Reflecting on Risk 2015

tribe studio

What was it?

The Australian Institute of Architects‘ annual architecture conference, held two weeks ago in Melbourne. Creatively directed by Donald Bates, Hamish Lyon and Andrew Mackenzie, it explored the changing role of risk in architecture. The directors framed the discussion by observing that “No one wants to be a safe architect. Safety assumes the conventional and the predictable. Who wants that? Unless of course you want to stay in business… This conference will explore the troubled nexus between the architectural necessity of risk-taking and a building environment predicated on the minimisation of risk.”[1]

This was the third conference in three years that I’ve attended, continuity that has allowed me to start detecting both trends and innovations across their formats.[2] Gone were the subthemes that distinguished the speakers for Making 2014, replaced by a more filigreed thematic engagement. Gone also was the regional specificity of Making, the list this year having more in common with the internationalism of Material 2013. And in contrast to both was an invigorating series of panel discussions, with concurrent sessions providing respite between the more serious keynote addresses.

Though Bates, Lyon and Mackenzie eschewed the limelight somewhat, their curatorial hand in both speaker selection and discussion topics was firmly evident. Their combined experience across large practice, education, media and procurement flowed cleanly into a conference that looked pleasingly beyond the usual parochialism of the architecture profession.

Educators, journalists and emerging practitioners shared as much of the stage as established architects. And in a worthwhile first, the Planning and Architecture panel discussion was a collaboration with the Planning Institute of Australia’s Planning Congress 2015. Delivered to a packed house of both architects and planners, in many ways this session epitomised the broad agenda of the conference, positioning the practice of architecture within its larger, more ambitious and multi-disciplinary context.

With the concurrent panel discussions expanding the usual eight sessions to fourteen, the list of speakers this year was necessarily long:

Keynote speakers
Gregg Pasquarelli, SHoP Architects, United States of America
Carline Bos, UN Studio, the Netherlands
Deborah Saunt, DSDHA, United Kingdom
David Gianotten, OMA, the Netherlands
Amanda Levete, AL_A, United Kingdom
Jeremy Till, Central Saint Martins, United Kingdom
Cynthia Davidson, Anyone Corporation, United States of America
Kasper Jensen, 3XN / GXN, Denmark

Local practitioners
Suzannah Waldron, Searle x Waldron, Melbourne
John Choi, CHROFI, Sydney
Camilla Block, Durbach Block Jaggers, Sydney
Paul Morgan, Paul Morgan Architects, Melbourne
Finn Pedersen, Iredale Pedersen Hook, Perth
Kristen Green, Kristin Green Architecture, Melbourne
Ben Hewett, NSW Government Architect, Sydney
Jeremy McLeod, Breathe Architecture, Melbourne
Juliet Moore, Edwards Moore, Melbourne
Charles Wright, Charles Wright Architects, Cairns
Thomas Bailey, Room 11, Hobart
Hanna Tribe, Tribe Studio, Sydney

Panellists
John Daley, Grattan Institute, Australia
Mitchel Silver, New York City Parks Commissioner, United States of America
Cheong Koon Hean, Housing and Development Board, Singapore
Manfred Grohmann, Bollinger Grohman, Germany
Ian McDougall, Ashton Raggatt McDougall, Australia
Vivian Mitsogianni, RMIT, Australia
Anthony Burke, UTS, Australia

searle x waldron

What did I think?

While Material and Making were inspiring and engaging conferences, it must be said that the timelessness of their subjects dulled their urgency.[3] Risk suffered no such problems. Firmly rooted in what is surely the biggest challenge facing contemporary architecture practice, the dangers and rewards of risk-taking are at the very heart of the crisis that beleaguers our profession.

As Till noted in his address, “it used to be that the entire architectural project was a zone of invention and risk, but this has now been narrowed down to the slimmest of opportunities.” We were once a profession of risk-takers, driving the development of new building typologies, technologies and structural systems. In the golden age of the early 20th Century, architects were rewarded with the power to shape entire cities. But recent decades have witnessed the rise of the project manager and the novated contract, of suburban sprawl and foreign wealth. Our influence has been eroded to the point of superfluousness. It could be argued that we have never before been so close to the brink of our own demise.

Thankfully, amidst the debris there are glimmers of hope, embryonic opportunities opening up to new generations of savvy risk-takers. In New York, Pasquarelli is forging joint venture alliances with developers and fabricators, investing sweat equity in return for a stake of the profits. In London, Saunt is “placing herself in the path of luck,” leveraging a string of boutique projects into a startling array of significant commissions. And in Copenhagen, Jensen is pursuing non-traditional commissions for non-financial reward.

The Australian engagement with risk-taking is less dramatic but equally well articulated. In Melbourne, Waldron is tackling the often criticised competitions pathway to win new projects, “worthwhile wagers” that have nourished her emerging practice. In Hobart, Bailey is shaking off the conservative need for “architecture to be all things for all people,” creating a string of remarkable, almost sculptural projects. And in Sydney, Tribe is designing “house portraits” that test the poorly understood relationship between architecture as luxury and commodity.

So we are at a crossroads, or to reach for a more suitable metaphor, in the depths of a valley. If recent decades have unravelled the visionary agenda of the modernist era, then the opening years of the 21st Century are suggesting they might ravel it back up again. Risk positioned itself right at the nadir of this transition, capitalising on both the precariousness of the profession’s position, as well as our new enthusiasm for risk-taking.

chrofi

What were the highlights?

Even before the first speakers took to the stage, we were treated with a rare, and I must say, profoundly encouraging opening statement from new Victorian planning minister, Richard Wynne. As he announced the return of the OVGA into the Department of Premier and Cabinet, I couldn’t help but feel a thrill of excitement run through me. For those of you who weren’t there, you’ll just have to imagine it: a politician announcing a new government initiative, not to an audience of farmers or miners or teachers, but to a room full of architects! There couldn’t have been a better or more contextually appropriate beginning to the conference.

Across the two days that followed, it became clear that although risk most commonly conjures images of leaking roofs and insurance claims, there are many (much more interesting) ways to define, engage with and respond to risk in architecture. Particularly prevalent was the attempt to define different loci for risk:

  • New business development
  • Extending the boundaries of traditional practice
  • Experimental projects

By exploring new avenues for where risks can be taken, the speakers foreshadowed Till’s recommendation at the conclusion of his presentation, to “radically engage with risk… and redescribe what practice can be.” They may have each pursued different strategies in their engagement, but they all possessed a shared dissatisfaction with the status quo. It was this restlessness that separated the most riveting speakers from the least, and, I think, underpinned the true value to be taken from the conference.

The panel discussions I attended, Planning and Architecture on the Friday and Pedagogy on the Saturday, were lively debates that looked beyond architecture practice to bigger and essential questions of urban planning and education. But for fear of bloating this already lengthy article, I won’t address either discussion here. I did however have the highly rewarding opportunity to interview John Daley, chair of the Planning and Architecture panel and CEO of the Grattan Institute, after the conference, and will reproduce the interview in weeks to come.

