Bridging the gap between architects and contractors

By Tony Owen, Novus Property Solutions

Ask any architect how they feel about their faith in contractors to work accurately to a brief, and you’ll see some raised eyebrows. Ask a contractor about their relationship with architects, and you’ll likely get a similar response.

As a project manager at Novus Property Solutions, sustaining strong relationships with architects is crucial to achieving success in my work.

Aligning the goals of an architect with the restrictions facing a team of operatives delivering any construction, refurbishment or building project can be a challenge, but harmonious collaborations deliver remarkable results.

I have been working as a project manager on commercial and domestic building projects for more than 10 years, and during that time I have witnessed my fair share of clashes between architects and contractors working on the ground. More often than not, such clashes stem from a disparity between the aesthetic aims of architects, and our need as a contractor to meet stringent safety requirements and work to tight deadlines and budgets.

Rather than point the finger of blame in either direction, my job is to make sure that differences are reconciled and a synergistic relationship is forged between ourselves as contractor and the architectural project team with their own aims and targets.

Start before the start

The process of creating a synergy between architect and contractor begins before any work and even any initial discussions have taken place.

As soon as an architect’s plans have been received, a project manager can begin to analyse the building materials that have been proposed and assess their suitability for the project. If materials look likely to cause conflict due to safety regulations or other factors, the project manager can give early feedback to the architect and, in doing so, mitigate potential pain points further down the line.

Disagreements between architects and contractors can impede the momentum of a project – something which should not be underestimated. As a project manager, I aim to keep a project moving and to keep all parties involved in the project feeling positive about it, just this in itself often has a remarkably uplifting effect on the flow and the quality of the work itself.

Build a dialogue

Having identified the potential pain points at the earliest possible stage, it’s time to meet with the architectural team to work through any issues we can foresee based on our experience on similar projects. Different project managers will offer a range of views on the best way to go about this, but I am a firm believer that there is no substitute for face-to-face meetings and on-site discussions to ensure absolute transparency and clarity between ourselves and the architectural team involved.

While it is not uncommon for time-pressed architects and busy contractors to utilise telephone meetings, Skype conversations and emails to hash out details on projects, there is much that can get lost in translation when people do not meet in person. At the very least, I would stipulate that the first discussion between an architect and lead contractor like ourselves on a project takes place face-to-face.

By meeting in person rather than communicating over long distances, architects and contractors are far less likely to misread each other’s tone and intentions. The success of a project depends upon these key players being on the same page, and, in my experience, people tend to be less defensive and more keen to establish positive relationships when they take part in face-to-face meetings.

Once a foundation of clear communication has been established, a schedule of regular meetings should be put in place. Ideally, face-to-face meetings on site should take place at least once a week during the project, supplemented by daily communication via email or other means.

Potential pain points

There are, of course, any number of issues that can arise and cause a problem to both architects and contractors during a project, but one of the most commonly occurring disruptors is the long lead-time required on certain bespoke items.

If delays are caused by the lead-time of a particular material, resentment may start to build amongst the people delivering the work on the ground. As such, it is vital to identify these materials well in advance, and that responsibility can fall on the architect and the project manager so that this time is built into the overall plan at the outset.

The delivery of materials that are unusable to a site is another problem that occurs all too often, and again the responsibility here falls to the contractor’s project manager. Ideally, all materials will have been checked before work begins to ensure their suitability, but should anything slip through the net it is important to ensure the issue is dealt with as quickly as possible so that confidence in the project is not affected.

Regular full site team meetings are a good insurance policy against the possibility of a project being derailed in any way. By offering every person working on a project a regular opportunity to pitch questions to management, you can ensure that any issues that might arise do not disillusion your workforce.

Compromise solves conflict

The atmosphere around any successful project should be one of positivity and optimism, along with an acceptance that compromise is sometimes necessary. While architects must consider the impact on the project’s budget or other constraints when striving to create a unique aesthetic, as a contractor we have to recognise that concessions sometimes have to be made in order to comply with a building’s design.

It is true that cutting-edge, energy-saving technology and safe building practices can put limits on certain architectural designs. But even when this is the case, successful project management and clear communication between architects and teams of building contractors will ensure that goals are carefully aligned, a common working ethos is adopted, and overall project outcomes are achieved.