The latest in the series of FX Design Seminars saw an illustrious gathering of representatives architecture, design, engineering and suppliers to discuss the thorny topic of who, in the final analyis, delivers design. Is it the client, the architect or interior designer? Johnny Tucker sat in to report on the event, and took the photographs
In a seminar based around the question 'Who delivers design?', the answer rang out, though perhaps not loud and clear, that a lot of people do these days and that designers often find themselves in the role of the contractor and vice versa. The traditional hierarchies and role distinctions have broken down, most likely driven by price, and nowhere more so than in the workplace sector. Many architects and designers have even come around to the idea of cost engineering - if it's done well.
Not surprisingly, those on the seminar panel felt there is still often a large gap between a client's wants and the price they are prepared to pay, and while there are some savvy clients out there, many need educating, have their hand held and be guided - or sometimes simply pulled kicking and screaming - through the process.
Creativity has suffered and probably will continue to suffer when price and time come to the fore, and interestingly design is a skill that perhaps is truly appreciated in Europe beyond the UK and more so in certain sectors, particularly leisure and hospitality.
FX editor and seminar chair Theresa Dowling opined that '20-30 years ago design-and-build companies, and architects and designers, were very much in competition with each other to win the same projects, whereas now that doesn't seem to be so much the case.'
Gensler's director Enrico Caruso agreed: 'Things definitely have changed. There's been a blurring of the lines and a shifting of roles and I don't think that's a particularly bad thing. What we do is super complex and it takes a cast of thousands to deliver it. I think if we have a better understanding of what our various roles are it should make delivering the project easier.'
Kat Knight, head of interior design at The Interiors Group, agreed that the changes had been major and now there was a much better spirit of cooperation between design-and-build companies and architects and designers.
Swanke Hayden Connell interior design director Jason Turner added: 'We virtually never find ourselves in competition with the design-and-build people; they are almost like parallel industries. The whole idea about who does design is becoming completely blurred in my view. We have people who design and build, we have contractors, we have people who are doing strategic work in consulting and management services, and everyone does design of one sort or another. It's all about relationships, not what you do.'
Penson Group CEO Lee Penson added that for certain jobs he finds himself suggesting to the client that they don't break up a contract but instead go down the design-and-build route. The upshot is that the once-dirty name D&B has cleaned up considerably, though it may have stirred up the waters as architects and designers now ¬ find themselves having to redefine what they do.
CBRE's director of workplace strategy Mark Owen agreed with the general feeling, adding: 'We've changed. There isn't this hierarchy - it's about whoever picks up the work and gets the right people engaged. It might be an individual, it might be several people that you draw all together.' Turner added: 'If you are in a design consultancy, you're much more flexible about who you work with, how you find work, and how you engage with the client.'
A couple of interesting examples came up of all design and building stakeholders allying themselves. One from Gordon Wakeling, operations director at fit-out and refurbishment specialist Overbury, was a positive example of value engineering where a project had a very large portion of the budget going on the AV at the expense of the rest: 'We found an AV specialist and said to him to re-engineer this and give the client what it's getting at the moment. He took 40 per cent off the AV budget and that money went back into the architecture, and the client was able to have the things it wanted.'
Perhaps more interestingly was a wholly different way of working that came up on another recent project involving Overbury: 'The client said that they were concerned with how the project was going to be delivered, and would we be interested in doing it under an alliance agreement - something where we share pain and gain with the client, and use a contractor? recalls Wakeling.
'It would be all about behaviour and how we and the contractor behaved with one another. We sat down with the architects and the engineers and assessed what were the risks on the project. And on top of that we were paid fair premiums... it was all cleared up front.
'When we set the offices up for collaboration, architects, designers, and managers sat next to the engineers so every bit of design was developed and talked about by everyone. The interesting thing financially... was that the contingency, which was managed by the team, whatever was left in the contingency was shared equally between us and the designers. The project came in on time, everyone enjoyed doing it and the client saved five per cent.'
The fact is that architects, designers and contractors have grown together; each can find themselves working directly with a client and employing the others. They still all agree that they need to bring each other in earlier on projects.
In itself the improved nature of these relationships seems healthy, and cost savings for clients and smoother-running jobs - the two go hand in hand - are one indicator, but some creativity can get lost and the highly prescriptive boundaries of time and cost can take their toll.
Simon Patterson, cost management associate at built asset consultancy EC Harris voiced his concern: 'I think in the corporate environment speed is the issue at the moment. It's just too quick. It's got to be done by tomorrow, so people are rationally thinking, 'What is the thing to do? What are my objectives? What do I actually need this space to deliver?' It's not an issue of design at the moment for corporate... it is looking for something that's functional.'
Owen added that design was 'about quality, not quantity' and Alex McCuaig, CEO if Met Studio, agreed, pointing out that the approach outlined earlier can often lead to design 'as wallpaper... clients sometimes have to take a risk with architects and designers to get a truly exceptional project, truly inspirational design.'
Allied to this is the longstanding issue of the client that wants the moon but only has enough money to get into orbit. Penson wryly observed: 'Usually the client gets what they want, delivered on time and meeting the costs - I call it commercial astuteness. Then you have the client who doesn't want to spend any money whatsoever, but still wants something that's got an edge to it. Now that's where the real fun is...'
Overbury's Wakeling took up the theme: 'The biggest challenge that we see is how the client's aspiration match up to the financial commitment.' He added that the nature of design often meant the use of the bespoke, something hard to benchmark in terms of price, adding: 'By the time we come in, which is a long way down the line, all of a sudden they go out and gets a price, and that is 20 per cent higher than their aspiration.'
Perhaps that was a question of truly understanding a client and their aspiration and commitment, posed McCuaig: 'You can have a good job, be on budget and be on time. Or you can be exceptional... and that might miss the budget or it might miss the time a little bit. Sometimes it falls on us to recognise which client we've got and whether you going to be the one that just does the job or be the extraordinarily good designer that gives them something that's a little bit risky but that pushes the boundaries.
'It's not always about hitting the budget - exceptional design and exceptional architecture should not be constrained by who the client is.'
Coming from a different angle Mark Owen suggested that the new-found togetherness among designers, architects and contractors could be used to educate clients about how the process should be run for maximum quality and creativity: 'We have to support each other, to be strong enough to stand up to the client and say, "No, you should do it like this, " instead of being led by them... You have to be strong enough in your conviction to do this.'
A great deal of the conversation centred around workplace design but the discussion broadened out into creativity in wider Europe and in other sectors.
Carl Langham, project manager of GA Design International, a specialist in the hospitality sector, said of working for clients in wider Europe: 'They really do value design. They realise good design is constantly improving their business. People are talking about it, and the more people talk about it the more money they are making.' Overall the panel was positive about the relationships and the new ways of working that have evolved, while knowing that they are still going to continue to face issues of price.
Jason Turner said he believed the emphasis lay with designers to create the best solution they could, no matter what the circumstances: 'Never mind the budgets; the challenge when talking about commercial design is that what you do is intrinsically linked to the success of the operator's business.'
This article was first published in fx Magazine.