It's easy to forget sometimes that others don't know things that you think are obvious – one small additional piece of information may make a particular course of action that had been one of a number of options the only way forward.
For example, I was visiting some castle grounds recently, where the castle had been successfully converted into a country house hotel. The grounds and associated hothouses, well-known locally for their variety and colour, are tended by a veritable army of gardeners. When I asked whether the armfuls of flowers were used to decorate the hotel, I was astounded to discover that floral arrangements are imported by air, whereas the home-grown flora is left to wilt and die. Surely one small exchange of information from hotel manager to head gardener would save both the hotel's money and the gardeners' frustration.
Perhaps this sounds overly simplistic, but, in our industry, talking really can change the emphasis of a project or the course of a design. It's not just exchanges between designers either. Of course, the architect needs to know how deep the structural floor is going to be so he can set his levels correctly; of course, the services engineer needs to know how many washbasins he has to supply. But it's much wider than that.
It's the client confiding to the QS over lunch that he's always liked timber trusses but assumes that steel is cheaper – is it? It's the engineer wrestling with a detail that doesn't work having a colleague peer over his shoulder and tell him about a new range of anchors.
It's hearing that the architect's godson's earnest wish is that "the dome is going to be a jolly colour". And so on. These almost incidental exchanges need to be encouraged, to nurture the nascent creativity of the team and allow it to see all the possibilities.
Someone’s tone of voice can tell you a dozen things that the words don’t say, and body language is another important visual clue
In the "good old days", deals were done by word of mouth and a handshake – when a builder promised to construct a house for you, he did so by spitting on his palm and firmly clasping your hand. Unhygienic, possibly, but that symbolic gesture was enough to seal a promise. Of course, that didn't always mean that you got exactly the house you wanted, right angles and plumb lines occasionally being regarded as extravagances, but at least you got your house. Since the concept of a defects liability period was also somewhat alien, you might have had a few teething problems, but the builder – at least if he wanted you to recommend him to your friends – would usually make some sort of attempt to solve the most pressing problems. Alternatively, you could show off the cascades of water from the poor weather-sealing as the latest thing in internal waterfalls.
Then came the contract, the written promise that said what the builder was going to build for you (and perhaps specified a price for doing it). This opened up whole new opportunities for lawyers to advise both the builder and the buyer as to how each party should interpret each word of the contract.
So now we operate in a world of 96-page contracts that are drawn up by specialist construction lawyers, collateral warranties, performance bonds, and a plethora of legal jargon that essentially replaces the handshake pledge. As a result, much of the communication between the parties involved in a construction project needs to be written down. No, I'm not advocating a return to the purely verbal agreement – there are too many things that need to be written down for clarity and reference – but I am suggesting that simply talking to one another still has a place.
Technology has moved on immeasurably since the handshake days but what about during the process of construction? It is this area where talking is most important – not just because of its immediacy (I can say in 30 seconds what it may take me three minutes to write) but also because of the wealth of other clues that come with a conversation that are just not there in a letter, or a fax, or even an e-mail. Someone's tone of voice can tell you a dozen things that the words don't say, and body language is another visual clue that gives you, perhaps subconsciously, more information than the words.
Tanya Ross is an associate of Buro Happold and its project manager at the Millennium Dome.