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.
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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.
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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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A rogue trade

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 6th 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.

6. A rogue trade

20141228 rogue trade

What happened

Construction of a house can easily involve as many as twenty separate trades: excavators, demolition experts, concreters, steel fabricators, carpenters, roof plumbers, window fabricators, glaziers, brick layers, renderers, electricians, plumbers, hydronic heating installers, air-conditioning installers, joiners, plasterers, tilers, painters, landscapers, cleaners.[1]

When working with a good quality builder, two positive things happen: first, he is more likely to work with quality trades; and second, his approach to the construction process rubs off on them. His workmanship, attention to detail and cleanliness infuse everyone else on the team.

Invariably however, there is a rogue trade.

This has happened to us twice, in both cases with joiners. On both projects, the joiners began their work diligently. On both, the first joinery units delivered to site were built well. And on both, at some point their quality began to suffer.

What happened next

On one project, the mitres between timber benchtops were misaligned, on the other, timber veneer panels were discoloured. These issues were serious enough to warrant rectification work, however once the problems were identified they snowballed. Instead of knuckling under and just fixing the problems, the joiners grew recalcitrant and obstructive. Further workmanship suffered and units had to be repeatedly remade. Timeliness also began to spin out of control: deadlines were missed, promises weren’t kept, relationships began to suffer.

Why we think it happened

Everyone makes mistakes. Though we all begin with intentions of flawlessness, mistakes invariably happen. The existence of the mistake is not a problem – c’est la vie – as long as someone takes responsibility and fixes it.

In the case of our two rogue joiners, they refused this responsibility. Indeed, they blamed everyone under the sun but themselves, rendering the very idea of fixing the problems difficult for them. Instead of immediately sending in their most skilled craftsmen to make things right, they dragged their feet and eventually, grudgingly, sent in their most junior staff who inevitably caused yet further problems.

The lesson we learnt

Of all the trades, joiners are amongst the most important. Their work is very visible in the finished project, and designed to be manipulated on a daily basis. The detailed and complex nature of their work also makes them most vulnerable to error.[2] It doesn’t help that the joinery trade is often the most expensive, nor that their work is conducted off-site, away from the regular scrutiny of architect, builder and client.

The lesson we learnt, though have yet to deploy, was to consider one of two alternative ways of ensuring the right joiner is used for a project. Both, unfortunately, attract their own unique risks:

  1. We could nominate a joiner who knows our work, and we know will do the job right. This will mean the joiner’s price is not provided in a competitive environment, meaning his price might be unnecessarily high. It will also mean that the builder may never have worked with the joiner before, increasing the possibility for a poor working relationship.
  2. We could nominate a provisional sum for the joinery trade, and require the builder to obtain competitive quotes for the work once construction has started. This means the builder isn’t relying on a cheap joinery price to win the job, but exposes the client to the risks of an unsubstantiated provisional sum.

These strategies are relevant for any trade, though are most relevant for the more detailed or visible parts of a project.


Footnote

  1. Not to mention the dozens of other specialist installers that often work on more expensive residential projects.
  2. A timber frame that’s not quite plumb can always be adjusted prior to sheeting. A benchtop has no such opportunity: it needs to be perfect first time around.

Image source

  1. A rogue trade, author’s own image.
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A pause in construction

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 5th 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.

5. A pause in construction

pause in construction

What happened

The opening trades of construction proceeded rapidly, on or even a touch ahead of schedule. Excavation, the concrete floor slab, framing and roof cladding were all finished within two months. But towards the end of this period, we made a late change to the window system. This would mean an unavoidable pause in progress while the window frames were fabricated: the builder was scheduled to finish the last of his pre-windows work a full month prior to their delivery.

What happened next

The builder found other work to fill the gap, getting started on a second project. He was transparent with us, though really what else could we expect? It was perfectly reasonable that a four week lull would need to be filled so he could keep his staff busy.

