Ahead of UK Construction Week, Hawkins Brown’s project delivery director Nigel Ostime discusses how architects, clients and contractors can communicate better
Architects are perceived by the construction industry as great at designing but less good at project management. In 2013, in an effort to shake up the status quo, RIBA launched the client liaison group, which brings architects, clients and contractors together to help foster a better spirit of understanding. Icon spoke to the group’s co-founder Nigel Ostime, project delivery director at architecture practice Hawkins Brown, ahead of UK Construction Week.
ICON The focus of the client liaison group is to encourage self-reflection rather than finger-pointing. Historically, how good have architects been at this kind of self-examination?
NIGEL OSTIME Architects have a reputation for being introspective but if we are to truly deliver value to our clients it is critical to have a full understanding of their needs – not just in terms of the brief, but also their commercial drivers and how to best deliver the outcomes they are seeking. To do this, we need to really get under their skin. Numerous clients have pointed to listening as one of the key skills needed to do this. As one said: ‘The key is to actually listen, not just make assumptions or presumptions.’ The client liaison group was formed precisely to improve listening and to provide the means for a robust conversation, primarily between client and architect but ultimately across the whole project team.
Nigel Ostime, project delivery director at architecture practice Hawkins Brown
ICON Looking at the RIBA survey results, it seems the perception is that architects are excellent at design, but less good at process and management. Is this a familiar tale?
NO Architects’ education focuses very strongly on learning to design and UK architects are recognised as being among the best in the world. The individuals attracted to studying architecture as teenagers are generally those with a desire to be creative, but this creative focus can, to an extent, be detrimental to management and process. Clients are telling us we need to redress the balance somewhat. This may be by greater specialisation – architects are currently trained to do everything and perhaps that remit is too broad. There is a general lack of understanding by members of the public of what architects actually do. Addressing this might be a good way of both helping architects and of improving our built environment.
ICON You have taken this presentation on the road, as it were. Has it thrown up any surprises along the way?
NO Architects generally recognise the need to change but actually so do some clients. Clients play a pivotal role in achieving their desired outcomes and must not be Teflon-coated. On Hawkins Brown’s Olympic legacy project Here East, we described the design team as being ‘stripped of badges and openly exchanging and challenging ideas – building consensus in a shared spirit of open dialogue’.
ICON A hot topic at the moment is the design-and-build contract, with the perception in the profession that they have a negative impact on building quality. Are you seeing a disconnect between the needs of architects and contractors?
NO We need better collaboration, but clients have a role to play in selecting a procurement route that enables this. Recent building failures, including the catastrophic event at Grenfell Tower, bring into sharp focus that accepting the lowest tender can be at an unacceptable price. This must change and the client liaison group is developing an initiative to bring the various parties to the project around the table and sign up to a set of values and behaviours that will mitigate against a typically cut-throat attitude to building contracting. There is also a disconnect between ‘design’ and ‘build’ where – principally on residential projects – the architect who gets planning permission is often not the one employed by the contractor to produce the technical design. This needs to be addressed in some way and again it comes back to procurement.
‘Recent building failures, including the catastrophic event at Grenfell Tower, bring into sharp focus that accepting the lowest tender can be at an unacceptable price’
ICON How might the RIBA Client & Architect sessions improve this relationship?
NO Our aim is to get people talking more. Communication is the important first step to understanding and then improvement.
ICON What are your hopes for the session at UK Construction Week?
NO We hope to raise awareness of the results of the survey and to get people engaging with the issues it raises. The survey was just the starting point. Now we need to get people to change the way they deliver buildings and give us a better built environment.
Icon’s editor James McLachlan and Nigel Ostime will co-chair a panel discussion titled ‘RIBA for clients: What do clients think of architects?’ at UK Construction Week on 10 October
Above: Hawkins Brown’s Olympic legacy project Here East