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Learning through design The construction of Great Notley School gave the Design Council a chance to learn some lessons about teamwork

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Faced with pressure from clients for higher quality and better value construction the construction industry is having to change the way that it works. Greater emphasis on teamwork is one aspect of this.

The Design Council and Essex County Council joined forces in 1997 to look at the teamwork in the design process on Great Notley School. The Design Council was looking for a complex building design problem to study from inception to completion and use, and to expose the dynamics of teamwork by tracking the design process. Essex, also interested in teamwork, wanted to use the project to explore the nature and practicalities of sustainability which could be developed in future projects.

An open competition was used to select the design team which was led by architect Allford Hall Monaghan Morris. The team included obvious disciplines such as qs, structural and environmental engineers and landscape architects but also included artists and the county council added one of its own education officers into the mix.

The benefits of teamwork should lie in a team's ability to pool knowledge, resources and skills. Working as a team should also bring benefits beyond just contributions of each professional discipline. Although some members of this team had worked together on other projects, they had a diversity of experience. What came across was the value of experience outside members' professional disciplines. Some team members had children of primary school age and found that they could inject that understanding into the design process, another was particularly good at advocacy and so was useful in certain kind of meetings. Being able to harness the extra-disciplinary strengths should help bind the team together and make it more effective. For example, someone with a passionate interest in it might be given responsibility for ensuring it compatibility across the team.

The team members found it quite easy to cross 'professional' boundaries and discuss aspects of each other's discipline. The hardest task probably fell to the artists who had never worked within a design team in the early stages of a construction project. The artists were used to creating a physical form of art and had to wrestle with an entirely different type of contribution. Their early contribution was strategic in nature, rather than something that was specifically identifiable.

Teams need an objective. The client set this out early on, but the team also encapsulated it in the slogan: 'touching the ground lightly.' This formed a useful banner around which to discuss and debate the project. In the end the phrase - slightly altered to 'touching the earth lightly' - became the title of an exhibition on the project run by the Design Council.

Although the contractor was selected through tender and was not part of the design team, it fell in with the co-operative spirit of the project. Subsequent experience showed how the approach of different team members matters. The construction was not all plain sailing. There were problems with the erection of the timber frame as well as getting connections to the mains services, and a different attitude could easily have led to blame and counter-blame.

Another important lesson is the value of including the client in the process. In this project the client was multi-headed. Both the property- services client and the education client were closely involved. What was clear was that such involvement demands commitment to the resource. Although many clients and, one suspects, design teams would rather clients could just leave them to get on with it, it was crucial to the success of this project that the client played a full part in it.

Managing design teams is a complex business. An overall team leader may set the direction, but the team is a complex network of different offices as well as smaller, issue-driven, groups. The tricky part is to ensure that all the elements of the web communicate with one another.

The Design Council and the client were interested in looking at how far beyond the bounds of traditional design the team could be taken. The search for the head teacher was one unusual area where the client wanted input. Essex was looking for someone who would be in sympathy with the sustainability ethos of the project. Members of the design team were involved in preparing advertisements and information packs for prospective candidates. The involvement of the design team in what would normally have been treated as a separate aspect shows how blurred the boundary between the building project and the business context can become. Many in the construction industry may see a building project as finite, but for clients it is just one component of an even bigger project - their business.

Constructing Great Notley School was all about learning, from creating an educational establishment to learning how clients, design teams and the construction industry can work together. The Design Council is identifying the lessons learned from the project to put together a learning framework, and Essex County Council will be monitoring the building for the next year and using the information and lessons on the teamwork process to feedback into future projects. The information will also feed into industry learning on the broader level through the Movement for Innovation which is using the school as a demonstration project.

Alastair Blyth tracked the project for the Design Council

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