Forget Design Quality, it’s all about Design Risk!

Peter Raisbeck , 17 April 2019

Thinking about design risk in strategic terms is imperative for the profession, but it is often sidelined in practice, and is barely mentioned in architecture schools. Peter Raisbeck explores the concept of design risk.

The recent issues surrounding the Shergold Weir Report, the Opal Tower and the VCAT decision concerning the fire at the Lacrosse building raise serious questions for Australian architects. Of course, there are broad issues of public policy as well as questions around the specifics of procurement, contracts and fees, and the pricing of risk. Discussing these issues raises questions of practice culture and architectural education. For example, what is the culture and tenor of architectural practice management? What should we be teaching in schools of architecture and post-professional courses?

The obsession with design

There are still too many architects who turn away and turn off from these important issues; architects who are resistant to a broader debate. For them, it’s all about design – architecture with a capital A – and anything else is to be silently sneered at with an appalling intellectual snobbery. I was reminded of all this recently when an architect of 30 years’ experience related his time sitting on a national professional committee with a whole lot of so-called designers. These committee members seemed to hold a common and very narrow view of architecture. Concerned with the high canon, they ask what is the point of discussing gender equity, intersectionality, pay and working conditions and public advocacy? Why talk about design leadership and management?

Maybe I was the same once as I sloshed my way through architectural practice classes. My efforts in the specification class were feeble and, similarly, in the cost management class, I didn’t really give a toss. Like many architecture students, I was obsessed with ‘design’. Totally obsessed. However, to be a great designer, I also needed that particular air of self-confidence and pedigree that would grant me some kind of personal symbolic capital in the design stakes. Is it any wonder that, in some instances, those architects who rise to the top are those the least able to manage risk? And yet they, this particular class of architects that I dare not name, have been promoted, fostered and peer-awarded by the profession at large. It’s time for the practice managers to rise up and revolt!

The concept of design risk

To get out of this spiral, we need to ask: how can we educate ourselves and future architects about risk? The concept of design risk is useful here. Design risk is the risk that arises as a result of the creation and expression of design knowledge. It might manifest itself in time and cost blow-outs, scope changes, constructability issues and/or digital rework.

Above and beyond these factors, managing design risk is about actually getting a design built, building a project that contributes to the discipline of architecture’s design knowledge as well as meeting the expectations of its immediate context and circumstances. In other words, the greatest design risk is the possibility of the end project not being a ‘design’ at all. In this scenario, the resulting project ends up being just a bundle of all-too-apparent compromises and trade-offs: a soup of knee-jerk responses. Usually, this happens when the design is developed further by a contractor, hijacked by a committee, or a planner, a quantity surveyor or rogue client, or all of the above – hijacked by actors with no sense of spatial logics, let alone a collective and arguable sense of design aesthetics beyond their own idiosyncratic taste.

Risk and reward

Recent events in the Australian construction industry might lead us to ask if some architects really understand the fundamentals of risk and reward. In financial markets, risk and reward relationships are about the first things you will learn about – high risk leads to high rewards. However, high rewards also mean there are often high risks to manage. Architects need to recognise this as well.

The fundamentals of risk are barely mentioned in most architecture schools, and yet it is very clear that architects need to get better at risk foresight. This should be considered in the way they manage costs, guard against scope changes, anticipate constructability, and avoid digital rework because the BIM model has had a tantrum. All these things are linked to ongoing cultures of proactive management and leadership in architectural firms. Oh yes, and don’t forget to foster fair labour practices. Having staff that hate you because you don’t pay them well enough is another way to increase the risk your practice is exposed to. Managing design risk is not about ticking boxes or flick-passing technical issues off to the BIM or contract admin guy, who works in the back of the office (and why are they always guys?). Managing design risk is a whole-of-practice enterprise.

How to manage design risk

Jamming a design through the entire design and construction process via a force of ego is a pretty crude way to approach design risk. A more sophisticated approach to managing design risk is to think about it in strategic terms. Design risk can also be effectively managed by thinking about and building some design wriggle room into the process, and embedding the possibility of design options. How do you conceptualise a design concept that will survive the process? What is the hierarchy of design in the project? Which elements get more or less design effort? How do you develop master plans that do not foreclose future design stances? How do you build in design options that can be employed or further developed down the track if the design is novated? Better still, what are your design options or back-up plan when the value managers rip all the ‘designed’ bits off the building?

The above considerations may be why I am weary of the ‘design quality’ conversations that seem to end up in another round of feel-good mission statements. For me, the real issue is about design risk and how the consideration of this can be embodied in our practices.

Dr Peter Raisbeck is a senior lecturer in architectural practice at the Melbourne School of Design, University of Melbourne. He is also research director of the ACA. Peter writes a blog called Surviving the Design Studio. His book Architecture as a Global System: Scavengers, Tribes, Warlords and Megafirms will be published by Emerald in late 2019.