Developing the future

Words:
Jane Duncan

Getting together to expand our knowledge, experiences and prospects

‘Nothing is as dangerous in architecture as dealing with separated problems. If we split life into separated problems we split the possibilities to make good building art’ – Alvar Aalto

Developers have not traditionally enjoyed a great reputation with either architects or the general public. At worst they have been seen as wide-boy wreckers of the urban realm, trashing ancient and treasured buildings to replace them with poorly designed tall or over dense structures, or covering precious Green Belt solely to maximise their cash. 

But times needed to change in a business where mutual understanding between the two central players is, as Martyn Evans, head of development company Uncommon, has noted ‘more crucial than it has ever been’. 

But now co-operation is growing between some developers and their architects. Like Evans, some have prioritised quality, and are nurturing British architecture practices from their early years. They consider architects their natural partners, recognising that good design is a good investment. The trust this generates is a precious commodity in today’s tough markets, leveraging the value of buildings through the perceived prestige of the architects’ involvement. 

It may be that architects have facilitated this shift by taking a more pragmatic role – presenting themselves as problem solvers within a strategic team, valued for their expertise in engaging with a site’s social, historical and architectural context, as well as creating inspired masterplans and well-designed, appealing buildings. Architects who work with a developer repeatedly become their ‘brains trust’, understanding what they expect. That trust builds repeat business.

Developers make decisions differently to other clients and architects who work for them must be nimble, flexible, self-managing and disciplined

We architects often think our clients hire us for our design skills . But for the developer, the building is part of a much larger vision, brand, investment and legacy. They make decisions differently to other clients and architects who work for them must be nimble, flexible, self-managing and disciplined.

Developers conceive projects, select their locations, acquire the land, determine the target market, obtain the financing, and oversee process and sale of the project.  Because architects do not usually take development risks we rarely earn a significant share of the value created by our designs. As a result, for many practitioners the profession is one of long hours with relatively low pay.

There is, however, a different path. The architect-as-developer business model provides an interesting alternative to traditional methods of practice; an opportunity to exert greater project leadership, have more freedom in the design process, more control over what is built and the quality of its finishes, and, of course, make more money. As I have discovered through my own small property developments, this gives developer clients reassurance that I understand the pressures and opportunities from their perspective.

Traditionally teaching skirted the issue of money, focussing on the art of architecture. For many, this mindset carried on into practice, resulting in an erosion of the architectural profession and its earning potential.  It’s great to see courses which now teach the economics of architecture and design – during my training it just wasn’t talked about.

I’m saddened by how little developers and architects still understand each other’s professional language and intent, but we can change that.  On 24 November Evans and I launched the Young Architects & Developers Association (YADA) to foster understanding and collaboration between innovative emerging architects and property developers.  By meeting, talking and understanding each other, innovative design and intelligent property development can be brought together, and that will benefit everyone.

‘We build too many walls and not enough bridges’ – Isaac Newton 

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