Informed Cooperation Beats Friction, Outsourcing, Lawsuits

May 15, 2004 · by Ed Friedrichs

Let there be no doubt, [the deep divide between architects and interior designers] exists—and the reasons are deeply rooted and sustained by our universities, professional societies and practitioners.

Recently I was asked to think about where the deep divide between architects and interior designers began and how it is perpetuated. Let there be no doubt, it exists—and the reasons are deeply rooted and sustained by our universities, professional societies and practitioners.

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Changing that paradigm will not be easy. But among clients, this chasm barely merits mention among clients other than as some bizarre internal squabble that seems rather petty. The question caused me, however, to think more deeply about what’s going on in the relationships between practitioners and their clients, and what we might do about it.

Clients have difficulty understanding the boundaries between architecture and interior design. Does it matter? Clients’ interests are best served by an integrated design/build team that takes full responsibility for a completed environment, one that meets their aspirations, specifications, schedule and budget. Nevertheless, provincial architects and interior designers continue the debate about where one’s responsibilities ends and the other’s begins—when we should really be looking at much deeper divisions between members of the broader design and construction team. In fact, enlightened clients are becoming less and less tolerant of the cost of “friction” built into a system of separate contracts for an architect, interior designer, engineering consultant, general contractor, interiors contractor and furniture dealer. Another layer may be added by project management consultants. Under the guise of protecting the client from the shortcomings of each of these entities, they can actually build contractual barriers that obstruct acting as a collaborative team.

Alternative delivery methods such as design/build “bridging” and other hybrids that place answerability for delivery of the built environment in fewer hands are slowly gaining market share. Most such approaches are contractor led, relegating the design professions to the role of a subcontractor, further isolating them from the client. Is this our future? As long as architects and designers allow themselves to be commoditized, refusing to lead and be responsible for the process of project delivery and outcome, the answer is a resounding “yes.”

Clients and contractors today have access to global competitors for design documentation. Outsourcing construction documents to India, the Philippines and China has become fairly common, driving the price of design services ever downward on the area of service that carries the highest liability and, in the eyes of the practitioner, has the least value. It becomes advantageous to both designer and contractor for the latter to hire outsourced vendors for construction documentation. Why not? The contractor gains tighter control of the means and methods of construction and the architect or designer eliminates liability—but it is here where the loss of design control starts.

Is this the future? The cost of friction manifested by finger pointing and fighting is high. Lawsuits to assess blame for design and construction deficiencies have become more prevalent as cost pressures diminish time to check and coordinate outsourced work. The rise in stature of project management consultants is a direct result, if not a very successful one, of increased client fear of the construction process. The project manager charges a substantial fee, takes no responsibility and the finger pointing between parties continues, often fueled by the project manager trying to assess blame. When was the last time you heard a client talk to someone who had just completed a piece of construction without receiving the sternest warning of what they were about to get themselves into?

None of this speaks to “design.” And yet the highest value a client receives from an architect or interior designer is when thoughtful design, well executed, enhances the performance of a client’s organization. While a few architects and interior designers established designer-led design/build entities, the vast majority of design/build has been contractor-driven. The professions can choose to ignore this trend or become actively engaged in developing alternatives that deliver high design value and eliminate friction.

To start learning about the current variety of design/build options I encourage you to begin spending time with DBIA (Design Build Institute of America). While this organization is primarily contractor-led, you’ll see that there is no generally accepted process or methodology being promoted. DBIA simply provides a forum to share learning about what is being tried. I also suggest working with contractors that you know and trust, who understand and respect the value that your design knowledge delivers to clients. Discuss how to establish collaborative, frictionless relationships, in which you can implicitly or explicitly agree to deliver conflict-free, on time, on budget results.

Starting along this path means carefully defining what a client wants—from the client’s point of view. It means establishing a collaborative design/delivery team that is singing from the same hymnal. I’ll take a stab here at what a conversation between such an enlightened and integrated team and a client might sound like:

Accepting this manifesto would have profound implications for the design professions, the construction industry and the educational system that supports them. It suggests areas of research, continuing education and a new vocabulary for an integrated and collaborative design and delivery team. It proposes a new authority for the design professions, based on a mutuality of interest among client, designer and builder.

By implication, it suggests that significant change must take place to pull down the walls between architect, interior designer, contractor, and the sub-trades that carry the intimate knowledge of how building systems really work. The idea of outsourcing construction documents to an offshore documentation service suddenly becomes an unnecessary intermediate step between design and fabrication documents done in a collaborative fashion between the designer and the trades who will actually do the construction.

It demands changes in liability laws, documentation protocols, and insurance industry practices. It will require strong and enduring support from our professional societies.

We need a new vocabulary to communicate with each other, with the construction community and with clients. Whether you’re part of a large or small firm, you’ll need to re-educate yourself to a new way of thinking about your approach to design, getting your design approved and getting it built.

The value of your network of relationships starts with your choice of whom you spend time with. Architects and interior designers are often like doctors—they can be boring. They love to talk to other designers in “design psychobabble.”

How much time do you spend with contractors, clients, building and planning officials, lenders and others whose authority so greatly affects your ability to get your designs built? Have you learned to speak their language, and define your design direction according to their priorities?

When was the last time you delved into the behavioral sciences to understand how real people (not your designer pals) respond to the places you make—and more importantly, why they respond that way? Are you comfortable talking to your client (or are they comfortable talking to you) about the performance parameters that drive their business?

Our professions only have a future if we’re willing and able to define a value that exceeds the cost of what we do. From the indication of the continual downward spiral in fees, we haven’t done a very good job. Are you ready to redefine the design professions?

Ed Friedrichs, former President and CEO of Gensler, now an independent consultant with Friedrichs Group, looks at new opportunities for the design professions driven by today’s client needs and demands.

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