The Gang's All Here

In Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, uncompromising architect Howard Roark struggles in obscurity instead of compromising his design ideals. In the real world, all architecture and design is done by committee. The size and makeup of that committee can vary, depending on the job, yet the best projects certainly have more than a few players in common. Who should be involved in your next building project and how do you keep everybody happy while still delivering a winning design?

“Architecture is all about the process,” said Darren L. James, AIA, president and COO, KAI Design and Build in Dallas, TX. “What we really do is listen and communicate. It’s the biggest part of the job.” Turning wishes and concepts into brick and mortar certainly isn’t easy. Add to that the disparate goals of all of the different stakeholders and an architect’s job seems almost monumental.

Before any ground is broken, supplies ordered, or even pencil taken to paper, architects rally the troops. Some team members are obvious. “The administration and facilities department come to mind immediately,” recalled David Zaiser, AIA, partner, KSS Architects LLP in Princeton, NJ. Faculty, students, alumni, and donors round out the obvious lineup. “One person that’s really important has a different title from campus to campus,” Zaiser continued, “but they are kind of a ‘space czar.’ This person knows the campus, knows the history, and knows the back story.” Zaiser said that this team member usually comes from the provost’s office.

Who Is Missing From the Guest List?
While the university usually comes to the table with the major stakeholders in tow, James says that some people are consistently left off of the list. “The maintenance staff is often not invited by the client, but they have invaluable operations knowledge that the administration may not know about,” he said. “Facilities, maintenance, and landscaping don’t need to be at every meeting, but they should be included in some, especially in the beginning.”

It’s also good to have some people from the top. “If the university president is involved, it lends the project extra weight, and everyone else instantly becomes more interested,” said Maurizio Maso, principal, HuntonBrady Architects, Orlando, FL. “It brings up the level of accountability and visibility as well.”

Student users are an important group that remains sadly underrepresented in many projects. “We want to see more student representatives, but perhaps because projects span several years, it’s hard to have continuity,” explained Zaiser. “But when we have that perspective, it’s very worthwhile.” Zaiser recounted a story of one famous professor who said he needed, “about 17 miles of chalkboard space,” Zaiser said with a smile. “A student raised her eyebrow and said, ‘Professor, you hardly ever go over one board,’ and had her notes with her to prove her point.” That’s a perspective architects can only get from someone on the other side of the lectern.

Outside Influences

Donors also play a role in the design process. Some universities maintain “hard and fast policies on how much input a donor has,” said Zaiser. Others are looser. Sometimes a donor’s wishes and desires are contrary to the direction that the project is already taking, and that can be sticky. “In the end, our client is the university, and they will give us direction on how to proceed,” said James.

Sometimes architects must proceed in unusual and unique ways. In one project James remembered, a donor gave money and fabric that was to be used as drapes in a particular room. “The fabric was special to her, and we had to incorporate it,” James said.

Getting Down to Business
Once the different groups are identified and represented, work can begin. And yes, there is a perfect size for a working committee. “Between five and seven people on any committee injects the right amount of energy,” said James. “If a group is too large some people won’t speak up, and these quiet voices hold a lot of impact. They are usually the ones observing the needs of others and how a space works.” Maso feels that the number can climb to 15 or 20 for a larger project.

The first few programming meetings and charrettes are a time to dream big. “Put everything out there at this point,” said James. “We can always downsize ideas later.” Having everyone involved and heard at this point also brings all of the groups into the project early. “Taking ownership of a project early creates energy, and that can help with fundraising,” said Maso. “If the stakeholders are energized and involved, they spread that enthusiasm to potential donors.”

The components of an architect’s main job remain listening, guiding the conversation, and distilling the information. “A ton of information comes through a variety of sources, and our job is to test it against the project’s initial parameters,” said James. “We are always actively listening.”

And often mediating. Hospitality Services, Inc. in Baltimore, MD, is a food service consultant that is brought in by the architect. Even though it’s the architect that hires them, they realize who is really in charge. “The final client is the end user… the university,” said Alan Hirsch, president. “We’ve had miscommunications that have sent us back to the drawing board, and it’s important to remember who will be using the space and how.”

Still, it remains a give-and-take process, and an often daunting one at that. “I had a colleague once say he’s never heard ‘so many talking for so long and so passionately on how to spend so little money,’” said Donald Koppy, vice president and director of architecture, KAI in St. Louis.

But in the end, architecture is a case where less is less. “I enjoy a hands-on group,” concluded Maso. “The more involvement from the owner, the better the product.”

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