The Real Deal

The challenge of working on the creation of a large-scale institutional project with a multi-headed client demands creativity on the part of the designer as well as effective management skills through construction. Jamie Wright of Robbie/Young + Wright Architects discusses the roles that both he and Siamak Hariri of Hariri Pontarini Architects (HPA) played during the design and management of the Schulich School of Business at York University in Toronto.

CA: Seeing that your client represents an institution and your team was selected to deliver upon the client’s stated vision, at what point did you and the client arrive at a unified vision for the architectural approach?

JW: We knew from the beginning of the Schulich School of Business project at York University that we were dealing with a sophisticated client who had a strong preference for a very high quality architectural expression within an extremely limited construction budget and a critical delivery date.

Schulich’s user group input was lead by James McKellar, Executive Director of External Relations and Alumni Affairs, who in addition to being an architect, also teaches Continuing Education courses for the OAA. We knew from those [Con-Ed] courses that McKellar believes the most valuable service that an architect can provide is to assume more of the clients’ risk i.e., for design, cost and schedule in an entrepreneurial and balanced manner…so we knew where he would be coming from.

While there was agreement on the design concept fairly early in the process, because of the need to start construction before the design was completed, the final architectural design solution evolved over the course of the project.

CA: How does working with Hariri Pontarini balance your position when working with the client?

JW: The client obviously saw that the joint venture possessed the extensive range of overall skills that they wanted. They liked the general character of HPA’s McKinsey building and knew our previous track record for delivering quality projects at York [such as the York University Science Project completed in 1993].

Additionally, Robbie/Young + Wright had extensive experience with managing fast track projects with difficult budgets for the private sector. HPA, who had never worked at York, offered a new interpretation of York’s master plan and urban design principles.

CA: How did you balance the overall design between the architecture team and the client’s expectations?

JW: By being removed from direct day to day involvement in the design, my position allowed me to play a more strategic role in assisting ways to find the appropriate balance between some of the design/ budget options being considered (both in and out of the office) but which I feel I always exercised to preserve the basic integrity of the design. A great deal of formal and informal discussion was necessary between all participants to effectively manage expectations for the project.

CA: Successful projects depend on bridging the gap between the architect and the client. How did the scope of the project arrive at a workable level?

JW: Since the schedule made it necessary to start construction in advance of completely settling the program/design/cost relationship, the precise scope of the project had to be refined over time. This is, of course, common for building types with less sophisticated programs.

The university’s initial program was based in part on the existing facility, which needed to be tested through a series of user workshops and by visits to the newest U.S. business schools to gain experience on the latest teaching environments.

At the same time, the master concept for the overall facility was as a series of distinct structures connected at their base that made phasing possible.

Subsequently, a phasing plan was developed to prioritize the delivery of the critical areas of the building and to accommodate the entry of the 2003 double cohort of students.

Throughout the process, all aspects of the project were reviewed at a weekly status meeting chaired by York’s facility management group, and including the business school representatives, the project managers and the architectural partners responsible for both the design and management. This iterative process in all of its myriad parts eventually established a consensus for the final scope of work.

CA: How did you refine the dynamic of the joint venture? What advice or concerns do you have on the subject of joint ventures and partnerships with other firms?

JW: Siamak and I had worked together in a client/architect relationship on the Design Exchange project ten years earlier so we had a good idea how we each worked. For Schulich, we decided that we needed to work out a specific relationship in more detail through a facilitated session out of the office with the other partners who were going to be working on the project with us. We talked about what was important to us as firms and what the project would mean to us individually. We used a basic joint venture agreement to deal with such issues as liability insurance, who would do the bookkeeping, establishing separate bank accounts for sub-consultants’ fees, internal billing rates as well as the division of labour between firms and professional credit. We also agreed on who would make the final decision if there was an otherwise unsolvable issue between us. I suppose that because I was the oldest, I was nominated. Interestingly enough, I never had to exercise that mandate.

As far as the concept of two architecture firms working together is concerned, our firm started as a joint venture over twenty-five years ago. Later we joined together with Rod Robbie’s firm for the SkyDome project.

Throughout the history of our practice, we’ve gained a lot of experience in sharing management responsibilities and because of that, we have learned to make ourselves subservient to the type of processes that we think are required in a successful joint venture.

CA: What advice or concerns do you have on the subject of joint ventures and partnerships with other firms?

JW: Joint venturing is a little like real-time continuing education where you have the opportunity to learn from other architects’ procedures and processes. One of the big lessons from the foreign architects we’ve worked with is that Canadian architects provide a high quality of all-around services and that through the fees we charge, we may in fact be underselling our own services.

CA: Can you describe some of the structural changes that your firm has made as a result of the Schulich?

JW: Because of the way our firm has evolved through a succession of joint ventures, we are inherently organized as group of small offices that we call studios. The studios have all the skills necessary to undertake projects and they tend to preserve the integrity of a specific group of people, their personality and building type expertise.

Only two of our firm’s studio groups participated in the Schulich project while the others were active on other projects. We think this structure gives our firm better financial stability in the fragile economic climate that architects have to exist.

CA: In terms of developing a strong firm identity or architectural ideology, you once described to us that a larger firm must make fundamental business decisions that are not much different to the goals of a smaller firm. What are some of the core values that you feel a firm has to have in place, regardless of size?

JW: We believe that the success of any practice depends on the quality of the people in the organization, creating the environment for them to do good work, giving them the opportunities to do interesting projects and the ability to develop
professionally while mixing in a high degree of communication.

CA: How do you use and understand your competitive strengths to convince your client why your firm or firm’s joint ventures are the best choice?

JW: We think that clients who are particularly professional will usually select the architect that is appropriate for their project needs.

We also believe that a firm’s underlying strength derives from a brutal internal analysis of what you’re good at, what you like to do and the key systems you have in place to guide your financial success.

If you can understand your inherent core values, you will probably be able to communicate them effectively to potential clients who wish these qualities in an architectural form.

An interesting side benefit of the Schulich project was that the business school students performed a case study on our firm during construction.

The results of their study were very insightful and thankfully reinforced what we saw as our strengths (and weaknesses) and how we should grow as a practice.

CA: What did you and Siamak learn from the Schulich project?

JW: We both came to realize that a number of partners (four by the end of the project) were necessary to effectively manage the very dynamic design construction process.

We both agreed that we should have integrated the team of people from both firms (the team grew to about 40 members) much earlier than we did to expedite the internal decision-making.

We confirmed that we respected the talents of each other’s firms and that working together had been a successful strategy so much so that since Schulich, we have started working together on three additional projects.