How to make friends with clients

Words:
Matt Thompson

It’s no use pretending clients and architects are always natural bedfellows, but a bit of effort could see them unite over their common interests

It may seem that the client-architect relationship is sewn up in codes of conduct and professional services contracts. The code assures high standards of ethical, fair, competent behaviour as a given. The contract adds to that by defining the parties’ duties, roles and responsibilities; specifying the work, by when and for what fee; and a clutch of other issues, for example to cope with variations, liabilities, and how to handle disputes. Together, these two instruments align parties’ expectations so that no one is in any doubt about what they are letting themselves in for.

That, at least, is the theory. In practice, though, the RIBA Client Liaison Group found that this is only half the story. Comprehensive as they may seem, contracts and codes leave a raft of other expectations and biases unmanaged. The CLG has been disseminating the results of last year’s Working with Architects Survey. In a tactical collaboration with Constructing Excellence, it is out on the road with a provocative debate format designed to unveil and confront unacknowledged issues at the heart of all business relationships. 

Microscopic fault lines

Based on detailed research, the CLG has over the years exposed many microscopic fault lines. The client wishes you’d come at the design with commercial value more squarely in your sights, whereas you wish the client wasn’t such a philistine. The way you manage the project doesn’t fit in with the client’s ordinary modus operandi, while you wish the client could see beyond capex. And so it goes, hair-breadth fissures admit the acid of petty grievances that can undermine otherwise sound relationships.

The cracks spread further when third parties join the project. Not only do they bring their own feed-ins, they are also working under different terms and conditions, often with different absolute objectives. It should have been no surprise, for example, that, as discovered in the RIBA Working with Architects Survey in 2016, the relationship between contractors and architects is quite so strained.

It is impractical and probably unreasonable to attempt to seal these cracks with formal paperwork. Since they turn on soft skills and ineffable qualities of mood and personality, it would be like trying to nail down mist. But they should not be ignored.

Practices are generally aware of the issues, thinking of them in the same bracket as customer service. Indeed, this is the fertile ground they cultivate to differentiate from the competition. However, it is abundantly clear from the CLG evidence that these thin cracks are at the root of any mutual mistrust and misunderstanding in the world of architectural services. Without good responsive service, small irritations can lead to poor collaboration and become big problems.

The client wishes you’d come at the design with commercial value more squarely in your sights, whereas you wish the client wasn’t such a philistine

Comments and debates

The CLG chose a hybrid debate format to disseminate its survey findings. Participants – architects and client representatives – were charged not just with describing what they need from each other but also with acknowledging their own shortcomings. With the floor thrown open to the audience after the speakers had had their say, the debates have been genuinely revelatory.  Here we paraphrase those findings and the comments of the debates.

How architects behave in delivering a contract is clearly important but the elephant in the room is the behaviour of clients. Unlike architects, they are not bound by any code of conduct other than that imposed by law. The self-evident power imbalance in the relationship ensures that architects keep shtum about their clients’ peccadilloes, and so it was refreshing to hear admissions from the clients themselves.

Of little consolation to architects perhaps – but reassuring nonetheless – clients appeared to be aware of the need to be actively engaged and to take responsibility. A passive, unresponsive, inconsistent, or indecisive client with ‘Teflon shoulders’ is a stonking great spanner in the works for architects hoping to provide service excellence. Its opposite, control-freakery, is just as problematic. 

At the negative extreme, he said, some regard winning an award as a failure to be commercial enough

Communication shortfalls

Clients sometimes wilfully ignore the universal truth that design quality is a function of time as much as fees. Rushing the concept and detailed design stages, for example, is a false economy if clients need cost-certainty after planning. By the same token, expecting architects to remain interested in the project during construction without commensurate fees is a stretch. Clients concede that there is a lack of empathy and even respect for architects’ professional advice.

Murmurings from the architects’ confessional are, for the cognoscenti of the CLG’s research findings, old hat. ‘Mea culpa,’ they say. Not always great listeners. Not business-savvy enough. Don’t speak our client’s language. There’s a but, though. They also point the finger.  ‘J’accuse!’, they shout, hoping to shame clients for their unhelpful habit of hiding critical commercial information, pitching consultants against each other, and allowing a culture of blame.

Architects also admit to a tendency to drown out clients’ mood music with egotistical guitar solos. They are distracted from key commercial and strategic drivers – budget, programme, value – by sparkly architectural whimsy.

On the technical front, architects also don’t (and perhaps aren’t given the opportunity to) focus closely enough on users. They struggle with delivery, especially the timely supply of accurate, buildable information. Most importantly, they meekly acknowledge that they do not learn from mistakes, a staggering admission.

This kind of 360 degree review advances the discourse by setting the right tone. If both sides accept they have weaknesses it is much easier to weed out biases and unrealistic expectations. Indeed, the study opened the door to some deep insights as to root causes. 

As much as architects wish that clients would be fairer about what they expect for the fee, clients wish that architects would be more honest about the limitations of their skills, competence and resources. There is the sense of an infantile ‘I will if you will’ stand-off here, mutual distrust getting in the way of a straightforward transaction. What would it cost to put right?

Especially in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire, there was a strong feeling that procurement mechanics get in the way of quality, stopping people collaborating when they should. Earlier contact would dramatically improve phasing, accuracy, efficiency, and value engineering. Is it beyond the industry to rethink contracts to fix these failings?

Problems with planning

Planning cropped up time and time again. Because it is an almost binary risk factor, it distorts expectations in two ways. First, architects are vulnerable to taking on more risk pre-planning in the hope of future success, a weakness that clients are naturally incentivised to accept. This is obviously a bug deep in the system, but are there ways to counteract it? Second, clients apparently misunderstand that information produced for planning is different to that used to go to tender. Are there institutional or structural barriers to understanding, or is this easily fixed with timely education? 

A developer threw the connection between quality and value jarringly into the limelight. At the negative extreme, he said, some regard winning an award as a failure to be commercial enough. Architects need to acknowledge this disconnect and, more than ever, crystallize a convincing narrative for how architectural quality impacts value.

There wasn’t time to bottom out these issues but the very act of identifying them suggested solutions. Airing them in public is a good way to spread the word. It gives architects and clients food for thought to nourish future relationships and, one hopes, industry-wide improvements in productivity.

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