Our healthcare team is in the midst of a benchmarking exercise at a hospital with which we have an amicable, non-client relationship. It is helpful to rely on this arm's length arrangement to mine the pertinent data targeted in such an essential exercise.

Design benchmarking is a chance to play detective—observe, question, learn—and determine why a building looks the way it does, and, at the same time, compare how some other team does things, good and bad, versus our own approach.

Critics of design benchmarking note it is impossible to second guess another team's intent and execution, or derive any truth without being on the inside of a project—in design meetings, in on client decisions, in the know about the budget.

I disagree. Although there are many decisions never to be fully known, the general gist of design care and skill are laid bare. The size of a room or unpopular color palette may be chalked up to client request, but many, many aspects cannot.

Detailing, circulation, craftsmanship, capacity, awkward spaces—these are things recognizable in a benchmarking exercise that cannot be explained away as not being privy to the project process. Why? Because no owner or user would consciously choose a bad idea. These are things that can always be done right on every project, regardless of client predilection or budget.

For example, a client would never choose code minimum for systems design like electrical service. It is square on the architect's and engineer's shoulders to design in an appropriate buffer in anticipation of how a facility might change in the near future. It need not be excessive or expensive, but adding three outlets should not cause a redesign. When the director of facilities notes there is no system redundancy, it brings into question judgment of the team. These are decisions that are not discussed by the client because deep down a design team should know the right answer and simply execute, or at least manage client expectations.

Not everything is nit-picking in benchmarking. Every facility is an opportunity to learn something new, especially on a detailing front, that can be added to a design arsenal. And picking up on ways a user customizes a space after the fact, especially one that is admittedly well designed and complete, can be just as helpful.

Field trips are well utilized by administrators and boards to visit similar facilities and get a feel for what they want before their organization decides on something. Likewise, facility benchmarking should be similarly utilized by design and construction teams to reorient themselves to how things are done outside their own practice bubble before they decide on their next design.

Lee writes on healthcare design, project, and strategy topics in his blog, “Owner’s Toolbox” at http://www.poechmann.com.