Yes, this month is a bit like Surviving the Design Studio’s greatest blog hits. This was also another very popular post in 2016. At a Christmas party I was surprised to meet an architect, working in local government, who said this post was good enough to be pinned up in the tearoom for all the other architects (and project managers) to see. I hope you enjoy it the second time around.
Architecture takes a long time to learn. Designing and organising the construction of buildings is a complex process. As most architects will know even the smallest renovation can involve juggling a complex scenario of client brief, planning and building regulations, site conditions, sustainability issues, construction detailing and logistics, contractor and subcontractor capabilities and of course design itself. This is a much wider range of design and construction knowledge than many project managers are either trained in or know about.
A few times in the past few weeks I have heard my architecture friends bemoan the profession of project managers. Good project managers, like good architects, will be able to make the trade offs, have the foresight and understand the complexity of managing user requirements. Basically, good project managers understand architecture and design processes. The best project manager I have ever met was one who gained valuable experience in an architect’s office based on community buildings that involved a great deal of community consultation work. She then went on to much larger projects.
I should also say that I share an office with a project management academic. He is great. A kind of rocket scientist who has taught me a great deal about advanced quantitative decision analysis.
But bad project managers are really bad and I mean really bad. Of course some would argue that IT project managers are worse (but that’s another story). But, I worry that all the really bad ones have ended up in construction. One qualification for being a project manager is to be able to do a Gantt chart with unrealisable time outcomes that you can then bludgeon the architects and all the other consultants with. Yes, you don’t need refined or nimble negotiation skills to be a construction project manager. You just need to be a bully. Interestingly, the architects I have heard complain the most about these vermin have been female architects.
Because project managers appear to know a few more things about numbers and spreadsheets it is easy for them to tyrannize architects. As architects we are all vulnerable on this point and our lack of quantitative trading only makes us feel unworthy.
Of course I speak from a partisan point of view. This is because I think it is time architects really rebelled and rose up against the alien overlords known as project managers. Don’t give in to feelings of inferiority because you don’t feel numerate; often the project managers numbers are self-serving, dodgy, and rigid.
Blame the “bloody” architect.
But all too often the architects either individually or as a group are blamed when things go astray. Project managers love to do this.
Why is this? I guess its related to some of the things that surround Trump’s election being elected. In the modern digitally connected world its pretty easy to run a spin campaign with no substance these days. It’s pretty easy to troll the architect, after all architects are dandified dickheads who don’t care about client needs or wishes. I think the star alpha-male architects have contributed a lot to this impression. Hopefully, as new alternative forms of practice emerge and architects are more aggressive in how they brand themselves as a group, these impressions will change.
Why architects are, oh so much, better
An architect is a highly skilled professional, usually about 7 years of training, including two years of audited and examined experience. Architects are trained to lead projects from start to finish, on time and on budget. If they don’t get this right they can be sued. They are uniquely placed to understand cost pressures in construction supply chains. Project managers often only have an overview of these things. Architects are trained to understand client and user needs and ensure that a project is feasible from the very beginning. The problem is that all too often project managers get the architects in too late. They have already decided the wrong approach to the project’s feasibility, strategic design and often ignored risks that an architect, with more on the ground experience and a better overview of client needs as well as the broader context would have identified.
Project managers love to tell the clients what they want to hear in the early stages of the project. Architects have to tell the truth because they are usually bound by architects registration acts and PI insurance issues.
Architects are able to communicate and many are good at this. This is what they are trained to do. Architecture is in some ways a liberal arts education and communication across the project team and along the construction supply chain is essential.
Some real PM fuck ups.
Here are some of my favourite examples:
Southern Cross Station was a low bid tender price put in by the contractor. When the architects came on board the architects wondered why there was no cost manager on the project. Basically the contractor low balled the price to get the job. All the other tenders for the project were 25% above. Lo and behold the final price was 25% above. The contractor then decided in the media to push the blame on to the architects. You can read about it here and I think this situation really poisoned my view of project managers and contractors. It’s a pretty cheap shot to blame the architect all because of public antipathy and punter distrust of design aesthetics.
Federation Square is a case in point. This facility has now served the public of the City of Melbourne admirably. It actually works as a fine public space alongside its public institutions and commercial spaces. It is a building that is a legacy project that will serve the city’s future for many years to come. Yet at the time the architects were excoriated for trying to uphold standards of construction and design decency for the project. You can read about some of it here. The meddling of politicians in the project and the hacking off of the Western shard was one of the most despicable anti-architecture campaigns I have ever witnessed.
Another example: The problems with the $16.2B Commonwealth’s Building the Education Revolution (BER) was not the result of architects. It was the result of project managers stuffing up. You can read all about it here. Schools that managed their own affairs with architects did better than those BER schools managed by Project Managers.
Architects understand cost trade-offs
The rise of project managers can be attributed to the impression that architects are not suitable to manage projects because they are not sufficiently focused on time and cost outcomes. In a 2011 paper we published which looked at how architects work with Quantity Surveyors we concluded that an important thing that architects contributed to projects, amongst other things, was the ability to make complex finishes and material tradeoffs in the clients favour. You can get the paper here.
Architects understand final results
In value management and cost reduction exercises it is the architect who is best positioned to uphold and fight for the best materials and finishes for the sake of the project. Architects are uniquely placed to do this because project managers and few other consultants or trades in the building and construction industry have an overview of how it all works.
Architects understand heritage issues
Project manager’s, by virtue of their training, wouldn’t have a clue about material finishes in either domestic, community or public projects. A quantitative Gantt chart jockey is not going to be the sort of person you should trust with complex decision about your domestic reno, legacy building or your facility designed to bolster your community.
Another case in point is the Harold Holt Pool. The project manager employed by Stonnington Council on the pool redevelopment really had no idea bout the modernist heritage values associated with the pool. You can read about that here.
Architects understand how to integrate systems
In some industry segments client expectations have driven the pressures for unrealistic time frames and low budgets. This has been a significant factor in the continuing use of project managers in the construction and development industry. In the dark dim past it was the architect who managed, organised and supervised the construction process. It was the architect who was the single point of communication. I would argue that Architects are still the best people to lead integrated construction projects This is primarily because of their training architects are supremely placed as system integrators.
For the last 30 years architects have bemoaned the fact that project managers have taken over their role. Of course it’s easy for project managers to blame the architect. I am sure many architects reading this will have stories about project managers with poor integration skills. A good project manager like the best architects can integrate systems and make the trade offs. Most of all good project managers should have the foresight to see what is coming down the line. And yes, a good project manager treats the architect with respect.
Rise up !
So next time, as an architect you are being set-up-to-fail by some cone-headed low-grade project manager, clutching spreadsheets with no idea about design, construction processes or user requirements call them out. Its time for architects to rise up against their alien project manager overlords. When the clients work that out as well our cities, community institutions and housing will be suitable for the future.