Architects looking for bigger projects and a more powerful role (yes, that’s you) should be talking to clients in emerging markets where they may well be put at the top of the tree. But they can’t climb there all by themselves

Camillin Denny, an architect with revenues of just over £3m, is working in Libya, Shanghai, Bosnia, Berlin and Malta, among other places. In fact, about half its turnover is from overseas business. In Libya, its work includes the 100ha Oasis project, masterplanned by Rem Koolhaas, which involves transforming five historic areas into tourism centres.

The strange thing is that this is a 40-strong practice with a turnover of only slightly more than £3m. And In case you’re reading “involves” as “designing the loos”, Camillin Denny is designing three of the five centres in the Koolhaas masterplan.

The question is even more puzzling when you consider that for architects, working abroad offers more than just a refuge from the downturn in the UK construction industry; it offers the chance to work on much bigger projects than they would at home. Mark Camillin, the director of the firm, says: “Working overseas definitely allows you to punch above your weight.”

Not only are the projects bigger but frequently the architect’s role is more powerful, too. Clients in emerging markets such as Brazil and Libya often want the designer to run the project. In other words, there are some projects where the architect is expected to be at the top of the tree, just as it was in the UK in the olden days, before the rise of the quantity surveyor and the birth of the project manager. Camillin says: “In Malta we were expected to appoint the entire project team, right down to the individual trades.”

As alluring as this total control might sound, few practices have the capacity to handle it. Jennifer Dixon, design partner in Austin-Smith:Lord (ASL), says: “Clients overseas often want the architect to act as consultant but only the giant practices have the resources and risk capacity to perform tasks like monitoring the performance of the QS.”

She adds that neither would she want her architects tied up with such tasks. “There are virtually no strong designers who are also strong managers; in any case you don’t want design architects to spend time managing.”

For these reasons, ASL has in effect outsourced the project management function. The arrangement allows the practice to work on a rich variety of foreign contracts, as well a few in the UK, that it would otherwise not be able to resource. The resulting business model is an interesting one for any architect hoping to work overseas.

How it works

Here’s how it works. ASL has enlisted the services of project manager Buro Four, which has allowed it to bid for jobs where the architect is expected to take the lead role. These include projects in Brazil, East Africa and the Middle East. ASL began working with Buro Four in June 2008 on a project in the Middle East. Under the arrangement Buro Four provides a “design project management” service, which includes:

  • Programming, including advice on structuring the project team, setting up project procedures, progress monitoring and preparing design programme
  • Lead consultant support, including assisting in procuring consultants
  • Fee and expense management
  • Bid management.

Buro Four is effectively seconded to ASL, so the client deals with one firm; Buro Four’s staff sit in ASL’s office and the fees go directly to the architect.

Nick Willars, architect turned project manager and director of design project management, Buro Four, says: “The idea is to free up the architect’s staff to concentrate on design, while making them more commercially efficient.”

Dixon puts it less diplomatically: “Nick always says to me, architects will usually do 20 drawings they don’t need and not the one they do. This process prevents that, because you do exactly what you should be doing and when.”

As well as enabling the architect to step up and run the project, Dixon says the arrangement has a number of other benefits for ASL. One is that it gives contractors peace of mind. Although many might balk at the thought of an architect controlling a project, Willars says Buro Four’s input means ASL runs a project exactly like a project manager would.

Another is that it educates the firm’s architects. “It teaches them discipline because it’s about things like setting a programme and controlling budgets, which are, of course, not normally an architect’s main interest.”

But how happy are ASL’s architects with having a bunch of project managers sitting in their office and telling them what they should be doing and when? Dixon says: “Architects can be a bit suspicious and feel their turf is being invaded, but once we’ve made it clear that Buro Four are de facto ASL staff, things work fine.”

Willars adds that he and his team try to be diplomatic. “You have to be calm, firm and confident, without throwing your weight around,” he says.

With Buro Four being seconded to the architect, does it result in a more expensive service? Dixon says not. “It’s no extra cost for us so it doesn’t mean our service costs more. In fact it means we do everything faster and more efficiently.

You can drive an architect to draw up a schedule but it will take him a week. Buro Four does these things at a pace that makes your eyes water.”

Another potential problem is whether clients are comfortable with the arrangement. Dixon admits: “In cases where Buro Four are filling the project manager role and a combination of people from our practice and Buro Four are in the architect role, there can be a perception that the lines are blurred.” But Buro Four puts Chinese walls in place in such cases and Dixon believes that the situation is “doable”.

Certainly, if it means the ability for smaller architects to bid for projects in booming markets such as Libya and Brazil, it’s an approach at least worth considering.

How DPM works

Design project management was a critical element in the ability of architects Wilkinson Eyre and Grant Associates to win and carry out work on this recently completed biome in Singapore (pictured). The £500m, 54ha addition to the Singapore Marina front was built in three years and will open to the public in January 2011.

Building the biome, which houses European plants, was a complex job on a tight timeframe. Buro Four worked with a local project manager to produce a strategy for the design, procurement and delivery stages.

It says it “gave the client, the National Parks Board, and the design team a detailed roadmap that allowed it to break the job into achievable phases”. Its role included testing the buildability of proposed designs and value engineering it.