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Brush up your people skills

Being good with people smooths project stresses and forges lasting business relationships

‘Haworth Tompkins have delivered a building that is sustainable, technically first rate and with unparalleled accessibility for a theatre,’ says Gemma Bodinetz, artistic director of the Stirling Prize winning Liverpool Everyman Theatre.
‘Haworth Tompkins have delivered a building that is sustainable, technically first rate and with unparalleled accessibility for a theatre,’ says Gemma Bodinetz, artistic director of the Stirling Prize winning Liverpool Everyman Theatre. Credit: Philip Vile

Clients value the ability of architects to manage and successfully interpret stakeholder consultations. These require good people skills as much as any other service. It is, then, ironic that clients see significant scope for architects to improve the people skills they display within the project team.

‘The team has to work together, but in my experience working together is not a concept architects enjoy, ’ Donald Farquharson, head of capital programme delivery for Kent County Council, says bluntly.

Good people skills – teamwork, collaboration, cooperation, communication, anticipation, respect, empathy and so on – are hard to define and tough to acquire. But they arevery important in building trust and overcoming the stresses that inevitably arise, even in the smallest of projects.

For an architect, getting these soft skills right brings lasting relationships, repeat business and a stronger reputation. Comment after comment during round table discussions made this plain. ‘We choose our architects based on their commitment, right fit and ability to blend into the project teams,’ explains Paul Chandler, executive vice-president, Skanska UK. ‘Lots of architects are great problem solvers, but where they could do better is in identifying risks earlier so that we don’t have to manage problems – which comes back to collaboration.

‘Trust in the relationship is very important. As you start to get into those sorts of relationship there’s more scope for sharing risk and reward,’ says Richard Meier, partner at Argent. ‘For us it’s about developing relationships with those ranges of architects, gaining a level of trust in both ways so that we can be assured of the right response,’ adds Nick Watson, former senior regeneration manager at Croydon council, now with Lend Lease.

That is not to say that robust challenging of the brief or sticking to your guns is wrong. Far from it. However, going beyond the brief or stubbornly sticking to a position in the absence of supporting evidence most definitely is. As Lyndsay Smith, director of education and national frameworks at Morgan Sindall puts it: ‘When the team gels, what comes with that is a healthy and challenging relationship.’

Richard Meier adds: ‘Everyone’s got slightly different priorities and if you can’t be pragmatic, which people sometimes struggle with, it just sets up a whole series of issues and problems and tensions which are unnecessary within the team.’

The complexity and sophistication of contemporary construction, especially in BIM-enabled design build procurement, have flattened traditional hierarchies in project environments. Each professional is expected to take control of an area of competence, but otherwise collaborate constructively with fellow team members in pursuit of a common goal. To do so successfully requires being transparent in disclosing skills and competencies, communicating openly and committing to a culture of teamwork.

‘Architects have been used to sitting at the head, whereas in a collaborative process it’s a very flat structure. Some architects have a cultural shift to make to even the playing field, to realise we’re all batting for the same team,’ says Paul Chandler.

Architects who spend time engaging their clients and explaining their value proposition for the duration of the project are more likely to attract repeat business. The cherry on the cake for clients is when you alert them to opportunities, pre-empt problems, and generally keep them ahead of the game.

‘Something to aim for in an architect-client relationship is a symbiotic understanding of the client – then the architects know the client’s value drivers and can creatively come up with alternative solutions,’ suggests Sean Cook, design director, Clivedale London.

For contractors, especially those in housing, strong collaboration helps to preserve value gained at planning permission and deliver the square metre rates they need to remain profitable. ‘Collaboration is absolutely fundamental in today’s market,’ says Mark Wakeford, MD of Stepnell. ‘The only way that we can ensure that project success is to have a great deal of collaboration, particularly with our designers, commitment and communication across the team to resolve issues and manage the risks that we’re facing.’

In the retrofit sector and to lesser extents in the workplace and commercial developer sectors, the procurement process is fragmented, highlighting the need for strong team-building and leadership skills. Nicholas Doyle, director, Adecoe, makes what might seem an obvious point, but one that is easily overlooked: ‘Successful architects deal with all those little things along the way and maintain their relationships so that clients don’t have to make all the decisions and do all of the work. The point of having an architect is to do that for them so that clients don’t have to worry.’

This is particularly the case for private domestic clients. As a Mr Bartlett, who used an architect to renovate and extend his 1920s house in Windermere, says: ‘Doing the work ourselves was in theory possible but in practice impossible. We needed – without being patronised – to have our hands held.

Being an Effective Construction Client

What the roundtables found:

  • Many architects lack the people skills needed for collaborative working.
  • Good people skills boost your reputation, helping you to win work and repeat business.
  • Some architects need a cultural shift to adjust to flat management structures.
  • Good communication involves keeping the client ahead of the game.
  • In highly fragmented sectors even greater attention must be paid to good people skills.
  • Good people skills and communication mean clients have to do less and worry less.

Find the sweet spot between authoritatively and reliably leading the design vision and working collaboratively
Clients want effective collaboration with other project team members. The advantages are process efficiency, less delay, fewer overspends and better problem solving, cooperation and risk management.

For commercial developers, housing clients and contractors, good collaboration facilitates design coordination, especially in complex design-build projects using BIM. For contractors there is extra value in timely collaboration with their supply chain.

In retrofit and workplace projects, good collaboration helps when procurement routes are complex, safeguarding quality. In retrofits where the risk of unforeseen problems is relatively high, good collaboration can avoid or mitigate common issues.

Local authority clients benefit because it contributes to good, accountable governance of public funds.

Careful guardianship of the design objectives adds value for schools clients by preserving the link between building and educational standards.

Sustain appropriate, persuasive, authoritative communication
Commercial developers and workplace clients want architects to communicate their knowledge with flair, imagination and excitement. Freehand sketching in presentations or in discussions is particularly engaging. Communication of this sort reassures and helps the whole project team to buy into the vision.

Workplace clients are also looking for the transparent disclosure of skills and competencies at the earliest possible moment to safeguard quality.

Contractors want open, timely, accurate communication, particularly during the delivery phase of a project.

Private domestic clients need to be supported and guided through the planning, design and building maze.



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