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For a fulfilling career, an architect has to forge good relationships with clients and users. Yet, until now, students had no training in this vital area Learning to listen

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Various studies have recently highlighted the importance of learning communication skills, and the Higher Education Funding Council for England (hefce) has committed £250,000 to a three-year project to identify ways of improving performance in this field. (The initial stages were discussed by George Cairns in aj 10.04.97, pp 26-27.)

Since then much progress has been made. Simon Pilling has taken over from George Cairns as co-ordinator of the project, known as the Clients & Users in Design Education project (cude). The Institute of Advanced Architectural Studies at York University, where some of the original work was done, is no longer in existence, but work has pressed on at Sheffield and De Montfort Universities. The Sheffield school of architecture has completed an experimental design project incorporating cude principles.

The use of an outside 'client' in students' design projects is quite common in architecture schools. What cude does is to move a step further in the degree to which the 'client' is involved, and in particular to expressly train the students in interview and presentation techniques before their first meeting. Real people who cannot read drawings, and who change their minds, can come as a shock to students.

The Sheffield project

Russell Light, a tutor at Sheffield, was charged with finding a way of accommodating cude work within the ordinary work of the department. Angela Fisher, a non-architect, set up the pre-meeting workshops for the students. The owner of the Cupola Art Gallery in Sheffield, Karen Sherwood, acted as the 'client'. Her gallery of contemporary art is located in a tatty building in a run-down area because she believes strongly that art should be as accessible as possible to everyone.

The project for the students was to design a new gallery building for Sherwood, who had to write a brief. This included phrases such as: 'I would envisage a visually awe-inspiring building, almost an artwork itself. Something with character! I would want the building to look hand-made. Stone carving, stained glass, details which show artistic skill as well as innovation. Details would be important. Surfaces, textures, colour . . . Facility for a changing frontage . . . A welcoming entrance . . . I would like a building that inspires a warm feeling . . . '

To this Light added a more normal brief with academic requirements and a bibliography. The first third of the time was to be used to elucidate and clarify the brief.

Sherwood met all the students at the start of the project and talked about her aspirations for a new gallery. Then Fisher started the ball rolling with workshops for the students. One workshop introduced techniques to use in group research on the brief. Another, run by management consultant Martin Brooks, concentrated on the principles of communication to use when working with clients: recognising the needs and attention spans of the audience, headlining key points, understanding the importance of non- technical language and avoiding unnecessary detail. The students then spent a week on specific parts of the briefing research before a final workshop to agree how each group would run its meeting with Sherwood.

Each group had one hour with Sherwood to explore the brief. The students, advised against an interrogative approach, invented a range of devices to get her responses: sample boards of materials, montages of images, a planning game to link proposed facilities within the gallery, installations of textures, light and colour.

Sherwood noted how infectious the students' enthusiasm could be and warmed to those who listened to her requirements. She often found their drawings difficult to understand, but liked the sample boards of materials.

The students then had two weeks to finalise their individual designs, and Sherwood attended the crit.

What was learned from it

There was a feeling among everyone involved that the cude objectives are extremely worthwhile, and that they should be incorporated in the course.

As would be expected, however, in any pilot project there were some minor problems that need to be fine-tuned: because the projects involved 'clients', more time needed to be allowed than for normal projects, and there was some discussion about when in the student year the courses should be run to avoid clashing with exams. And, as the marking of students' work had to be done in accordance with university regulations, how far should students follow Sherwood's wishes if they clashed with the academic requirements of the tutors?

However, if cude work is properly integrated it should be possible to set up an appropriate marking system which would resolve this issue.

Can other schools run it?

To communicate with a non-academic audience, and to elicit briefing information, requires students to have more skills than they will need in the academic world. cude funding enables workshops in activelistening, communication and presentation to lay audiences run by outside specialists and incorporated into the courses. But what happens when the funding ends, or to the schools where funding is unavailable?

A vital part of cude's work in the next academic session will be transferring to Sheffield and De Montfort University staff the skills needed to run such workshops, and providing tutor support material for dissemination. cude has also run workshops in other architecture schools.

To run a project of this type, certain problems need to be overcome. The first is acquiring the 'clients'. It is generally agreed that it is best to use a real outsider, with specialist knowledge of the needs of a particular building type which also fits into the syllabus. The 'clients' need also to be pleasant and accessible, prepared to both be open to the students' ideas and to fight their own corner - and be located near the school.

There could also be an ethical worry. Sherwood was paid a fee for the days she spent at the school, but if someone had a building project in mind, it might be difficult to pay them a fee as well as providing free student ideas. Also, local architects might object to students doing 'free' work.

A bigger concern is the number of students involved. The architect-client relationship is essentially one-to-one. With this scheme, students have to meet the client in small groups, simply because there are so many of them. At Sheffield there were nearly 70 students in the third year, who met Sherwood in groups of about six, but the meetings still took two full days. Sheffield's 1998 intake to the first year is 100.

Despite the need for minor adjustments, it is certainly clear that the sort of training that it gives the students is essential. Anything that can be done to bring architects closer to their clients must benefit us all.

Any school wishing to know more about cude should contact Simon Pilling, through the University of Sheffield, or on e-mail: kas22@dial.pipex.com

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