Building projects are inherently complex: as projects progress, architects are joined by contractors, engineers, and myriad consultants. Architects, according to a recent report by RIBA, are considered the "spiritual leaders" of a building project. Cemented in this perception by a monopoly on design, architects continue to sit precariously atop project hierarchies despite a shifting landscape in building production. This begs the question: how can architects leverage this spiritual responsibility to translate into the best results for clients?
In their latest report Client & Architect: Developing the Essential Relationship, RIBA delves into the nuanced problem of connecting architecture to its owners, emphasizing the importance of a strong, functional and mutually educational relationship. Currently, architects have a tremendous opportunity to learn, improve and capitalize on understanding of clients, regardless of firm size, portfolio and established skills.
Read on to discover RIBA's findings from two years of client analysis
Initiated by outgoing RIBA President Stephen Hodder, the report is a continuation of the organization's emphasis on client satisfaction. Moderated by RIBA's Client Liaison Group, a panel comprised of some of the United Kingdom's largest developers and consultancies, Hodder aims to close gaps in communication to create a more productive environment for architects and clients alike. And after consulting with more than 500 clients, the message is clear: clients aren't receiving enough from their architects.
The report highlights five core tenets of the client-architect relationship: the role of architects as champions for the project vision, the importance of listening and understanding client needs, actively engaging and generating connections with clients, providing technically outstanding work, and always striving to learn and improve on existing skills. Through a series of roundtable discussions, RIBA sat down with collaborators from every level of building production to asses the current state of architecture's most crucial relationship. The report reveals numerous bits of surprising (and unsurprising) data, including a widespread belief that architects who truly listen to their clients are a rare commodity - something that has to change, says RIBA.
Fortunately, RIBA forecasts a bright immediate future for architects, reinforcing the notion that clients understand the value of what architects do. Architects are simply not capitalizing on the potential for relationships with clients, consequently diminishing the capacity to increase workloads and income. With effort concentrated towards connecting with clients, says RIBA, this potential can be maximized: "the next few years should offer an extremely benign environment within which architects can reshape the service they offer to clients," states the report.
What Does This Mean for Architects? A broad shift in the emphasis practices place on clients, from infrequent contributors to active collaborators. The RIBA suggests a number of ways to achieve this:
1. Improve Communication with the Client
The RIBA proposes that architects become crucial players in the life of a building, from conception to occupation and beyond. When realized in tandem with a recasting of communication methods with clients, firms can maximize potential for income while providing clearer definitions of their own services. In an environment where client relations are dictated by much more than face-to-face meetings, firms have a new responsibility to take charge of all aspects of a project while serving as partners with their clients.
2. Focus on a Broad Spectrum of Knowledge
Dynamic multi-functionalism has become key to the success of architecture firms worldwide. Clients expect architects to balance design savvy with technical strengths while serving as a conduit for all parties involved in building production. For architects, this means a shift in emphasis when dealing with specific types of clients. "For workplace clients the overriding principle is facilitating agility. For local authorities it is accountability to the taxpayer. For retrofit clients it is accommodating user behavior. With schools projects it is cost. For contractors it is cost-efficient, timely, buildable delivery. For housing developers it is minimizing risks. For commercial developers it is successful community engagement and viability," says the report.
3. Know Your Client's Business
The RIBA's recommendations largely center on the notion that architects often misunderstand their corporate clients. "Architects need to be business analysts - you need to understand how the client's business works," says Andrew Bugg, partner and head of project and building consultancy at Knight Frank. In the late 1970s a third of employment was in manufacturing and half in services, whereas services now account for 80% of employment, explains the report, meaning that by the year 2000 commercial building represented a quarter of all construction projects - five times greater than industrial construction. In a building economy that increasingly depends on a corporate clientele, architects must specialize their client approach.
4. Emphasize the Middle Ground Between Conceptual and Technical
The report expresses serious concerns about overarching client doubts, suggesting that good communication cannot solve all outstanding issues. During conversations with clients, the RIBA discovered a common theme stemming from the perception that only two distinct categories of architects exist: conceptual and technical. According to the report, there is a perception that "the creative flair that makes a good concept architect is an unacceptable risk during technical delivery." Clients are, in essence, perceiving conceptual strengths as a liability as projects advance, therefore tipping the scales towards the selection of technically skilled architects despite a necessity for conceptual skills. Furthermore, the report revealed that clients often feel the need to replace concept architects with a "safer pair of hands" once a project completes design development.
What can architects do to assuage client doubts? Communicate their work more often and with greater clarity to boost client morale and understanding. "For meaningful dialogue to occur," says Nigel Ostime of Hawkins\Brown Architects, "there needs to be trust and respect between architect and client." With clients often investing months into the selection of the ideal firm for a specific project, architects must return the investment.
5. Create Opportunities for Feedback
Despite understanding the inherent value of architectural work, the report suggests that clients must be reminded regularly what architects do. "The industry doesn't know the value of its own products. We need to fix the absence of a feedback route," says Paul Morrell, former chief construction adviser to the British government. This absence of clarity translates into a disconnect between client and architect, consequently devaluing architectural services. "Architects' free thinking and problem solving skills are rich and powerful, but packing them into something you pay for can often be difficult," according to Barra Mac Ruarri, strategy director for place at Bristol City Council.
RIBA is ultimately optimistic for the future of client-architect relationships. The need for architects worldwide appears to be on the rise and key sectors for potential development are seeing significant financial growth. While major stumbling blocks exist in client relations, architects are well-equipped to overcome and establish precedents for the future. Architects are known for boundless optimism: now it's time to dive head first into the new world of project dynamics and inject a bit of realism, technical know-how and a desire to learn from those who have much to share - our clients.
Client & Architect: Developing the Essential Relationship is due to be released online on September 15th. Find out more about the RIBA's research on their website.