Good architects are good problem solvers

Clients might divide practices into concept and technical architects, but they want the skills in one package

‘Our great team of architects helped us create designs which work with the existing template and enhance it,’ says Urban Splash chairman Tom Bloxham of the work of Hawkins\Brown and Studio Egret West at Park Hill, Sheffield.
‘Our great team of architects helped us create designs which work with the existing template and enhance it,’ says Urban Splash chairman Tom Bloxham of the work of Hawkins\Brown and Studio Egret West at Park Hill, Sheffield. · Credit: Daniel Hopkinson

Technical skills are central to the practice of architecture and include many competencies. Indeed, the core curriculum consists of acquiring and maintaining them, helping to define the profession.

In the context of this report, the term ‘technical skills’ extends to the knowledge that can only be gained through relevant professional experience. This is ingrained knowledge permanently at an architect’s fingertips, the kind that feeds creative instincts, unconsciously prompting action that avoids errors and speeds good decision-making.

‘The really good architects we work with, as well as being good designers and good managers of design, are actually really good problem solvers,’ says Paul Chandler, executive vice-president of Skanska UK.

Clients recognise that the technical skill of good design adds most of the value to projects and that, thanks to their unique training, architects are well placed to supply it.

‘Architects are very good at delivering the fundamental qualities – space, light, good aspect, storage, homes that work,’ says Jane Briginshaw, head of design and sustainability for HCA.

However, disruptive technologies and processes ( BIM, modern methods of construction, one-stop-shop contractors, off-shoring, specialisation, standardisation, whole-life costing, resilience planning) are changing the picture, requiring architects to adapt.

Given this welter of increasingly sophisticated knowledge, it is impractical for one person or even one practice to know everything. Clients regard the profession as falling into two broad and separate categories: the concept architect and the technical architect.

According to the round table panellists, some clients struggle to find practices that are strong in both categories and commonly feel they have to replace the concept architects with a ‘safer’ pair of hands after Stage 3.

This is based on the perception that the creative flair that makes a good concept architect is an unacceptable risk during technical delivery. In other words, it is a compromise in the face of fear that the value gained with planning permission will be lost through inefficiencies, inaccuracies and waste.

‘We’d love to see the ability in architects to identify costs, cost savings or cost wastage, and work within the team to mitigate those risks and reduce that wastage,’ says Mark Wakeford, MD of Stepnell.

‘Architects’ mistakes can add tens of thousands of pounds onto the project and then it’s disproportionate to their fees,’ adds Stephen Day, technical director, Barratt London.

Clients say they would rather engage a single practice to champion the vision from concept to completion and beyond. But when this occurs, clients – especially contractor clients – say that architects’ interest wanes.

‘Far too often architects dismiss the importance of the delivery phase and their fees are set up front-ended so there’s no fee to deal with that latter stage,’ says Colin Tedder, technical director, Bouygues UK.

Sean Cook, design director, Clivedale London, says: ‘We like to see architects to take a cradle to grave approach. At times the procurement of the project might not allow that. If that’s the case, we will generally keep the original architect on board on our side to monitor design and quality through to completion.’

Park Hill demonstrates that with the right partners, post-war modernism can be successfully reinvented, says Tom Bloxham.
Park Hill demonstrates that with the right partners, post-war modernism can be successfully reinvented, says Tom Bloxham. · Credit: Daniel Hopkinson

The mark of investible quality these days focuses on building users, linking sustainability and wellness to operating costs, user satisfaction, place making or community value, resilience, and long-term adaptability or flexibility. This is true across many sectors but especially workplace, schools, housing, local authority and retrofit markets.

Even where the client will sell the building on completion, they must attend to these factors to attract buyers or investors. And in the battle for commercial advantage, not achieving these goals damages reputations.

‘It’s important to keep your void rates, management and life cycle costs down,’ says Gregor Mitchell, land director, be:here (Willmott Dixon’s private rented housing arm). ‘If I was an architect, I would look beyond the concept design to what will happen once the building is being operated.’

Housing developers are adopting BIM, and want architects to lead the integrated consultant team.