New business development

In his presentation, Gianotten undertook a commendably open dissection of the history of OMA. The majority of his slides weren’t glossy pictures, but charts: charts that analysed the relationship between risk and profit on construction projects; charts that looked at the annual growth in OMA‘s insurance premiums; charts that revealed the startlingly small number of their commissions that result in built projects; and charts that plotted the past and future development of the OMA business model.

One remark struck me in particular. While working through all the material that would combine to become S,M,L,XL, a weighty tomb that should (and probably does) sit on every architect’s shelf, OMA almost went bankrupt. They had committed so many resources to it that anything other than resounding success would have ruined them. It was an enormously risky leap, but one that allowed them to relaunch their office into the global powerhouse it is today.

Waldron presented a similar appetite for taking calculated risks, discussing the procurement process for the Ballarat Art Annexe. She understood that Searle x Waldron lacked the experience of their more established competitors, so went well beyond the requirements of the brief to craft a particular story for the project. She reflected, “what if the client didn’t like our idea? But actually, it allowed the client to buy into our idea right from the start.” It was a gamble that paid off: the idea reflected the client’s own ambitions for the project, they won the commission, and their entire practice was launched into existence.

Extending the boundaries of traditional practice

I have written before about the work of Pasquarelli’s studio, SHoP Architects (here and here among others). Once again I was impressed by the creativity with which they manipulate the architectural process. From embracing 3D documentation technologies long before they were popularised; to extending their involvement beyond architecture to fabrication, construction and finance; to developing new technologies and software that reshape the limits of practice.

Most importantly, Pasquarelli explained how all of SHoP‘s initiatives are grounded by an absolutely fundamental insight, that “design should be seen as a profit centre, not a cost centre.” In other words, design has an extraordinary capacity to deliver more than the low risk, conventionally designed strategies employed by much of the construction industry, and architects are uniquely equipped to both define and deliver this value.

One recent project was captivating, as much for the skills it required of SHoP as the ideas it embodied. Envelope is a web application that distills the contents of New York’s hefty 1,000 page planning code into an interactive plug and play questionnaire: enter the details of your site and the software spits out its maximum building envelope. The data can then be downloaded in a digital model or spreadsheet format, reducing a process “that normally takes many, many hours to one that takes under 60 seconds.”

Experimental projects

The first session on the second day was a pre-recorded video by the absent Levete. At first skeptical (isn’t the whole joy of conferences to actually have the speakers in the room?), I was swiftly won over by the effort she had put into its production. What followed was a densely packed tour of the Future Systems cum AL_A opus, each project its own thesis on materials, construction and structure. Thankfully, Levete managed to avoid the pitfalls of a portfolio presentation, constantly weaving the conference issues into her discussion.

Each project seemed more outrageous than the last: from the Spencer Dock Bridge, whose fluid concrete form was achieved using CNC routed polystyrene formwork, to the Lord’s Media Centre, built by yacht builders and the first semi-monocoque building in the world, to the Victoria and Albert Museum renovation, which pushed the technical capacity of ceramics to their limits. The languid Levete was the embodiment of the starchitect: no country was too remote, no brief too challenging, no law of physics too immutable.

Choi’s commentary on CHROFI‘s Lune de Sang offered an interesting counterpart to Levete’s superhuman projects. He observed that, “architecture is the opposite of mass production, where you design it, break it, and design it again. Architecture needs to be perfect first time, built by people who have never built it before, and meet everyone’s expectations.” It was an important reminder that all architecture, no matter the scale of its ambition, is at its heart experimental. Lune de Sang is a stunning project, but it wasn’t built by yacht builders, nor did it retrofit an entire ceramics factory for its production. It nevertheless demonstrated the same, and indeed more accessible, commitment to experimentation.

room 11

What did I learn?

Returning to work on the Monday following Risk was an inevitable anticlimax. The very reasons I love attending the conference each year – to take a break, remind myself of the big picture, be inspired – made it hard to return to the daily grind of practice. This got me thinking. I’m regularly inspired by the conferences, lectures and seminars I attend, but what am I to do with this inspiration? How do I translate new knowledge into productive outcomes?

More so than either of the previous conferences I’ve attended, Risk left me with a number of valuable and, most importantly, actionable lessons:

  • To stay healthy, the architecture profession needs to take the occasional irretrievable leap, an all or nothing risk where both dangers and rewards are high. As a finance friend advised me recently, businesses need to constantly reinvent themselves to remain competitive. If the deaths of MySpace, Kodak, Nokia, Lonely Planet and countless other seemingly unshakeable juggernauts can teach us anything, it’s that businesses (and make no mistake, architects, the AIA and the profession at large are all businesses) are like sharks: we must keep moving or we drown.
  • Architects need to become more courageous in testing the boundaries of our daily existence. There are any number of ways we can do this: we can offer a broader service to our clients; we can become builders, or fabricators or suppliers; we can get involved with politics. The good news is that it isn’t as hard as it sounds: SHoP have already shown us the way. You see, the best thing about their various initiatives are their scaleability: not how easily the scale up, but how easily they scale down. My small practice is hardly in a position to enter into sweat equity arrangements on multi-residential towers, but we can embrace new technologies, digital fabrication and smart materials thinking on even the most humble of residential projects.
  • And finally, true reform in the architecture profession needs to start with our educational institutions. It was once the tradition for practicing architects to remain heavily involved with teaching throughout their lives. This is sadly on the decline, yet the relationship between education and practice is as important as ever. Practitioners bring great wealth to our schools, which in turn have the freedom to experiment and assume much needed positions of leadership.

The conference successfully captured the current zeitgeist of the profession, both the shortcomings that have lead to our diminished state and the opportunities that a greater appetite for risk can bring. Bates, Lyon and Mackenzie are to be applauded for tackling this herculean subject, a task that also happened to include a substantial evolution of the traditional AIA conference model.

The bigger Australian picture is changing, with an array of important regulatory reforms shifting the landscape of architecture practice. Among others, a recently implemented Competitive Design Policy in Sydney exchanges greater floor area for a quantifiable investment in design excellence, while in Melbourne, successful lobbying has resulted in a new State government promising positive changes to apartment design.

We need to take the lessons of Risk 2015 to heart, and collectively seize this moment of opportunity by the scruff of its neck.


Footnotes:

  1. Donald Bates, Hamish Lyon and Andrew Mackenzie, creative directors; Overview; Risk 2015 National Architecture Conference; accessed 17th May 2015
  2. A full list of reviews and interviews from past conferences can be accessed here.
  3. The exception being the making impact subtheme last year, which critically analysed the opportunities of architecture beyond traditional practice.

