Bridging the gap between client and architect’s expectations
Thirty to forty years ago architects were highly valued and their opinions honoured. But as the market changed in the 1990s and early 2000s and building standards fell, the role of the architect became more limited. According to architect Ivan Tošić — Head of Design Studio at Dizajn Arhitektura — at this time many clients were using the architect primarily to secure planning permission for that extra space or extra unit on their development. Now, however, the picture is now starting to turn full circle. Some recent construction disasters, such as the tragedy of Grenfell Tower in London, have brought the need for clearer design responsibility and a golden thread of accountability through building projects to the fore. Who better than the architect to take the lead in this emerging change? And what better time has there been for architects to reshape their role in the mind of the client?
Opening eyes to opportunity
“[Initially] their knowledge of being green was solar panels […] what we ended up having was a building that responded to the sun’s orientation, that had a green roof, a radiant floor system — and the solar panels they originally asked for.” One US-based principal architect saw an opportunity on one of their residential projects to open up their client’s eyes to the many possibilities on how to approach being green. The architect’s added value included: sustainability in its construction with materials sourced locally; better long-term performance with inbuilt solar energy panels providing clean energy; and saving money overall by rebuilding rather than starting from scratch. Happy architect, even happier client.
There’s never been a more opportune moment to be putting in the groundwork (as this principal architect thoughtfully did) to shape this important relationship with your clients, who are more involved in the construction process than ever before. What’s more, in the face of more complex build projects, with more players involved, your traditional role of the “master builder” architect is in flux. New disruptive trends such as these are uprooting long-held opinions of architects and present a “glittering opportunity for architects to thrive in this new context”.
Warning: Potential mismatch
“That’s what I want architects to do… solve my problems. I wish more architects would recognise that they can.” This quote from Martyn Evans, former Creative Director of UK-based property developers U+I and Cathedral, suggests there’s still a slight mismatch arising between a client’s expectation and what an architect delivers. What else can be worked on to align the client’s view of your role with your objectives, and ultimately contribute to reshaping your role in today’s construction context?
1. Understanding is key
Frustration and misunderstanding can arise from making assumptions around how much the client understands about the design and construction processes. To avoid leading yourself and the client down a potential path of frustration and misunderstanding, greater levels of open communication are needed.
Understanding the real objectives of the client
Beyond the bricks and mortar, what would an excellent outcome for the client be? Clients value architects asking them about the end goal for the building and what success looks like to them.
Bringing it to life: For example, if the client is a business, they might be trying to attract and retain new talent, improve their speed-to-market, or perhaps they have a mix of objectives that could impact what they deem as a successful end result. But this extra detail can only be uncovered through asking the right questions.
David Crowell, former Managing Director and CEO of RMC International
“To get the right answers you have to ask the right questions. Seek to understand what an excellent outcome would be for the client.”
2. Make each moment count
Limited commercial understanding
There is room for improvement in architects’ commercial understanding. Although it may seem natural that architects are attracted to the profession through their design-focused skill set, equipping yourself to run the build more like a business can tick many boxes for clients. Development Director Martyn Evans, thinks architects are more commercially-focused when they can solve problems as they arise, nimbly diverting from previously entrenched ideas. From his experience he’s also seen architects achieve a greater commercial understanding of a project through organising team site visits to other similar schemes. While onsite the architect can test out their perceived designs and ideas with how they might work commercially and be open to suggestions from clients or contractors, getting everyone on the same page upfront.
Creating that ‘What if?’ moment
Clients are sometimes not the best at articulating their precise requirements for a building. The architect has a vital role here to help bring out a client’s specific requirements by sharing possibilities and innovations for their project. Sometimes these are blocked due to cost, but often due to lack of awareness or appreciation of all the potential benefits. Clients trust architects to be the ones to push and challenge projects to deliver extra value. They expect architects to wow them with exciting and surprising new takes on issues and creative-problem solving.
