A recent report found architects receive poor satisfaction ratings from contractors, which comes from a failure to treat contractors like an end-user client
The new report from RIBA, Working With Architects, highlighted some interesting challenges associated with the contractor-architect relationship.
As Building reported, architects receive consistently lower satisfaction ratings from contractors compared with domestic or commercial clients. Only 51% of contractors said they were either “very satisfied” or “fairly satisfied” with the work of their architects, compared with 76% of domestic clients and 73% for commercial clients.
It may be tempting to simply point the finger at the process of novation and some of the inherent tensions that arise, and blame that for the dissatisfaction that contractors are showing for the services architects provide for them, but the reality is that architects probably are not serving contractors as well as they should be.
It is very rare for the decision to adopt a design and build procurement route (with novation) to be made late in the programme. It is often known well in advance, and the decision is also often made in conjunction with architects. So there is always time to plan for the transition, and establish the processes necessary for a smooth transition from pre- to post-contract in a way that works for all parties.
It is unrealistic to expect contractors to care too much about the design concept or the more fluffy aspects of a project when they are tasked with delivery
Contractors do indeed have a narrower focus than architects, but it incumbent on architects to recognise that. Key issues such as risk management, delivery of critical information on time, sequence of design and interfaces with the wider supply chain are where contractors’ attention necessarily turns during the early stages of a project.
It is unrealistic to expect contractors to care too much about the design concept or the more fluffy aspects of a project when they are tasked with delivery. That isn’t to say these things aren’t important, more that there is a time and a place for them.
In my experience, the most challenging situations occur when there is a misalignment of end-user aspirations. Too often, design and build is considered to be a method of shedding risk by the ultimate client to the contractor, than a sensible partnership whereby risk is allocated to those best able to deal with it technically. Little wonder then, that contractors might then struggle to reconcile high design aspirations with a challenging budget or programme. Little wonder also that the architect might get caught in the “crossfire” by not recognising this and changing focus accordingly.
I have for many years been of the view that architects don’t treat contractors like clients, and therefore don’t seek to understand their motivations in the same way as they would an end-user client
However, getting end user requirements and the resulting design, budget and programme aligned is a key role of the architect, and it is perhaps here that the profession is failing, leading to problems later on. If the project is set up properly, issues relating to commercial matters should fall away. That leaves process management and delivery. I have for many years been of the view that architects don’t treat contractors like clients, and therefore don’t seek to understand their motivations in the same way as they would an end-user client. This is a mistake that the profession does need to correct.
Architects must work harder to understand what contractors’ drivers are, once contracts are signed. This requires clear communication, understanding and honesty about resources and capability. The dreaded word “compromise” - too often used to mask cost cutting - is an art, and those negotiations over systems or materials require skills of which architects are often not in possession and this is a training issue for the profession to consider.
At McBains Cooper, we work hard to understand contractors’ motivations. We give a great deal of thought about how to sequence the design and package information in a way that might enable early management of the some of the key risk areas. BIM has helped with this: we now have the ability to “rehearse” elements of the build in virtual reality. We can examine how the design comes together in 3D in fully rendered mock-ups. This is a powerful process that will bring our designers and build partners closer together.
Contractors, too, also have a role to play in dealing with these issues. Too often the perceived benefits of early contractor engagement are not realised because the pre-construction teams are actually bid teams rather than build teams. What is needed is access to the people who are actually going to assemble the design and the key subcontractors that will support them.
Through more effective partnerships, the architect-contractor relationship need not be so fraught.
Mark Leeson is diirector of Design at McBains Cooper