Image sources:

  1. Schmukler House by Tribe Studio, photograph by Brett Boardman.
  2. Art Annexe by Searle x Waldron, photograph by John Gollings.
  3. Lune de Sang Shed 1 by CHROFI, photograph by Brett Boardman.
  4. GASP Stage 2 by Room 11, photograph by Ben Hosking.
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Why I’m a member of the AIA

41X

41X by Lyons. Photography by John Gollings

Last week, the Victorian chapter of the Australian Institute of Architects hosted its second annual members forum. Chapter Councillors Amy Muir and Stuart Harrison chaired a panel that fielded questions “on the role and direction of the profession, with a focus on media and engagement”.[1]

The event was free and intended for members’ ears only, a deliberate opportunity to discuss issues that we, as a profession and as members of the AIA, may not necessarily want aired publicly. This article will not breach that trust, but focus instead on one of my own questions submitted for discussion:

Why should I be a member of the Australian Institute of Architects?

Harrison eloquently reframed this question when he introduced it, suggesting it seeks to understand how a member might describe to a non-member the value proposition offered by the AIA. This is an important interpretation, is indeed something I and colleagues have grappled with on many occasions. But I would go a step further and argue that its answer is essential to justifying the very existence of the AIA, is closely linked to the underlying and even more fundamental question:

What is the Australian Institute of Architects?

These are simple questions, they share barely a handful of words between them, but they don’t offer simple answers. This is a problem. Being able to clearly and simply articulate what the AIA is, and why architects, graduates and students should be members, is the first step towards achieving a strong and meaningful organisation. A number of the panellists attempted to distill why they see value in AIA membership:

We need to band together as a profession.
Rodney Eggleston

The AIA is changing, it’s no longer a stuffy old-boys club.
Monique Woodward

The AIA is good at articulating ambition for the profession.
Rob McGuaran

The AIA allows me to participate in my profession.
Nigel Bertram

Speaking after the forum with colleagues, current Victorian Chapter President, Peter Malatt, offered his own contribution:

The AIA gives the profession a strong, unified voice.
Peter Malatt

These are inspiring answers. In particular, McGuaran, Bertram and Malatt’s comments describe an altruistic institution, one that both leads and supports the architecture profession, encourages us to be the best we can be. And they infer a strong professional unity, a preparedness to be generous with our time and learning. But they are unfortunately answers that preach to the choir. I am drawn to the vision outlined by the panellists in part because their comments articulate thoughts already loosely formed in my own mind. I am already a member of the AIA, already want it to be strong.

Does the rest of the profession agree with me?

Like a political party, a professional body is only as strong as the saturation of its membership. Anecdotally, the AIA has in the past attracted membership from 75% of registered architects. Finding out whether this is still the case is, disturbingly, easier said than done. No one really collects the numbers. The architects’ registration boards in each state and territory keep a record of how many registered architects there are, but there is some overlap that introduces an unknown margin of error.[2] The AIA compounds this murkiness by not offering a membership category that strictly aligns with this segment of the population.[3]

Nevertheless, by speaking with all eight boards across the country, as well as the Victorian Chapter of the AIA, here’s what I was able to discover:

registered architects

Number of registered architects across Australia

AIA members

Number of registered architects across Australia who are AIA members

The bottom line is that only 45% of registered architects are members of the AIA. It is abundantly clear that a very large chunk of the architecture profession isn’t convinced by the AIA’s value proposition. For around 7,000 registered architects across Australia, my question, Why should I be a member of the AIA? has no satisfying answer.

This is a deeply shocking situation. Financially, I am sure such poor saturation is hurting the AIA’s annual revenue.[4] It also means that when the AIA speaks with its “strong, unified voice”, it cannot even say it does so on behalf of the majority of Australian architects.

So why aren’t more architects members?

I am sure the AIA has undertaken significant investigations to answer this question, indeed it has come up in discussion at numerous recent AIA events I have attended. But so far, nothing I’ve heard has been convincing, or has been convincing but for some unknown reason isn’t working.[5]

I think the problem has arisen in part because the AIA is not successful at communicating with the profession. I consider myself a conscientious reader of the various media content the AIA distributes, yet I miss important things all the time. But to blame the disenfranchisement of the profession on poor communication is to scramble for an expedient scapegoat. The problem is systemic and, to return to my original questions at the members forum, has a lot to do with what the AIA is. I’m hardly in a position to say what the AIA should and shouldn’t be, but as I went to bed last night, chewing the content of this article over in my mind, I realised something important that might shed some light.

The analogy of the toy library

hiroshi fuji

Toys Paradise, installation by Hiroshi Fuji, 2010

Our local toy library is a not-for-profit, community-owned resource for toys. For an annual membership fee of $80, toys from the library’s collection are available to borrow for two weeks at a time at no extra cost. The value proposition here is clear: we have access to a large selection of toys; are able to keep our children entertained by regularly exchanging the toys we take home; and never clutter up the corners of our house. All for considerably less than it would cost us to actually purchase the toys.

The toy library provides other, more altruistic values too: by borrowing instead of purchasing, we reduce the environmental impact of our growing children; and by participating in the toy library, we contribute to the critical mass of families required to make it feasible and in turn available for families less fortunate than us.

So the value proposition of our local toy library succeeds for both selfish and altruistic interests. Would we still pay our $80 membership if it were only accessible to disadvantaged families? Possibly, but then it would be a charity, not an important part of our daily lives. The toy library would no longer help us, we would be helping others. This is not to give the impression that self-interest is somehow the villain in this equation, quite the opposite. Self-interest has the power to take a truly worthwhile cause and make it accessible and relevant. The best, most meaningful organisations capture both values, allow each to reinforce the other.

Does the AIA capture both self-interest and altruism?

The AIA would say yes, it does. It would point to its plethora of pragmatic services that include Acumen, the senior counsellor service, access to Australian Standards, the Environment Design Guide, its legal advisory service and marketing opportunities through awards programmes. And it would remind us that its self-proclaimed and truly worthwhile mission is to “make the world a better place through architecture.”[6]

But by my reckoning, it doesn’t. Many of the above mentioned services are non-essential, that is, not really needed for the daily business of being an architect. Many aren’t even included in the standard membership available to registered architects.[7] And based on discussions with colleagues who work in large practices that do enjoy access, they either don’t know about or don’t use them. Really, we need look no further than the brutal but honest numbers: if architects thought the AIA could help them in their daily lives, more would be members.

I am a member because McGuaran, Bertram and Malatt put into words what I was already thinking. I am passionate about architecture and the built environment. I believe in the value of participating in our profession, of giving it a strong voice. I attend countless AIA-sponsored conferences, lectures, seminars and forums, and then I write about them. I follow the AIA on Twitter and eagerly read through my email alerts each week. The AIA is the architecture profession’s peak body and, I believe, should have the support of all architects.

But I am not all architects. In particular, I am not my 7,000 colleagues who aren’t members. I speculate heavily here, but perhaps many of them think of architecture like any other job. They work from 9 until 5 and then go home to invest their energy into their families and hobbies. Perhaps some can’t afford it, or think they can’t. Perhaps others don’t like the AIA, so choose not to join in protest.

If the AIA is to achieve its own self-declared mission, to be relevant, meaningful, important, essential and influential, then it has to engage with the disenfranchised, disinterested and apathetic. It needs to address self-interest first and foremost, needs to ensure its value proposition is so alluring that every architect sees no choice but to join.

