VIEW POINT: Nigel Ostime

Nigel Ostime of Hawkins\Brown Architects and chair of the RIBA Client Liaison Group discusses the group’s just-published industry survey, which has important revelations on what architects do well, but also what they must improve on

The best projects generally come about where the client/architect relationship is strongest, and for meaningful dialogue to occur there needs to be trust and respect within the project team. On Here East, an Olympic legacy project, Hawkins\Brown worked side by side with the client – stripped of badges and openly exchanging and challenging ideas. Consensus was built in a shared spirit of open dialogue.

This recognition – demand even – that all those around the table can and should contribute to solving the problem was central to the success of the project. This approach is unusual though, and poor collaboration is often diagnosed as a cause of the construction industry’s epidemic of low productivity, low predictability, high fragmentation and lack of leadership. Report after report has confirmed the diagnosis and suggested cures, but in practice progress has been frustratingly slow and the industry appears resistant to real improvement.

Perhaps that’s because collaboration is primarily about behaviour rather than something that can be fixed with technology. Protocols and tools help but it is as much about trust, cooperation, empathy and communication – in other words, people skills and human relationships. And as any relationship counsellor will tell you, the first step to healing a bad relationship is to listen to your partner and acknowledge their gripes. We knew there were specific challenges from previous research, but did not know their true shape or size.

Hence the RIBA Client Liaison Group’s inaugural – and unprecedented –Working with Architects survey. It asked clients how satisfied they were with their architects on a specific job, seeking ratings on a range of technical output and process management measures. As such, it could be the first, admittedly tiny, step on the path to healing the kinds of rifts that typify our industry. In the conservative world of construction, this is revolutionary stuff. For professionals to invite criticism from clients is brave. High design quality, technical excellence and infallible expertise are the cornerstones of architects’ deal with society, and they cling to them as facts.

It takes a grown-up dose of humility even to conceive of a survey that calls these assumptions into question. But there really is no alternative: a state of denial is no way to survive, let alone thrive. Just under 1000 people responded to the survey, roughly a third of whom were private domestic clients, a third commercial clients, and a third contractors. There was an even spread of sectors and building types, procurement routes, contract values and so on, making the sample relatively representative of the variety out there. And the survey said… The survey’s findings are generally good news.

The client body is very satisfied with our technical output. As ever with these surveys, though, the less good ratings grab our attention, as that suggests room for improvement. This one is no different. The big finding is that the section of respondents who are most dissatisfied with us is contractor clients – so much so that we have treated them as a distinct market segment in the survey.

Two opinion pieces in the report, one by Dale Sinclair, an architect with AECOM, the other by Paul Nash, President of the CIOB, attempt to explain why this is. For Sinclair this result is no surprise, particularly if the architect is novated to the contractor. He pins the blame on procedural glitches, implying that architects should shoulder much of the responsibility for putting them right. His hit list includes the relationship in D&B contracts between architects and subcontractors, quality assurance at the deliverable interface, how we communicate programme and design intent, and the need for responsibility matrixes. Nash’s viewpoint on the other hand is at pains to recognise the need and value of architects.

Skills in developing the brief, unlocking sites and negotiating the planning maze create real value. Like Sinclair, however, he sees things coming unstuck later on when architects and contractors interact. At this point it is all about value preservation. He implicates contracts, contractors’ need for the design to be frozen, and, as he puts it, “the softer skills that underpin collaborative behaviours.”

He also identifies differing attitudes to risk. Whereas architects are charged with looking at the big picture and are able to contemplate cost-benefit equations and design iteration, contractors are constrained by having guaranteed a fixed price and completion date. Focused (or blinkered, depending on your perspective) in this way, contractors’ only project currency is risk management.

These differing mindsets sabotage the chances of effective collaborative behaviour that only the most empathetic participants can overcome. There’s a strong suspicion that architects don’t understand this or take it seriously enough. Less disastrously, and in marked contrast to what they think of architects’ technical skills, clients across the board find architects’ process management skills merely adequate. This validates contractors’ concerns to an extent.

They are unusually dependent on, and thus sensitive to, good process management. It seems likely that sharpening up on efficiency, dependability, accuracy, and timing could yield strong returns for architects so inclined. No matter how architects respond to the survey, perhaps the most hopeful finding concerns follow-up. Architects who followup when not contracted to do so are disproportionately highly rated compared to those who do not.

If that wasn’t persuasive enough, architects who do not follow-up are disproportionately poorly rated compared to those who do. Given that we get most of our work through repeat clients or personal recommendations, it would seem madness not to formally include post-completion followup as standard into our service offer.

Certainly Hawkins\Brown will be upping the ante on this front going forward. To find out more about the RIBA Client Liaison Group or to download a copy of the report free of charge, visit support/RIBAforclients.