Bringing it to life: To counter these common sort of pushbacks from clients, based on cost or lack of knowledge on benefits, Rebecca Dunn Bryant, AIA, Co-founder of the architecture firm and green building consultancy Watershed, in Alabama, USA, keeps case studies on hand of “affordable and achievable high-performance designs” to make a solid case to clients.
Isabel Allen, Founding Partner, HAB Housing
“Brilliant architects don’t just save money, they make value”
3. Double check your processes
Misaligned project management
Only 56% of commercial clients and 61% of private clients were “very” or “fairly” satisfied with the process management performance of architects, including their ability to collaborate and communicate with other teams and be efficient with admin.[ Clients want to see more consistent processes and more effective communication.
Following up on projects
Following-up, by arranging a visit with your client post-project completion, is important to clients and there is evidence to back this up: an architect who followed up with their client after a project, whether they were contracted to or not, were rated significantly higher than architects who didn’t.
Bringing it to life: One private homeowner relayed their own experience as part of a RIBA study, and said that the architect, “said he would like to call from time to time as he lives around the corner, to see how things were progressing, but he never did”. Half of all architects’ work comes from personal recommendations or previous experience, so it really does pay to follow up.
Neil Murphy, Founding Director, TOWN
“We expect architects to provide the golden thread through a project.”
A golden opportunity
Clients are looking to architects to provide more value and be that “golden thread” of design quality and process consistency. Their expectations are high, but this is a great opportunity to deliver beyond expectations, create close relationships with clients, and to thrive as your ever-changing role is redefined from the traditional “master builder”.
As found in our research, one particular area that some pioneering architects are exploring is roofs. Roofs can be just one way to add extra value to the overall building in an innovative way.
A roof is prime real estate space and yet it often serves to just protect what is below it. Roofs can present a chance to provide that challenging or surprising ‘what if?’ angle on building projects that clients really admire. For example, a living roof or one with photovoltaic solar tiles, brings added benefits of increased biodiversity or reduced energy consumption, a bonus opportunity to meet sustainability goals that the client might not be aware of as a possibility. There is also emerging evidence that rooftops with shared facilities, including seating, urban vegetable gardens etc., can build a sense of community, increasing tenant social interaction and extended tenure likelihood.
Bringing it to life:
The Fond Regional D’art Contemporain, Marseille, France
- The geometry of the tight site and strict urban-planning restrictions imposed an unusual triangular footprint, calling for a very steeply-sloped roof.
- The architects decided early on in the project that this should be considered as a continuation of the façade, rather than a separate roof surface, which rose up and over the upper terrace.
- To realise this ambitious architectural feature, BMI were asked to develop an innovative, reliable supportive façade/roof system.
- The solution also accommodates three traditionally constructed timber roof terraces and a green roof terrace, providing a contrast in texture and colour to the cool aesthetic of the façade and pitched roof.
- Its unique design and sensitive use of space was greeted with public and professional admiration, making it a worthy icon of Marseille’s artistic heritage and creative ambitions.
Three action points on how to work better together with your client:
1. Challenge your client by asking “What if?”
Be proactive and talk directly with your client to understand what is really important to them. This will then provide the right foundations to be able to deliver beyond their expectations.
2. Refresh your commercial awareness and project management skills
If you think you could be in need of brushing up your commercial acumen or project management, get some business management or project training sorted. Training or certification examples include:
- The Advanced Professional Certificate in Construction Project Management from Johnston & Mather
- Various business management courses from Colander
- The Business of Architecture Programme from the European School of Economics.
Or, you could develop your skills further in authoring tools such as Autodesk Revit, and utilise the collaborative features and plug-ins in order to increase your influence on the project.
3. Follow up
Check in with clients beyond the delivery phase to continue to build a stronger positive working relationship.
Yes, every client and project differs, but this opportunity to align with and question your client’s wishes, in order to evolve your role and build a reputation as the golden thread of the construction process, is one not to be missed.
To find out more client insights and how you can mind the collaboration gap with other important stakeholders read our full report: The Architect Effect