What we hadn’t expected though was that the new project would take over the builder’s attention as his primary focus. While the quality of his work on ours never suffered, from that point onwards progress became sporadic at best. During the finishing trades, the project barely limped along. Ultimately, it took the builder six weeks to get through the first third of construction and eight months for the remaining two thirds.[1]

Why we think it happened

The four week pause was enough to permanently disrupt the broader organisational focus of the builder. Managing the flow of work on site is an intense and continuous exercise that demands a builder’s full attention, attention he no longer had to give. He was now required to balance the competing demands of two sites, located at opposite ends of Melbourne, both in terms of anticipatory scheduling and on-site staffing. It was a task that proved too much for him: excuses began to creep in and milestones were repeatedly postponed.

Perhaps central to this was the cause for the disruption, that is, a change we and the client introduced. The windows delay was not something the builder had anticipated, and he was forced to cope with it on the fly. Though it was not discussed from that point onwards, it’s possible the delay became something like an excuse for him. He could let another week slip because, after all, it wasn’t his fault he had to get started on a second job.

The lesson we learnt

A builder is a small business operator. He has staff and overheads, both of which need to be paid every month. As mentioned previously, he also has to manage large volumes of cashflow to earn his income. He needs to stay busy or he’ll sink.

A significant delay, no matter what causes it, will mean a builder has to take himself and his staff elsewhere to fill the gap. The lesson we learnt was to ensure all our critical decisions are made with enough time for the builder to proceed with his works on schedule. We may not be able to control every external delaying influence on a project, but the least we can do is remove ourselves as one of them.


Footnote

  1. When, according to the builder’s works schedule, it should have only taken two months.

Image source

  1. A pause in construction, author’s own image.
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Irregular site meetings

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 4th 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.

4. Irregular site meetings

site meetings

What happened

The project was located an hour and a half’s drive south of Melbourne. The builder’s construction schedule required that he be on site on irregular days, making regular site meetings difficult to coordinate. Consequently, site meetings were never arranged, with most questions addressed either via phone or the occasional meeting in Melbourne.

What happened next

Talking through construction details on the phone was far from ideal, particularly in terms of maintaining clear paper trails for decisions, but it was manageable. If this had been the only hardship, the real issues created via the lack of site meetings likely would never have been revealed.

However, while the project proceeded well during the early stages of construction, progress slowed substantially during the finishing trades. This was not specifically related to the absence of site meetings, but without regular, face-to-face opportunities for communication, the lack of movement on site grew increasingly frustrating for the clients.[1] The relationship between the clients and builder thus became tense and, caught in the middle, this tension began to affect us also.

As the final weeks of the project stretched out across months, the lack of personal contact became exponentially problematic. We found ourselves acting as mediators between clients and builder. We relayed messages back and forth constantly and had the same futile conversations over and over again, all while absorbing the dismay of our clients as if by osmosis.

Why we think it happened

The builder’s request to avoid site meetings, and our readiness to agree, came from our shared misapprehension that they would inconvenience the construction process rather than facilitate it. Indeed, reflecting on other projects, and our sense that builders sometimes itch to end our meetings and get back to the “real” work, it’s likely this belief is not isolated.

The lesson we learnt

For this project, the rural location of the site combined with the builder’s sporadic presence there were enough for us to let site meetings slip off the radar. In hindsight, the driving time required to get to and from site would have been more than compensated for by the benefit of having regular opportunities for clients, builder and architect to meet in person.

The lesson we learnt therefore is to insist on site meetings, every two weeks at least, throughout the entire duration of the construction process. We would add that this should be the case even if progress is for some reason retarded or delayed: the builder is driving progress, but it is only through the combined efforts of builder and architect that he can navigate also.


Footnote

  1. The clients continued to live on site during construction, which exacerbated their frustration. Having the client so close to the building process is another disaster waiting to happen, though is unfortunately outside our control.

Image source

  1. Irregular site meetings, author’s own image.
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