Identifying the crunch points in architects’ relationships with principal contractors to work towards better project outcomes
The time to work effectively with principal contractors has never been more pressing. Principal contractors are now in the top three influencers of the building process. But in a study by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), contractors were found to rate architects less highly than any other client group.
Wouldn’t you like to know what contractors really think of you? If you can meet these crunch points head on, it can make an untold difference to you and your firm’s business success. In this blog, we explore contractors’ opinions, how their role is evolving and see how insights could be applied to rethink the traditional collaboration mindset — which could make or break a successful build project.
What contractors think architects aren’t doing so well
1. Project management
While contractors agreed that architects are great at design, they believe they can be better at providing the wrapper around the design process, such as good project management. Among other soft skills this might include development and interpretation of the brief, communicating openly with the client, understanding client needs, seamlessly collaborating with the project team and efficiently handling admin-related tasks.
2. Treating contractors like clients
Architects could put additional effort into understanding what contractors’ drivers are, much like they do with clients. Without this knowledge, bigger problems can arise down the line, with mismatches between end user requirements and the resulting design, budget and programme. Contractors also value familiarity in their working relationships. Over half (52%) are ‘very likely’ to use the same architect again, while only 3% are ‘very unlikely’ to use the same architect twice. The value of keeping up with your contractors’ concerns is therefore paramount if you’re after repeat business.
3. The delivery phase
While architects might be engaged at the start of a project, contractors would like them to remain more involved beyond the initial design phase, through to practical completion and beyond. To an extent this can’t be determined by architects themselves. Architects’ fees tend to be front-ended by clients, as it’s often expensive for architects to project manage. This can result in less scope for architects to help with risk mitigation in the delivery stage — something contractors would like to see change. Where the fees are allotted beyond the initial design phase however, according to Colin Tedder, Preconstruction Director for Bouygues UK, “Far too often architects dismiss the importance of the delivery phase.” John Frankiewicz, Chief Executive of Willmott Dixon Capital Works, also addresses this issue: “Their interest does wane. It’s frustrating for contractors and totally disappointing for the client”. Where there is scope in the budget, contractors want to be able to rely on architects to help out more with risk mitigation. They want architects to remain engaged beyond design and listen harder to contractors; anticipating risk and offering their problem-solving expertise when the wider project team needs it most.
Where contractors think architects are doing well
1. Acting as a design guardian
Contractors value architects as an overseer of design and build quality, especially when involved beyond the initial design. The architect can be retained as a ‘design guardian’ — vetting the contractor’s technical design and ensuring design quality is maintained. The extra cost of the architect as an ongoing overseer can be justified by lowering the risk of substandard construction, which could lead to post-completion defects and make the entire project commercially unviable.
2. Providing information
Contractors can be hesitant to install new or unfamiliar products if they’re at all uncomfortable with the choice. You can step in here as a useful and quick provider of the information contractors need to install and use the right materials.
For example, architect Ivan Tošić — Head of Design Studio at Dizajn Arhitektura — says sometimes contractors are reluctant to use a specified product because they claim a previous poor experience with it. From his experience, if the architect can investigate the details, it nearly always turns out that either the product used was incorrectly chosen for this application in the design process or the product was installed incorrectly. A few questions put to the contractor in the right way can often successfully defend an architect’s specification.By offering proof that your specification will work through case studies, you can also make a compelling business case emphasising the need for something less familiar or a complete change. To go the extra mile, you can also tailor the case study to the contractor by featuring a contractor testimonial, showing how the product benefits them specifically.
3. Being aware of wider social issues
With the contractor’s main focus being on the bottom line, and under pressure to meet budgets, they appreciate the architects’ attention on wider implications of the building such as the emotional, aesthetic and cultural issues. Architects act as an important and necessary counterbalance to ensure the project works both on paper and in its environment.
Where contractors are gaining influence
The role of the principal contractor is seeing a gradual evolution in its key responsibilities. For example, across Europe over the next two years, there is an expected increase of their role in ‘managing budgets’ (4-52% increase), in ‘managing planning of process’ (8-55% increase), as well as being a ‘specialist on laws and regulations’ (5-42% increase).And this shift in the principal contractor’s role is having an impact on the balance of influence between architects and contractors at certain stages of the construction process.
In terms of specifying materials in particular, our recent global architect survey found that 40% of architects said that specifying roofing materials or systems was driven by contractors. This reinforces the need for you to work effectively with contractors, to ensure your project requirements are still being met.
And although this gradual increase in contractor influence can be traced as a global trend, it can be seen to vary country by country. In central-eastern Europe, in countries such as Czech Republic and Poland, architects are particularly likely to encounter contractors as a key driver for new roofing materials on a project, with an average of 44% of architects believing this. Whereas in Western Europe (i.e. France and Germany), only 31% of architects saw contractors as a driver for roofing innovation.
Architect Ivan Tošić from Dizajn Arhitektura in Serbia even compares working with contractors to be a bit like playing a game of chess. He explains: “They will always attempt to challenge the architect’s specification, but they are very time pressured. So, in recommending a change in material or product, it could require a design change. The architect can challenge the contractor to come up with this new design element, but due to time pressures and not wanting to take on design risk, the principal contractor often relents.”