In the short term, the AIA will benefit from bolstered membership revenue. In the medium term, the profession will benefit from a stronger peak body that offers better and more tailored services. And in the long term, with more practitioners exposed to the daily value offered by the AIA, the built environment will benefit from the realisation of the AIA’s core, truly altruistic goals.


Footnotes

  1. Australian Institute of Architects; 2015 Victorian Chapter Members’ Forum event description; accessed 9th May 2015.
  2. For example, in Queensland there are 2,720 registered architects. A further 374 registered architects reside outside Queensland (hence possess dual registration). An unknown proportion of these are registered in multiple or even all states and territories.
  3. To quote Michael Bloomberg, “In God we trust, everyone else bring data.” Knowing how many student, graduate and registered architects there are across Australia, and how many are members of the AIA, is an essential and historically absent piece of data. My research for this article has been very shallow, relying on Victorian AIA statistics to extrapolate the other states and territories. If you would like to fund a more in-depth study, please get in touch.
  4. Based on current membership fees of $916 per person, the 55% of registered architects who aren’t members cost the AIA around $6,500,000 a year in lost fees. This number does not take into account other membership categories e.g. students, graduates and academics.
  5. For instance, one of the most poorly represented groups within the AIA are architecture students. This is despite student membership costing a measly $85 per year, just $3 more than the subscription to Architecture Australia that comes with membership. And despite the AIA recently making membership free to all first year architecture students across Australia.
  6. Australian Institute of Architects; Mission statement in Mission, Vision, Values; accessed 11th May 2015
  7. Some are included within the recently established A+ member category, which is slightly more expensive for sole-practitioners but cheaper for larger practices. Others, like awards and CPD events, are available on a user-pays basis.

Image sources

  1. 41X, sourced from Knowledge to Scale. Modified from the original, copyright belongs to John Gollings.
  2. Number of registered architects, author’s own image.
  3. Number of AIA members, author’s own image.
  4. Toys Paradise, sourced from Moriyu Gallery. Installation by Hiroshi Fuji at 3331 Arts Chiyoda, 2010.
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A soft deadline

Most of the time, the construction of an architect-designed project proceeds according to plan. Construction unfolds on time. The construction documentation is clear and free of ambiguity. The trades perform their work skilfully and conscientiously. There are few surprises, be they physical or financial. The builder, owner and architect maintain a positive working relationship.

Sometimes though, construction does not proceed according to plan. Through negligence, disagreement or accident, a project is derailed. The derailment might last a moment in time, soon forgotten, or it might endure the entire project, poisoning both the process and relationships.

We have experienced and survived a number of derailments. They are stressful, sometimes expensive and always fractious. They test the good intentions of everyone involved.

What follows is the last of eight disaster lessons from site. We ask what went wrong and review what we’ve changed in our practices to prevent it from happening again. An archive of the series can be accessed here.

8. A soft deadline

soft deadline

What happened

The project was built within a cost-plus framework, with a deliberate attempt to create a close working relationship between builder, client and architect. The builder’s and trade costs were open to scrutiny, both prior to and during construction.

Particular consideration was given to time. Given the rural location of the project, the builder anticipated he would spread out and concentrate his site days so as to avoid long trips for half days of work. Working days would not necessarily be packed tightly together, though no firm agreement was made for the overall duration of the project.

What happened next

As computer programmer Tom Cargill said in the 1980s, “The first 90% of the work accounts for 90% of the time. The remaining 10% accounts for the other 90% of the time.”[1]

The builder fell into this trap in a big way, with the second half of construction taking more than twice as long as the first half. This was not just a consequence of inactivity: the number of weeks of active work also stretched beyond expectations. It became clear that the builder had underestimated both how many hours it would take him to build the project, and how quickly he could attend to those hours.

Why we think it happened

For a builder, pouring concrete, erecting timber frames, laying roof sheeting and installing cladding are easy. Not technically easy, but easy to coordinate and manage. They require lots of consecutive hours, meaning staff can be lined up and let loose for days on end.

By contrast, hanging doors, installing flashing, laying tiles, and fitting off lights are hard. They are the opposite of the big trades that begin a project: they are fiddly and bitsy, needing a few hours here and a few hours there. They are also far less lucrative, demand the skills of specialist trades, and offer much less room for error.

For our builder, who was trying to line up whole days of work in his schedule, such days became increasingly difficult to find as the project neared completion. So the time between them stretched out, whole weeks passing between visits.

The lesson we learnt

The beginning of any project is smooth sailing compared to the end. Everyone loves a beginning: spirits are high, progress is rapid and the early trades look great as the entire building rises up out of the ground. Finishing is hard. Technically and psychologically, getting from 90 to 100% requires discipline and commitment.

The standard building contracts used by architects, the ABIC suite, includes both transparency for the time taken on a project, as well as disincentives for late delivery.[2] These help to counteract the psychological hurdles that are thrown up at the end of a project.

Cost plus contracts by their very nature are much looser. Since they are primarily used when the full scope is unknown at time of commencement, how can a deadline possibly be enforced? The lesson we learnt was never to undertake a project without a thorough and realistic analysis of the time it will take, incentives for delivery on time and penalties for delivery late.[3]


Footnotes

  1. Tom Cargill quoted in Jon Bentley; Programming Pearls; Communications of the ACM; volume 28, issue 9; 1985. Cargill’s ninety-ninety rule is a riff on the Pareto principle, also known as the eighty-twenty rule i.e. that 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.
  2. Jointly published by the Australian Institute of Architects and Master Builders Australia.
  3. I use the term penalty loosely here. Contract law cannot enforce penalties, only the courts can do this. Liquidated damages instead require the builder to cover any costs the client will reasonably incur e.g. rent, storage costs and architectural fees.

Image source

  1. A soft deadline, author’s own image.
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Incomplete works at handover

Most of the time, the construction of an architect-designed project proceeds according to plan. Construction unfolds on time. The construction documentation is clear and free of ambiguity. The trades perform their work skilfully and conscientiously. There are few surprises, be they physical or financial. The builder, owner and architect maintain a positive working relationship.

Sometimes though, construction does not proceed according to plan. Through negligence, disagreement or accident, a project is derailed. The derailment might last a moment in time, soon forgotten, or it might endure the entire project, poisoning both the process and relationships.

We have experienced and survived a number of derailments. They are stressful, sometimes expensive and always fractious. They test the good intentions of everyone involved.

What follows is the 7th of eight disaster lessons from site. We ask what went wrong and review what we’ve changed in our practices to prevent it from happening again. An archive of the series can be accessed here.

7. Incomplete works at handover

incomplete works

What happened

The project was nearing practical completion. Problems with the timber benchtops prior to their arrival on site meant however that they had been rejected by the builder. A new fabricator still had to be found, but the clients had outstayed their welcome at their rental property and needed to retake possession as soon as possible. A compromise was reached therefore where the builder installed temporary melamine benchtops, allowing the clients to move in and a solution for the benchtops be found without time pressure.

