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Fear and False Dichotomies

WORDS BY Nicole Hardman

With procurement there is no silver bullet. No one-sizefits-all. No golden section. The very absence of a perfect solution should be like catnip for architects. The type of puzzle that could occupy the architectural mind from dusk until dawn. But it doesn’t. Why?

In our formative years as architects our focus was design, almost without exception. During our undergraduate days we would belt out a professional practice letter an hour before the submission time. But for a design presentation we would be working for weeks, sleeping under our desks and thinking of little else. Without doubt great design is an essential ingredient in a truly great piece of architecture.

What we didn’t know at the time was how much that design, when taken out of the rarefied air of the studio, was going to be affected by reality. Being a great designer is one thing. But getting that design built exactly as you saw it in your mind’s eye, at 1:1, in the real world, is entirely another.

That miracle only occurs with the right procurement.

Contrary to the original meaning of the word architect, our profession persists in propagating the false dichotomy that as an architect you can either be a ‘designer’ or a ‘deliverer’. This same self-limiting taxonomy is at the core of the diminishing role of the architect and the rise (and rise) of the project manager.

Our education sets us up to think this way by isolating architectural design as something that sits outside procurement. Large practices propagate this thinking by having separate design and delivery teams, indicating to clients and the larger construction industry that we think these two activities are discrete and can be separated. The small to medium practices display this less so – but more for lack of numbers than intent. Even in a practice of two, someone is the designer.

Whether it’s because we don’t value the delivery side or we just prefer to tell people at parties that we are a designer, the (self-) worth of architects is usually measured by their achievements in design. Our clients and the general public do this too. And why not? After all, we are effectively telling them that’s how to measure us.

This is what catalysed and what perpetuates the gradual migration of the delivery role to others. A situation fuelled further by our profession’s ongoing reputation of being not particularly good at, or even interested in, managing time or cost. With the migration goes the control and with that our ability to proactively manage risk and our own liability. It is also responsible for our diminishing fees.

You would think that the result of giving away the non-design components of the procurement process would free us up to do more design. But guess what? It hasn’t. Ask anyone who is running a small, medium or large practice what they do all day. The answer will rarely be design.

What it has done is sit us at the kids table. When the grownups are discussing time and money we get to have a pretty box of crayons to play with as long as we are quiet. Being left out of the time, cost, scope conversation means we are not there developing the question our architecture ultimately has to answer. The answer for which we are now being asked to provide warranties such as ‘fit for purpose’; which is very difficult if the original brief is intrinsically flawed.

 

“What a curious feeling!” said Alice. “I must be shutting up like a telescope”, from Carroll, L 1916, Alice in Wonderland, Sam’l Gabriel Sons & Company, New York, illustration.

Image courtesy of Project Gutenberg

Dis-Integration.

image: James Legge

At the other end of the procurement process we are less and less involved in dealing with the inevitable problems that arise during construction. A long standing mistake our clients make is that when they undertake procurement of a building they think of it as purchasing a product.

By contrast, when industrial designers create a product they establish their initial design and then build a prototype. They test it, find the bugs, fix them, refine the design and then build another prototype and so on until the product is ready for manufacture.

In our case, we build prototype-1 every time. We don’t get to go back and revise and refine and redo before we construct. We have to fix all the inevitable bugs and unexpected inconsistencies as we go.

If we are confined to providing intermittent advice during construction, or worse none at all, the tacit knowledge of the design intent is lost and problems are solved in ways that degrade the overall quality, functionality and value for money of the project.

It’s a diminishing spiral. The more we focus on design the easier it is for others to take over the delivery role and then have us focus more on the design as they take away more. It is no longer just control of, but also involvement in, the whole of the procurement process that is slipping out of our hands.

So how do we get back a seat at the table? In essence we have to take a position of leadership in the procurement discussion. Take back the ground we have given up. To pay attention to the delivery with the same veracity and attention to detail as we do the design. To understand that the ‘when’ and the ‘how’ of getting the building built is equally important as the ‘what’ and the ‘why’. And to educate the rest of the industry and our clients that great buildings are created when design and delivery are seen as two sides of the same procurement coin.

The big disincentive for architects in retaking the leading role in procurement is re-engaging with the risk that comes with it. There has been a lot of recent conversation regarding risk and the conversation is merited. But is risk itself really the problem?

Architects are used to risk. Or at least we should be, given our statutory, contractual and tortious liabilities. It’s always been there. But we seem to have stopped trusting ourselves. So I suspect it’s not actually risk but fear that is the real stumbling block.

Here there is a silver bullet. The most successful antidote to fear is knowledge.

Knowledge of procurement is not impenetrable. The fundamentals of all procurement processes boil down to a function of the risks of time, cost and quality/scope and who bears them. This key unlocks all the models; and with an understanding of your client’s priorities, their level of previous experience in procuring buildings and their own appetite for risk, you have the basis for a procurement recommendation.

The one caution for small and medium players is beware of scalability. As someone who regularly assists architects in distress I have seen good and even great architects crushed under an avalanche of administrative busy-work. When a procurement model suitable for a large project is scaled to dolls house proportions it leaves all the complexity but little of the original value of the model.

The single quickest route to reintegrate design with delivery and re-establish our role in the procurement process is to know as much or more about it than everyone else at the table. Only then can we lead the industry with innovative procurement models that deliver on cost and time but also value for money and quality.

Small and medium offices are perfectly placed to begin this. Smaller teams and less layers of management facilitate easier communication. This fosters greater opportunities for trust and fertile ground for learning and thoughtful experimentation. The first step, however, is to shed the idea that if we understand procurement, cost, time, contracts and risk that we will somehow have a permanent creativity eclipse. We won’t. What will happen is we will, once again, be architects.