Teamwork between the client and its consultants ought to be embedded in our industry – but architects sometimes need to be reminded of this

Nearly 10 years ago, I joined a former distinguished architect and a leading town planner as a specialist adviser to a public sector body. Our role was to help the client assemble a team to draw up a plan for upgrading a major tourist site. The client needed to choose a masterplanner. We interviewed four substantial practices, and then narrowed the choice to two. One of them produced a well-rehearsed and professional presentation, including several partners. It was not very exciting, but it was extremely competent. The other practice was represented by its head alone, a notable architect. He sat at the table and immediately started sketching out his ideas on paper. They were compelling and inspirational.

In order to make the choice, the client was using a quality-price matrix, with quality being 85% of the equation. There was nothing to choose between the two firms when the figures were calculated. After the vote, but before the final decision, one of the client team said that he preferred the second firm, the one represented by its head, because “he is a real architect”. However, the leader of the client team said: “No, I want the other ones. If we choose them, I will get the scheme that I, as client, want. If we choose what you call a real architect, I will get his scheme, not mine, although I will have to pay for it.” As a result, the other team got the commission, which they subsequently discharged well.

I recalled this incident some weeks ago when I attended two lectures given by well-known architects. Both spent some of their lecture showing presentations of their own schemes, which were exciting and eye-catching. Sadly, there was never any mention of teamwork. The first architect only referred to “builders” three times during his hour-long lecture, and each of his references was disparaging. His criticism was not of the contractors building his designs (whom he never mentioned) but of “builders” generally, who were seen as profit-orientated philistines.

The second architect, in his hour-long lecture, never referred to builders at all. Both of them also gave the impression – perhaps unintentionally – that it was their role to decide the appearance of the scheme, not the client. One lecturer implied that architecture throughout the world was going down the drain because clients were choosing project requirements for themselves. Worse still, money was the clients’ goal, not art, architecture and the environment.

The architect referred to ‘builders’ three times in his hour-long lecture, each time disparagingly

I found this depressing. Top-class design is extremely important. It is tremendous when clients value it and instruct the lead architects or engineers to provide it for them. Some clients just want crinkly tin sheds, and that is their commercial right, although nobody wins design awards for them. But future generations will value inspirational buildings or engineering projects, long after the sheds have been pulled down.

What I found depressing was that some eminent architects do not see themselves as part of the construction team, with the client at its core. Major clients such as BAA at Heathrow Terminal 5 know that the crucial requirement for achieving the quality project that they want, at a price for which they have budgeted and to the timescale that they expect, is a fully integrated team that works together and involves specialist detailed design. Value management from the earliest design stage cuts out non-value-adding costs. It is not about cutting specifications or producing boring repetitive designs. There is nothing cheap or boring about the designs for Heathrow Terminal 5.

Perhaps there will always be a conflict between those designers who see themselves as creative artists and instinctively shy away from the crude world of business and money, and the clients who pay for their design or the contractors who actually build it. If we are to make further progress towards the full integration of the team in the manner of BAA, we need more clients that commission high-quality design and are prepared to pay for it. But, just like that employer choosing an architect 10 years ago, we need client leadership that insists that talented designers work for it, and in collaboration with the team, not vice versa.