Peter Arkle

Contrary to the long-glamorized Howard Roark model, architecture is a team sport. But getting a team to work together seamlessly can be a challenge. In his book, Designing Relationships: The Art of Collaboration in Architecture, Andrew Pressman, FAIA, argues that effective collaboration is a prerequisite for good design work. Pressman, a professor emeritus at the University of New Mexico and a lecturer at the University of Maryland, runs his own architectural practice in Washington, D.C. In his book—a brisk read at 120 pages—he offers tips and tricks about how to inspire the best creative give-and-take from any team.

The message of your book is pretty straightforward—collaboration is important. Do architects need to be reminded of this?
Pressman: Absolutely. Collaboration may be messy—and it’s a challenge to do it well—but both design and productivity can be improved. I think innovative practice, creative ways of delivering services and discovering new practice opportunities is now part of the mix with innovative design, and collaboration is an essential means to achieve both.

There’s a reason why architects have been inherently non-collaborative. Architecture schools have promoted a subculture in which graduates spend their careers working as heroic, solitary, isolated designers. And then there’s also the traditional way projects are procured and delivered—the design-bid-build delivery method—in which the architect and contractor are natural adversaries. The tension between the parties is intended to be part of the system of checks and balances.

But in the current practice environment, a completely different mindset is required, with all stakeholders working together for the good of the project. That’s easy to say but not so easy to do.

What’s so bad about the model of architects as egotistical dictators of design?
I actually don’t think there’s anything wrong with it for certain projects. In some ways it can be very effective. But practice today has become very complex and requires collaboration in order for buildings to succeed and perform well. Certainly, not every project or task is amenable to collaboration. On most projects there will be a mix of collaborative and individual work.

In Designing Relationships, David Riz, AIA, a principal at KieranTimberlake, discusses the firm’s work on a headquarters for the Energy Efficient Buildings Hub, a Department of Energy project that epitomizes the benefits of collaborative design. The collective act of goal setting and values alignment, by itself, cemented the team and eliminated discord. Team members were encouraged to wade into other areas of expertise, allowing architects to engage critical topics such as the influence of construction logistics in deriving design solutions.

Peter Arkle

In fact, you argue that having an ego and having strong opinions can be good.
The conventional wisdom of “check your ego at the door” is not necessarily a great idea. Confidence—and even a bit of arrogance—is helpful to innovate and transcend mediocrity. People should believe that they can do the impossible. At the same time, valuable contributions made by others must be acknowledged.

A great collaborative team could be characterized as one big, unhappy, dysfunctional family. That speaks to seeking diversity in team composition, and that would apply to experiences, background, culture, worldviews, and areas of expertise. The more diverse the team and the more potential for creative tensions, the more likely there will be innovative ideas.

What role does technology play?
Building Information Modeling (BIM) by itself does not cultivate meaningful engagement. Collaboration skills and processes are essential, and they transcend technology and tools. I would underscore the point that it is the less tangible elements of collaboration—a nuanced and subtle skill set—that provide the magic that transforms the most challenging projects into great works of architecture.

That said, software can greatly facilitate collaborative work. But so can drawing, which communicates design concepts and reveals opportunities for building upon, triggering, and critiquing ideas. A skillful collaborator recognizes that digital and physical methods elicit different dimensions of creativity. Tools should be used in support of a particular collaborative design process—not to dictate it.

How do you deal with difficult team members and still do good work?
View resolving conflicts as a design problem. Invoking a self-effacing attitude by asking for help, suggestions, or guidance based on someone else’s experience can be very helpful to diffusing the chip on their shoulder. Take time to discuss a problem face-to-face to get the individual on board as an ally. Developing genuine personal bonds after sitting down with someone and discussing the issues will make it easier to disagree without emotional or professional cost in the future.

What can firms start doing to help spur collaboration?
Create a studio or war room. A common work area is highly desirable to optimize high-quality interaction. Take time to design the process (even before a contract is signed). Develop a master plan of all collaborators and their respective roles, when they should be involved, and define integration nodes in which individual and multidisciplinary teams should come together.

Then start the project with a charrette. This will facilitate getting to know the collaborators, personally and professionally, and it is an opportunity to observe and assess professional expertise and social skills. Apply Alex Osborn’s original brainstorming principles: do not criticize or judge ideas; generate unfettered, wild, and crazy ideas; develop as many ideas as possible; and combine and build upon ideas.