media, and we sell data to architects globally. We have a research team scattered all around the globe and we publish around 50 architectural tenders a day, every day at 4:30pm. Architects choose which ones they’re interested in and take it from there.
Now within that, there is a huge amount of repetitive work with a tonne of copying and pasting. We get a load of data coming from the EU and put it into a format that architects want to receive, which is often quite different. They also arrive in different languages so it’s a whole lot of tidying up and collating.
Andy Campbell, one of our key researchers, who had been with us for years, left last year and we started a project called “Auto Andy.” We thought it was going to be very simple to replace him with an algorithm that would transpose one set of data to another. Although simple in principle, in practice - not so much.
What we are trying to do is to avoid the repetitious work and to redeploy the team to do more valuable work finding new sources and new information. Proper research rather than running content through Google Translate. We set ourselves a deadline of March 31st and we got it running just before Christmas. It’s fantastic and it has already made a huge difference to our processing time.
Do you think the time and effort that went into developing this AI was worth it?
That’s a very good question and obviously one that my shareholders asked me daily! The answer is that it’s a long game. We did have had some short term pain through 2019 but we’ve been running this business for 13 years and the flow of data hasn’t changed. I think we are going to be benefitting from the new system for the next 10 years or more. That will also enable us to bring in more revenue from untapped parts of the market and the new streams of data will go through Auto-Andy too. It’s going to have knock-on benefits over a long period of time.
What has been your proudest moment so far?
Well we made a profit last year, a tiny one, but given what we have been doing we’re very pleased with that!
Do you ever struggle getting potential clients to understand the value of AI for them?
Getting new business is hard, and I know that it is hard for all businesses, in every sector. For us however, the challenge is that architects often have regional offices, with different needs and different people that each have different favourite products and so it can be really hard getting somebody to change what they are doing.
We might be charging a client a few thousand pounds, but what they have to invest in order to work from one of our leads is much much greater than that. Worse, is that if they don’t get the work or they miss out, then they have potentially lost out on millions and millions of pounds.
They are very cautious about changing to another product or system. Nobody is going to get fired for carrying on using the same system however if they switch to us and don’t get the work then they could easily lose their job. So it is certainly a hard sell.
We always joke that we are the best kept secret in the industry. Because the people that are winning loads of work from us would not tell anyone else willingly! It makes it hard for us to say “We are doing really well” since a lot of people haven’t even heard of us.
Do you think it’s more important for startups using emerging technologies to collaborate?
Absolutely. That is one of the things that I love most about the FuseBox. We’re collaborating and bumping into people at the next desk who are in a similar industry but using a different technology that otherwise I’d be unaware of. There are some niches that are so small, you wouldn’t have thought there would be any business, yet globally there is a huge market. I absolutely think that the formula you’ve got here is brilliant. It’s all about collaboration. It has to be.
Are there any FuseBox residents that you have worked with since joining the FuseBox?
Well obviously the first would be VRCraftworks. Peter, as I mentioned earlier is a personal friend but they introduced me to a number of people. Nick Slack for example, who was helping us with the Auto-Andy project and he’s brilliant. He is now part of the VRCraftworks team as well.
Additionally, Sean Burton is doing some work on the effects of light in workspaces with his client. That is something of great interest to architects but we haven’t quite found a way of exploiting that yet.
How do people find out more about you and your work?
Well, the company that we run is called Built Environment Media, but the publishing site is called TenderStream.com. It’s very niche but as I said earlier, it’s a big niche, because it’s global. There are a lot of architects out there, so if you are an architect and you’re looking for new work, please do take a look.