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Helping architects achieve more

‘Keep your friends close but your enemies closer.’ The enemies in question are project managers, and the fighting talk has been borrowed from Michael Corleone in Godfather Part II by an architect, Jennifer Dixon

Image © Craig Sheppard

Project management is a subject that touches a raw nerve among architects. Although they are latecomers to the building industry table, project managers are habitually suspected by architects of stealing the central role of ringmasters and adding precious little. Yet several starchitects, including Wilkinson Eyre, Bennetts Associates and Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, are acting out Corleone’s adage – though without the menacing undertone. The same goes for at least four landscape architects, including Grant Associates. They have all invited us into their practices and appointed us, not as client’s overall project manager, but specifically to manage their own core activity – design.

Our design management team consists of former designers; they have an empathy and understanding of the process, yet are able to put in place the necessary processes to make the architect’s life more carefree.  At the core of the service is identifying what’s to be done and the sequence of doing it.  This information is usually presented at fortnightly meetings in a series of increasingly detailed workflow diagrams and spreadsheets.

At design stage F in Bennetts Associates’ Royal Shakespeare Theatre project, for which we were Design Managers.  The package programme comprised 32 A3 pages of spreadsheets packed with horizontal bars indicating the production period of each design package. A dashed red line denoting the current state-of-play zig-zags down through all the horizontal bars. 

'That red line rings alarm bells,’ explains Bennetts Associates founding director Rab Bennetts. ‘It tells you which design packages are ahead of schedule and which ones are behind. Where they’re behind schedule, staff and resources must be switched from one team to another to catch up. If that won’t do, then you might have to ask the construction manager to take time out of the tender period, or ask the client to agree late completion.’

Landscape Architect, Grant Associates, in 2006, won an international competition with Wilkinson Eyre Architects to design Gardens by the Bay, Singapore’s answer to the Eden Project. ‘It was a once-in-a-lifetime project, and one of the most exciting ones,’ says founding director Andrew Grant. ‘Working with Buro Four gave us the luxury of time to design it properly.’

Wilkinson Eyre’s director, Paul Baker, explained that our negotiating skills were a key benefit for him, as intermediary between the concept design team in Britain and the client and executive design team in Singapore. ‘The business culture there is very different,’ he says. ‘In Singapore, when you’re in a meeting with 36 people, you can’t be seen to back down. But Iain Roberts would take the person into a room and talk to them quietly. He charmed them all and changed their approach.’