Step Up, Don’t Step Back

John Held , 13 July 2017

Is stepping up to the small stuff also the path to improving the profession’s wider role in society? John Held urges architects to stop complaining, stop retreating and step up to the opportunities to reinvent our practices.

In recent weeks I’ve heard some horror stories of projects going wrong. I don’t know all the details (and thankfully they are not our own projects) but there seems to be a common thread in many of them of architects simply not stepping up.

At the same time I’ve been reading about the architect’s role in society. Indy Johar, for example, states that for architects to have relevance “we must realign to focus  on all citizens and all their needs; not the construction and real estate industry  who are only a means for making our environment”.  He talks about both social and spatial justice to allow all citizens to flourish.

How are these connected? Is it because, in both cases, architects don’t step up?

First, the horror stories.

Sometimes it seems some architects do the minimum necessary. Then, so do the engineers, and the builders and, unsurprisingly, it all goes off the rails. I’m sure the architects would say they are doing as much as they are paid for. And of course the ongoing tendency to shift risk onto architects while tightening fees is a big part of the problem. There are plenty of stories of poor pay, and long working hours, and bad procurement choices, and clients that don’t understand the value architects can bring to projects.

But are architects stepping back when they should step up? We need to engage with the systemic issues, find ways to tackle them, argue clearly for the value that an architect brings, advocate for better procurement processes and set our fees to enable us to deliver – and not undercut our colleagues to the extent that none of us can perform.

Retreating and performing to minimum requirements is no answer. It will only drive our profession further into the ground, and damage our reputation – individually and collectively – in the eyes of clients, consultants, builders and government. Architects who do the minimum make it so much harder for those of us working hard to advocate for better fees, better procurement and the overall value that architects bring.

A good example is the coordination role traditionally undertaken by the architect. It can be time consuming and frustrating, and the implementation of BIM on a wider range of projects has highlighted the complexity of coordination in contemporary construction. Just because you can digitally locate every duct and cable tray, doesn’t mean you have to, not doing so means another opportunity is lost to produce a good, error-free set of documents.

As my fellow director Stewart Caldwell observes, BIM is not about technology and LODs and standards, but about people, process and culture. It’s not an expertise you can buy in because it changes your whole architectural practice. This is not always understood – I find it depressing to return to presentations I’ve written for builders and contractors five or more years ago and see so little improvement in what actually happens on site.  And yet BIM brings with it the chance to insist on higher standards and processes for those you work with and build with. At the same time it can provide the opportunity to clarify, resolve and better communicate the architect’s design.

So what has this to do with the architect’s wider role in society?

Perhaps stepping up on the small stuff is the path to our wider role in society. Perhaps gaining the respect of our peers, our industry, our clients and our governments is critical to us being taken seriously on the wicked problems our society faces. Perhaps understanding and taking seriously all the bits of the systems we create in our buildings gives us the skills to be holistic thinkers. We should have the best workplace cultures, the most collaborative mindsets, the best education and training systems, and the most creative approaches to procurement.

Next week ACA – SA  is holding a roundtable with AMCA, the mechanical contractors association. What on earth do we have in common? More than you would first think. The frustrations they express about coordination, procurement and the construction industry more broadly are because too many have stepped back.

As architects we can keep stepping back, complain about our reduced status and only do what we are contracted to do. Or we can step up, reinvent our practices and reap the rewards. It won’t be easy, but it could change the world.