What happened next

Perhaps inevitably, the absence of time pressure meant an absence in urgency. Every step in finding alternatives for the fabricator, material and details was made more difficult and less timely by the lack of regular site meetings. Instead of weekly opportunities to make the necessary decisions together, we had to resort to emails and phone conversations in isolation.

We would propose a particular timber to the clients via phone, who would then respond with approval via email, which we would then action by ordering samples, which we would show to the client in a meeting the builder was unable to attend, whom we would then instruct via email, who would obtain a quote, which would require further clarification, which we would need to assess, and then issue to the clients, who would change their mind. It was an endless and almost impossible cycle.

Why we think it happened

The clients were in no hurry to resolve the benchtops because they were already living in the house with functional (if inelegant) stand-ins. Neither we nor the builder were in a hurry because we no longer had a real deadline to spur us on. Maintaining momentum on the project without either a deadline or regular contact with the site and each other was much easier said than done.

The lesson we learnt

It became clear how important a milestone practical completion is. In addition to all the contractual and financial implications, it marks two important transitions: first, occupation of the site transfers from builder to client. There is a tacit exchange in responsibility for its wellbeing, making it harder for the builder to go through the necessary mental steps to do work on it. Second, everyone begins to move on with their lives. The clients stop objectifying their house and begin just living in it; and both we and the builder transfer our attention to other projects.

So the lesson is a simple one, if potentially a little hard to bear: we must do everything in our power to discourage client possession prior to completion of the construction works.


Image source

  1. Incomplete works at handover, author’s own image.
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Melbourne School of Design

melbourne school of design south east

Copyright Nils Koenning

Three years ago, I reviewed an exhibition of John Wardle Architects and NADAAA‘s new Melbourne School of Design. Even at that early stage in its development, I was captivated by their proposal. It felt like it would respond well to Melbourne University’s urban campus, would engage meaningfully in its architects’ aspirations for a built pedagogy, and was sure to be finished with all of JWA’s usual flair for detail.

Then last year, I watched with keen interest as the building rose rapidly out of the ground, and in November was able to experience it finished and firsthand during presentations for my 2014 Design Thesis studio.

Construction was in fact only due for completion by the start of this year, but thanks to the efficiency of its builder, Brookfield Multiplex, it wound up a miraculous five months ahead of schedule. Unfortunately, the faculty wasn’t quite ready to return to its new home, so the building spent most of that time sitting idle, patiently waiting for students to fill its walls. The faculty is at last ready however, and the new Melbourne School of Design is now fully operational.

melbourne school of design northern veil

Copyright Nils Koenning

A couple of weeks ago I had the distinct pleasure of touring the building with John Wardle himself, at his softly-spoken yet enigmatic best, as part of an Australian Architecture Association Short Black tour.[1] Prior to the tour, Wardle gave an incredibly insightful glimpse into the design thinking that shaped the MSD. No doubt well polished by many outings, his slideshow flew along at a cracking pace, bursting at the seams with the richness of the design.

I was particularly interested in Wardle’s characterisation of his studio’s relationship with its American counterparts, NADAAA. Unlike many global / local ventures, where the local studio plays lapdog to the other’s design genius, this was a truly equal partnership. Throughout the design process, input from the two studios was 50:50, with conscientious effort going into preserving this balance. Even during documentation and construction, NADAAA maintained an active role in the project, contributing to the documentation package and flying staff in to visit site.

No doubt this arrangement played a substantial role in helping the partnership win the commission in the first place. As Wardle noted, at the very least it gave them a distinct strategic advantage during the limited timeframe of the project’s initial open design competition phase, allowing them to work around the clock.[2]

Also fascinating was the contractual relationship between university, architect and builder. For such a finely crafted building, I was surprised to discover that it was built under a novated contract. Typically used within the cut-throat world of speculative developments, novated contracts aim to deliver projects on budget but are infamous for expedient design results. But then Wardle added the punchline: the novation occurred only once the documentation was 100% complete. I didn’t get the chance to question him further, but I do wonder whether there was much to gain from such an arrangement.

melbourne school of design amphiteatre

Copyright Nils Koenning

So what do I think of the building?

As construction was nearing completion, I remember being struck by the seriousness of it. Even with hoarding still up, I could not help but be impressed by its ambition. It is a large, powerful and expensive institutional building, and weighing in at $125m is poles apart from its predecessor, which was built on a shoestring budget stretched to breaking point.

I have encountered criticism of the MSD budget, and the political role the building plays within the university’s never-ending bid to attract foreign investment. But to lament the role new infrastructure plays in a university’s marketing campaigns is to disregard the realities of the increasing financial pressures placed on tertiary education in this country. RMIT has the Swanston Academic Building and Design Hub, Melbourne University now has the Melbourne School of Design.

More concentrated criticism comes from staff whom appear to have been swapped from generous office space in the temporary faculty building on Swanston Street to more cramped quarters. One tenured professor also made the insightful observation that the new building is larger than its predecessor, yet its gross floor area is smaller. In other words, $125m for a bigger building with less in it.

As a sessional tutor without a dedicated office space, I suppose I have less skin in the game on these issues. I can stand at arms length from the faculty and assess the building with less bias. And really, I think the MSD is a very good building.

melbourne school of design cantilever

Copyright Nils Koenning

Despite its size, the complexity of its programme and its diverse structural, construction, environmental and finishing systems, the MSD is a holistic work of architecture. In both JWA and NADAAA’s transition from boutique houses to much larger institutional buildings, the studios have demonstrated their capacity to retain this quality in their work. The MSD is all the better for this focus, a whole entity greater than the sum of its parts.

melbourne school of design south

Copyright Nils Koenning

Outside

Its monumental exterior is finely attuned to the environmental demands of the cartesian grid. The southern facade is the bluntest, polished precast concrete panels punctuated by an abstract composition of windows. Wardle showed an early design section looking at this facade from inside the building, revealing how fenestration was designed from the inside out to vary the feel of identically sized teaching spaces ranged along its length.

The northern, eastern and western facades are more filigreed, each draped in perforated zinc veils to block unwanted summer sun. Early iterations of these veils were motorised and automated, each piece puffing in and out in response to seasonal changes, but budget cuts meant true movement gave way to parametricism. This is an approach to design in which I confess to have little interest, but the result is a fine thing. Intricately stamped and seamed zinc sheets protrude from an irregular steel frame, both their density and opacity controlled by the computer to achieve desired solar outcomes. It’s worth noting also that zinc was chosen as the material for the veils after research into embodied energy found it to perform better than both steel and aluminium.

melbourne school of design west up

Copyright Nils Koenning

The base of the building is clad predominantly in glass, and is discrete from the upper reaches of each facade. It is transparent but not overwhelmingly porous. I suspect this is largely a university requirement for campus security, but I hope some of the more dynamic edge conditions will enrich the open spaces immediately surrounding them: an open amphitheatre to the northeast; galleries to the west; and a paved area to the north that is to be used by the adjacent timber workshop. This is a critical piece of the contextual puzzle and, until faculty programmes get fully up to speed, is for me still missing.

