Serving as chief marketing officer for a well-established architectural and engineering practice has shed new light on my previous views on successful partnering with my former peers. Coming from a background in multimedia consulting and contracting, I was familiar with the second-seat (sometimes third-seat) position that technology "experts" often play on building projects.
Too often, it seemed that we, as consultants, were called too late. Too often, the architect viewed the technology requirements as secondary to aesthetic values for the project that most engineers did not understand. And too often, the client's needs were ill-defined or poorly documented. As a result, the end project did not meet the real needs of either the client or their technically savvy end-users.
What I can now attest is that these challenges to success are not a blatant dismissal of the importance of technology in the minds of the architectural community. Rather, their approach comes from a mature, but often misunderstood, practice -- one that must engender the virtually omnipotent skills of the "master builder," while taking into account the large, interrelated team required to properly fulfill the needs and expectations of the client.
Commonly, the architectural practice represents the project to the client as a team. Rare is the project where one individual from the architect's office is in complete charge of all the information necessary to meeting a client's program. Typically, the team of three to six representatives may include principal-in-charge, project director, project manager, project designer, project architect and project coordinator.
In addition, dedicated documentation (CAD), administrative and field staff support each of these roles. Others who may be needed include mechanical, electrical and structural engineers. Consultants (e.g., lighting, interior design, food service, landscape, etc.) may also be utilized. On design/build projects contractors and subcontractors are included for these disciplines, providing input on design, cost and scheduling issues. Further complicating the task of this multi-faceted team is the fact that almost none of the participants really understand technology.
The most successful projects -- whatever the type -- come from an understanding, based on communication, consultation and collaboration between the architect and the client. And every project has a unique scope, schedule and budget. By virtue of this individuality, it is imperative that design, research and investigation be conducted, and that ongoing dialogues take place in order to meet the client's goals. In essence, the key to successful partnering is the collaborative process.
The architect is ultimately responsible for helping the client translate vision into physical reality. This encompasses elements of scale that include site considerations, disparate occupancy requirements of different user groups, funding, entitlements and most importantly, financial viability. The "big picture" is often lost on the technologist, whose focus is on the relative minutiae such as projectors, loudspeakers and floor-box locations, etc.
In spite of these challenges, creating a successful partnership between the technology consultant or contractor and an architect can be achieved. It simply requires that you have a continual focus on the following three simple steps.
Communication: Before you get to the table with end-user's representatives establish open lines of communication with the architect and understand the goals for the project "as they see them." Remember that reflective listening is the first step to successful communication. Express yourself with language of interest and concern. Engage them. Discover their methodology for delivery of information. Set a schedule to ensure that you regularly communicate with the architect and the client.
Consultation: Present well-researched and weighted alternatives. Prototypes, benchmarks and "field-tested" models are great for delivering expected results at an established cost and schedule. While standardized systems are appropriate in many cases, each project has its unique aspects. Approach the project with understanding and empathy to strengthen the working relationship. Speak with perspective and candor. Express your creativity with the language of possibility.
Collaboration: Commit yourself and your team to the success of the project as a whole. Recognize that your issues are not necessarily the most important to the overall project. Insistence on "the righteousness of your rightness" only serves to burn the bridges you are trying to build. Remember that successful and creative solutions come from exploration of potentials.
Collaborating to explore alternatives, demonstrating "out-of-the-box" thinking, and respecting that creative ideas from "non-technical" sources can be equally valuable to the end result will build stronger relationships.
As with other relationships, it is very unusual for either one of the parties to take complete responsibility for making the collaboration work. Be willing to take the first step and be willing to compromise. But, before you compromise, make sure that you communicate your value, define opportunities, and ensure that you respect the architect's perspective and goals. Leave your ego at home. Help the client and the architect reach the goals of the project. As a technical consultant, that should be your primary objective.