Communication in Design and Construction
We're always interested in trying to improve our ways of communicating. It is hugely important to us that every one of our clients, fellow consultants, statutory authorities, suppliers and contractors understands what we are asking and, by return, that we understand their needs. We use a wide variety of communication techniques which can be broadly classified into two main types: 'Conventional/everyday' and 'Architectural/less familiar'. We live in a world of increasing levels of communication. Digital media has hugely increased the amount of information exchanged between people, with conversations that might previously have taken place in person to a limited audience now promoted to a notionally limitless number of people. In addition we still rely heavily on more traditional methods such as face-to-face meetings, phone conversations, emails, letters and contracts. Each of us has our preferred methods and this is a fundamental aspect of each individual being understood and feeling secure in the relationships and collaborations that they develop. As architects, we use all of these methods to develop the relationships and exchange the ideas that are necessary to develop projects. Using concept drawings, 2D and 3D CAD, physical models, specifications, ideas boards and CGIs we also try to demonstrate our ideas and those of others back to them through our architectural work. It is this work that eventually communicates what is required to suppliers and contractors, directly influencing what is built and normally forming part of a binding contract between client and contractor. These communication methods, developed in every architect through a long education process, are perhaps unfamiliar to a large proportion of our collaborators and it is part of our job as architects to enable accessibility. This is particularly true when working with individuals on their own homes, where little or no prior experience of architectural language is commonplace. How do architects reconcile the discrepancy between the highly technical, highly legalistic and often conceptually complex nature of their output with the constant translation that is necessary in order to enable broad-based participation? In our experience this is the most emotionally challenging aspect of our work as, perhaps predictably, no two clients (for example) are the same. One builder's view of a highly detailed and helpful set of tender information might be another's worst nightmare, with the key aspects concealed within what might seem to be reams of unnecessary information. We are constantly faced with the challenge of not only ensuring that our clients understand what they are due to receive from the project but also that the information is robust enough to withstand the possibility of dispute about the completeness of its content. Two artificially polarised approaches are 1) Heavy emphasis on the other members of the team taking the time and making the effort to digest the information and 2) Continual dialogue through whatever medium and regardless of the cost to the architectural practice. We have experienced clients and contractors for whom both approaches are the instinctive way of developing a project. One of our repeat clients is fiercely independent in his study of information, taking the time (I suspect to the detriment of other aspects of his life) to digest, comment and critique directly. He operates often on our 'side' of the communication divide, reading every line of specification and drawing to ensure that he is happy with the content and rarely requires clarification. He makes the direct (and some would say obvious) link between the documents and the eventual success of his project. Other clients and contractors of a comparable level of experience, by contrast, appear to require constant verbal communication, as if something written or drawn is somehow unclear or even deceptive. A possible reason for this is simply investment of time and energy on the part of the receiver. Another is that the information is inaccessible and too far outside their area of expertise and is therefore, presumably, too daunting to consider engaging with without calling the architect for a verbal recital. Could it be that the second type of collaborator is always destined to cling to their familiar methods of communication and will, therefore, always represent a greater challenge to the architect in translating their natural output into spoken language? An answer might lie in enthusiasm and willingness for the project to succeed, the source of which is very often the architect themselves. When a project clearly excites the architect, their means of communication starts to carry an air of authority by enthusing the receiver. Many clients who, having started projects with an attitude of helplessness and need for constant reassurance, have later been attracted to the information by a particularly interesting piece of graphical work or a conversation which convinces them, perhaps subconsciously, of the value of the project. Almost automatically, their ability to 'understand' the information can become instinctive as opposed to laborious. The subject of communication in construction is a well-established area of academic research and we cannot pretend to have given it anything like the level of attention it deserves in such a short piece. We have identified through experience, however, that is it not only the skills of the receiver that are a variable in the success of information exchange in an architectural project: The attitude of the architect to their joint vision with the various other team members will play a significant part. A clear design philosophy for each project, enough complexity to sustain the interest of the professional and the desire to develop relationships as opposed to reinforcing division and contrast appear to be the most profitable means.