The new director of architecture at McBains Cooper shares his views on the need for closer integration between architect and design team

Over the years, I’ve often been asked by clients to recommend a ‘good engineer’. This has often proved difficult. Define ‘good’? Technically strong? Cheap? Approachable? One who delivers on time?

I recall a site meeting a few years ago when the team was called together to discuss a clash between two elements of the structural frame. The client, quite rightly, asked how, on a green field site, with no constraints, no existing buildings, the team could get it so wrong that two elements which the team were totally in control of, would not fit together? He had a fair point. The answer was human error.

Recent debates about the respective roles of the architect and engineer have arisen in part because of the increasing complexity of even the simplest/ smallest projects. A scan of Part L of the building regulations is enough to make even the most confident Client shiver - pressure testing, CO2 emission rate calculations and BRE certification for starters…

But this debate is also about each professional’s place in the design process. Historically, architects were master builders, experts in all aspects of construction. Today, this is simply not a position we adopt. The process is far too complex, the breadth of knowledge required to sustain the project is too wide.

On a recent large project, I decided to list the experts needed to develop the design and it came to more than 30. For a project to be successful, it requires several kinds of experts, in several different fields, each doing their own job to the best of their ability. But more than this, they need to get on, respect and understand each other and know how to get the best from each other at the right point in time during a project.

At McBains Cooper, we often use the analogy of an orchestra to illustrate inter-disciplinary working. Individually, each musician might be brilliant but unless each and everyone, not only understands the role that each fellow musician plays in the ensemble, but reacts, responds and harmonises with them, the result would not qualify as music, just noise.

Like the orchestra, design teams need to develop not just a functional understanding of the fellow consultants but in order to produce great buildings, they must develop a deeper understanding of each other.

This harmonic accord can only come about by establishing long-term relationships between individuals, teams and disciplines. McBains Cooper is ‘inter’-disciplinary, not ‘multi’-disciplinary. This difference might seem subtle, but the resulting approach is more far-reaching. Engineers cannot be the new architects as debated recently, in the same way that architects cannot be the new engineers. What must change is the relationship between them and the way that the two disciplines work together, collaborate.

Historically, the relationship between architect and structural engineer has often been more harmonious leading to some fantastic buildings and structures like the Millau Viaduct (Fosters & EEG), the Pompidou Centre (Renzo Piano/ Richard Rogers & Arups). It seems this relationship is still strong. Maybe this is because each has taken more time to try and understand each other’s aspirations more closely. Maybe the structural engineer can also understand the relationship between function and beauty? In reality, the context hasn’t really changed in this relationship so it has had time to mature. Gravity is still King.

In environmental engineering, because of the pace of change, we still have a long way to go. There are of course great examples of a collaborative approach between the environmental engineer and architect. At McBains Cooper for instance, we hold regular seminars across disciplines, relationships are strong, and the understanding between consultants is maturing, leading to better teamwork. We cross-train architects to become BREEAM/ Eco Home assessors. Engineers attend architectural design reviews. This helps break down barriers.

Uniquely, we also often retain the same team, project after project, as a result of our inter-disciplinary service. This leads to a sharper use of lessons learnt and the development and exploration of areas that excite both. Our engineers’ understanding of architecture and design are better as a consequence and continue to improve, and our architects’ understanding of the complexities of environmental engineering are also improved. Both to the benefit of the project, the business and the Clients’ experience of the process.

Beyond engineering and architecture, the same close relationship needs to exist between architect, project manager, cost consultant, civil engineer; planning consultant and the 25 other professionals that make up the modern, sophisticated design team.

The future is one of closer collaboration and better relationships, not a re-definition of roles.