Closer Ties Mean Better Buildings

6 August 2006 (Last Updated August 6th, 2006 18:30)

In the last 20 years the design and construction industries have changed the way they work together. The clear dividing lines between the engineer and the architect have become less distinct. Jim Banks interviews Gary Elliott, a senior partner at consultant structural and civil engineers, Elliott Wood Partnership who believe that this trend can only lead to better buildings and enhanced project management.

Closer Ties Mean Better Buildings

Relationships are changing in the world of design and construction. With more complex and expensive buildings becoming the norm, the capacity for architects, engineers, clients and investors to work more closely with each other can determine whether
or not a project succeeds.

In the past, a clear boundary existed between the architect's domain and that of the engineer. Often engineers have been characterised as the harbingers of doom, bringing the lofty dreams of the architect back down to earth with a bump.

"A clear boundary no longer exists between the domain of the architect and that of the engineer."

Their response has been to point out that they make those dreams into practical, buildable, commercially viable buildings.

ENGINEER AND ARCHITECT HARMONY

In such a relationship, engineers provide the balancing force of practicality to the architect's inspiration. However, this perception is increasingly outdated and irrelevant. Now, the focus is firmly on the two disciplines working together to find
synergies rather than conflicts.

Today, for instance, architects and engineers have a much better understanding of what each party brings to a project in terms of knowledge and skills. Improving collaborative working methods means these skills are not only complementary, but also
transferable.

"The disciplines overlap and our services have to be integrated. Architects now look not only at structure, but also at environmental aspects, such as materials for the fabric of the building. Also, the engineering is driven more by the architect's
desired aesthetics and environmental considerations," says Gary Elliott.

COLLABORATION IN PRACTICE

Elliott Wood Partnership has a varied portfolio of work in the UK and abroad, including one-off residential new builds and conversions, as well as public building such as schools and medical centres.

Often its projects are complex or environmentally sensitive, such as the Harrietsham CEP School in Maidstone, Kent, so sustainability is a key consideration in the practice's work.

The partnership is also involved in the much-anticipated Longlands Mill project in Stalybridge, working with Space Craft architects for client Urban Splash.

Furthermore, it undertakes a substantial amount of structural work on artistic projects by well-known sculptor Antony Gormley, including Quantum Cloud, a striking sculpture that stands near the Millennium Dome in Greenwich, and, more recently, a
25m-high burning man installation.

NEW WORKING METHODS

Across this range of work, Elliott Wood has found collaborative working methods to be valuable in pushing complex projects forward. Particularly important to this approach is the need for engineers to be called in at a far earlier stage of the design
process than has previously been the norm.

"Elliott Wood Partnership has a varied portfolio of work both in the UK and abroad."

"We must be there at the first meeting. It is better for us, as we can be proactive and involved in the whole design process. We can consider all the factors - cost, structure, engineering, materials, environmental issues and aesthetics. We must know
about all other parts of the process," believes Elliott.

Past projects, such as those with Space Craft, have proven the benefits of closer relationships between engineers and architects.

This improved relationship saves time, allows greater flexibility at key stages of the project and ensures that every one is up to date with any
amendments to the design. Furthermore, such relationships promote cooperation, teamwork and positive thinking.

"Architects like sympathetic engineers. We have an eye on costs and feasibility, but we also want to express the architect's desires. There is an element of bringing things back down to earth, but we still try to support the creative urge and deliver
the architect's vision. You need to find a different balance," remarks Elliott.

This ethos is taken to the extreme in Elliott Wood's work for Antony Gormley. With artistic projects, where the form and design are the entire statement, the artist's vision is paramount, and the engineer must endeavour to make it a reality.

PULLING TOGETHER

The signs are that the industry is embracing a more balanced, collaborative approach. This is due in part to the faster exchange of information achievable in a high-tech working environment. Improved connectivity and the ability to marshal relevant
skills more quickly to address any problem have had a dramatic effect on working patterns.

However, IT is not the only driving force behind the evolution of new working methodologies. Collaborative working processes help to encourage commitment from all parties to the project, including the client. This can be crucial to a project's
outcome, as it ensures that the design and construction phases are targeted clearly around the client's needs at all times.

"If you forge strong relationships, you get the best buildings," believes Elliott. "In some projects, the client is less interested in the design than the revenues, but we find projects with intelligent clients, who appreciate the design element," he
adds.

THE NEW SHAPE OF THE INDUSTRY

When all parties are committed and engaged, there is another dividend. Problems are tackled in a more positive, optimistic way. This brings the best out of individuals and, therefore, the teams in which they work. Elliott has seen this change in
attitude over the years, and believes that it is starting to shape the industry.

"When all parties are committed and engaged, problems are tackled in a more positive, optimistic way."

"The process has changed. The aggressive team management approach of the 1980s is not welcome, and the industry is trying to move towards a more blame-free culture. This is the intent, though certainly it is not always achieved, but if you stop
blaming people, you get better performance," observes Elliott.

This shift is, no doubt, partly due to the blurring of the boundary between architect and engineer, with each discipline sharing the responsibility for each aspect of the project.

However, the change in attitude is also driven by the fact that
collaborative working methods produce tangible results - better design, better construction and more satisfied clients.

Elliott Wood Partnership has seen these results in practice and believes fostering closer ties with architects and clients is crucial for the development of its practice. No doubt many other practices will choose the same path.