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Feature: Seven clients reveal what they really want from architects

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The AJ quizzed seven top developers – including British Land, HAB Housing and the LSE – about what they truly value in client-architect relationships

The marginalisation of architects is not a new topic but, for the UK profession, it does seem to have become part of the 2017 zeitgeist.

The AJ is committed to challenging this state of affairs in a positive and proactive way, and has begun by seeking to improve the understanding and communication between architects and their clients. So what can architects do more of and what can they do better? The answers can range from ‘learning to speak the language of the stick-in-the-mud QS’ and ‘proactively leading on design-value engineering’ to simply taking more responsibility.

Julian Robinson, director of estates, London School of Economics 

Julian robinson lse

At their best, what value have your architects added – financial or otherwise? 

Selecting innovative and exciting architects with a passion for design has resulted in my own and my client’s expectations being exceeded on each of our last three projects. On the new student centre, O’Donnell + Tuomey achieved a building of exceptional quality which exceeded the brief’s requirements. The central accommodation stair, the lynchpin of the design linking the internal spaces, provides a number of unexpected (by the client at least!) and stunning interior views. The practice also produced a piece of artwork to adorn this stair as part of the standard fee.  

For our Centre Buildings, Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners looked beyond the brief and produced a new public square at the heart of the scheme which will transform the LSE campus and allow a direct route through to our British Library of Political and Economic Science. All agreed this was a masterstroke.

On our Marshall Building, Grafton was able to garner more floor area for us than we thought possible and provided a series of unprogrammed spaces, such as a Great Hall which was not part of the original brief but is now a key aspect of the building’s design and will be part of its defining signature.  

Excellent architects are worth their weight in gold. They give confidence to the stakeholders but as equally important, confidence to the local planning authority. All of these schemes achieved planning permission first time round and I’m convinced the quality and integrity of the architects played a major part in this. 

Lse grafton crop

Lse grafton crop

Marshall Building for the LSE by Grafton Architects

What do architects need to do for you to give them a greater role on projects? 

We already give our architects a greater role on our projects. We employ them as lead consultants, co-ordinating the work of the other design professionals. They are novated to the contractor but also retained client-side for quality-control purposes. Design management is critical, and fully co-ordinated drawings produced on time are always welcome. They need to give greater reciprocity in terms of design changes. For example architects make design changes – sometimes quite significant – which the client has to assess, consult on, recost and respond to. That’s fine and part of the process but when the client wants a change then they get charged additional fees.

We want a fully iterative process with open communication between client and architect. And when budgetary issues arise, [we want architects] to proactively lead on design value engineering. 

Isabel Allen, design champion, HAB Housing 

Isabel allen

At their best, what value have your architects added – financial or otherwise?

I could go on about instances where architects have sourced an incredible low-cost material – and Allford Hall Monaghan Morris has been particularly good at this – or come up with a really clever solution to a problem, but it’s sort of not the point. The point is that brilliant architects – and we do our very best to work with brilliant architects all the time – don’t just save money, they make value. They turn something potentially humdrum and pedestrian into something valuable and special. You can try to put a value on this – and of course, as developers, we sometimes have to – but it’s not a game we particularly want to play. The right project – and the right architect – are worth their weight in gold.  

Brilliant architects don’t just save money, they make value

What do architects need to do for you to give them a greater role on projects? 

Nothing. Architects – the really good ones, anyway – provide the magic. We rely on them to take a big messy clump of issues – site constraints, cost constraints, technical issues, conflicting agendas etc etc etc – and to somehow turn them into something functional, elegant, beautiful and timeless. Good, poetic, intelligent design is the most efficient way of ensuring best value for money. This is the fairy dust, the magic – the stuff we pay them for. I hate the idea that architects should somehow build up the range of services they provide. Nothing puts me off more than an architect’s website with a section on ‘services we provide’. If we want a project manager, or a business consultant, or a planning expert, or a quantity surveyor, we’ll go and get one. Architects should do what they’re good at. And stop listening to anyone who says it’s not enough.

Martyn Evans, development director at Dartington Hall Estate, former creative director of property developers U+I and Cathedral 

Martyn evans

At their best, what value have your architects added – financial or otherwise? 

