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Walk a mile in their shoes

Clients believe that architects who listen and understand properly are rare. That must change

‘Many buyers said it was the Scandinavian-style design that focused on space and light that really sold the homes.’ Linden Homes, client for Alison Brooks Architects’ ‘Be’ housing in Essex.
‘Many buyers said it was the Scandinavian-style design that focused on space and light that really sold the homes.’ Linden Homes, client for Alison Brooks Architects’ ‘Be’ housing in Essex. Credit: Paul Riddle

Clients build for specific reasons, so architects must listen carefully to what they say, ensure they fully understand the client’s needs and account for them in the designs. That’s obvious. Yet, while some architects excel at listening and understanding, the evidence from the round table discussions suggests they are seen as exceptions.

‘Some of the skills that architects are missing are to do with really understanding the value – not just energy efficiency, or the building performance – but how a building translates into real returns, some of which are monetary, others that are less tangible to the client,’ says Sunand Prasad, founding partner of Penoyre and Prasad.

Clients are motivated to build by a blend of personal and business considerations. These might include return on investment, strategic objectives, branding, corporate social responsibility, ruling philosophy, and so on. Clients are almost always constrained by the capital or time available and their formal or informal assessment of the risks.

As Andrew Bugg, partner and head of project and building consultancy at Knight Frank, notes: ‘Architects need to be business analysts – you need to understand how the client’s business works.’

The relative importance of each factor within the project is negotiable. Benefits in one area can be traded for bigger benefits elsewhere. In commercial projects, for example, certain clients accept more capital expenditure if they are persuaded of operational savings or increases in profit.

Viability is critical and the extent of this trading is limited to what is best for the client – a building that adds value optimally.

Benefits that the client cannot capture – externalities – may be an aspiration for the architect, but they are hard to justify unless they align with the client’s drivers at no cost or add overall value for the client.

Balancing benefits is often thought of as taking and refining the brief. However, briefing concentrates purely on the product of the design, the physical building, whereas clients are also concerned about the process.

‘There’s a perception that if an architect is left on his own it won’t be commercially viable or he won’t maximise the opportunity,’ says Gregor Mitchell, land director, be:here (Willmott Dixon’s private rental housing arm).

Inefficient, inaccurate, late, clumsy, badly managed and poorly communicated processes can chip away at the value of a project. They fray relationships in an already stressful, resource-constrained environment.

‘Once we’re on site and chasing design details to deliver the project to what is often a very tight programme and, in the current climate, very tight cost constraints, having a design that is both late and poor or insufficient is a very expensive luxury that we cannot afford,’ says Mark Wakeford, managing director, Stepnell.

Clients expect you to listen to their reasons for building, understand them, and thereafter accord them due respect for the duration of the project.

Paul Chandler, executive vice-president of Skanska UK, says: ‘Understand who your client is and what their key drivers are, because it will be different in different circumstances. Understand where he needs to be more efficient.

‘When you do that, the chances of working successfully in a collaborative fashion increase tenfold and we all come out of it with a much better result.’

Within this framework, architects can be encouraged to challenge the brief creatively and push for solutions that will exceed expectations.

As Steve McGuckin, managing director, Turner & Townsend, notes: ‘Contractors look for creativity, problem solving and delivery from architects, ultimately giving the head client something they didn’t even realise they wanted.’

Architects who listen and understand breed trust in their clients and reduce their perception of risk. This greases the wheels of project management, increasing the chances of success and repeat business, to say nothing of its reputation-boosting effects.

‘We rehire practices that are creative within the brief, get on with the work, and listen,’ says Richard Cook, head of residential development, Lend Lease. ‘They engage with the team, the place-making and the community. That is the real value add.’

Some clients recognise that they do not always serve architects well. Panellists at the developers’ round table admitted shortcomings, especially falling prey to loss aversion (fearing loss much more than cherishing equal potential gain). With gearing high and incubation periods long, persuading them out of this position is an uphill battle.

As Nick Searl, partner at Argent, puts it: ‘The biggest problem for architects is clients; they might be fund managers whose blinkered objective does not extend beyond getting in and out without scars.’

Local authority clients recognise this problem too, but exhort architects to help them.

‘What we are in danger of losing in the cost squeeze is the value of thinking, design and the understanding of space. Architects need to help educate clients about the value they bring,’ says John Betty, interim director of place, Stoke-on-Trent City Council.

Subtle changes in emphasis are required for listening to different sorts of clients. For workplace clients the overriding principle is facilitating agility. For local authorities it is accountability to the taxpayer. For retrofit clients it is accommodating user behaviour. With schools projects it is cost. For contractors it is cost-efficient, timely, buildable delivery. For housing developers it is minimising risks. For commercial developers it is successful community engagement and viability.

Being an Effective Construction Client

    What the roundtables found:

  • Clients think architects who listen and understand properly are rare.
  • Architects must understand better how a building translates into real returns for the client.
  • Clients build for a blend of motivations, and these must all be appreciated.
  • Knowing a client’s needs better means architects can trade benefits to optimise overall value.
  • Better listening and understanding greatly improves collaboration and project outcomes.
  • Architects have a role in reassuring clients who fear losses more than they cherish gains.
  • Architects who listen and understand are better placed to challenge the brief.
  • Good communication skills breed trust, reduce perceived risk, and boost repeat business.
  • Different clients need to be listened to differently.

Invest in understanding clients’ world views, speak their language, pre-empt problems and optimise designs to meet their key drivers.
This is about walking a mile in the client’s shoes. The fact that it is a plea across the board indicates how large an opportunity it is for architects.

It is difficult. On the one hand, architects are expected to push the brief. On the other, they must not overreach boundaries.

For commercial developers, contractors, housing and workplace clients the chief benefit of this approach is that it protects viability, giving sound financial risk management due prominence. The key qualities are efficient, appropriate decision-making and lean management. Getting it right breeds trust and boosts reputations.

For retrofit clients, getting it right reliably adds value in improved spaces, layouts, and public realm.

Really understanding local authority clients revolves around the vision, attracting inward investment, meeting economic, social and environmental targets, and value for money.

Schools clients need reassurance that projects will remain viable without compromising on value.



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