The new Glaxo Wellcome research headquarters in Stevenage has a lot to answer for. The degree of co-ordination and level of responsibility experienced by many of the key players in its construction left them so dissatisfied when they returned to 'normality' that they spun off in other directions. And baa has been a major beneficiary.
Mike Forster, who was the director of Sheppard Robson leading the architectural team on that project, is one of the six or seven who have gone to baa, working under Simon Murray, now managing director of baa's technical services, and previously the director of Arup responsible for the whole Glaxo design team. But in Forster's case this was not simply a matter of following somebody he liked.
'On Glaxo,' he said, ' we worked in a manner that was outside my experience. It was the closest I have ever got to having shared goals.' So closely were the client and design teams integrated that 'the client could wander up to a drawing board as much as I could', Forster said. 'That gave me a glimpse of how we could work within this industry.'
After three years of being absorbed by Glaxo, Forster returned to Sheppard Robson, where he headed the project to design the Human Genome Project campus at Hinxton (aj 9.10.97). With that nearing completion, he took stock. He had been with Sheppard Robson for 17 years and a partner for the last 10 of them. 'I thought, would I be able to make the changes at Sheppard Robson to respond to what I had glimpsed?' At 43, Forster was the youngest of the practice's six partners. ' I didn't see the evidence of the change that I knew we needed to make,' he said.
He had already been doing some consultancy work for baa, and decided that, as a large organisation that commissions a lot of buildings and has a strong improvement culture, 'change is within baa's grasp'. So when Simon Murray offered him the job of group head of design implementation, he jumped at it. But what does his job title mean? It is part of baa's determination to divide the design process into two distinct parts: design definition, and - Forster's part - design implementation, which he describes as 'having decided what you want, how do you deliver it?'
He has experience of both parts of the process: at Glaxo, where the conceptual design was carried out in the us, and at Hinxton, where Sheppard Robson started from the beginning with the brief development.
Talk of changes to the design process makes architects edgy, but Forster is sanguine: 'Architects are trained as Renaissance people,' he said, 'But individuals have different strengths and practices use different people at different points. It may be a conclusion that we use the same team to do both parts of the job.'
In many ways, Forster seems a natural for this job, but there is one significant mismatch. Almost all his working life was spent at Sheppard Robson (after studying at Cambridge under Sandy Brown, he spent a year with Castle Park Hook on housing-association work before joining the practice), and from the beginning he was involved with research buildings. Surely baa represents a switch of discipline and knowledge? Not so, according to Forster. 'I was working with buildings that were heavily process-oriented,' he said. 'That is the same here. And I had done a concept study on Terminal One. Although we are pushing people down corridors, not chemicals down pipes, both building types are process-oriented.'
He finds the ethos of baa refreshing. 'Sir John Egan drives an improvement culture,' he says. 'Every person, every group has to have targets to improve. It is not enough just to do what you are doing; you must be working at how you can do it better. Where in the design industry would you find that as an important element?' This is exactly the ethos Forster feels is needed to achieve the changes in the process of design and construction that baa wants to see.
The big questions are, he says, 'Are designers improving the way that we deliver design? How do we match client aspirations?' Part of this must come from a process of continuous learning. 'How can we turn design into a learning experience? From a linear into a circular process?' The answer, he believes, is by a much better method of appraisal than exists at the moment. baa is unusual in that it monitors all its buildings, and has a wealth of material on technical performance. But it is difficult to find a way of turning the raw data into usable information. And even more difficult 'are the intangible elements. The language of appraisal and appreciation for architecture is more difficult. We should start thinking of that as we brief'.
Just over seven months in, Forster is only beginning to get into his enormous task, but describes it as 'very interesting'. He particularly enjoys working alongside people from other design disciplines, such as graphic designers and product designers, and contrasting their approaches with the traditional thinking of architects. And he is thinking in such a clear-sighted way about his own subject that they must find him equally stimulating company.