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Architects told to try harder to meet their clients'needs

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Architects must get much closer to their clients and understand their businesses properly if they are to prosper.

That was the message from delegates at the Property Forum last weekend, the second annual event at which service providers sell their skills to captive building occupiers on board a cruise ship. Ray Jenkins, head of portfolio services at BT, told the AJ, 'Architects have to really understand the client - we are in a changing world.'

The rapidity of that change was outlined by 'business futurist' Professor Richard Scase, who sees companies as wanting designs that cater for sociability, excitement and the corporate brand, in locations that will nurture clusters of expertise and a redefined home/work interface.

'Architects, ' he said, 'need to learn more about process - they only learn this by getting into the hearts and minds of people doing the business.'

But the 'new' organisational models that Scase showed - social areas, quiet spaces, locations for hot desking - would be familiar to anybody who had seen a presentation from DEGW over the past 10 years. It seems that this approach is becoming the new orthodoxy.

BT, for example, has 'provided funky space for dotcom people, ' said Jenkins. More fundamentally, it has responded to staff moving between offices by creating a house style.Working with consultant Ziona Strelitz, it has developed a formula which means that 'the experience of how a building works - the reception, touchdown, serviced offices - should have a familiar feel'.

Marks & Spencer has dealt seriously with the issue of branding by having its own in-house architects. UK development manager Tom Meager said, 'I see them as responsible for interpretation of the brand'. M&S, he said, has 'embraced the thoughts of new work environments'. For instance, it refurbished the entrance of its Baker Street headquarters as a meeting area, and created informal cafe space for meetings.

Rosemary Feenan, head of research at property consultant Jones Lang LaSalle, said, 'We need to use architecture and design to release creativity in the worker. In the UK we want to be quick and agile - but we are conservative, and our property and environment doesn't do much to encourage innovation.'

Architects who want to address these needs may have to fundamentally change their attitudes. Michael Joroff, senior lecturer in architecture and planning at MIT, said that unpublished research conducted there had monitored the behaviour of architects with clients. This showed, he said, that whereas architects were open and listened to the client during the briefing process, once they started design they often tried to shut the client out altogether.'Their body language changed totally, ' he said.

But where buildings are well designed, they can work better than ever anticipated. Andrew Grainger, head of property strategy at British Airways, said, 'The office has got to be made into somewhere that is almost alive.'This is the thinking behind the Niels Torp-designed headquarters at Waterside where, 'the approval rating among staff is extremely high.' Now, Grainger believes it could be made to accommodate more people. Because workers spend relatively little time at their desk, the individual space allocation can be reduced.'It can be extremely space-efficient.'

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