The urban transition between the Swanston Street tram depot and Union House, the most heavily trafficked entry route into the campus, is smooth. The angular protrusions of the east elevation are a welcoming embrace to passers-through. Wardle noted the importance of capturing this desire line, reflecting on the “largely unremarkable buildings at Melbourne University” that are contrasted by the “outstanding open spaces between them”. The internal street at ground level, designed to manage this flow of students, therefore establishes a new open space within the building. Its sloping concrete floor and joinery were conceived as a dry river bed, its edges activated by timber workshops and digital fabrication labs, the library and gallery spaces. Here is a more successful attempt at street-level public activation, and an opportunity to present to the many non-architecture students on campus the best that the faculty has to offer. Wardle even noted a secret agenda here, not to convert stray students into budding architects, but to instil in them an interest in its delights, and who knows, create future patrons of our art.

melbourne school of design atrium

Copyright Nils Koenning

Inside

While the outside of the building enjoys an austere material palette, the list of internal materials is long: concrete, steel, aluminium, timber, plywood, glass, mesh, plasterboard, pinboard, vinyl, foam, melamine. But even here the monumentality of the building is preserved, with very little applied pigment anywhere in the building. If the riotous colour of the aforementioned Swanston Academic Building represents the epitome of RMIT, then the honesty of materiality within the MSD does the same for Melbourne.

melbourne school of design ceiling

Copyright Nils Koenning

The teaching spaces running along the south edge of the building open onto the atrium via cleverly rotating walls that engage in 21st Century thinking on tertiary learning. Gone are the old buildings’ acreage of drafting tables, which from my experience were alienating and rarely used. In their place are rooms that respond to what Wardle referred to as “nomads and settlers”, or the wide spectrum of spatial inhabitation particular to students. The teaching spaces therefore form eddies in the currents of circulation that wrap the atrium, encouraging engagement and, I would hope, the cross-polination of ideas.

The upper level corridors are activated by a morphing series of individual desks, benches and study tables. In some instances, these are little more than flat surfaces on which to rest a laptop, and in others are communal tables for spreading out and settling in. Further informal spaces litter the building, each picked out with its own personality, and all of them well-patronised during our tour. At once conspicuous and invisible, the stainless steel mesh that gift-wraps the atrium provides fall safety while doing away with more opaque balustrades.

Of all the communal rooms within the building, I am most fond of the grand scissor stair that connects the four floor levels from the atrium up. With its collegiate 1:3 gradient and criss crossing pattern, it is a natural social incubator. It is so gentle that it almost enforces a meandering pace and scholarly dialogue. It also addresses one of the major gripes I have with many institutional buildings, whose stairs are timidly tucked inside musty, unwelcoming fire shafts. The MSD has these as well, but the grand stair is so good to use I can’t see why anyone would bother with the lifts.

melbourne school of design open studio

Copyright Nils Koenning

Built pedagogy

All elements of the MSD, both inside and out, have been designed to maximise the opportunities for a built pedagogy. In other words, JWA and NADAAA designed the building to play a role in the education of its students. The layers of construction, from primary structure all the way through to finished linings, are pulled back and revealed, their relationships explained. The steel trusses that run along the base of the grand stair for example are left fully exposed, machine markings and all. Each corner of the building expresses a unique way to execute junctions between materials. Timber panels in the coffered ceiling and hanging studio are, as Wardle puts it, in turns “raw and cooked”: structural members are left in their unfinished state while room linings are sealed and polished. Even the structural piles running around the perimeter of the building are visible thanks to carefully placed windows in the basement.

History plays a role too, with the Bank of New South Wales facade now incorporated into the west edge of the building. What used to be several floors of administration offices behind the facade are now a void, a curious strategic move that both relinquishes valuable gross floor area and accentuates the heritage engagement of the new building. Nostalgia over pragmatism? Heroism over sustainability? Perhaps this too is an opportunity for teaching through experiencing.

Such a sustained focus on built pedagogy will provide systemic benefits to the way curricula are devised and classes are taught. Construction tutorials will tour the building in search for structural members in tension and compression; environmental sustainability classes will study the solar paths that shape the zinc veils; and dreary lectures on services will now be enlivened by visiting actual services in use around the building.

melbourne school of design roof deck

Copyright Nils Koenning

The Melbourne School of Design is a highly accomplished building. Its holistic, singular vision is its greatest strength and will certainly lead to a host of deserved accolades. It does what most buildings do not, closing the gap between the process and outcome of making, telling the story of its genesis through the layering of its skin. Its spaces are for the most part generous and collegiate, (almost) making me wish I could go back and learn how to be an architect again. At the very least, I am pleased to be on the other side of the learning fence, and look forward to teaching within its walls next semester.

Curiously, the MSD’s singular vision may also be its greatest weakness. As one colleague remarked to me after the tour, I wonder if Melbourne University will now start churning out battalions of mini John Wardles? Even if they want to, can the students resist the design influence this building will have on them? In a roundabout way, this question leads straight back to RMIT, whose simultaneous investment in the minimalism of Godsell and exuberance of Lyons offers a more inclusive conversation about design. Clearly, Melbourne University has built (and is building) a host of other substantial works around campus, but as far as the architecture faculty goes, the MSD is more or less it.

For now, I can only say that I very much like this building. It is a worthy addition to Melbourne University’s beautiful campus, and I’m sure will become a valued environment for learning. It’s clear the students already feel this way: even at 8pm at night, the atrium space was abuzz with them. As we disbanded after the AAA tour, I discovered with some humour though that most weren’t studying architecture at all. They were medical students, who have apparently taken to the warmth of the building with zeal. Perhaps among them were Wardle’s future patrons, already alive with the spirit of fine architecture.


Footnotes:

  1. My thanks go to Steve Rose, the AAA’s hard working Melbourne representative, for organising the event.
  2. Keen to prove their design partnership could be more than a one hit wonder, JWA and NADAAA have subsequently entered and won a competition for a new bridge within Melbourne’s sporting precinct.

Image sources:

  1. Melbourne School of Design, open arms. This and all subsequent images courtesy of Nils Koenning.
  2. Melbourne School of Design, north facade.
  3. Melbourne School of Design, amphitheatre.
  4. Melbourne School of Design, cantilever.
  5. Melbourne School of Design, south facade.
  6. Melbourne School of Design, zinc veil.
  7. Melbourne School of Design, hanging studio.
  8. Melbourne School of Design, coffered ceiling.
  9. Melbourne School of Design, behind the heritage facade.
  10. Melbourne School of Design, roof deck.
Posted in Architecture | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Learning from lawyers

denny crane

I recently had the intriguing experience of requiring the services of a lawyer. I say intriguing not because of the legal matter (which was a bit of basic conveyancing) but because my firsthand experience confirmed the commonly held view that lawyers speak a different language from the rest of us.

