Take it from the top

The profession keeps talking about taking the lead but perhaps its moment has finally come

Many construction jobs will be susceptible to replacement by computers in the next 30 years. So said Dale Sinclair, Aecom director and RIBA vice president, kicking off the RIBA’s Design Leadership Summit from his position as chair. But if such a development sounds likely to reduce the prospects for leadership, this meeting proved quite the opposite, with architects given renewed impetus to stake their claim to lead the construction process in the digital age.

Those in the lecture theatre at Arne Jacobsen’s St Catherine’s College Oxford were of the generation likely to be coming into their architectural maturity between now and then. In their forties now, many of them members of the elite Future Leaders programme at the RIBA, they will probably still be leading the profession in the 2050s if the current age profiles of practitioners are anything to go by. In that time we will see the rise of the internet of things – where everyday devices and objects are hooked up to smart systems. If we can move, one day, from design to simply printing buildings, then there are plenty of questions for this generation, including fundamental ones about the role and leadership of architects.

Government chief construction advisor Peter Hansford suggested there might be an immediate opportunity for an architect to lead the industry, as he steps down next year. Given that the government’s Construction Leadership Council no longer includes any architects this seems a challenge to individuals to make the profession’s voice heard in Whitehall. Hansford’s reprise of the Construction 2025 document and its ambitions to dramatically cut time and cost were expanded with his mention of plans to turn his attention to one off-public sector clients and bringing the private sector into reporting on their construction pipeline. Importantly he also touched on how cash flow stresses might be eased – though he offered no easy answers to this. 

Leadership from plain sailing to bold building.
Leadership from plain sailing to bold building. · Credit: A Jansen

Designers have both hands-on experience of the model and the big vision, as well as face-to-face relationships with the stakeholders

Information and relationships

Data and leadership emerged as the themes of the conference. This was reinforced by Crossrail head of technical information Malcolm Taylor, who talked about the importance to the long term maintenance of the cross-London project of building it twice – once the tracks and stations and once the digital model, each with their own safety checks. Hawkins\Brown’s Harbinder Birdi, who is working on three Crossrail stations, emphasised the leadership of the architect, with designers having both hands-on experience of the model and the big vision, as well as face-to-face relationships with the stakeholders. ‘It all goes through us,’ he said, though he also suggested that motivating creatively-driven architects on tagging products (asset coding in Crossrail terms) could lead to a two tier profession in the longer term. However, it would still be one that could turn a profit if it could price the upfront model work correctly.

Later in the day architect Holly Porter of Surface to Air demonstrated the importance of bringing together the vision and the building process, talking about the practice’s work at both ends of the process – including investing in (‘inexpensive’ she promised) apps to bring together a client’s snaps of things that inspired them on image sharing site Pinterest.

If only we could take five to ten years off the learning curve that could be very valuable

Perspectives from elsewhere

Voices from other industries added freshness to the conference. Film, aerospace, academia and management voices came together to discuss leadership; and what goes wrong with it. Dr Alexander Budzier of the Major Project Leader Academy at Oxford’s Said Business School drew together multiple types of major capital projects from IT to infrastructure to building, showing how they went over budget. The analysis demonstrated that, despite all the external risks of, say, scope changes and the increasing complexity of the project, the biggest risk ‘is always social’. ‘It consists of the way leaders have misconceived risk,’ he said quite clearly. Sometimes that may be optimism, sometimes a Machiavellian calculation.

Finding ways to get beyond the ‘megaprojects paradox’ a five point plan, the Oxford Way, aims to avoid such catastrophic overspends – partly by benchmarking and due diligence, testing that optimism and those political claims. The fifth point was the value of the ‘masterbuilder’ – the proven project leader, often with around 30 years in the business. It is, said Budzier, about the good decisions they make, almost on intuitive, gut feelings. ‘If only we could take five to ten years off the learning curve that could be very valuable,’ he said.

Assistant director turned producer Gareth Ellis-Unwin, best known for The King’s Speech, talked about his personal mantras on a film: the value of having difficult conversations early on; the triangle of cost, speed and quality and trying to hit the sweet spot with the fewest compromises to each; the importance of keeping your eyes on the prize. Being open to opinions and giving his team a sense of ownership is critical: if the person who has the juice calls the shots (yes, this really is the language), negotiation with others still has to be on an emotional level, understanding what is important to the people you are talking to. 

Power is now the ability to share knowledge

And there’s always BIM

Managing director Julian Garrett took the conference into the future of BIM. From its base in Eccles, Morson Projects designs components for bombers flying at the speed of sound; for carbon composite Lear jets that will let oligarchs stand up inside their £30m planes; and for the Airbus 380 that gets put together in Toulouse based entirely on a three dimensional digital model – and then flown for four hours straight by a test pilot with the world’s eyes on it. No prototypes, nothing. Understanding this system, remote and digital and with change management, upgrades and maintenance built in, could save construction 15 years’ developing BIM. And about 30% less hassle, he estimated, than he had to deal when working as an engineer in construction. ‘Power is now the ability to share knowledge,’ he concluded.

Despite excitement at the possibilities of the digital world from the all the speakers, and the oft repeated mantra of BIM being a ‘game changer’, it was clear from all the contributors that people and leadership are still the most important factor. Whether it is face to face – via plasma screens or intensive six-week plane project launch sessions – or  bringing together stakeholders and dealing with potentially conflicting personalities, people still lie at the heart of any project. And architects need to take the lead on both these fronts.