In the movies, buildings go up almost as if by magic. An architect draws a plan on a cocktail napkin and, in practically the next frame, there’s a ribbon cutting. But as real-life architects know, that’s just entertainment; the actual building-design process can be long, arduous, and complex. It requires a diverse team of stakeholders—architects, engineers, contractors, and clients—to stay in near-constant contact from the initial concept to the final walk-through.
But here’s the rub: Architects are so pressed for time during the design process, they may not have leftover bandwidth to hone their communication practices or skills. Or they believe Integrated Project Delivery (IPD) agreements will cover all the bases for them. However, communication and collaboration are still crucial to ensure that nothing, and no one, gets lost in the shuffle.
Midsize Minneapolis firm ESG Architects fosters collaboration at every stage while delivering major residential, hospitality, and commercial projects throughout the United States. According to Founding Principal Mark Swenson, FAIA, after losing more than two-thirds of its workforce during the recession of 2007 to 2009, the firm now has even more employees than before (currently 106), with productivity up more than 35 percent.
The reason? Having the right tools and a great system for collaboration and feedback. Here, Vice President Dave Egbert, AIA; Architectural Designer Mike Engel, Assoc. AIA; and Swenson relay six tips to build communication skills for architects and solidify project plans with stakeholders.
1. Start Informally. Effective communication begins with an informal dialogue. Whether it’s a friendly phone call, a short meeting, or just a quick sketch on a napkin (or more likely, an iPad), collaboration starts with a conversation. “Regarding a possible new project, we might have a conversation to begin a very informal process to test feasibility,” Swenson says. “Sometimes this will go on for a long time, even a year or two.”
With a new client, establishing that rapport takes a lot of face-to-face interaction. “The most important thing in a new relationship is spending a lot of time together in the same room, building trust and a connection as people who like working together,” Swenson says.
2. Assign One Central Communications Person. Once a project is underway, ESG assembles a team: a principal, project manager, and other architects, designers, and consultants. One person, usually the project architect, is designated as the central communications person, through whom most updates, feedback, and announcements flow among stakeholders.
“The project architect has only one or two projects at any particular time,” Swenson says. “She can focus on coordinating the work of team members and consultants because she does not have many other projects to deal with. A number of our project architects are shareholders and are more senior than many project managers. Strong project architects have [Autodesk] Revit expertise and very good knowledge of the codes and how to detail buildings.”
3. Agree on a Project Mission, Shared Goals, a Timeline, and Tasks. ESG also emphasizes a collaborative approach to working with consultants, bringing in a broad group of stakeholders early in the design process. IPD agreements are one method of formalizing projects, but with or without a written, upfront agreement, ESG teams ensure they both understand and agree upon their mission and goals for each project.
“To agree on a project mission, we often have partnering sessions with the developer and the general contractor,” Swenson says. “This is useful with new people working together for the first time.”
4. Have Regular Meetings—and Take Minutes. Once a team is assembled and the project is underway, ESG holds regular—often weekly—meetings. One person takes minutes and disseminates them so there is no miscommunication about what was said and agreed upon.
“Almost all projects have a weekly design-team meeting,” Swenson says. “This is a practical strategy so that everyone has a regular commitment each week at the same time. At the beginning, we need a lot of face-to-face meetings, but later on, GoToMeeting video conferencing works pretty well. Some of our clients fly here for a one- or two-day charrette in our office once a month or so. We can always add additional special-topic meetings, as well.”
5. Set Hard Deadlines. Regular meetings come with regular assignments. “We will develop a critical-path chart that outlines when things have to happen, and then we cross-reference this with the outline of the general contractor,” Swenson says. When everyone is on board from the get-go, and assignments are given out on a regular, ongoing basis, the project is more likely to stick to its schedule and budget.
“When there’s any design decision in flux,” Egbert says, “I’ll put in a deadline that says we have to have this result by this date. Every design decision impacts everything else, so we have to stay on track.”
6. Leverage Technology. Without overstating it, BIM technology has had an almost revolutionary effect on ESG—especially the adoption of Revit, which the firm has transitioned to from AutoCAD over the past five years. Using BIM, ESG can iterate faster and create visualizations that better present their work. “We are much more efficient about communicating and making changes,” Egbert says. “You can do multiple views; you can print the same information in different graphic ways. It’s changed the way we mark up things. We know we only have to mark it up in one location.”
At the same time, ESG has far from abandoned traditional methods—Swenson draws by hand every day—but instead continually finds ways to combine tradition and tech. Mike Engel in particular has taught several classes on how to leverage different sketching and design programs with Revit (such as FormIt 360) to best manage the workflow.
For Engel, technology does more than just help with communication; it helps build and sustain relationships. “It boils down to trust,” Engel says. “Our clients know we’ve produced before.”
But to ensure that trust is never shaken, Swenson says the combination of communication, coordination, and BIM work together as a safeguard to ensure the project goes without a hitch: “BIM is responsible for a massive decrease in conflicts and likelihood of errors.”
And that means architects can look forward to the ribbon cutting, just like in the movies.