My lawyer not only crafted the documents I needed in advanced legalese, she structured them in an impressively unsystematic way. Cross references abounded: this general condition would refer to that specific condition would refer to this schedule would refer to that accompanying document. I felt like Alice, trapped in a rabbit hole with no escape.[1]

Is there a lesson in this?

A lawyer’s job is to navigate the tricky waters of the law on behalf of her client. She uses her knowledge and experience to represent his best interests at all times. But a lawyer is also a service provider, and as such must manage her relationship with her client, providing clear communication and defining the scope of her involvement. These technical and management obligations coexist as they do for any professional.

While I suppose my legal interests were well protected, I was not well serviced. Thanks to her use of jargon and an impenetrable document structure, my lawyer did not empower me to contribute to the legal process. I never even felt like I had a handle on my own documents. I wondered how, despite these shortcomings, the legal profession (or at least my limited experience of it) can occupy such an unshakeable position of authority?

Hot on the heels of this question was a stint of self-reflection. In contrast to my legal experience, I like to think the architecture profession by and large addresses the minimum requirements of client service as a matter of course. And one of our core skills is the ability to resolve complex briefing requirements into simple solutions. Yet our authority is under constant siege.

armour

Is there a correlation here?

I suspect the answer is yes, and it starts with the issue of complexity and simplicity. I think my lawyer was not unable but unwilling to distill my complex brief into a simple document.

In the hands of my lawyer, words, sentences and paragraphs all grew longer and more convoluted. She wielded opacity like a tactical nuke, and not by accident. You see, my humble legal document was in fact performing two jobs: first was the job I was paying for, which was to protect my interests. Second was its hidden job, unspoken but powerfully implied, which was to protect the entire legal profession.

For lawyers, legal jargon is in fact a highly effective armour. As it’s a language that only they speak, they have rendered themselves guardians of the legal process. And since it’s a language they collectively, systematically and continuously use, they have created a positive, self-generating cycle. Each time one lawyer writes a sentence as long as a paragraph, another lawyer must step in to interpret it. Every single action perpetuates more need for legal services, not less.

And the true stroke of genius? The legal profession insists all this is in the interests of its clients. It has created such strong demand for its services, the buying public is willing, even begging to pay it for them.

But wait, there’s more. You might not believe it, but this is not the only way lawyers protect themselves. Here’s a brief list of some of the other ways they do it:

  • A barrister cannot be sued for more than two million dollars.
  • Documents used in litigation cannot breach copyright.
  • Barristers cannot be sued for defamation for anything they say in court.
  • And best of all, a barrister is immune from litigation in court. That is to say, a lawyer’s client can not sue her for negligence while she is representing him in the courtroom, even if she were to start swearing at the judge in Klingon and arguing for the other side.

untangling

Architects, by nature, are not so cunning.

On every one of our projects, we balance and clarify complex design briefs. I often tell our clients that this is one of the most important services we offer, and think proudly of it as akin to the untangling of a giant knot of ropes. Randy Deutsch even suggests that  the “problem-solving power of integrative thinking” is one of the architecture profession’s most formidable skills.[2]

But by making clarity in the built environment our business, we open ourselves up to competition. I’m not suggesting we change who we are, but we do need to do more to help ourselves.

Have you ever heard of a cheaper version of a lawyer? There are conveyancers and legal assistants, but there is no confusing them with the real McCoy. In architecture meanwhile, we have any number of competitors: draftspeople, project managers, design and build companies, building designers, even volume builders. We may not think they’re playing in our league, but the buying public can’t tell the difference. To our own detriment, we have never attempted to mark and then defend our territory.

What can we learn from the lawyers?

The legal profession is in a unique position to affect the legal landscape in which it practices. Many of the aforementioned protections were initiated via case law, that is a judge has decided in favour of a lawyer during a trial. Since around 90 – 95% of judges are promoted from the bar, this means the profession benefits from protection bestowed by itself.

We may not have such an enviable reach, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have other options available to us. We are, after all, the preeminent experts on the built environment. What do we know or do that we can use to help ourselves?

  • Legislating minimum design standards to match New South Wales’ SEPP 65 would be a great place to start. Holding onto the requirement that multi-residential projects be designed by an architect is essential.
  • Advertising propaganda is not the ethical dilemma it once was. Though atrociously misguided, the recent Ask an Architect billboard campaign was pithy and well-executed. This should be expanded and redirected to support the architecture profession as a whole.
  • As I’ve discussed previously, we need to thrust ourselves into the centre of any public discussion of the built environment. We should be the experts called upon by Jon Faine, Tony Jones and every other journalist in Australia broadcasting a piece on any subject from housing affordability to environmental sustainability, real estate or urban planning.
  • The Office of the Victorian Government Architect needs to be reinforced and immunised from the vagaries of the political cycle. It also needs to be funded and given great big pointy teeth, so that its design review panel can make a meaningful and widespread difference. A levy on new developments would be an easy and transparent way to achieve this.
  • We need to become less queasy about popular media. The Block and The House that 100k Built may be antithetical to good architecture, but we’re better off embracing than ignoring them. I’d wager good money that they’re watched by a large chunk of the 95% of new house builders who don’t use an architect.
  • We need to consider producing our own popular media. I don’t mean edgy documentaries, I mean good reality television or popular dramas that air in prime time on Channel 7. MasterChef doesn’t diminish the cult of chef celebrities, it enhances them; Boston Legal and Suits idolise the legal profession; why not architects?

I have heard it said that architects are the guardians of the built environment. I like this sentiment very much, but we need to consolidate this philosophy. Our dwindling influence on the building industry is evidence that good design, even great design, is not enough. We must urgently use every weapon at our disposal – political, regulatory, marketing – to ensure our place at the table is secure.


Footnotes:

  1. Some years ago, friends of mine sold their company to a US-based multinational. American legal jargon in fact puts its Australian equivalent to shame. What should have been a 40 page contract of sale grew until it filled an entire lever arch folder (plus appendices). One particularly important clause comprised a single sentence that ran unpunctuated for an entire A4 page.
  2. Randy Deutsch; How We Can Make Collaboration Work: How Architects Can Decentralise Rather than Be Marginalised; in Design Intelligence; January / February 2014. An excerpt can be viewed here.

Image sources:

  1. Denny Crane. Photo sourced from The Incredible Tide.
  2. Maximilian Armour. Photo sourced from Wikipedia Commons.
  3. Untangling by Jeff Wall, 1994. Photo sourced from the National Gallery of Victoria.
Posted in Architecture practice | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 19 Comments

The mystery of marketing

Marketing is a constant source of intrigue for the architecture profession. We don’t understand it very well, so regard it with reverential awe. Marketing, we think, is the magic lamp that will make us rich. So we talk about it all the time, we ask our colleagues in hushed whispers for the secrets of their success, we even pay good money to gain insight into its hidden truths.

