Collaboration can be a great way to drive change and provide smaller practices with bigger opportunities, but it takes time and trust, writes Satish Jassal

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In the world of architecture, the term “collaboration” is often thrown around, but its true meaning can sometimes be lost or distorted. Derived from the Latin word “collaboratio”, collaboration signifies working together, standing shoulder to shoulder as equals to tackle design problems. This is a far cry from the lead consultant and subservient sub-consultant relationship that often exists in the industry.

Recently, I have been approached by various architects, primarily from larger architectural practices, to collaborate on projects. This is often due to local authorities pushing them to collaborate with small local and diverse architectural practices. However, I am concerned that these larger firms may exert control over us while parading us at public consultations. I hope that the motivation behind these suggested collaborations is not merely to showcase diversity and shift risk onto larger practices.

Unfortunately, although well-meaning, many local authority bid documents do not include mechanisms to ensure fair treatment and meaningful work for the smaller architectural practices that they are promoting for collaboration with larger practices. The RIBA has published a book, The Power of Collaboration and Co-design, which offers valuable insights and examples of successful collaboration written by the next generation of architects who are rightly planting the seeds of cooperation.

I firmly believe that collaboration is crucial for the future of architecture, but it is essential to share some of my experiences to highlight the challenges and opportunities in particular about collaboration between architects. Below are a number of scenarios that I’ve found myself in recently.

Some of these experiences have fed my scepticism about the current processes in place to promote collaboration, while others have reinforced my view that  – when done well – collaboration is a powerful tool for driving change.

Scenario 1

I attend an event on accessibility for social housing, an opportunity to meet new people and network with fellow architects. I am working the room, trying to speak to as many people as possible. After a few sentences, I’m suddenly told “We should collaborate!”

Should I take this seriously? Shouldn’t I expect a few meetings before committing to a collaboration? What about a coffee and the opportunity to get to know each other? After all, collaborating on a project it is a big commitment.

Scenario 2

I receive an email from an architect on a Friday afternoon. I do not know them well, but it is a small architectural practice asking me to collaborate on a social housing bid in a part of London where I have experience of working. I am told time is limited, and a Teams meeting is arranged on Monday to discuss the bid.

I agree and ask for the bid documents. I am sent all 150 pages at 6 pm, which becomes Sunday’s reading task. The Monday meeting comes along; my first question is, “How do you see this collaboration working?”

I am told that they would be the lead consultant developing the six different plots, and I would be used to critique their work. Also, they have promised some work to a larger architectural practice that they are trying to get into the social housing sector omething I was not made aware of originally.

I ask for one of the smaller plots and an agreement in principle. They decline my request.

Scenario 3

I get a call from a diverse architect I know and respect. An east London borough is requiring larger architectural practices to team up with small local and diverse architects for their latest framework to build thousands of much-needed homes for a diverse population.

She was teaming up with a large architectural practice and asked me to join the bid. I have never met anyone from the larger architectural practice, and most importantly, they have not tried to reach out to me.

I find this strange as I would be employed as one of their sub-consultants. I conclude they are just after a diverse face and name to go in their bid, and I respectfully decline the offer.

Scenario 4

In the past, I have witnessed how a number of larger architectural practices use smaller up-and-coming architectural practices to promote themselves as mentors. Sometimes they allow the smaller architectural practices to work on larger projects.

“We will look after them and give them a leg-up into bigger work.” In reality, ideas are sometimes stolen, and fees are often withheld.

Scenario 5

I receive a call from an architect I have known for over ten years. We both set up our practices around the same time, and we had past experience working together. He specialises in historic buildings and requires someone with housing knowledge for a multi-use bid he is preparing.

We would complement each other’s experience and bring together different skills for a joint project. A limited selection of five practices of various sizes were shortlisted for an interview.

Working together, we won the project on the basis that through our collaboration and differing complementary skills, we were able to bring more to the project than the larger practices. It is sometimes a testing collaboration, but all relationships can be.

To avoid exploitation and ensure sustainability, smaller practices need direct access to suitably sized work. Larger masterplans can accommodate smaller plots or cooperative teams of smaller architectural practices with complementary skills.

Future of the Profession

The lack of a legal mechanism for architects to collaborate beyond the lead consultant and sub-consultant relationship is telling. As is the monitoring of conditions between the collaborations that client organisations are imposing.

I have heard that one local authority that is leading the way in promoting collaborations is insisting that the smaller architectural practices are guaranteed a percentage of the work as part of the bid stage. This would ensure that larger practices become good partners and share a slice of the pie.

Clients should understand that the size of the practice does not automatically equate to risk. Every practice was small at some point.

As the architectural landscape evolves, collaboration, community, and collective action will become increasingly important. Despite my obvious cynicism, I remain committed to promoting genuine collaboration between architects, regardless of the size of the practice, as it holds the key to unlocking the full potential of our profession.

A collaboration that is based on empathy and respect, not on forced need.