How A 'Dual Agent' Learned About Project Design Controls: A Book Excerpt
In 1997, after a 30-year career as a practicing architect, I felt the need for industry change. After witnessing the emerging digital revolution and complexities, and too many late, budget-busting nightmares, I had the opportunity to work with Atlanta-based Holder Construction Co. on two projects, and then I joined their staff.
While architectural colleagues accused me of moving to the dark side, my newfound construction associates believed I had seen the light. Whatever the illumination, I spent the next 20 years working with more than 80 design firms on different projects, in the penumbra between design and construction, enabling and managing design.
Five years into my new job, Holder began work with Antoine Predock Architects on the Flint RiverQuarium in Albany, Ga. As I got to know their project architect, Sam Sterling, I proudly described my role as someone “who could speak two languages” and “can translate design intent into construction form.”
Sam looked at me and said, “You know, Mike, I mentioned that to Antoine. He said, ‘Watch out, he’s a dual agent!’ ” It gave us a good laugh, even though the sentiment is emblematic of the mistrust that lurks between our professions.
Despite centuries of practice, the art and science of managing design are still new subjects. Scant literature exists to inform us. Little research or applied science exists to bridge the disparate cultures of designers, contractors and owners. Most books on managing design approach the subject from a pure management point of view, as if design were an objective, measurable set of tasks. That is far from the truth.
But the “change or perish”’ mantra has become a cause célèbre in the building industry. To write about it, I found interesting people and interviewed 40 of them, each unique and with a passion for change. I still can’t say how the industry’s dilemmas will be resolved. Maybe an omniscient, benevolent government overlord can figure out how to fix the building industry’s malaise? Until then, we’re all we’ve got: enlightened owners, change-ready contractors, and fed-up architects, students and teachers determined to go about things in a smarter way together, starting with figuring out how to manage ourselves.
In the 1970s, during a quiet, graduate school summer in Ann Arbor, I learned of James Hilton’s classic 1933 book, “Lost Horizon.” I devoured it—carefully, judiciously, appreciatively. What did I discover? The valley of Shangri-La, a mythical place where peace and brotherhood are the norm, and no one ever gets old. A place where monks and citizens live in harmony under one rule: Be kind. Wouldn’t that be a fine precedent for how to design and build projects instead of fighting and burning out? Is that a utopian fantasy? Maybe.
How To Manage Design
Here’s a brief outline of what I think. Designers and builders should develop and offer early strategic programming and advisory services to owners. They could create programs, design solutions and budget parameters geared to shape smarter projects. Architects can reshape their future by declaring victory over old ways, thinking of new ones and dispensing with any grousing and griping. And out with the lone wolf persona—the future needs positive, collaborative designers who aren’t afraid of transparency and team work.
Most importantly, build a structure of best practices using tools, checklists and an integrated model. Use soft skills and tangible baseline metrics to track, adjust and manage change. Adapt them to your practice. Make them part of your culture.
A few years after working with his firm, I ran into Antoine Predock at the American Institute of Architects national convention in Los Angeles, moments after he had been awarded AIA’s Gold Medal. After I congratulated him, he was quick to remember “how great it was to work with Holder.” We’d succeeded in getting our project back on budget and realizing its vision. It was nice to learn I was no longer seen as “a dual agent.” Not long after, Sam put it this way: “Without you guys pulling us out of the budget inferno we wouldn’t have had a project.”
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