What do clients think of architects?\

Our Project Delivery Director Nigel Ostime is chair of the RIBA Client Liaison Group that has recently published the first ever construction industry client satisfaction survey for architects.

Launched last May, the survey asked nearly 1,000 clients what they think architects do well and what we could improve. So what were the results?

Clients think that architects design great buildings but could improve on project management – the services that wrap around the design process - and their understanding of the client’s commercial drivers. It is no surprise UK architects are considered to be good designers, reflecting their global reputation. There is a strong focus on design in architect’s five years of university education but there is less emphasis on process and this may be the reason for the poorer project management score. It is also a question of business nous and to that end the CLG is implementing a programme to get clients into schools of architecture. It is important young architects learn the skills and knowledge to initiate and hold that critical dialogue that forms the briefing process, and demonstrate an understanding of the client’s business drivers. (In fact this would be a skill some older architects could do with learning!)

Contractors in particular feel that there is room for improvement. This could be for a number of reasons but it is clear that there is work to do from both sides to improve mutual understanding and bring our goals closer together. Where the contractor is the client though there needs to be more movement from the architect. DfMA will help so long as architects embrace it and bring consideration of off-site processes into the preliminary design stages. It is too late once the contractor is on board.

The best projects generally come about where the client/architect relationship is strongest and for meaningful dialogue to occur there needs to be trust and respect within the project team. On Here East, Hawkins\Brown worked side by side with the client in a way that has been described as “stripped of badges and openly exchanging and challenging ideas, building consensus in a shared spirit of open dialogue”. This recognition – demand even - that all those around the table can and should contribute to solving the problem was central to the success of the project.

Such an approach is unusual though, and poor collaboration is often diagnosed as a cause of the construction industry’s failings. Whilst BIM technology can help the coordination effort, collaboration is primarily about behaviour. It is as much about trust, cooperation, empathy and communication – people skills rather than technological fixes.

The other big issue from the survey is the importance of the feedback loop. This is partly as post occupancy evaluation (POE) of the building itself, and partly about the quality of service provided by the project team. Indeed, a number of commercial clients have talked about the strength of evidence-based design and their increasing desire to see our work supported by proof from previous experience. And without measuring this is information we will not have.

Architects who follow up when not contracted to do so are disproportionately highly rated compared to those who do not. If that wasn’t persuasive enough, architects who do not follow up are disproportionately poorly rated compared to those who do. Given that architects tend to get a large proportion of their work through repeat clients or personal recommendations, this must become the norm rather than the exception. Certainly Hawkins\Brown will be upping the ante on this front going forward.

So have we done the right thing in asking these searching questions? The profession is robust enough to take the more challenging responses the survey has thrown up and there would be little point in just asking what we do well. But we now need to follow through and demonstrate that we can implement the changes clients are calling for.

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