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Monday21 August 2017

The chemistry test

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The big consultancies are still the most popular partners for architects - but a good rapport is as important as resources

Big is beautiful when it comes to working with consultants. At first sight this is one of the messages of this year’s WA100 survey, which asked the world’s top architects to name the suppliers that provided the best service.

The most highly rated cost consultant is the ever-expanding Aecom, which just got even bigger following the acquisition of URS. World architecture’s favourite structural engineer is Arup, which won more than twice the votes of its nearest rivals Buro Happold and WSP. However, the latter edged Arup as best services engineer.

Rob Wimey, who leads the Americas architecture arm of Aecom, argues that financial robustness is “clearly important” when seeking out a supplier. Scale also brings the ability to deliver in different languages and to understand local cultures and regulations. Wimey adds that big consultancies can muster resources that smaller counterparts often can’t, especially in territories where the construction industry is less developed.

“It’s the last piece that allows you to pull in resources you might not otherwise be able to get, which may be difficult to find in the open market.”

But scratch the surface, and it’s clear it’s not just a question of size. David Thom, chief executive of leading Canadian architect IBI, says that chemistry is crucial too. “At the end of the day your entire business is a people business: you have to have the right mix of individuals.”

It’s great when you can sit down with a consultant and they bring something to the table that adds to the concept

Rob Wimey, Aecom

The commitment to do whatever is necessary for the successful delivery of the project will be tested when it runs into difficulties, points out Keith Griffiths, chairman of Adeas. He says he is looking for consultants who “are focused on the big picture for the client so that when the going gets tough you can get an answer really quickly. Any firm that doesn’t play that way doesn’t want to play with us.”

For Griffiths, openness and a willingness to collaborate are both hallmarks of successful teams. “We look for that kind of chemistry, and clients do too. If you don’t have that kind of clarity, it gets more difficult.”

At the top level, dialogue is about more than good team working: it’s also about providing world-leading knowledge and expertise. Wimey says: “It’s great when you can sit down with a consultant and they bring something to the table that adds to the concept from the design point of view.”

Singling out Arup, Griffiths identifies breadth of vision as a key quality. The practice, which is owned by its employees rather than being listed on the stock exchange offers a good model of how to run a business, he argues.

“They have a big picture understanding and are not purely commercial: they co- incentivise by doing good for mankind. It’s where we want to be as well. Holding hands with them gets us closer to our aspirations as well Wimey agrees: “Cecil Balmond [former deputy chairman of Arup] set a high bar: you are not just going to get an answer to your problem, you are going to get something pretty radical.”

Best Partners

Surveyed architects give their verdicts on their favourite professional associates

Building Contractors

Rank 2015Practice
1Bouygues
2=Brookfield Multiplex
2=EllisDon
2=Gilbane
2=Kier Construction
2=Larsen & Toubro
2=Skanska
2=Wates

 

Cost consultants

Rank 2015Practice
1Aecom
2Rider Levett Bucknall
3=EC Harris
3=Gardiner & Theobald
3=Hanscomb
3=MLC Quantity Surveyors
3=Turner & Townsend
3=WT Partnership

 

Project managers

Rank 2015Practice
1Mace
2=Aecom
2=Turner & Townsend
4Hill International
5Buro Four

 

Service engineers

Rank 2015Practice
1WSP
2Arup
3=Buro Happold
3=Hoare Lea
5=Aurecon
5=Meinhardt

 

Structural engineers

Rank 2015Practice
1Arup
2=Buro Happold
2=WSP
4Thornton Tomasetti
5=Aurecon
5=Read Jones Christoffersen
5=VK Engineering

 

Who’s in charge?

Ever since Ayn Rand made an architect the hero of “The Fountainhead”, her paean to individualism, the profession has struggled to shrug off an image of control freakery. But then, it is understandable that architects don’t want to see their design visions watered down.

A fresh question in this year’s WA100 survey asked how much control architects have over projects in different parts of the world. The answers, broken down by the major regions, show that designers in North America and western Europe feel more in charge than their counterparts elsewhere around the globe.

The survey showed that 79% of western European architects felt they had “full” or “most” control within their project teams. For North America, the figure was 75%. In the Pacific Rim and the Middle East by contrast, it fell to 60% and 59% respectively.

Aecom’s Rob Wimey says that having a local presence will often lead to more control when working in North America. “The way contracts are set up, the client really wants and will pay you to do a lot of site work, which gives you a certain amount of control.”

But the same is true in East Asia, points out the Hong Kong-based Adeas chairman Keith Griffiths. He argues that his firm has a lot of control over the projects it works on, thanks to the close and trusted adviser relationship it has forged with clients. “Control comes from being involved early on,” he says. While the market in East Asia is more “choppy” than in the Middle East or Europe, particularly at the moment, he believes “for the most part that we are in control”.

It all hinges on having a presence in, and a strong understanding of the culture of, the country you’re working in. “If we were designing for a city where we didn’t have a feel for the culture, then I wouldn’t do it because I wouldn’t design for a country that I would be imposing a built form on that may be inappropriate.”

Of course, as Woods Bagot managing director Ross Donaldson points out, just because you are working in a Western market doesn’t mean you will necessarily be working for a Western client, due to the influx of Far Eastern investment into the developed world’s major cities. He says: “It’s just as tough doing business for a Chinese client in Australia or London as it is in Shanghai or Beijing.” (The other side to this argument, as Griffiths observes, is that any client will be understandably nervous when venturing into an overseas market.)

John Jastrem, Callison Global chairman and chief executive, agrees that there is a distinction in the amount of control architects possess over projects in different parts of the world, although it’s not one he sees due to the top-tier nature of his firm’s client base. “We see very little difference at that top level but once you drop below that there is a big drop-off in other countries, whereas in North America or Europe you can drop down a couple of levels and you will still have pretty good relations.”

 

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