Developers should see architects as value creators and problem solvers, not as a cost. Unless we fundamentally change this attitude, nothing is going to get any better. Many developers build very good relationships with their architects and more and more developers are understanding the value of hiring good architects – that it impacts on their bottom line. But not enough. This is the fault of developers who won’t look beyond the end of their cost plans and the fault of architects who won’t speak to developers in language they understand to communicate what they can do. 

I spent five years at U+I working on the Old Vinyl Factory development in Hayes. It was a site that had sat undeveloped for 30 years. What the site needed was a story; a creative narrative for its future, rooted in its history, in the town around it and in the people who lived and worked nearby. Our team – Studio Egret West as masterplanning storytellers, AHMM and Duggan Morris – worked together to unfold that story, creating a tale of living, working, playing and enterprise coloured in with their own specialisms in designing place, restoring old buildings and creating new. 

Studio egret west vinyl facory

Studio egret west vinyl facory

Old Vinyl Factory development in Hayes by Studio Egret West

That place simply wouldn’t have been viably developable without the story told by our architects. They created the means to communicate the benefits of the place and designed buildings that would house those who bought into the vision. It simply couldn’t have happened without their skill.

I’m now working in a rural environment, trying hard to build housing where values are low and costs are high. It’s nearly impossible if you want to build anything good. But I have good architects and, together with our cost consultants and contractors, we are tearing up the rule book and designing our way out of the problem. Responsive, thoughtful architects are at the heart of the solution. 

What do architects need to do for you to give them a greater role on projects? 

They need to be prepared to come to the middle of the table; to share ideas, debate, move from entrenched positions when the situation calls for it, to be persuasive, compelling, commercially-focused and nimble. They need to learn to speak the language of the stick-in-the-mud QS and single-minded contractor, and argue and advocate for their ideas. They need to show examples, organise site visits to other schemes they’ve done and bring their own consultant suggestions to the table if the current crop aren’t working. We developers are rational beings; we recognise answers to problems when they surface. That’s what I want architects to do … solve my problems. I wish more architects would recognise that they can.

Mark Gilpin, planning director, Inland Homes

Mark gilpin

At their best, what value have your architects added – financial or otherwise?

The whole of the development and construction industry is built upon relationships. These take time to build and are easy to break down. Good relationships mean greater understanding, more efficient processes, quicker solutions. So as a developer, my consultant teams are built upon a desire to have repeat work. For instance my relationship with John Pardey Architects [built over four projects including Carter’s Quay, Poole] is with John Pardey – it is not with JPA. 

This is particularly pertinent where we work with large practices, where relationships fail because the finances dictate that a junior might be working on our scheme rather than the individual we thought we were appointing.

Poole harbour by john pardey architects

Poole harbour by john pardey architects

Poole Harbour by John Pardey Architects

I am always designing and drawing myself – testing thoughts, pushing my consultants to expand their minds. I detest architects who fiddle and, quite often, I will draw a scheme in a day when it will take teams outside a week to produce something. What are they doing? It comes down to brain power, rationality of thought, clarity in brief assessment, management of time and focused delivery.

The best team I’ve worked with is a company called Metropolis. Why are they so good? Because the practice is run by a managing director who has a planning and urban design background. He is supported by an architectural director, a planning director and an urban designer. The team is small but highly skilled. What they produce is always better than what I anticipated, their design work is produced quicker than anyone else I have come across, they cut to the chase and understand and resolve issues quicker than anyone else, and the work they produce is clear, technically sound and suitable for my purposes as developer but also for presentation to a wide range of stakeholders. 

What do architects need to do for you to give them a greater role on projects? 

Listen, be clear in their thought processes, work effectively, think outside the box and have a wider range of skills.

The consummate architect for me is one who can see the whole picture, who feels the picture and understands the ebbs and flows of a project. Just being a designer in this day and age is not good enough. They need to have skill sets that cover the technical understanding of site constraints, buildability, costs and architectural detailing as well as the consultation process. Architects must be able to order the design brief and evaluate value and be a good business manager – they need to manage their resources to ensure they can pay your staff.

