Architects & Engineers: Venus & Mars?

10 December 2013

An ACA – SA Roundtable between architects and engineers canvassed a range of topics – the current marketplace, the working relationship between architects and engineers, and education – and identified many issues that will be familiar to members across Australia.

There was general concern about the amount of fee cutting and fee competition, with no attendant change in the scope of work expected. The quality of documentation and the quality of document coordination is suffering as a result. The amount of time that senior staff spend writing submissions is also adding to costs, often with little benefit in the selection of the correct team. The architects in the room noted that when preparing submissions they have very little time to properly assess engineering submissions or to incorporate engineering submissions into their tenders. It was commented that some local government and statutory bodies have particularly complex tender requirements and onerous contracts, which makes things particularly difficult. The architects and engineers agreed that a two-stage selection – with the lead consultant chosen to better define brief and scope before other consultants are brought on board – would reduce submission costs and lead to better team selection and fees that better match the project brief and scope.

What can be done?

The roundtable came up with a number of suggestions. Participants asked if the Department of Planning, Transport and Infrastructure (DPTI) – the major government client in SA – keeps statistics that allow consultants’ fees to be compared to the quality of documents at the tender documentation review process or in contract administration variations. DPTI replied that it does not currently have any relevant statistics but is looking at options for providing more feedback to industry. DPTI has, however, reduced its tender requirements – there are now smaller tender fields, limited page numbers and so on – but roundtable participants felt that the process could be streamlined further. For example, if a select tender group has been selected because it is qualified, can the tender submission be simpler (under ten pages?). The engineers support a staged, merit-based fee selection process and the option of two-envelope tenders.

The roundtable suggested that it would be worth collecting data from architects and engineers about time spent on submissions and therefore cost in tendering. This would provide an evidence base when arguing for change. The group also recommended that better guidelines be produced on suitable consultant procurement methods.

Engineers at the event noted that current marketplace conditions mean that architects have spare capacity and therefore spend more time on design and redesign. This is resulting in lots of reworking and many changes to the design, with a corresponding reluctance on the part of engineers to commence their design and documentation work, making the projects inefficient. A general discussion followed on how to achieve “real collaboration” in the consultant team and the need for all parties to understand how building design and documentation is put together. There was also concern that there is no real crossover or understanding of the different professions at university and, as a result, students leave university not knowing “how to talk to each other”. It was noted that Adelaide University has a combined engineering/architecture degree, which tries to bridge that gap.

The proper implementation of Building Information Modelling (BIM) could be the catalyst for better cooperation between architects and engineers. BIM relies on true collaboration and the integration of all consultants’ work, and workflows must change to reflect that fact. Architects have to clearly state to the consultant team what elements of the design are locked in and when, while engineers have to commit to modelling these elements to meet program deadlines. Perhaps the most successful teams will be those that leave their own planets, and work together in new cooperative relationships here on earth?

This article was first published in ACA Communique, June 2013.