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Touching Base

Many educators and administrators believe that architects only plan and design buildings. But to maximize success for everyone involved in a project, architects also must design a process that creates an experience that the school community desires. Architects must listen to educators' needs to understand their expectations. An architect must design and manage a process that anticipates their needs and delivers the type of service expected.

The “touch-point wheel” (see graphic below) was formed out of a belief that architects must facilitate and create a positive experience throughout a project, combining technical quality with a higher level of service. The wheel's design is critical to determining the interfaces between schools officials and architects. The bottom line: educators should be thrilled about their new building the day that it opens, and they should have a relationship with their architects based upon business value and personal trust.

Combining quality and service

Architects follow a process developed by the American Institute of Architects (AIA) that emphasizes technical quality. Unfortunately, without understanding a school's unique and often evolving expectations, school officials may be dissatisfied with the process, even though it results in well-designed buildings.

In the past 10 to 15 years, a shift has occurred, and the process now is likely to combine technical quality and service quality. Understanding each client enables an architect to design a process that creates an enjoyable and valued experience. Sustainable relationships are built on value — and that includes the experience that school officials have throughout all phases of a project.

A lawyer analogy illustrates the point. A lawyer does an excellent job preparing a “technical” brief but fails to clearly explain to the clients its key points and how they apply. The clients are confused, and they lose confidence in the relationship and search for a new lawyer. Both sides need to realize that they have a stake in developing a better type of relationship and service.

The approach

The touch-point wheel approach was developed with extensive feedback from educators and is based on the belief that quality of service is as important as technical quality.

Educators' expectations must be met on multiple levels. They expect an architect to bring the right technical and personnel resources to a project. This requires the tailoring of project teams based on each school and its unique needs.

Continual face-to-face contact by all team members provides value; memos or e-mail may not provide sufficient information. An architect must have a system that all employees understand and buy into; relying on the individual heroics of just a few will not work.

A team must have more than one key contact. All team members must be known. Technical staff members cannot work solely in the back room away from school officials. Instead, they interact with administrators or understand how to support those who do.

The touch-point wheel approach has hiring and training implications for an architecture firm. Staff members must have good technical skills, as well as good interpersonal and communication skills. Ongoing staff training helps develop new graduates or less seasoned professionals.

Identifying educators' needs and expectations early establishes the foundation for success. This includes reviewing the client's past experiences with them to better understand the lessons they have learned. For instance, school officials may have had an unfavorable experience with design-build, but the architect believes that delivery method may be appropriate for the project at hand. Investigating why design-build didn't work before may uncover a flaw in how it was used rather than the method itself. It's possible that schools may understand the difference and choose to try the method again based on the trust that has been built.

Understanding a school's organization is critical. How decisions are made — autocratic vs. consensus — affects how the team will work. The school's culture also is paramount. Do politics or finances drive many of the decisions? Is there a strong emphasis on community input? Perhaps another driving force, such as the desire to follow the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) principles, is in play.

Understanding education as the educators see it influences numerous design decisions. Higher-education clients who see students as clients may plan and design buildings differently than those who do not place such an emphasis.

The team must articulate attainable goals and spell out how they will be measured. This allows buy-in by all project participants.

An architect must develop the right process that addresses both technical and decisionmaking attributes, including determining the touch points of where client interface occurs — too many, and school officials may be too involved; too few, and they will not have enough involvement.

The “no surprises” rule requires an architect to anticipate at every step in the process. Potential project pitfalls or stumbling points can be minimized or avoided when all contingencies are addressed before they have a chance to become reality.

Workshops, as one example, inform and educate school officials. These are greatly valued and become part of the institutional learning process. A workshop on roofing, for example, allows participants to gain knowledge about the implications of using various systems or products on a project before they make a decision.

Presenting cost estimates using a video screen allows team members to discuss the key decisions that will affect the budget — wetlands, turning lanes for traffic, or utilities. For instance, a solution to a wetlands mitigation issue may cost more, but result in the creation of an outdoor classroom.

The team, led by the architect, must decide how best to communicate. Meetings, memos, e-mail and other communication methods all have their place, but the focus should be on what's right for the school.

Team meetings to review the project's status should be conducted throughout the project and at the end of the endeavor. Client feedback in the form of a questionnaire can provide useful insight to refine the touch-point wheel.

Young is president and chief executive officer of Wm. B. Ittner, Inc., St. Louis.

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