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Rab Bennetts on novation: ‘Delivery is an essential part of design’


We must show the construction industry that architects can deliver projects as well as design them – otherwise our profession will continue to be eroded, writes Rab Bennetts

There is a troubling irony in the debate about delivery architects in the AJ, as it coincides with The Architectural Review’s current issue on the importance of craft and authenticity in architecture. While one title celebrates the expression of a building’s anatomy and construction, its sister publication acknowledges that many good architects are being stripped of detailed design and execution against their will.

The rise of the delivery architect could hardly be more threatening to those of us who see conceptual design and execution as a continuous process and the position of the architect as pivotal to its direction. At a time when a more fragmented profession is the last thing the industry needs, why is this happening and what can be done?

I was recently told by a senior manager at one of the UK’s largest contractors that he had ’never’ met an architect who could both design and deliver. Perhaps he was just shopping around for a cheaper fee, but among contractors and clients alike his view is a depressing refrain that can’t be ignored. Various government-inspired reports over 25 years, from Latham to Egan and Morrell, have identified similar issues but with little impact on a profession that is perceived as too remote from the needs of the industry and its clients.

Prompted by the consistency of this feedback, a few months ago I described the stereotypical architect as viewed by the industry, at a dinner discussion about the future of the RIBA. With echoes of a Hellman cartoon, the profile I volunteered was of someone who exceeds budgets, doesn’t issue information on time, designs for their peers, doesn’t understand commercial realities and so on. My caricature went down like a lead balloon of course, but my point was that, unless the issue of service delivery is addressed, the architect’s position will continue to be eroded, possibly at an even faster pace than the last 30 years.

Joe Morris of Duggan Morris recently joined a long list of architects who have proposed some sort of mandatory link between planning permissions and the originating architects, but went further to suggest that production specialists who deliver the buildings need to be vetted for their suitability. However, while the reference was meant for the usurpers, it could be aimed equally at the original designers; it cuts both ways. The solution, surely, lies not in artificially protecting the conceptual architect but in recognising that the process of delivery is an essential part of design. 

The ‘accelerating search for authenticity’ championed by the AR encapsulates not only the intellectual basis for architectural form and the avoidance of superficiality, but also the mechanism – the motivation, if you like – for responsible delivery. In-depth knowledge of construction and engagement with industry are as essential for authenticity as they are for the profession’s reputation, with management of the design process as the means to achieve the end. Meeting deadlines and budgets, not to mention fighting off those who would dumb down the design, is a craft in itself.

Mastering this craft is far more difficult than submitting to the role of the stylist of course, requiring experience, discipline and nous, but if the rewards are seen in the substance of the architecture they will also be evident in the improving health of the architect’s standing in ‘the art of making’.


Readers' comments (5)

  • I completely endorse Rab Bennetts’ position on this matter. The recent RIBA Client Satisfaction Survey, published last November (go to www.architecture.com and search ‘RIBA for Clients’), clearly shows that while we are considered to be competent designers, our delivery skills need improvement. There has been much in the press recently on the problems of separating design-up-to-planning from post-planning delivery. The cost of this ‘dichotomy’ is to our profession, our industry and the quality of our built environment and is not something we can afford.

    On the back of the client survey the RIBA Client Liaison Group is promoting discussion of the subject on two levels.

    Firstly we are organising a series of nation-wide road show events where client and architect pairings are asked to outline their experience of working together and debate how and where the project process could be improved on both sides. The important thing is to have dialogue and raise awareness of each other’s concerns. Primarily though, as the service provider, it is the architect who must better understand what represents value to their client.

    The other programme involves getting real-life clients into schools of architecture, both in the design studio and through lectures. A handful of schools do it already but we need to make this more widespread. The aim here is to expose students to the issues they will face in practice and to give them an understanding of the concerns of their future pay masters. It is important to not suppress their creativity in this formative phase, but at the same time there must be an understanding of the underlying economic criteria that govern all construction projects.

    We must first measure if we want to improve - the findings of the survey are just a starting point. What we as architects do about them will shape the future of our profession and it is clear we need to do something.

    Nigel Ostime, Hawkins\Brown
    Chair of RIBA Client Liaison Group

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  • Rab is right to bemoan the outcome of delivery architects, to which I would add novation culture, but there are plenty of architects who can design and deliver quite satisfactorily. Perhaps the 'stars' have a problem with construction and site inspection, but most of us don't.
    Novation is often just a means of avoiding tax, straight fees attract VAT if it's wrapped up in new-build construction it doesn't. For this reason an architect who has designed the project is novated to the design-build contractor. Of course, this is just a means of wrapping up all the risk in the construction process and has nothing to do with design as an aesthetic exercise and everything to do with 'build'. So the architect ends up being paid by the firm who wants to do as little as possible for as much as possible whereas he designed the building for someone who wants to get as much as possible for as little as possible. The result is that the architect gets tied up into a value-engineering exercise driven by the contractor. If the architect complains they just won't be asked and certainly won't be paid for fighting for design quality.
    This is so pernicious that I really don't understand why the RIBA has not taken a stand on it. Many years ago they called in major developers who said this is what they wanted to do, so the RIBA just rolled over.
    On the other hand there is the culture of the delivery or executive architect. These are often just cheaper - because in the end they don't care that much and are quite happy to go along with compromising the design, after all it isn't theirs.
    All of this culture militates against good design making it through the construction process. Well-known architects are employed to get planning consent, executive architects are employed to make it cheaper. The planners are ill-equipped and under-resourced to do anything about it.
    In 2010 the RIBA Planning Group came up with a model Section 106 agreement, prepared by lawyers, that provides a means of tying the design team to the execution of the building. In fact, it is done by means of a 'design monitoring payment' which the applicant pays. If the design team changes there is an 'additional design monitoring payment', at the discretion of the Council. This doesn't tie the client to the architect, which is not possible legally, but it does involve a financial penalty (the idea is that the Council can then pay the original design architect to inspect his or her own work). This was an RIBA document but seems to have disappeared.
    Robert Adam

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  • Robert

    Another document that seems to have disappeared from the RIBA is a Code of Conduct that refers to supplanting. Not long ago Bennetts Associates was blatantly supplanted by another firm at the delivery stage of a project and I was able to point out the relevant part of the Code of Conduct to say this was not acceptable. The revised Code of Conduct doesn't seem to have anything on supplanting, or have I missed something?

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  • Rab,
    We have had exactly that problem. We were supplanted by an architect who the client had told that our fees had been paid. They hadn't but the architect was, under the Code at that time, obliged to contact us to see if there were any issues. As a consequence, I threatened to take him to the RIBA for a breach of Code and the end result was that I got paid (but didn't do the rest of the job and didn't want to work for a crooked client anyway). More recently, when we've been supplanted it has been made clear to us that there in no obligation event to inform the original architect. This is appalling, what is the purpose of a professionl institution if it is not for mutual support and protection?

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  • As ever, a big help would be for planning authorities to understand and acknowledge this as an issue and press for design architects to be retained, secured by s106.
    In practice, few people in the process, other than architects, seem to even recognise that this is a factor in the delivery of good buildings.

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