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Experts from architecture, commercial interior design and multidisciplined practices gather to discuss and debate the hows and whys of partnering
From the iniquities of the early days of design and build, via the strengths and weaknesses of partnering in contract design – including whether egotistical architects can actually partner, and not just lead – to the breadth of types of partnering now in existence, the conversation in this latest FX Design Seminar was always animated and felt like it could have gone way beyond its allotted time.
What is clear is that partnering in its many forms is now very much part of the process of modern contract design, for reasons that vary from bringing together experts in different fields to spreading the risk.
FX editor and chair Theresa Dowling pointed out: ‘Design and build got itself a really bad reputation for undercutting designers and being less than professional, and there was a lot of bad feeling maybe 15 years ago. Design and build were seen as cowboys,’ to which there was consensual nodding of heads.
But as Scott Brownrigg interiors director Ken Giannini pointed out: ‘More and more often clients are asking organisations to come together and work. Now we are seeing good-quality contractors getting together with good quality design practices, to actually deliver good-quality projects.’
This prompted Jen Evans, associate director at The Interior Group, to wonder if this wasn’t being prompted by clients being ‘keen to avoid the risk in the recession’.
BDP interior design associate Gordon Cloete added: ‘I find that clients who work with large multidisciplinary firms are often looking for better value for money in the long term, particularly on smaller projects. On bigger projects, working with your own departments sometimes can be quite difficult, so it’s quite nice to have the formality of the [partnering] process.
Bob Fry, MD Europe for Swanke Hayden Connell, agreed that ‘procurers have been keen to consolidate the risk,’ using the ‘one-stop-shop model’, before going on to delineate the nature of partnering in the industry as he sees it: ‘Partnering has different faces, depending on which sector you’re in. There are four areas where it comes into play in our practice: clients themselves looking to partner, particularly some of the larger corporates, which are looking for framework-agreement type arrangements; there is also partnering among designers, which is also something which clients have asked for, where design firms come to get together – ostensibly to share design knowledge, as opposed to risk or profit-sharing; then you have contractor partnering, such as PFI – that’s the biggest form ever of design and build – it has embedded major architecture firms with major contractors to deliver some fantastic projects; and the fourth area for me is part of the future, which is design getting straight in with the trade contractors and specialist package designers for things such as off-site manufacturing, where you can save huge amounts of time and money.’
Giuseppe Boscherini, director of consulting, Europe, at Woods Bagot added: ‘It is interesting that you mention sharing knowledge – isn’t what happens in partnering actually a very clear drawing of lines and where expertise is?And the dance starts with one consultancy wishing it was doing more of what the other one was doing. Playing devil’s advocate, I wonder if that kind of partnering isn’t just more divisive than creative?’
This brought the discussion to the practicalities of partnering, and how it works in reality. Boscherini pointed out that a certain level of ‘humility’ was needed, and Ros Fox, education director at Appleyards, added ‘trust’.
To that mix, BDGworkfutures’ managing director, Phil Hutchinson, inserted ‘flexibility’. He continued: ‘I would add that the very best partner arrangements we’ve been involved in have had a very clear understanding at the front of the project, and then ongoing dialogue.
‘There are things you don’t know about a partner and you will be entering into a project scenario that you never imagined on day one, so you have to have that dialogue and the ability to change your agreement, your arrangement and your expectations.
‘The very worst arrangements are the ones where you’re rigid, like the framework agreements.’
Bob Fry agreed, going on to make another point: ‘A good partnering agreement is one that is not dominated by any one partner from start to finish. There should be a sense of baton passing around the table.’
Ken Giannini suggested: ‘I think the word partnering is wrong. It implies an equal partnership, which it almost never is. I think if you are delivering a project there has to be a person or an organisation that takes the lead. Even if it’s a partnership, so really it’s more of a collaboration.’
Emily King, interior designer at BDP, agreed and added: ‘Somebody has to take the lead if you’re going to successfully partner, as somebody has to have the final word on the project and say, “This is what we’re going for. Otherwise you’d have this battle of wills, even though you respect them and the knowledge they are sharing with you.’
Jen Evans brought the conversation around to established relationships, and others pointed out that clients will often buy into a strong ‘team spirit’: ‘When partnering is at its best it is when there are relationships which already have the history, where you know each other inside out almost and you have chosen to partner because you know it’s going to be better for the client.’ Fox agreed adding: ‘Yes, there is established respect there.’
Boscherini also agreed, but with reservations: ‘But you are in your comfort zone there. Perhaps with a talented new partner that you’ve not worked with you could have a new form of dialogue that can take it somewhere else, and further?’