And be creative. If we can get the best looking scheme as well then we have done our job.

Roger Zogolovitch, creative director at Solidspace 

Roger zogolovitch

At their best, what value have your architects added – financial or otherwise? 

The architects we employ are in a position of trust; they are the key professional and our prop, emotional and sometimes even spiritual. We need to be surprised, excited by what they bring to the table; in our experience they always add value to the way we think about the project. They have that invariable knack of saying ‘but what if’ – that’s a great moment.

I’ve collaborated with Simon Allford and AHMM since 2000 on various projects in SE1 [central south-east London]. Working with the same architect over such a long time has allowed our relationship between client and architect to grow and mature. This has given fertile conditions for our creative collaboration to develop. Our Union Street project was in a relatively unknown route in Southwark, located immediately to the south of the railway rather than Southwark Street to the north. Over time we developed a series of buildings by him and Glenn Howells. We added value through the long-term repositioning of Union Street and the development of elegant and considered buildings. This long-term relationship built around a developing friendship was the key to remaking a part of the city. It engaged us both for 17 years, bringing us to the present with the practical completion of our final building at 100 Union Street.

This is for me a perfect example of an architect at his best, engaged and patiently supporting a shared vision for change.

What do architects need to do for you to give them a greater role on projects? 

The developer client sits in this uncomfortable chair where he or she is responsible to investors and funders for every project. We are human and are easily seduced into a bigger, more exciting vision but we are answerable and we have to deliver.

Why cannot the profession recognise that they are not working in isolation? Clients need to build intelligently and economically. Architects must not just pay lip service to the budget and the appraisal, but demonstrate with authority how they can build better and more economically. They should recapture all those territories of M&E, detailed design of components, fire engineering, sound and environmental, never mind the project manager roles, to take a grip on the old-fashioned authority for the entire building. This year’s Royal Gold Medallist, Neave Brown, along with his generation, understood everything that happened in their buildings. Architects need to relearn those basic skills, and not fall for the assembly of warranted products; they are expensive and self-serve the producer not the client. Get into that detail and take responsibility for it. That’s worth paying for.

Inhabit Homes, Union Street, Southwark by AHMM

Inhabit Homes, Union Street, Southwark by AHMM

Inhabit Homes, Union Street, Southwark by AHMM

Emma Cariaga, head of operations, Canada Water at British Land

Emma cariaga

At their best, what value have your architects added – financial or otherwise?

There is often a conflict between the beauty of a building and its efficiency. Our job as developers is to balance those two things. But, in my opinion, when architects are more purist in their approach then you get a better result. I want challenge. I want the architect to have conviction in their vision and confidence that their approach will deliver something beautiful. It is their job to hold that line.

Can they do that and allow the commercial issues to be heard? If they can, they can create something magical. So architects do need a good commercial understanding but also the conviction that what they are proposing brings its own value to the table.

Our customers do place value on good architecture and design. They want large efficient floorplates but they also want well-considered architecture that says something about their company. 

What do architects need to do for you to give them a greater role on projects? 

Architects have a great role in telling the story of a building; articulating why it is resilient, beautiful or efficient. They have a broader role in marketing the building. 

The one area I would like the architectural profession to tackle is the support it gives young talent. There seems to be very little prominence given to the next generation and I think architects should focus on that. 

They also seem to be lagging behind in promoting diversity. It’s a great profession with a chance to influence the environment, so more work  needs to be done to encourage other groups in society into it. Finally I’d say that architects love talking to architects. There’s a much bigger piece of work to do in terms of improving their influence and pitching their wares to a larger audience.

Neil Murphy, founding director, TOWN 

Neil murphy  town

At their best, what value have your architects added – financial or otherwise?

As a custom-build developer interested in making good streets, our briefs typically start from, at one end, high-level urbanistic analysis and principles and, at the other, a spreadsheet suggesting how our model could be put into practice via a typology of plot and dwelling types on a particular site; plus, of course, a cost-per-square-metre budget we need to hit. An architect who can synthesise all this, respond creatively and then shepherd it towards delivery through an interdisciplinary professional process is immensely valuable.