Richard Meier, partner at Argent, says: ‘How well coordinated the project is has a huge impact on costs, delays and issues further down the line. I’m keen to see architects who understand BIM and the coordinating role it plays because it de-risks projects.’

Local authority clients need surety as well as good team coordination and creative problem solving.

‘Local authorities do not like surprises,’ says John Betty, interim director of place at Stoke-on-Trent City Council. ‘We have quite rigorous processes in the full glare of public scrutiny for how we make decisions and commit to buying a building. Understandably, we need reliability.’

Contractors, squeezed between contract price and project costs, need architects who respect this constraint more than ever.

Schools clients are looking for innovative, proven ways to deliver fit-for-purpose, long-lasting spaces that positively influence educational standards. Lean working, standardisation and BIM are all part of the formula.

Designs for retrofit clients must not only accommodate human behaviour but actively improve people’s experience of the building.
In the workplace sector, generic appeal is key: flexibility in the grid, good levels of daylight, good acoustics, an effective M&E strategy, urban design, and low running costs.


An Introduction to Low Carbon Domestic Refurbishment, CPA
Residential Retrofit, Marion Baeli
Whole Life Sustainability, Ian Ellingham
What Colour is Your Building? David Clark
BIM Management Handbook, David Shepherd
BIM for Construction Clients, Richard Saxon
BIM in Small Practices: Illustrated Case Studies, Robert Klaschka
BIM Demystified 2nd edition, Steve Race

Useful links:
BIM Task Group,
National BIM Library,
NBS Toolkit, NBS Create, NBS Building Contracts,

What the roundtables found:

  • Disruptive technologies and processes are forcing architects to adapt.
  • Clients say it is hard to find practices good at both concept and technical work.
  • Despite wishing otherwise, clients think it necessary to replace concept architects with a ‘safer pair of hands’ after Stage 3.
  • Clients want architects to maintain their interest all the way through the delivery phase and beyond.
  • Many clients adopting BIM want architects to lead the integrated consultant team.
  • Clients want architects to place greater emphasis on how the building operates in use.

Add business-savvy to the design process
This opportunity is about adopting rigorous techniques to treat cost, time and other client constraints as the grit in the oyster.

Commercial developers and contractors are especially keen for architects to make this leap.

Developers believe architects forget about viability as they develop the design, which can be disastrous.

Contractors want architects more actively engaged in identifying cost savings, improving the efficiency of delivery and improving buildability.

Maintain a holistic user focus
User satisfaction is critical for clients who retain an interest in the building after it is built. However, those who divest on completion are also increasingly concerned about it. 

This is because their buyers are well informed and have high expectations. Great user value commands a premium. It also boosts clients’ reputations.

For workplace clients, putting the user centre stage supports future occupiers’ recruitment strategies and has brand appeal, attracting tenants at good rents and minimising void periods. And of course, validated success attracts long-term investment.

The performance gap from design to reality plagues retrofit. A forensic focus on how buildings are used by people will make for longer rentals, shorter voids, more satisfied occupants, and better returns.

Keep focus on whole life of the building

Clients are focused on whole-life considerations for the same reasons that they are on building users. Cheap to run, easy to maintain, energy efficient, attractive, flexible, adaptable, well liked buildings command a premium.

Housing clients see the impact in better yields and shorter and fewer void periods.

For schools clients, the advantages are value for money and better outcomes for educational standards.

The procurement of offices is complex and fragmented, and future occupiers are generally unknown. Clients need designs that elegantly, efficiently and effectively accommodate change to attract tenants, minimise voids, and attract investors.

Keep knowledge, skills and competence up to date; innovate
It impresses clients when architects’ knowledge (of BIM, for example) exceeds normal professional standards, especially when outside their ordinary orbit of concern. Equally, where risks are satisfactorily mitigated, innovative practice can give architects a competitive advantage.

The schools sector and contractors are looking to innovate to save costs. Competence in lean processes, BIM, and modern methods of construction, to say nothing of experimenting with procurement routes, is prized. Commercial developers and housing clients are particularly invested in BIM, too.

The public or affordable housing sector is a political hot potato, artificially massaged in complicated ways. It is especially important that architects appreciate and proactively interpret them for added value.