A hackathon isn’t just for tech: How it’s helping us choose the best project partners

To select an architect for our latest Seattle commercial development project – a tower called 2&U – we thought about what we really needed in our design partner, and how we could best uncover those qualities.

We knew we didn’t want to approach this procurement the way our industry traditionally does it: using a process based on RFQs and RFPs that demands significant time and resources from everyone involved with first creating, then submitting, and finally reading all the proposals. Even more, we didn’t believe the traditional non-collaborative approach would yield what we needed. RFQs and RFPs highlight the effectiveness of a firm’s ability to work in isolation without its client. For 2&U, we needed an architect skilled at design and highly adept at handling input from the client and marketplace, to be done while addressing the constant changes inherent to urban development.


These images from the 2&U creative brief helped inspire the teams’ work during the Hackathon.

With that goal in mind, we didn’t have to look very far. Seattle’s tech community is incredibly collaborative, and it constantly embraces innovative ways to achieve high levels of collaboration to solve problems: the hackathon is one such method. What’s a hackathon? Typically, hackathons bring tech developers together to “hack” a piece of code or software to make it better. While our Seattle office was undergoing renovations this last summer, our team temporarily worked off-site in a co-working lab. One Saturday afternoon, I stopped in to pick up items I’d left and discovered a full-scale hackathon instigated by some of our tech neighbors. I wanted to harness the same level of energy and creativity to develop a new path of collaboration for creating buildings that shape our city. Our entire team embraced this idea and extended it further.


Design ideas presented by the winning architecture firm at the end of the hackathon.

Here’s how we hosted the hackathon:

Step 1:  We issued an RFC – a Request for Conversation – inviting nine internationally recognized design firms for 60-minute conversations. We didn’t want thick volumes of resumes and past experiences. Rather, we just wanted to get a feel if the firms were interested in our project, had passion for the work and if we would enjoy working together with them. After those conversations, it was very clear what two firms we would engage in the design hackathon itself.

Step 2: We crafted a hackathon introduction and invitation. The invitation provided further details of the project, timeline and some expectations. Beyond the basics, we also provided a creative brief that highlighted our vision for 2&U, and that shared photos of memorable spaces, shapes and textures from around the world to inspire the 2&U design.

Step 3: Our hackathon was an intense three-week event focused on testing the teams’ abilities to work with us, and dealing with change toward finding the best solutions. We even supplied the teams with Red Bull energy drink, should they find themselves pulling late nights. The process required several check-ins, and the best team fully utilized this feedback. Partway through the process, we altered the scope a bit by excluding a lot in our project, which was likely to happen during the city’s zoning process.

The results of our hackathon were remarkable: We believe this process was efficient for all involved, and it directed us to the most dynamic firm. In the end, we chose Pickard Chilton of New Haven, Conn., to be the architect of 2&U.

Our strongest learning in utilizing the hackathon was that often our traditional processes might not yield the best results. We saw one firm have tremendous energy for the interview, but run into design fatigue during the hackathon. Further, we learned that by seeing our partners as customers and inspiring them to do good work, we can truly run faster as a high-performance team.

Some might say the tech industries are too different from ours to offer any relevant learnings. We remain open and curious about our customers, and believe there is much to gain in the means and methods.

Lisa Picard

Lisa Picard

Skanska USA executive vice president

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Urban resiliency: Learning from Berlin and Detroit

In my role leading Skanska’s West Cost commercial development operations, I’m always exploring for new ideas about how to best foster sustainable and vibrant urban life.  As a 2013 University of Washington Runstad Fellow, I had the opportunity to visit and explore civic resiliency in Berlin and Detroit, two former urban powerhouses that have seen ruin, and recently, creative and economic resurgence.


Berlin’s Betahaus co-working space promotes the active sharing of ideas. Photo Credit: Lisa Picard.

What I and the other fellows learned from Berlin and Detroit is that the cities of the future will be co-created, meaning that the process of developing spaces and communities will – and must – be a collaborative effort between developers, residents and governments in an ongoing, open and lively conversation about the kinds of places we want to call home. They will need to be diverse to be successful, and contain spaces that encourage passers-by to pause, share ideas and make random connections. Back in Seattle, these lessons are helping my team and I shape the Emerald City’s urbanism, such as through our 400 Fairview project.

For an in-depth look at this topic, check out my article in the latest issue of Arcade magazine.

Lisa Picard

Lisa Picard

Skanska USA executive vice president

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Empowered by our ethics

Before becoming one of Skanska’s Ethics Roadmap champions, I hadn’t a clue as to what it meant.

Even worse, whenever our company talked about achieving zero ethical breaches, I only associated a breach with illicit behaviors (actions landing you in jail). However, after spending time on the ethics task force, I realized that ethics is a powerful opportunity for everyone.


Since Skanska supports every employee to act in accordance with our core values, this foundation empowers every one of us to steer individual and corporate actions toward what makes ourselves and our organization most successful. Simply put, business ethics is the practice of how I conduct business in the best service of our culture and our values.

And what do we value? For me, it was important to see Skanska’s Five Zeroes not as values but as the result of living our values around safety, honesty and transparency.

For example, at Skanska we highly value human life and – most importantly – the quality of each life. This is the guiding force for our conduct as it relates to safety. This value empowers people at all levels to make better decisions that influence our job site actions.


Last month, Joe Davidson, the safety manager on one of our Seattle development projects, told me about actions he took relative to a trade partner that was using compromised high-pressure equipment. Joe advised this company’s foreman of the need to replace hoses and scaffolding equipment that were creating a potentially dangerous environment. The foreman replied, “Our company cares more about dollars than us.” Joe told the foreman he didn’t believe that, given the vocal commitments that company’s leaders made in support of safety. Joe took the issue to the trade contractor’s president, informing the executive of the amazing crew engaged on our job, noting their top-notch quality and high level of commitment. Joe then asked the executive if he knew what his employees thought of him.

The equipment was replaced immediately.

Joe creatively captured the attention of those able to make a change. Joe was empowered by Skanska’s strong Injury-Free Environment® culture and his own personal value of human life, and these drive him to conduct business in a powerful way.

When colleagues like Joe step up to do what’s right for safety, that’s evidence of a strong safety culture. Similarly, when people stand up and call attention to behaviors that violate our values or breach ethical standards of any sort, that’s how we honestly live our values and have the ethical culture we all seek.


Lisa Picard

Lisa Picard

Skanska USA executive vice president

More Posts - Website - LinkedIn