Argent’s James Heather on what he, as a client, seeks during the build process, in the context of the RIBA Plan of Work 2013
‘We use our initial concept design team as the “guardian” of the original brief, to prevent the design concept and quality being undermined to reduce construction cost’
The RIBA Plan of Work 2013 demands an intelligent approach to commissioning. As the profession absorbs the updated Plan, what is the client thinking about?
Defining project outcomes
We learn both from our own projects and from research into other buildings, sometimes even different types. From our research into hotels, Argent realised that using the lobby level differently in an office building offered an enormous opportunity. While in many the lobby is a large-scale, sterile, empty space, our new office building incorporated a hotel-like ‘business lounge’ and meeting area at ground floor level. People want to use them and they give the building’s entrance a more human feel. The business case was clear: leveraging the ground floor for business purposes creates an environment that attracts users to the building, helping to let it.
Leading from the start
Clients must own and drive the team to ensure that the final product meets the exact requirements of the original brief. As team leader, you must bring in the right people at the right time. There will be challenges – you can only delegate responsibility to an external team if it truly understands your business objectives. Be an informed client, and lead from the front. Seek to maximise the team’s expertise and involvement as it significantly adds value to a project if it is deployed correctly.
Assembling the project team
With the right architect and team, it’s much easier to make a project work better. Contracts, words and guidelines are important, but it is even more vital to ensure that the whole team believes in the project. It’s essential that everyone is included in the process, and that no-one ends up working in silos. The building’s design and construction is informed by using the skills of the whole team. We have created relationships over many years and work with design and implementation teams who understand us, which is advantageous to new projects too. We choose people that we want to work with, including younger architects and small practices that believe in and understand our vision and mode of practice. We want to work as part of a team. The architect for Eleven Brindleyplace, Birmingham, listened to what we wanted, but also had the confidence to challenge our assumptions and suggest new ideas. Progress depends on this sort of debate. New ideas need to be integrated through a dialogue. This gives us the market edge and enables business innovation. You need architects to create something that’s flexible for the user. Understand not just the building, but how it works for the user – otherwise you have created a sculpture.
We like to involve designers in developing the concept and brief – and to keep testing the brief to improve the concept. At Eleven Brindleyplace we had eight or nine iterations of various concepts to determine the optimum scheme for the site. We also defined with the concept team specific areas that would require additional resource to ensure design priorities were achieved – reception areas and external approaches for example. Never assume your project team knows what you want. At Argent we hold a review day before the concept is fixed with the concept team, contractors’ team, key supply chain, letting agents and investment agent – a total review of the project.
On mitigating risk
Our tried and trusted set of processes put the key players in place very early. We regularly use a design and build process so that the financial risk of the construction process lies with the contractor. But we use our initial concept design team as the ‘guardian’ of the original brief, to prevent the design concept and quality being undermined in the interest of reducing the construction cost. The concept design team is involved throughout the project to maintain dialogue and continuity for the strategic design, but not in the traditional architectural role. We bring the contractor and its supply chain on board at an early stage to reduce the risk of the concept design being unbuildable. Our contractors view early involvement as very positive – their involvement in the design process reduces redesign work significantly as the concept and build documents can be developed in tandem. They feel included and are able to add their construction expertise to the project. We bring the whole supply chain on board as well, to inform the details of the most significant elements – for example at Eleven Brindleyplace.
James Heather is partner at Argent (Property Development) Services and has most recently led on One St Peter’s Square, Manchester and Eleven Brindleyplace, Birmingham designed by Glenn Howells Architects.This article is drawn on the RIBA’s Client Conversations publication and based on interviews conducted by Jennifer Singer of Alexi Marmot Associates