I’m under no illusions about my mastery of this dark art. But after all the lectures, seminars, forums and blogs I’ve attended or read, I at least understand why there’s so much fuss:

The outcome of good marketing
=
More clients

In other words, we get more clients because more of the right people come knocking on our studio doors. And by right people, I mean people who want what we do and have the money to spend on our services. The marketing industry has a term for these wonderful people. It calls them qualified prospects.

The job of marketing then is to elevate prospects from the more generic group of suspects, that is, anyone thinking of engaging an architect.

According to Winston Marsh, whose annual seminar sessions on marketing I’ve attended, the conversion of suspects to prospects is best achieved by letting the buying public know what we do. This is more than having a website and a business card, it’s about targeting the right suspects.

So how do we know if we’re targeting the right suspects?

Well, to quote Michael Bloomberg, “In God we trust, everyone else bring data.” So earlier this year, I started tracking our project leads. I picked through our old emails and pulled out key information for every prospect who has ever called, emailed or walked through our door. It was a revealing exercise, telling me for instance that after 5 years of practice this has happened 79 times.[1] And it was surprisingly easy to do. All I logged was four simple pieces of data:

  1. When each prospect made contact
  2. How she found out about us
  3. Whether we submitted a fee proposal
  4. Whether we won the commission

Since the aim of this exercise was to be systematic in understanding how prospects discover us, I established a list of ten categories that would group them according to the various marketing exercises we undertake (or others undertake on our behalf):

  • She reads this blog
  • She is a family or friend
  • She used the AIA’s Find an Architect service
  • She discovered us via online media
  • She is a past client
  • She visited a past project
  • She discovered us via printed media
  • She discovered us via television media
  • She came across our website
  • She discovered us via word of mouth

I filled in a simple spreadsheet (remember, with just four bits of information recorded against each lead) and amazingly rich information began to pour out of it. I now know which marketing exercises generate the most number of enquiries; which sources are the best at converting into commissions; and how these numbers change from year to year.

What follows is a summary of my findings, and a bit of a guide to help other young architects gain the same insights about your practices as I have ours:

Suspect to prospect

As I’ve noted previously, a colleague of ours relates the story of Peter Maddison, director of Maddison Architects, who disappears whenever the practice grows a bit quiet. He schedules lunch after lunch after lunch, catching up with old friends and acquaintances. He asks what they’re doing and what’s happening in their lives. In so doing, he implicitly reminds them that he’s open for business. Weeks or months later, when that restaurant site is purchased or new office space leased, his lunches pay off.

Our strategy is less boozy and, I have to confess, less targeted. We go for the scattergun approach: more is more. We put ourselves and our work in as many places as possible: on our website, this blog, Twitter, Instagram, FacebookPinterestHouzz and Find an Architect. We employ marketing campaigns for individual projects in printed and online media. We remind our friends and family that we’re architects, and encourage past clients to evangelise on our behalf. We even initiated an unsolicited urban renewal project for our street, and met with all our neighbours to promote it.

But the data speaks volumes. I now know that online media generates the greatest percentage of prospects (25%), but we are extremely unsuccessful in converting them into clients (5%). In contrast, our family and friends represent the second greatest percentage of prospects (19%), and we are very successful in converting them into clients (73%). Printed media and our website, perhaps the two most traditional avenues for marketing, together represent only 2% of our prospects and 0% of our clients.

lead origins

For our young practice, it can feel it times like we’re just waiting for the phone to ring. This data puts our impatience into perspective, and makes me feel pretty good about things. Considering all ten categories, spread out over the last five years:

A prospect makes contact once every three and a half weeks.

Prospect to client

From a business-planning point of view, understanding the next step – what proportion of prospects convert to clients – is the most important insight to gain. This helps in an egocentric way to measure how successful we are at wooing our clients, but more pragmatically reveals how many projects we’re likely to win each year and, consequently, how much money we’re likely to make.

I can’t stress enough how important this is. Despite architects’ collective reputation as money-shy, the regularity of new projects coming through the door should underpin your entire financial management strategy. The key question really is: how much money do you want to earn? There’s some simple reverse-engineered math you can do here:

Salary you’d like to earn in a year = $100,000
Average fee for a project = $50,000
Average duration of a project = 2 years
Fee earned in a year from an average project = $25,000
Number of projects needed to earn salary = 4

My little spreadsheet gives us the hard numbers: we are asked to prepare fee proposals for 56% of the leads we receive, and 59% of our fee proposals convert into projects. Multiply these numbers together, and I find that 33% of our enquiries lead to commissions, or in other words:

For every new project we need the phone to ring three times.

lead conversion

If we multiply the regularity of our enquiries (once every three and a half weeks) together with our success rate in converting enquiries into projects (once every three enquiries), we discover another great bit of data:

We win a new project every ten and a half weeks.
Or
We win five new projects every year.

Growth

This is where the data starts to get really useful in terms of working out what to do next, how better to market ourselves. Back in 2010, pretty much no-one had ever heard of Mihaly Slocombe. Five years on, we’ve been published in various places and have won the odd award, so maybe we’re a little bit famous. A further five years from now, who knows where we’ll be or what we’ll be doing?

All of this means that the above information is dynamic. Some sources have grown since we started our practice, others have shrunk. Some have become better at converting enquiries into projects, others have become worse. My spreadsheet once again comes to the rescue, allowing us to track the overall growth year by year for all enquiries, for each prospect category, or for commissions relative to enquiries.

Project leads via online media is a telling example. From 2010 to 2012, we received zero leads from this source; in 2013, we received five; in 2014, fourteen; and so far this year, one. This growth has meant online media has become one of our most prominent lead generators. But conversions continue to be very poor: in 2013, the five leads converted to zero commissions; in 2014, fourteen to one; and so far this year, one to zero.

Happily, this is an isolated phenomenon for us. I think the poor conversion rate is due to the absence of trust inherent in a lead generated by online media, but this is perhaps a subject for another post.

overall growth

Overall, the picture is pretty good, very good in fact. While our successful conversion rate has always been more or less static (one in three), both our enquiries and our commissions are on an upwards trend:

More enquiries
= more commissions
= more projects each year
= more money

This means all sorts of things: maybe we need to think about taking on more staff; relocating our studio to a larger space; increasing our fees; upgrading our accounting system; engaging an office manager… All very good questions that only come about once we analyse our marketing position.

Yet despite the importance of this self-awareness, I imagine very few practices bother to gather this data.

If you’re anything like me, you won’t be satisfied with intuition or reactionary tactics to ensure your practice thrives. You’ll need to base your decisions on a rational understanding of the game state of your practice. This means collecting data and analysing it. It means ensuring you have everything from accurate timesheets, to productivity forecasts, and project by project financial analysis. Importantly, it means demystifying marketing, if not the elusive secrets to marketing success, then at the very least the dynamic impact it has on your practice.

Good luck.


Footnotes:

  1. While we officially founded our practice in 2010, we received commissions for four side projects prior (while still working elsewhere). These projects have been figured into our calculations.

Image sources:

  1. Lead origins, this and subsequent images courtesy of author.
  2. Lead conversion.
  3. Overall growth.
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