Reshaping the architect’s role with the client

by Ofentse Sefolo
Reshaping the architect’s role with the client

Approximately 30 to 40 years ago architects were highly valued, and their opinions honoured. But as the market changed in the 1990s and early 2000s and building standards fell, the role of the architect became more limited. Clients seemed to be using the architect primarily to secure planning permission for that extra space or extra unit on their development.

Now, things are changing and seem to come full circle. Recent construction disasters brought the need for clearer design responsibility and a golden thread of accountability through building projects to the fore. Who better than the architect to take the lead in this emerging change? And what better time has there been for architects to reshape their role in the mind of the client?

In this second article of the Architect Effect series, we bring insight into how to reshape the client’s perception about the architect’s role by unpacking some practical examples and then discussing why they are valuable.

Opening the client’s eyes to opportunity
One principal architect saw an opportunity on one of their residential projects to open their client’s eyes to the many possibilities on how to approach being green, when asked to consult on a green roof. The architect’s added value included:
• Sustainability in its construction by suggesting and using materials sourced locally.
• Better long-term performance with in-built solar energy panels providing clean energy.
• Saving money overall by rebuilding rather than starting from scratch.

Happy architect, even happier client
There has never been a more opportune moment to put in the groundwork (as this principal architect thoughtfully did) to shape this important relationship with your clients, who are more involved in the construction process than ever before.

What is more, in the face of more complex build projects, with more players involved, your traditional role of the “master builder” architect is in flux.

New disruptive trends such as these are uprooting long-held opinions of architects and present a glittering opportunity for architects to thrive in this new context.

In this context it is important to look at what else can be done to align the client’s view of your role with your objectives, and ultimately contribute to reshaping your role in today’s construction context. The following are key observations following the extensive BMI survey and Architect Effect Report.

Architects should focus less and more on the following principles:

1. Understanding is key
• Less: Assumptions
Frustration and misunderstanding can arise from making assumptions about how much the client understands the design and construction processes. To avoid leading yourself and the client down a potential path of frustration and misunderstanding, greater levels of open communication are needed.

• More: Understanding the real objectives of the client
Beyond the bricks and mortar, what would an excellent outcome for the client be? Clients value architects asking them about the end-goal for the building and what success looks like to them.

Bringing it to life:
For example, if the client is a business, they might be trying to attract and retain new talent, improve their speed to the market or perhaps they have a mix of objectives that could impact what they deem as a successful end-result. But this extra detail can only be uncovered through asking the right questions.

2. Make each moment count
• Less: Limited commercial understanding
There is room for improvement in architects’ commercial understanding.

Although it may seem natural that architects are attracted to the profession through their design-focused skill set, equipping yourself to run the build more like a business can tick many boxes for clients.

Architects are more commercially focused when they can solve problems as they arise, nimbly diverting from previously entrenched ideas. For instance, where an architect achieves a greater commercial understanding of a project through organising team site visits to other similar schemes. While on site, the architect can test out their perceived designs and ideas with how they might work commercially and be open to suggestions from clients or contractors, getting everyone on the same page upfront.

• More: Creating that “What if?” moment
Clients are sometimes not the best at articulating their precise requirements for a building. The architect has a vital role here to help bring out a client’s specific requirements by sharing possibilities and innovations for their project. Sometimes these are blocked due to the cost, but often due to a lack of awareness or appreciation of all the potential benefits. Clients trust architects to be the ones to push and challenge projects to deliver extra value.

They expect architects to wow them with exciting and surprising new takes on issues and creative problem solving.

Bringing it to life:
To counter these common sort of pushbacks from clients, based on the cost or a lack of knowledge on benefits, Rebecca Dunn Bryant from the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and co-founder of the architecture firm and green building consultancy Watershed in Alabama, America, keeps case studies on hand of “affordable and achievable high-performance designs” to make a solid case to clients.

“Brilliant architects don’t just save money, they make value,” says Bryant.

3. Double-check your processes
• Less: Misaligned project management
Only 56% of commercial clients and 61% of private clients were very or fairly satisfied with the process management performance of architects, including their ability to collaborate and communicate with other teams and be efficient with administration. Clients want to see more consistent processes and more effective communication.

• More: Following up on projects
Following up, by arranging a visit with your client post-project completion, is important to clients and there is evidence to back this up: Architects who followed up with their clients after a project, whether they were contracted to do this or not, were rated significantly higher than architects who didn’t.

Bringing it to life:
One private homeowner relayed his own experience as part of a RIBA study, and said that the architect “said he would like to call from time to time as he lives around the corner, to see how things were progressing, but he never did”.

Half of all architects’ work comes from personal recommendations or previous experience, so it really does pay to follow up.

Clients are looking at architects to provide more value and be that “golden thread” of design quality and process consistency. Their expectations are high, but this is a great opportunity to deliver beyond expectations, create close relationships with clients and to thrive as your ever-changing role is redefined from the traditional “master builder”.

Bridging the gap between the client’s and architect’s expectations is possible. Follow these three action points on your next project to improve collaboration with your client:

1. Challenge your client by asking “What if?”
Be proactive and talk directly with your client to understand what is important to him. This will then provide the right foundations to be able to deliver beyond his expectations.

2. Refresh your commercial awareness and project management skills
If you think you need to brush up your commercial acumen or project management, get some business management or project training sorted. Training or certification opportunities are growing every day. Make use of these opportunities.

3. Follow up
Check in with clients beyond the delivery phase to continue to build a stronger positive working relationship.

Yes, every client and project differ, but this opportunity to align with and question your client’s wishes, in order to evolve your role and build a reputation as the golden thread of the construction process, is one not to be missed.

Our sincere thanks and appreciation to BMI Global for the use of the information contained in this article.

To find out more about client insights and how you can mend the collaboration gap with other important stakeholders, read the full BMI report at https://www.bmigroup.com/thearchitecteffect.

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