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Martin Pawley: failure and facilities management

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I once asked a former president of the RIBA what sort of qualification a person needed to get into facilities management. 'Failure helps, ' was his laconic reply. When I asked him to enlarge on the role of failure, he began to list the unsuccessful military, police, civil-service, local-authority, taxi-driving, schoolteaching, hill-farming, road-sweeping careers of the facilities managers he had come into contact with ever since he had taken an interest in the subject. That was a few years ago, of course, probably ten years. But now we learn - so vigorously has the wheel of fortune spun - that architects are becoming facilities managers in large numbers in order to prevent what is now described as 'a key professional role' from falling entirely into alien hands. In short, the heritage of Ectinus, Callicrates and Inigo Jones doesn't add up to a hill of beans compared to being at the controls when building operations, maintenance, space planning and energy management are the names of the games.

Of course, facilities management has come on a bit in the last ten years. For a start, it is now breezily called 'FM', which makes it sound like a branch of the entertainment business. It also has its own professional institute and website, which makes it clear that it has well and truly left its 'failure helps' reputation behind. More importantly, FM appears to be fast developing into a powerful R&D arm with the potential to operate as the sort of pre- and post-design consultancy that architects have always promised they would be able to offer as soon as they had enough time to get round to it.

Today, most big American FM firms collect historic data from facilities-management records and operationalise it to advise clients about the economics of alternative existing buildings; about their suitability or unsuitability for alternative uses; about their ease of subdivision or enlargement; and, most crucially of all, about the comparative cost of all these variables. In the high-tech market of software houses, computer and drug manufacturing companies, where the only certainty is that the client will demand (a) twice as much, or (b) half as much space within six months, your advisory FM consultant is not just a janitor with added brainpower. He or she is into benchmarking, outsourcing, space planning, workplace issues, real-estate strategies and the study of organisational change (which never ends).

FMs not only know what buildings are on the market, but what they cost to operate and what you can do with them when you no longer need them. Better yet, they know all about the scary world of 'human issues' that contributes so much to success or failure in corporate life. In a world where no new building can possibly be available as quickly as an existing one, the FM expert has the inside track. As a mid-Western FM said to me last week: 'Clients don't even look at design statements. They don't care about appearances or urbanities, they only care about amenities.

Recruitment and retention is the name of the game. A good FMcan set up a back-office operation that will save a company millions.'

As that former president of the RIBA put it, failure certainly helps.

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