Prima donnas need not apply One architect may be a genius and the other have the ability to work well with contractors. Guess who the future favours?
Architects may like talking, but few of them want to do it in formal forums. And when it comes to talking about the way the entire industry works, too many shrug their shoulders, and treat it as something to do with 'that' construction industry and nothing to do with them.
The enlightened understand just how wrong and how dangerous this is. Robin Nicholson, chair of the Construction Industry Council and moving spirit within M4I (the Movement for Innovation), is aware of the perils, and speaks with a shudder about the teachers of architecture who don't want to talk about construction 'because it is nothing to do with them'.
All those close to M4I know that an attitude which sees the Egan report, Rethinking Construction, as something vaguely unpleasant which will go away if you don't think about it, is utterly wrongheaded. The industry will and must change, and if architects do not play their part, it will change without them. Of course, numbers of architects are aware, are participating in demonstration projects, and are thinking about their future roles in the supply chain. For them, the decision of a second architect with a reputation for designing good buildings and a canny business sense to become deeply involved with M4I is cheering. For those who still have their heads in the sand, it should act as a wake-up call.
That architect is Rab Bennetts who, on a portfolio of buildings for corporate clients, of which PowerGen is still the best known, has demonstrated a consummate skill in both giving clients what they want and making them want what he believes they should have. He was asked to join M4I last year to help strengthen its design process, but he has been a pivotal player for longer.
'We were one of the few architects that John Egan consulted,' Bennetts explains. Egan knew some of the practice's work and was approaching a sympathetic spirit. Bennetts says: 'We believe the industry should be better, more efficient, deal with people better, make things off-site if possible. If we don't go that way we are fools because we will lose the customers.'
This may sound like the Egan report word for word, but that is the Egan report as it was written, not as Sir John originally thought of it. 'Egan said he had virtually written off the architectural profession,' Bennetts explains. 'He seemed to believe that clients should get their buildings from contractors. I was able to show him projects where architects' leadership had helped. He recognised the role of designers in his report.'
That was one battle won, but when M4I was set up, it was very much dominated by the contractor side, concerned with project delivery. Hence the invitation to Bennetts to join to redress the balance. His role may originally have been a little vague, but he saw his opportunity when sustainability was one of the major issues focused on at the big M4I conference last July. 'I was asked to chair the sustainability working group on M4I', he explains, 'to come up with ideas and to take demonstration projects, and extract consistent and demonstrable ideas on sustainability.'
He sees this issue as a gift for architects: 'I have come to the conclusion, on sustainability, that the designer is central to the whole thing. It's a good objective, it's a good way of making sure that architects aren't marginalised.'
The other key M4I issue that he has embraced is 'respect for people'. To many this may mean chiefly the relationships between contractors and the public, and also working conditions on sites. But Bennetts sees it much more broadly. 'Architects have to develop a healthy respect for the other professions and for contractors,' he says. 'Contractors are not all incompetent and claims conscious.' With this respect can come a valuable exchange of knowledge. 'We often know more about some forms of construction than contractors do - respect cuts both ways.'
Perhaps because he does not see the contractor automatically as an enemy, Bennetts does not have the usual knee-jerk reaction to design and build. 'Bennetts Associates can point to four design-and-build projects that have gone well because of mutual respect,' he says. 'They were cheaper than they would have been, and more profitable for the architect than they would have been.' And quality, he believes, is not affected. 'None has a better or worse quality than other buildings we have done by a different procurement route.'
Through working closely with contractors, he has learnt from them and also about the way they think. For instance, after PowerGen was completed, Laing, as contractor, held its usual post-project debrief. For the first time it invited the architect. 'We were able to tell them', says Bennetts, 'what they were like when tendering, how their information was received. And they told us how they priced the job.'
He discovered that, after the detailed pricing of the bills of quantities, something is applied called the 'director's judgment', a decision whether to add to or subtract from the price. And this is largely based on the contractor's judgement of how easy or difficult the consultants, and particularly the architect, are to work with. 'So the architect who is competent will get cheaper prices for their jobs.'
And he has learnt exactly what makes an architect difficult to deal with. 'One of the great sins is incomplete information,' he says. 'Far too much is left to the contractor to fill in.' And for this, the practice has to be well set up and well run. 'You need an experienced designer in charge of the work of young architects. The average age of job architects is much too young.' He is worried about 'a cycle of de-skilling in the profession' and specifically about architectural education. 'The battle is won or lost at education,' he says. 'Construction techniques and competence aren't given the status they deserve. There are a lot of architects coming out of college who were never given these skills, who are more talented than me or many other architects, who will never make it because they don't have these skills.' The problem is one of attitude. 'Architectural students,' he says, 'are led to expect to be superstars.'
With everything up for grabs in the current reforms of the architectural education system, and sentiments in terms of technology training very much in line with those of Paul Hyett, riba's vice-president for education, Bennetts is expressing these feelings at just the right time.
'We have got the potential to sort that at the educational level,' he says. He believes that 'architects should aspire to be more of a master builder than a fine artist,' and that 'if the qualities of the master builder were valued early enough it wouldn't be a problem.'
These master builders would learn to take a pleasure in the whole process of construction and the industry. 'The language of construction,' Bennetts says, 'is as interesting to our kind of architect. If one is interested in the nature of the building and how it is actually made it fits with an interest in the structure of the industry and how it is all done. It is a philosophical link.'
It is this kind of thinking which underlies his practice and is, doubtless, the secret of its success.
'I think everybody in our firm is good,' he says. 'But I think it is the combination of people which makes us what we are. There are masses of people outside who are brilliant but it is the combination of people and a mutually supportive culture that makes the buildings good - a lot of humility and a collective effort.' Which could well be a mantra for the profession and the construction industry of the future.