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The Diary of an Anonymous Architect #14

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

‘Ain’t about the cha-ching, cha-ching, Ain’t about the ba-bling, ba-bling…’  Jessie J.

We like the annual AJ Small Project Awards. We’re not paid to say this, it’s far too late to enter - and we haven’t this year - but not too late for some thoughts.

Some clients are embarrassed by small budgets. And perhaps too passive. ‘We haven’t got a big budget – what do you think we could do?’  But some clients know the addictive grip of the low-budget gauntlet - and architects can rarely resist a challenge. 

Perfect symbiosis.  Clients maximize their ambition to near impossible heights, architects turn up their design ingenuity to 11 –  so the added value of great design can take centre stage. All good and instructive stuff for present and future clients and, it has to be said, present and future architects who may be leading too-sheltered lives buffered from reality with trust-funds and bonuses.

Recent austere times have contributed significantly, making the AJ’s Small Projects ever more relevant. Clients expect maximum value for money, builders work at cost or less and architects put in endless extra hours because the new banking HQ project is on hold and this minnow - sometimes quite a big minnow for the budget - could be the breakthrough project.

Things may be somewhat different in the capital. For some without a clue but blessed with a bonus, installing a waterbed for £250,000 to give late night web surfing an edge might represent fabulous/provocative value. 

Or maybe the salvaged-from-a-skip-chic, pop-up sashimi stall is cathartic for those who suck their teeth at the news reports but will never themselves experience the joys of scouring the just-past-sell-by shelves.

Thankfully though £250,000 is a badge of honour for those who want to hone off-piste design skills, invent new or explore existing marginal procurement routes and re-calibrate perceptions of low-cost resources and materials to haute couture.

One project we know, but isn’t entered, was way over budget at tender. Canny clients knew they had something special but accepted the architect’s advice that bringing the project in on budget traditionally was impossible without major surgery. The architect told the clients that getting their hands dirty was the only hope. 

A monthly build-it-yourself magazine highlights procurement options in its Beginner’s Guide with information from the RICS Build Cost Information Service

The unnamed source offers four build routes – A: Main Contractor, B: Builder with subbies, C: subbies and D: DIY with subbies – with quality and regional variations. The greater the hands-on involvement the greater the savings. The suggested costs saving are about 15 per cent, though our experience shows it can be significantly more.

These clients weren’t up for baling their hay or shearing their sheep for insulation but they were determined to take advantage of procurement paths less-travelled. Job done - nearly.  Apparently brilliant quality, on-time, within budget – will no doubt be on a screen near you sometime.

However, too much emphasis on the client “ambition” and the architect “authorship” only skims the surface. 

To bring one of these tantalizing morsels to fruition requires just about every life skill.  Clients need ambition no doubt but also trust in their chosen team and a willingness to collaborate.  Architects have to understand and respect what it takes for a client to do that whilst also adding to their hard won design skills healthy amounts of obstinacy, budget control, team management, valuing others and knowing when to turn up their demands and when to turn them down.  All spiced with inspiration to inspire others and the stamina to see it all through. 

And when the hard part is all over, enough arrogance to submit the project for judgement – fingers crossed. Final hurdle? Impress at the whirlwind AJ Small Proejcts jury presentation – the obsessions of previous months distilled to five compelling minute’s worth.

School of hard knocks perhaps but even future banking headquarters would be the poorer without this kind of Herculean trial. 

The AJ Small Awards experience is challenging but also well-meaning. 

£250,000 still seems quite a lot

Promoted and supported by a group of like-minded colleagues and industry professionals all seeking a beneficial outcome for insipient masters of the profession.

But how long can the £250,000 limit last as sectors of society find themselves on the sunlit uplands with the mire of recession ebbing unevenly?  Maybe a £500,000 limit before long and soon a Small Project winner scraping in just below a £1million limit – signs of economic success? 

For now though £250,000 still seems quite a lot.


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