The collaboration opportunity
With the role of contractor set to change over the next few years and your traditional role as ‘master builder’ also evolving as a result, the chance to collaborate closely with principal contractors brings the opportunity to reinforce your complementary skill sets and expertise — and for you to increase your influence over the build process together.
As expressed by Michael Stone, a US-based construction business management coach, “Together, an architect/contractor team could design the project, the home or building the owner wants, within their budget. It would require a new mindset, especially on the part of the architect who might believe, based on their years of schooling, that their input is more valuable than the contractor.” 
“Two technical brains are better than one, and if they come from different specialties (i.e. construction and design), this is more productive”Fraser Patterson, former General Contractor and Founder of Bolster, New York, US
Working together towards smoother collaboration
Contractors gaining influence over the construction process doesn’t have to be a threat to the influence of your role as architect. A stronger professional relationship between architects and contractors can be a powerful force for greater project choreography and end-user satisfaction.
It can also result in significant project savings, plus reduced waste. With access to a wider range of expertise informing better, bigger-picture decision making and problem solving. 
For example, collaboration between design and construction — mainly the architect and principal contractor — is an important aspect of traditional Japanese building construction. A project example includes the work of famous Japanese modernist architect, Murano Togo.
Case Study: The Kyoto Takaragaike Prince Hotel (currently Grand Prince Hotel Kyoto)
Northern Kyoto, Japan
- The building elements involving close collaboration between architect and contractor included the outer walls of the low-layer building, “on which natural stones were stuck on the three-dimensional phase; the ceiling and wall of banquet halls, which are the main parts of the hotel; and the window-sills, which form part of the characteristic design of the upper-layer building”
- The building construction project was commissioned by SEIBU Railway, the architects were from Murano & Mori Architects and the principal contractor was Takenaka Corporation
- The success of the project was attributed to a close collaboration and open communication channels between architect and contractor teams from start to finish
Two crucial areas of collaboration that helped achieve this complex design included:
- The organisation of architects and contractors: the in-house design team of the main contractor began the examination with the architect team in the design stage, and the collaboration continued right into the construction stage
- Contractor and architect collaboration on the examination of design intentions, after the architects showed “what they would like to achieve.” Architects examined from an architectural design perspective, and the general contractor from one of functionality and constructability, which included the expenses and time required for completion. Following this, they decided on the design by communicating closely with each other.
“Any effort that focuses on optimising a single part (“my bit”) de-optimises the whole – adversely affecting both costs and quality.”The NBS guide to collaborative construction
Another real-life example of effective architect/contractor collaboration, are the teams behind the Autodesk Inc. AEC Solutions Division Headquarters, who applied Integrated Project Delivery (IPD) to bring the building to life in a very tight turnaround schedule of eight and a half months.
Integrated project delivery (IPD) is a project delivery model built around a collaborative alliance of stakeholders who each share risk and reward. At the very core of this IPD model is the belief that amongst key project stakeholders (including the architect, contractor, client etc.) there would be:
- Early involvement of participants
- Collaborative decision making
- Jointly developed goals
- All parties entering into a single contract that encourages collaboration, optimises results, reduces waste and maximises efficiency and expertise.
Case Study: Autodesk Inc. AEC Solutions Division Headquarters
- 55,000 square foot, three-story office including offices, conference rooms, training facilities, a café, and a 5,000 square foot customer briefing centre featuring an electronic gallery of design work done with the company’s products
- Requirements of the project included very high sustainability goals (LEED Platinum for Commercial Interiors)
- One of the architect’s main learnings was that close collaboration with contractors made redundant detailing unnecessary, freeing up more time to spend on site and much less time reviewing RFIs and submittals
Benefits of close architect/contractor collaboration included:
- No claims or litigation
- No back-charges
- Reduced waste
- No lost time in accidents
- Project delivered on time and on budget
“In a collaborative process it’s a very flat structure… we’re all batting for the same team.”Paul Chandler, Former Executive VP, Skanska UK
Three action points for meeting contractors’ expectations:
- Embrace the level playing field
Acknowledge the potential shift in mindset needed to work as equal partners with contractor project teams. Your problem-solving and design skills can be constantly exchanged in return for the contractor’s experience of how aspects of construction and design become a reality in the field.
- Work to understand their key objectives
Contractors want to be listened to by architects more, so perhaps consider how you can deliver value together, such as both running through plans, schedules, deadlines and other project details together to ensure that the project is delivered on time and within budget, such as the collaboration achieved by the team who built the Autodesk AEC Headquarters in the US 
- Deliver airtight case studies
Ask the right questions and present the right information that contractors need to feel reassured and confident, such as contractor reviews and testimonials plus installation video and building code resources, leaving no room for doubt when presenting new or challenging ideas or materials into the mix.
Although as architects you’re already relied upon by contractors in many aspects of the build process, it’s clear that there could still be some work to do to increase understanding of contractors’ key project requirements. After all, in order to flip the script, you need to know it inside-out first.
To find out more contractor insights and how you can mind the collaboration gap with other important stakeholders, read our full report: The Architect Effect.