June 16, 2010

Another short post about risk

Prompted by this post over at Fantastic Journal, I thought there might be a bit more to say on this. Charles is absolutely right about the PQQ system being a supposedly 'risk-free' route but stifling innovation and creativity. But the parallel with the banks having been seen as the 'safe havens' for investment while taking on increasingly risky strategies, and the relationship between architecture and risk does, it seems to me, go further.

Managing risk is an essential part of being a good architect. It is a duty that we owe to our clients, at the most fundamental level. Yet too many major building programmes go over budget, late, or run into contractual or technical difficulties - despite, and some might say because, they are awarded through the 'risk-managed' PQQ and public procurement routes. Down the road from our studio, at Colchester's firstsite, is a classic example of how a wonderful idea can go wrong: 'award-winning' international architect, big budget, enthusiastic but inexperienced client, years of delays, over-costs, contractual wrangling, a nightmare for all involved. But equally - and in some ways, more scandalously, this happens on schools and hospitals procured from 'safe' multi-disciplinary consortia: except in these cases, as it isn't really possible for a school not to open, corners are cut and money is found to keep the project on schedule and out of the papers. On many projects, the larger, more self-confident practices seem to care less about protecting their clients, than boosting their fees (in the case of the more anonymous multi-disciplinary firms), their architectural idees fixes (in the case of the starchitects) or both.

As a small practice, we are all too aware of the many risks we must negotiate and our relative lack of experience and clout. We do not want in any way to jeopardise our reputation or our PI insurance premiums. We cannot afford to ride roughshod over client instructions (issuing drawings literally months later than requested, like one large firm I have recently had to deal with), or to inflate the architecture of a building far beyond the capacity of the client to pay for, manage or maintain it. We go far beyond the responsibilities in our contract to ensure that the project goes well on every level, from public consultation and planning through to site surveys or services coordination. We also care intensely that every project we do is designed as beautifully as we can make it, as we can't rely on a steady stream of work. Obviously things don't go perfectly for us every time, but we take our responsibilities seriously enough to worry when they don't.

The big firms have clients - and particularly the weak public sector ones, who are bound by procurement guidelines - over the proverbial barrel. Not only is it then incredibly hard to promote less mainstream talent, but the big firms can then churn out standardised product that often doesn't really meet the brief, and their 'competitive' fees get boosted by the myriad services that weren't included in the original contract but that are actually essential, and chargeable by the hour. There is rarely an incentive for the consultancy to meet deadlines or budgets. That's not to say there aren't some good large firms, or good individuals within large firms, but the assumption that the service you get from a large firm is less risky than that you might get from a small one, is illogical.

Risk management should be a culture of caring, of taking responsibility seriously, of doing the best possible job one can, on an individual and team level.  Risk registers are good tools too, but unless you have that commitment, they are no use at all.

Labels: , ,


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home