Evans responded pragmatically: ‘Then again, a comfort zone is not such a bad thing if you’re working to a very tight timescale!’
Theresa Dowling wondered how new blood would come into these partnerships.The Interiors Group CEO Andrew Black pointed out that when they went out to put a team together for a client, they were more often than not looking for ‘the best in class’, those with the specific knowledge required for the project: ‘We started off doing design and build and have transformed into a more traditional contractor.
‘We found that what the client trusts us to do best is deliver the end result, and we’ve found that the best way to provide the high standards within that end result is often by partnering. So now we will go looking for best in class for that sector, or that industry.’
The conversation also concentrated for a while on construction management, where every trade contract goes out to individuals and can often mean there are 80-90 different contracts on a major building project. One of the first construction management projects in the UK was Broadgate in London.
Ken Giannini pointed out that it was a very different procurement route and required ‘a very clever client’. Andrew Black added:‘ It is a method of partnering and working with subcontractors that is far more common in the Middle East in our business over there.
‘Subcontractors have a daily involvement in how the project comes about, from its early stages all the way through to completion. You have to trust them; they have a lot more issues from the procurement and manufacturing point of view than we do over here.
‘The construction management method is almost what we do over there It really is about packages, dealing with them, addressing them and moving on. And it could come back here again.’
Giuseppe Boscherini concluded: ‘What I take from this is that you need to design the process, not just walk into a partnership. You actually have to work out what elements of it are interesting. The other thing is that research is important to figure out who are the best partners.
‘After training as an architect I retrained as an industrial designer and worked with manufacturers. It is an interesting model there because your client is someone who has more knowledge than you do about everything from the marketing, through the technology to the manufacturing, so you are coming in already as a partner, a very trusted partner.’
Another form of partnering in the building sector that also came up was one where the people who are going to use a building, in effect, get some kind of input into the design process, whether that is through the use of experts such as Ros Fox, a former school head, being part of the project management framework for academies (‘Everybody has something to bring to the table’), or through the world of user-driven briefs.
‘We’ve worked on many buildings where design and form change shape quite dramatically because of the impact of the user-driven brief,’ said Swanke Hayden Connell’s Bob Fry. ‘In this market [offices] that is what gets building projects going. Nobody is going to build anything without a pre-let tenant.
‘When you’re evaluating a building from a user-driven perspective, you come to the table in a completely non-architectural way – we don’t care what the planning is or the form, I’ve switched the architectural part of my mind off. I’ve been asked to look at what is going to make the most sense for that organisation with its headcount and planned growth over the next 10 – 15 years. It’s a completely different set of questions you’re being asked look at, so you come to the building with a completely different mindset.’
And looking at having a different mindset was how the conversation gradually came to a close, as the participants looked to the next generation and how they see and do things very differently, concluding that they truly have a different mindset.
Boscherini pointed out: ‘Isn’t partnership just a part of the spirit of the times? The young generation doesn’t think in a single-track way. I have done some teaching recently, worked with future architects, and they grab whatever they can and will work with whoever they need to. Architecture practices are essentially partnerships, but I don’t think we recognise the value of the young people we hire. We don’t truly partner with them in terms of saying, “Who are you? What do you bring?”’
Bob Fox agreed, saying that the industry is in transition with the new generation ‘thinking in three dimensions – thinking on screen’ through the latest design and construction software: ‘It is changing the way we do things.’
As BDGworkfutures Phil Hutchinson pointed out: ‘They are very technologically enabled partners.’
One key question is whether architects actually have the mindset to allow them to partner successfully, or do they have to have control all the time?
As former school head Ros Fox has found out the hard way, in partnering arrangements, ‘what I find, with a lot of architects in particular, is that they think they can do the job better’.
Swanke Hayden Connell’s Bob Fry, added: ‘I was very traditionally trained. I think, sadly, it still happens in architecture schools – you are taught to believe you are the top of the tree. That is fundamentally wrong. There are people out there that you need to get to know very, very quickly, people who know an awful lot more than you do. You have to respect that.’
And Scott Brownrigg’s Ken Giannini was in full agreement: ‘I think what this all points to is that a project – and it doesn’t matter whether you designing a chair, a Merrill Lynch office or fit-out for a little 1,000 sq m job – has a lot of complex components to it that not all of us have the skills to handle, although as architects we are trained to think we can do everything.
‘There are areas of expertise where we have to rely on others – I’m old enough to admit that now! And I enjoy that side of things, bringing other people into work on different parts of the project.’
This article was first published in FX Magazine.
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