Our first built project – Marmalade Lane, Cambridge, which is currently on site – is a custom-built cohousing project, giving it the added complication of having a group of future residents who have been closely involved in the design process from the outset.  

We set a reasonably restrictive brief in terms of layout and a typology of terraced houses and flats deploying standard plan depths and varied widths so that homes of different sizes could be arranged ‘blindly’ along the street, respond to almost any combination of household type and be configurable to the needs of each household. The brief also specified the use of the closed timber panel building system manufactured by our joint venture partners Trivselhus. 

Marmalade lane mole credit darcstudio

Marmalade lane mole credit darcstudio

Marmalade Lane by Mole Architects for TOWN

As well as producing a robust design response which stood up in all key regards to scrutiny from a multi-headed client and professional team, Mole Architects brought rigour and a level head to an unusual process, taking the project by the scruff of the neck. We ensured they understood our parameters, both design and financial, and trusted them. The added value is a project that when completed should have integrity, commercially and in design terms. 

What do architects need to do for you to give them a greater role on projects?

We expect architects to provide the golden thread through a project. At Marmalade Lane, Mole led the professional team from the outset and has been novated to the contractor to see it through to completion. Our relationship with the architect, and now their relationship with the contractor, have formed the project’s main axes.

Leading doesn’t always mean being ‘in charge’. We often have an urban designer to help set an architectural brief in terms of street network, movement economy. It is natural for any client to want to have a client-side project manager in the construction stage, monitoring and helping to resolve issues of cost and programme – especially if the design architect is novated to the contractor.

The key things for us are: we want to know we’ve got the architect’s ‘A’ team on the project – which is a good reason for working with modestly sized practices; we want architects to be absolutely authoritative on detail; and we need them to be smart on budget and cost. That means being part of the process of setting a realistic budget and then co-owning the process of sticking to it.  When you have an architect – and a design – with backbone, the process of making 11 go into 10 can itself be a creative and rewarding one. But as a client, you need to treat your architects as partners aligned in making the project a success.

David Warren, director of  operational services at Leeds College of Music

At their best, what value have your architects added – financial or otherwise?
Translating the objectives and business proposition into spatial options and demonstrating the impact one option has over another. This is apparent with  our significant new concert hall extension designed by Group Ginger. The project has a number of uses: to be a great welcome for visitors to the concert hall and for artists; to provide for a flexible conference offer; to allow the space to work for teaching environments and to have the acoustic properties that are needed for live music performances.

Group Ginger has not being precious about the design ideas but open to discussion and constant client input to reach these shared goals. This investment in the project with a real ambition for achieving a lot for the cost has provided us with additional value.

What do architects need to do for you to give them a greater role on projects?
To have a robustness to defend and champion design ideas through the complexity of a build. This requires them to be practical and to constantly listen to the advice of the design team and the main contractor.

In my experience it is also vital that they take an active role in management of the cost model to control overspend.

Group ginger leedscollegemusic montage1 large

Group ginger leedscollegemusic montage1 large

This article first appeared in the RIBA Stirling Prize 2017 issue – click here to buy a copy

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  • Nigel Ostime

    It is gratifying (justifiably) to see so much positive commentary on the value architects bring to a project. The profession has struggled to provide evidence-based validation of this view, so to hear it straight from the horse’s mouth is great, and we need more of this. However the examples cited are generally around the more creative, front-end of the project and value created at the start can be diluted by poor performance in the delivery stages. (Design quality can also be diluted through our typically disjointed procurement processes but that is another matter.) UK architects are rightly acknowledged to be among the most creative designers in the world, but the 2016 RIBA Client Survey found less satisfaction in our design management and technical skills. Contractor clients in particular (who are a responsible for a significant portion of the profession’s turnover) often have a different viewpoint and a different set of performance measures.
    The survey identified some key areas architects can improve and all practitioners should read it. It can be downloaded at https://www.architecture.com/-/media/gathercontent/working-with-architects-survey/additional-documents/ribaclientsurveyfinalscreenwithoutappendixpdf.pdf

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