We love you but…

Words:
Matt Thompson

Working with Architects, the Client Liaison Group’s latest report, uncovers a relationship that architects need to work a bit – possibly a lot – harder at

Credit: Roderick Mills

There is a power imbalance in the client-archi­tect relationship. Whereas architects need clients, clients technically do not need architects. Clients are under no obligation to stand by their architects. 

With no pre-nup in place and plenty of other fish in the sea, should it ever come to divorce the party worse off is the architect. It pays, therefore, to stop clients running off with younger, savvier or merely different business models.

A few years back, the RIBA’s Client Liai­son Group, relationship therapist to the profession, stepped in to investigate. Whether its ministrations are nicely pre-emptive or far too late is moot. How­ever, its phase one Client & Architect report was very well received. It demonstrated that there is plenty of love left in the relationship, although it’s not all a bed of roses. Clients complained too often that ‘my architect doesn’t understand me’.

An instructive finding, but tantalisingly short on detail. Did it merely reveal an easily resolved marital tiff about how to bring up the buildings, as it were, or was it symptomatic of a wider unhappiness?

Cue the group’s phase two research, the inaugural Working with Architects client satisfaction survey. This invited clients to lie back on the couch and spill it all out. The liaison group hoped to quantify more precisely what niggles clients had and thus how architects could fix them.

The results are in and, as you would hope, they are challenging. It is never comfortable to be on the receiving end of one-sided criticism. But, as group chair Nigel Ostime puts it in the survey report, you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.

First, the good news. Clients are highly satisfied with the results of architects’ design performance. They appear to love the end-product of the design process overall, specifically rating it very highly for the things we associate most closely with architects: superb aesthetic quality, meeting the brief well, and being clever with functional design. Architects are also great at developing the brief and communicating their designs.   

Now the less good but in some ways more useful news, about architects’ process management skills. As abundantly foreshadowed in the previous report, architects are rated mediocre in the way they go about their work. The critical measures – commercial understanding, keeping to the programme, managing their work, admin, collaboration, technical design spec, BIM – are all significantly less good than those for design performance. This can be interpreted as showing a lack of business savvy and a poor understanding of risk.

While this is not catastrophic, it’s a bit more than mere niggles. A 70-year itch, perhaps? An over-familiarity that strains civility and makes it hard for clients to appreciate all the good in the relationship? You could say so. The mismatch between how clients rate the end product compared with how they rate the process indicates that they’ve lost sight of the bigger picture.

Standing out in all of this like a red line in clash-detection software were contractors. Their scores were consistently and significantly worse than all others’, often below the group’s self-imposed minimum baseline. 

Credit: Roderick Mills

This is the survey’s first truly extraordinary result. We’ve known for years that when architects and contractors tie the knot, it’s often at the business end of a novation shotgun. But we’d never before seen the depth of dissatisfaction quantified in this way. 

So what’s going on? The survey report publishes a diptych of opinion pieces from opposite viewpoints. One is by Dale Sinclair, architect with AECOM and
author of the guides to the RIBA Plan of Work. For him, it’s all about expectations, quality of information exchange and procedure, with architects shouldering much of the blame. 

The opposing view is by CIOB president Paul Nash, keeper of contractors. His take is more balanced, acknowledging that in contractors’ minds the value architects create is overshadowed by the need to preserve that same value during delivery. 

He particularly accuses architects of not understanding that risk management under­pins contractors’ profit. He diagnoses a forgiveable inability in architects to quit iter­ating and (bleep)ing well freeze the design. Their fluid creative bull-momentum thrashes around the neatly stacked china shop of calculated risks. They don’t appreciate that the project will only yield a profit for the contractor if the teacups stay intact.

In the grand scheme of things, contractors are still a minority client for architects according to the RIBA’s Business Benchmark. Nonetheless, they are important. With commercial clients increasingly drawn to one-stop-shop procurement solutions, archi­tects are likely to have far more contractor clients in the future. Architects should stir from any cosy complacency they may feel on this front.

Credit: Roderick Mills

The survey’s second truly extraordinary result is about follow-up. It’s a bit of an exaggeration to say it, but clients love it when architects follow up even when they are not contracted to do so. The effect is disproportionate to clients’ overall satisfaction with architects’ work. The opposite is true, too. Clients hate it disproportionately when archi­tects do not follow up.

Why is this a big deal? Well, because it validates what many have been saying for decades. Turns out that all that customer service mumbo jumbo about seeking feedback or carrying out post-occupancy evaluations of various kinds really is a good idea. It pays dividends, especially when so much work depends on word-of-mouth recommendations and repeat business. 

This will please the loop-closing saviours of the construction industry whose promised land lies between Stage 7 and Stage 0. For them, this result is the holy grail, a cascade of win-wins: it makes clients happy. Hallelujah! And if clients are happy, architects’ reputations are boosted, architects will get more work, architects can learn from their past mistakes, and architects can command higher fees because they know what works and what doesn’t, thereby managing clients’ risks, protecting the environment, improving health and safety, and so on ad nauseam. 

The mantra is picked up in the results report by RIBA president-elect Ben Derbyshire. He’s an optimistic convert, and quick to zoom in on architects’ usual grumbles about cost and resources. For him, the implication of this result is a no-brainer: even if it’s a net cost, follow-up should be built into the service as standard. The effect on satisfaction ratings – on leaving a good taste in the mouth – is that clear. He advocates building in a minimal option as standard and offering bolt-on extras of increasing sophistication for clients to opt into. 

Overall, this report is a treasure trove of market intelligence. Aside from its many intriguing wrinkles, it confirms previously held beliefs (for example clients are more satisfied with architects than non-architects), and sets a quantified benchmark against which the future profession can be measured. Frankly, it smacks of quality assurance, its themes and conclusions pointing at ISO 9001-shaped solutions that other industries have relied on and enjoyed for decades. 

At a time when clients are flirting with BIM-fangled procurement routes and having their heads turned by project managers, the honeymoon days of the client-architect relationship are distant memories. 

Let’s hope, as Jane Duncan urges in her foreword to the report, that the RIBA does indeed monitor progress, that individual practices do use this survey data strategic­ally, and most of all that it is the start of a new era in the dealings between architects and their clients. 

Download a full copy of the report at architecture.com>RIBA for clients

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