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Delivery failures

technical & practice - A recent client survey found that, although architects are appreciated for their design skills, clients are also looking for a much broader relationship

In a survey of 55 (mainly public-sector) organisations, clients were asked about four areas of an architect's engagement: the services obtained from their architects; the selection of the architect; the strengths and weaknesses of architectural practices; and their general level of satisfaction with the architect's delivery. In order to get an overall picture, respondents - individuals with responsibility for commissioning or working on a day-to-day basis with architects - were asked not to identify architectural practices by name.

Those surveyed had commissioned architects for a variety of project types and sizes, many spending more than £1 million per annum on both new-build and refurbishment projects, while several had embarked on multimillion-pound schemes in the past five years.

Not surprisingly the main services obtained from architects included design proposals, liaison with statutory bodies, production information, and design leadership. But while 82 per cent had their architect carry out contract administration, and 67 per cent appointed the architect to be the lead consultant, in only half of cases was the architect also the project manager, and in only a quarter was the architect expected to provide cost control. Strategic briefing, too, was only mentioned by a third of respondents.

Interestingly, 68 per cent had used alternative providers of architectural services in recent years, the main alternatives being M&E engineers and surveyors.

Selecting architects As the charts show, previous experience is the single most important factor in the selection of an architect - even with the public sector, which operates under strong regulatory constraints on tendering for capital projects. It was surprising that advice from professional institutes was not used to a greater extent, though this might reflect the public-sector bias of the sample.

No fewer than 60 per cent of respondents had dismissed an architect in recent years. The most common causes were:

l poor cost control;

l not listening to clients;

l not following the brief;

l 'too much design'; and l poor project management.

Even though only 25 per cent had earlier stated that they had expected an architect to control costs, many were happy to cite costs as a cause for concern. Clients tend to look for cost control as part of project management but they expect plans and designs to be cost-conscious. It is this that is problematic here and later on:

designs are produced that are appealing on paper but commit the client to cost overruns in terms of construction and also of maintenance over the long term.

Respondents were asked to provide three key benefits they were looking for, and three areas of risk.

Later they were asked for three leading benefits and problems that they actually encountered.

Table 2 shows that respondents apparently look for sound management and communication skills as much as design excellence. Table 3, however, shows that the benefits they felt they had actually obtained were more restricted - communication and responsiveness were emphasised, as were a strategic understanding of the clients' business, reliability and good design, but contract administration and project management aspects were absent - the process-management category had more to do with flexibility and adopting a problemsolving approach. The relatively wide range of expected benefits has not been realised.

Inadequate staffing stood alongside poor cost management, drifting off the brief, not listening to client requirements, and poor contract management as key sources of concern.

The level of satisfaction is reasonably good news for architects, but project completion and post-completion were less so. Critical elements such as project management, cost control and delivery on time are not rated highly. It also seems that clients like flexibility but they don't feel that architects are flexible enough. A similar result was obtained for partnering, suggesting that the profession still has some way to go in this area too.

In a quarter of cases, architects were seen not to be clear about client needs, and their designs did not meet client specifications. Similarly, clients want design teams with good communication skills, but more than a third of the time they do not get them.

Of course, communication, as they say, is a two-way process. Interviewees all recognised their potential contribution to the success or failure of communications, and their own responsibilities with regard to clarifying specifications, cost design and the delivery implications of late changes to plans.

Finishing off Post-completion was the least satisfactory area, according to the respondents. Whilst there was an appreciation of the need for design quality, it was clear from interviews that there were lingering doubts about the suitability of the completed project.

Eighty-two per cent would have liked to have had a post-completion assessment or evaluation of the final project, while only 17 per cent said that they actually got it.

Some of the key results coming out of the above are:

l clients will on occasion look to other sources to provide design services, thus potentially bypassing the architectural profession;

l clients appear to have higher expectations of the services of architects than they actually receive;

l project management, cost control and contract administration are not seen as strengths of architects, despite their obvious relevance to clients;

l communication and response are crucial, yet a third of the time clients are not satisfied with these aspects; and l clients want more attention paid to post-completion evaluation and support.

Underlying these results is a clash of two different conceptions of what architects bring to the construction process. Perhaps the clearest example of this is the issue of strategic briefing.

Many within this profession may see that as the responsibility of the corporate client, but it is clear that these clients at least are looking for architects to play some role in this respect.

Many clients will perceive the role of the architect as helping them to solve their service problems, not simply to produce a good design for a building.

It is clear from the questionnaire, and still more from interviews, that clients are looking for an extended, sustained relationship that helps them plan their business activities and reassures them about their ability to deliver services over a long-term perspective. The architectural firms that keep this in mind are on to a good thing. The ones who don't will find their business slipping away.

Paul Griseri provides management training and development for architects. For copies of the report, contact pgriseri. associates@virgin. net

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