Architect Katy Barker of Directline Structures says that despite the barriers to collaborative working, architects could take a leading role in Design & Build
Most people understand the premise of Design & Build procurement – a single organisation undertakes the design, and the build, of a project. It could apply to all manner of construction projects, but how many projects are actually delivered with just the employer and the D&B contractor, with no employer’s agent, design team or consultants? Practically zero. Why? Fundamentally it boils down to two unpopular words in architecture and construction: risk and ego. Let’s go back to the concept of ‘design’ and ‘build’ as two separate areas of expertise, as is assumed with traditional procurement. Design is carried out by an architect, traditionally a creative, artistic individual or practice who can make a simple scribble on a piece of tracing paper into a work of art.
Seven years of training is required to call yourself an architect and most of this is spent on developing ‘concepts’ – stories of how a scheme came to be designed drawing on all kinds of inspiration from the site, the history, the function of the building, the proposed users. All this creates the ‘why’ narrative of architectural design. You can read it in most architectural commentary, but if you are not an architect, you probably won’t fully understand. I come to my first unpopular word: ego – defined as “your opinion of yourself, especially your feeling of your own importance and ability.”
It is instilled in architecture students, over seven years of education, that they are the most important person in the design of a building. Jump into the real world, and suddenly you’re faced with constraints on every aspect of your design; structural requirements, Building Regulations, planning legislation and most of all, cost. You are required to be part of an ‘integrated team’ and at some point, you will have to pass your design over to a contractor who, you are sure, will not understand your vision and butcher it in the process of building it. The role of the architect is changing. It’s not a bad thing. Young people who are attracted to the big-name careers (architect and engineer) have a huge amount to offer that they aren’t getting to do as the engineer or architect, so are switching career paths to other kinds of management.
So why can’t an architect also be a project manager? The role of the architect was historically the role of the master builder – the individual who had the grand plan and oversaw the whole project. Now it seems that architects are only really involved in pre-construction. When architects are inherently highly skilled, organised, driven individuals with an eye for detail and a creative flair for understanding how the design of a place impacts the user, it is such a waste to limit their scope and not utilise their skills throughout the construction process. There’s been call for reform to architectural education and movement is happening – the results of the RIBA Education Review aren’t exactly ground breaking, but architecture apprenticeships now exist and I’m excited to see the kind of architects this creates – however the main route to qualification still involves five years of university education instilling the same damaging and limiting preconceptions into students. The establishment is reluctant to accept that the role of the architect is changing.
Architects could be great project managers. They are already perfectly placed with input throughout the whole design and construction process, but have limited what that input is by saying ‘other people will do that’ or ‘other people are responsible for that’. Which brings me to my next unpopular word: risk – “expose (someone or something valued) to danger, harm, or loss.” The construction industry is so bad at working collaboratively because there is a deeply ingrained culture of blame. Every company is focused on reducing their liability and their potential exposure to risk. While this is not a bad business strategy, it is not in the client’s – or the project’s – interests.
This culture has resulted in compartmentation of design and construction teams, and a linear design process:
- the architect designs a square
- the engineer designs the square’s structure
- the M&E consultant fills the square with equipment
- the contractor prices the square structure filled with M&E equipment.
Has anyone questioned whether a square was the right shape? What if a rectangle was actually more cost effective and the contractor could tell you that, but he is too far down the linear process to have any input and it’s already cost £40k in consultant’s fees, the architect’s ego doesn’t like to be questioned on design decisions, and it’s too risky to change it now. What if the contractor designed it? What if the contractor was an architect? What if the architect was a contractor? But, risk, liability, conflicts of interest! Yes, there can be multiple designers and contractors working on one project, all with their own business interests, but we all have one shared interest – the client and the project. To work collaboratively we need the whole team on board. A competitive market can help achieve lowest costs, but lowest costs are not always best value – we need to go back to the design stage to address that. It takes a lot of trust to jump straight into a complete D&B project with everyone on board, with one point of liability and risk.
How do you manage your liability when you are the only one? You can’t limit or exclude from your scope. What you can do is manage. Manage your supply chain, manage your consultants and sub-consultants, manage the construction process. Above all, manage your people. Foster trust, openness and respect in your team. When people know that no one else is taking any blame, they take ownership of everything. Everyone needs to know clearly what they are doing, and the standards expected of them, and the client needs to know what they are getting. It is important to remember the difference between employer’s requirements (ERs) and specification – an ER might be “a hard wearing, slip resistant vinyl floor” and the specification (or Contractor’s Proposal) could be “Gerflor Tarasafe Ultra H20”. ERs should not be specifications; they should be the requirements of the client, and it should be open for the contractor to meet those requirements with the specification he chooses. The ER might be a little more specific; e.g. “slip resistant vinyl floor – min 2 mm thick, slip resistant rating of R11,” to ensure a minimum standard. This massively increases of the range of quotes returned, because the contractors are not only being compared on profit margins, but on their ability to source and specify products and materials. They might not have big brand names on them, but they will fulfil the employer’s requirements. Surely, the role of the architect pre-tender has just shrunk dramatically? Yes, because in true Design & Build there isn’t a tender and the design and specification is carried out by the contractor. W
hat if the contractor was an architect? What if the architect was a contractor? Design, as thoroughly and intricately understood by architects, is the heart of every construction project and architects could be the heart of the construction process, if they opened themselves up to the whole process. To use D&B how it was originally intended is a big ask of the construction industry. It requires clients to trust contractors and allow them opportunities to add value. architectural education needs a big shakeup. architects need to rethink their position in the construction industry. Most of all, we need to remember our shared purpose and break out of our silos, learning to trust and value each other to truly work collaboratively.
Katy Barker is an architect and the owner of Directline Structures