Are your clients part of your design team? Do you want them to be?

Monkey in the Middle by Mark Dumont, on Flickr This week I read that nearly 2 thirds of industry representatives surveyed believe that the UK Government target for the uptake of Building Information Modelling is unachievable – largely due the lack of a collaboration between clients and construction contractors, hindered by contracts that do not support collaboration (here’s the link).

This came as no great surprise to me – I have always wondered how the UK Government was actually managing this whole process and program, particularly because here in Australia, the Government contracts can often be the most onerous and the client specific expectations and requirements – for reports, meetings or documentation which are outside the actual requirements for building design and documentation – are often excessive. This article got me thinking generally about clients and collaboration. Collaboration is essentially another (more trendy) word for teamwork. Do our clients understand that they are a part of the design team?

For many types of projects today – workplace, hospital, laboratory – the input of the client representatives into the functional aspects of the design is critical to a successful project. Frequently clients have their own in house project managers, designers, architects and engineers who may be involved in briefing, reviewing and responding to the queries of the external design team. Contractually these representatives are part of ‘the client side’ and not considered part of the design team. This can become a real problem for actually delivering projects.

All to often the client side creates delays for the project. Delays in providing information about types of equipment, numbers of staff or delayed feedback at review points. Every time we ask a question, the lack of an answer or a partial answer can impact upon our ability to push on with the design process. Information as well as creativity drives design, good design generally cannot occur in a bubble separated from the client organisations functional needs.

Frequently it can get to the point where there are so many question marks it becomes almost impossible for us to progress any part of a building due to the number of fuzzy areas. If the client was truly collaborating and part of the design team, they would take responsibility for this. Instead of blindly insisting that the end date for delivery remain the same they would work with the design team to minimise the delays. They would also accept that they are accountable for the additional costs that their consultant teams incur due to their organisational delays.

This comes to the heart of the problem. The client in these cases is not an individual person. It’s an organisation. And it’s probably an organisation that doesn’t have a collaborative culture internally. Usually it’s not so much the individual project representatives who are facing the design team who are causing the delays or not understanding the importance of the information – it’s other people in their business who don’t necessarily understand how design works. It seems a simple concept to me – to design you an office I really do need to know how many staff you have (or wish to have)…

Sometimes it is those client representatives sitting across the table at project meetings every week that are causing the delays. They pretend they don’t understand why you need that information or decision so urgently – because they don’t want to be stuck with the blame inside their organisation. If the individuals running the project are going to be blamed and have negative performance reviews because the building project they were involved in ran late or cost more, then it’s no surprise they push all this back onto the external design team. Or to other teams within their organisation. (Although with IT, it almost always is true – somehow they never seem to understand that their equipment can have a very large impact on the physical space, but if we didn’t provide enough room or enough air conditioning there would be trouble!)

Perhaps it’s no surprise really – as long as collaboration and an attitude of cooperation or a best for project approach does not exist inside of large organisations then it probably won’t exist in construction either. But that doesn’t absolve individuals of responsibility either. Whatever your role in a design team – architect, interior designer, engineer, client or project manager (yep, I think you too are part of the design team, and these comments apply just as much to PMs as to clients), if each person on the team makes an effort to work openly and collaborate then as an industry we will get so much further. Over time, if project teams actually tried to work together more, the demand for more collaborative contract styles will increase as teams realize the benefits.

By the way – I don’t let architects, designers and engineers off the hook here either. While my discussion above has focussed on the role of the client and the importance of their collaboration in a design project, the rest of the design team has to be willing to collaborate too. This means we as designers have to understand that the client has a real and valid input to the project – after all they are paying for it and do have to live with it – we don’t. That doesn’t mean design by committee or that the client always knows best. It does mean that we should take the clients comments, concerns and functional needs seriously, and that they need to trust us to work with these needs and come up with the best design solutions.

In most western economies, construction is one of the most inefficient industries – and without collaboration by all parties involved, but particularly by clients who are the drivers of projects and the ones who select the contracts, then this will never change.

But the best thing about working on a project where everyone involved is interested in collaborating and ensuring a great project – its actually more enjoyable to work on when we can all focus on the things that matter – like design – instead of bickering over missing information and missed project deadlines.

Do you feel your clients should be part of the design team? Do they want to be? If you are a client – do you want to be? What are your barriers to collaboration?

Next week I’ll be at Worktech Melbourne, so I hope to bring you some great ideas back from there. Perhaps also I will see some of you there.

I am also now on Twitter find me @ceilidhhiggins.

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Acknowledgements: Image by Mark Dumont
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One Response to Are your clients part of your design team? Do you want them to be?

  1. Involving clients in any aspect of your business or craft can be dangerous, but I think it may be necessary sometimes. Thanks for the thought-provoking article

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