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Time to manage design

If you want your projects to run successfully, you have to give attention to organising the design process effectively

The construction industry's recent focus on improving performance has highlighted the value of rigorously examining 'processes' to ensure everyone clearly understands what they are supposed to do. This clarity then leads to minimal 're-invention of the wheel' and no surprise 'gaps'.

Architects, too, are involved in construction processes, and if they are not clear about who should do what there is scope for duplication, confusion or gaps in their service. Ever-more knowledgeable repeat clients expect - quite rightly - an efficient service, a commitment to improve continuously and value for money. And architects who can deliver their skills in an efficiently managed way are likely to be more cost-effective, productive, more in demand from clients and ultimately more profitable.

A key feature of efficient management of the design process is being clear about everyone's roles and responsibilities. The construction process involves a number of people with design skills. Some architectural firms will want to handle every single element of the design - right down to the door knobs and cutlery for the staff canteen. Others are more interested in the broad spatial concept and are happy to use others to complete the detail design.

Before you start your next project try to define what you really want to do; and what you don't. For example if you had the choice, would you want to specify and design all aspects of all the door sets and openings that you would find in a typical commercial building? These may include:

Main entrance door

Lift doors

Internal office doors

Plant-room doors

Emergency escape doors.

Service-yard entrance doors.

Where would you be happy for your responsibility to end?

Once you are sure about how much design involvement you really want, you then need to define who will do what. On most major projects the contractor may have design and design-management responsibilities and the specialist contractors will have their own design capabilities. Don't assume you will do just the entrance doors listed above, and that the contractors will understand it is their task to design and specify the others - they are not telepathic, so spell it out. Draw up a matrix and clearly identify who will do what. This will save enormous amounts of repeat effort and avoid the chaos of responsibility or technical resolution if a misunderstanding occurs.

Similarly, recognise the different roles - and the potential scope for confusion - among the different designers in the consultancy team. For example, who is going to be responsible for the drainage design? The architect? The structural engineer? Or the service engineer? Where is the cladding-structure interface? How will statutory applications be developed, presented and achieved? Talk to each other at the outset and be 100 per cent clear about who will do what.

The management of the design process can also be streamlined if everyone is also clear about the meetings (and reports) that will be generated during the project.

For example, design meetings can ramble on if there is no clear agenda or ground rules. People can waste countless hours sitting in on meetings they need not attend in the first place. At other meetings everyone can be delayed while someone is attempting to locate a key drawing.

So, be clear right from the start. Define the meetings you want and who should attend them. For example, there might be certain high-level design meetings that focus on the big picture; and separate design workshops - involving others, perhaps specialist contractors - to attack the details. Be clear about the tasks undertaken at each meeting and who should, or should not, attend. Also define what drawings/programmes etc. will always be available at these sessions.

Reports are a feature of all projects. So define at the outset what form they should take. Don't make them unnecessarily long-winded or painfully time-consuming to produce if they don't need to be.

Define the contents and order, and agree how information will be presented. Make use of it/e-mail as much as possible to minimise the time and effort you need to expend, and the paper you generate.

If a set of minutes can also act as an agenda for the next meeting, then use them in this way. Also agree when documents will be circulated - not at the meeting but when (in advance) so that everyone gets a chance to read them beforehand - so that they have had the time to clarify their thoughts, responses and opinions.

Tom Taylor is chairman of Buro Four, a practice of project managers in construction. This is the first in an occasional series focusing on how architects can improve the management of their work.

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