For an architecture firm or design studio, there are few things more precious than your reputation. You’re only as good as your last project, so the saying goes, and in an industry where success is driven to a great degree by professional relationships, repeat business and, for smaller domestic projects, word-of-mouth recommendations, this is especially true.
“[Clients’] everyday experiences define our reputation, and this matters,” wrote Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) president Jane Duncan last year. “Reputation colours attitudes even before an architect walks into a room and sets the tone for working relationships. If it is poor, it could stand in the way of the kind of collaboration required in today’s highly complex, fragmented, and increasingly sophisticated project environments.”
But as much as the experience of clients and collaborators – whether they are small-scale domestic customers, large-scale commercial developers or construction contractors – influence the success or failure of the architects who shape the vision of their projects, until recently there has been surprisingly little focus on building and maintaining these relationships. In the UK at least, the expectations and frustrations of clients have remained somewhat shrouded among architects, with stereotypes and assumptions likely standing in place of a proper dialogue.
RIBA’s Client Liaison Group: from roundtable discussion to full-scale survey
That all changed in 2013 when RIBA established the Client Liaison Group with a stated objective to “provide architects with researched insights into the changing needs to major categories of clients so that we can shape our services to better support their outcomes”.
“Fundamentally we wanted to create a group, a vehicle, that could allow the institute to talk to clients, hear what they had to say, and feed that back to members,” says Client Liaison Group chair Nigel Ostime of London and Manchester-based practice HawkinsBrown Architects. “So it was really forming a dialogue, because that hadn’t really been in place before then.”
The group’s work began in 2014 and 2015 with a series of roundtable discussions involving clients from a range of sectors, from commercial development and retrofit to healthcare and infrastructure. The results of these discussions were published in a September 2015 report called ‘Client & Architect: developing the essential relationship’.
The report highlighted five architect traits that are highly valued by clients across sectors, including acting as a champion for the project’s vision, listening to clients and understanding their priorities, building personal relationships, delivering technical talent and learning from feedback.
This initial report incorporated feedback from around 500 architectural clients, but the Client Liaison Group was keen to draw on the input of a wider base of clients. This was the inspiration for the idea to run an online survey dubbed Working with Architects, the results of which were published in November last year, with data collected from nearly 1,000 clients.
“[The survey] was set up into two categories: commercial clients and consumer or domestic clients, because we wanted to get to the smaller end of the market as well,” says Ostime. “Of those, about two thirds were answering the commercial questions and about a third were domestic. Of those two thirds that answered the commercial questions, about half were contractors.
“So in the end, that meant we had roughly a third domestic, a third contractors, and a third other commercial, so developers and so on. So because of that we thought it made sense to look at the data in that way.”
The results of the survey reiterated and lent broader legitimacy to many of the points that emerged from the roundtable talks. “I think a lot of what came out corresponded with what we’d already heard, perhaps slightly anecdotally, in the roundtable discussions,” Ostime notes.
Given that most architects get into the field to create striking designs and innovative aesthetic features rather than manage projects, it’s intuitive to assume that their most highly-rated skills would broadly fall more into the former category than the latter.
The survey results bear out this assumption for the most part, with architects’ technical and creative design skills rated significantly more highly than project management aspects such as commercial understanding and adhering to the programme. Architects’ design skills were rated as satisfactory by 77% of private domestic clients, 67% of commercial clients and 50% of contractors, while for process management performance the corresponding satisfaction rates were 61% (domestic), 56% (commercial) and just 30% for contractors.
“I think there’s a tendency in the make-up of architects to carry on trying to improve the product, and that perhaps happens going through the technical design stage and even into construction,” says Ostime. “Whereas contractors really want us to stop doing that, just produce the information that’s required, don’t keep trying to make improvements. I think sometimes it’s that slight difference in [priorities], and I think architects need to understand those drivers better.”
As Knight Frank’s head of project and building consultancy Andrew Bugg put it in RIBA’s September 2015 roundtable report: “Architects need to be business analysts – you need to understand how the client’s business works.”
It’s this issue that perhaps explains why satisfaction levels are significantly lower for contractor clients rather than commercial developers or private domestic customers. Conflicting priorities can cause tension, with contractors perhaps losing patience with architects’ creative impulses and designers potentially devaluing the practical considerations of their construction partners.
Talking it out
In the long term, adjustments to the education system could help bring a new focus on the process management skills that architects need to thrive in the modern construction sector, but as Ostime notes, “that sort of thing will inevitably take longer”.
In the immediate future, Ostime and the Client Liaison Group believe that improving client-architect communication is the key to reducing issues on both sides and improving the end product. At the broadest level, this means maintaining an open line of communication between architects and their clients, especially contractors.
“I think it’s [about] starting to get a better dialogue between the two parties, particularly focussed on contractors. One of the people in the Client Liaison Group is a member of the CIOB [Chartered Institute of Building], and through him we are looking to set up some sort of discussion group, that we can potentially form some sort of memorandum of understanding between us that the contractor and architect can have in front of them and say, ‘These are the sorts of things that we each need to be understanding about how we need to work.’
So some high-level guidelines about behaviours and approach to the project at that stage 4, stage 5 period. So I think in the short term, we can improve the communication between client and architect, and that will pay dividends.”
Ostime notes that this communication needs to be a two-way street; that contractors will also have to think about how they can work better with their architectural partners. The CIOB has been consistently supportive, he says, and is even considering running a similar survey of its own to look at the other side of the coin. Certainly, the CIOB is well aware of the potential for tension between architects and construction teams.
“Relationships within construction are critical to an industry so easily riven by conflicts,” wrote CIOB chief executive Chris Blythe in a letter of support published in the ‘Client & Architect’ report. “Tribal and narrow commercial interests can easily trump good judgement and problem solving. All professionals must guard against this. Compromise, not conflict, should be a baseline.”
A starting point for client-architect relations
From a more zoomed-in perspective, encouraging more proactive post-completion follow-ups by architects will be important, as the survey indicates that architects that followed up with their clients generally received higher satisfaction ratings.
“That’s part of what we’re talking about as an industry at the moment – post-occupancy evaluation,” says Ostime. “But the trouble is anything after practical completion probably isn’t really allowed for in the commercial agreement – the fee’s been spent. This means the industry has to foot the bill for any sort of post-completion review. I think that’s what we’ve got to turn around. The manufacturing industry does this very well, whereas the construction industry doesn’t do it at all, pretty much. Certainly not enough. So I think that’s one of the changes that we’ve got to make, that we build it into our project business plan, that there is an allowance made for post-project feedback once we’ve completed the project.”
As for the Client Liaison Group, Ostime is determined to continually revisit the topic to ensure there’s always an open channel between architects and clients in the future. The group is planning to spend this year disseminating its findings as widely as possible before potentially launching a new survey once sufficient time has passed.
“This was not a one-off exercise,” Ostime concludes. “This was the start of a different way of managing our role in the industry, [a recognition] that we have to start speaking and listening to the rest of the industry. So it needs to carry on; we need to do this again, we need to monitor how things are changing, we need to keep pushing to get things to change. It’s not until we start the conversation that we can get somewhere with these issues. They need to be tackled, and this is a starting point.”