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Time to take a lead

Jane Duncan

Don’t view new technology as a threat – for the role of lead designer it is an opportunity to be grasped

Design leadership in the digital age requires more than a chat over coffee with the builder.

As architects we recognise the impact of changing global economic conditions, emerging disruptive technologies, and increasingly the need to establish more collaborative work processes. We often think of BIM as the means to effect change through technology, and fail to review the roles and behaviours which need to be adopted. In truth we need both to incorporate the changing technologies and adapt our processes, moving from established project delivery routes – for all sizes of project.

Technology alone only takes things so far; there is serious potential for risks to escalate when the architect’s expertise in delivering successful projects is passed down the line to BIM operators.

BIM can of course help to deliver more efficient, intelligent and cost effective design processes and enhanced services to clients – particularly in relation to the whole life value of buildings – but BIM processes themselves are changing the leadership playing field.

Architects need to look up from their ­immersion in design and delivery, where we overlook the importance of the rather understated lead designer role – one which most of us ­carry out on every project we do.

Do we understand the role of lead designer and value it ourselves? What does the role require in collaborative construction?

The potential is there to magnify the architect’s role as leader of the whole design, and building, process – a role we may have inadvertently conceded to others through relinquishing liability. Architects will be welcomed to lead if we become better listeners and refiners of information that arise during the stages of design and construction.

Little has been published about the role of lead designer, although the RIBA client forum revealed that it is a role clients value greatly. The question is: do we understand and value it ourselves, and what does the role require in collaborative construction?

Recent articles suggest the role can be partially automated using BIM tools such as clash detection – though if it is undertaken well there should be no clashes and project details will be well considered. Poorly undertaken it can result in site queries, and a design compromised by the need to integrate variations – and costs – late in the process.

The role will require varying collaborative skills for each aspect of an emerging ­design. For example, agreeing the size and ­location for a plant room with the design team needs a different focus to discussing materials for the main elevations with the client or planners.

Balancing a single minded approach for certain aspects with collaborative behaviours for others is not easy. The lead designer understands the building inside out, and is best placed to identify and evaluate design risks in a manner that allows them to be managed, eliminated or cost allowances made. Yet we do not, on the whole, embrace this opportunity and the truth is that architects could become further marginalised.

We need to face up to a changing industry, and ensure that the key lead designer role is valued and understood, and that we diligently undertake it. We should harness technology to deliver better co-ordinated buildings where risks are managed more effectively.

In summary, the lead designer role is a core one that wraps around the work of an architect. Defining the role, agreeing what it entails, considering how it might add value in a digital world and demonstrating to our clients that we have the skillsets to undertake it, are crucial tasks in defining the role of the architect in the future. Complacency will no longer cut the mustard.


Catastrophic enlightenment
In March and April the RIBA is running a series of discussions with leading architects and experts from around the world looking in depth at themes explored in our new exhibition ‘Creation from Catastrophe: How architecture rebuilds communities’. Yasmeen Lari, Razia Iqbal, Reinier de Graaf, Henk Ovink and Kunlé Adeyemi are all taking part. Booking is essential at and attendees to the RIBA’s Future Leaders event on 15 March receive a special rate