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The Diary of an Anonymous Architect #11

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The latest in an ongoing series about the day-to-day travails of an experienced and embattled practitioner. This week: collaboration

I’ve got the brains, you’ve got the looks, Let’s make lot’s of money…”’ The Petshop Boys (N Tennant, C Lowe)

We all do a lot of it one way or another – when it works with clients it enhances the whole process. When it doesn’t, the project can be dreary. 

How has it worked for us? With clients - quite often. With structural engineers – almost always. With M&E – rarely. With landscape designers – never. With project managers…..

But these days collaboration seems more of a necessity than something that would be good for a project if it worked.  As offices fragment and scatter their talent to the four corners fewer ‘firms’ are large enough to take on bigger jobs.  It can be a winning ploy - but there are pitfalls.

I recall a large practice (Practice A) I knew reeling in a major job on their doorstep.  The partner in charge decided the clincher was to team up with another firm with skills that were useful though not necessarily essential to the job – window dressing really, a sparky idea to attract attention to the bid.  They won the job though no-one knows if including Practice B helped at all. 

No-one had bothered to establish roles or ground rules

When it came to designing the scheme Practice A took the lead – for a while.  It soon became apparent Practice B wanted to establish their authorship.  Kiss of death.  Collaboration had seemed such a good idea at the time that no-one had bothered to establish roles or ground rules. 

Practice B invited the client to meetings without telling Practice A. Unknowingly Practice A invited everyone – until they realised what was going on.  The upshot was two firms shadowed each other both expending fee repeating the same work stage by stage.  That is up to the point where it got difficult and Practice B couldn’t be bothered with the detail details.  So the agreed fee mostly paid for two teams – their own teams! – to do the job twice.  Disaster.  In their enthusiasm at the start they set up a joint bank account which needed two signatures.  Practice B couldn’t be bothered signing  – so fees earned languished, untouchable in the joint account.  Nearly brought the great providers – Practice A - to their knees.

Our practice consultant also recounts tales of his favourite “collaboration”.  Two architects in smart offices on Fifth Avenue were gifted at winning competitions and much sought after.  They had all the fun, put forward their proposals, won the work for their big practice clients, everyone happy.  They became very wealthy apparently and never needed hard hats - just the odd touch of genius.

When we’ve collaborated with other practices it’s seemed enjoyable to both sides.  Managing creativity is difficult enough but in larger practices often more so.  The creatives are cautious about backing their design and in a stand-off with the principals and often back-down cos they need to keep their jobs.  Not a good outcome for anyone.  On the other hand collaborators already have their own jobs so they can be more robust in a design stand-off which can then become much more productive and lead to more interesting outcomes. 

The resident guys often say of collaborators suggestions ‘they (their principals) won’t go for that’ – but when they do, it can reinvigorate the host office.  We’ve often felt we’ve left our collaborators better than we found them and we too have the benefit of new approaches, skills and networks.

Working the American way with design architects as authors and executive architects as deliverers takes some bravery. 

We always want to find our own God in our own details and things can easily go awry when that job passes into the wrong hands.  Though we don’t know how they shared the tasks between them Robin Lee Architecture and their executive architects showed recently how well their collaboration worked in delivering Wexford County Council headquarters to Robin Lee’s design.

Collaboration can be a whim or a necessity; it can be great or grim.  You just have to decide at the outset if you want to be Neil Tennant – or the other one.

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