AIA DESIGN THEORY-June 2011
Edited by Rebecca Falzano
Photography Trent Bell
Richard Bernhard on the art of assembling a good design team
Years ago, when architect Richard Bernhard was hired as a senior designer at a large Boston architectural firm, he was surprised when he showed up to work to find that there were no provisions for drawing at his desk. “I was told, ‘Your job is to assemble the talent and get the job done on budget,’” he recalls. While it seemed strange to Bernhard at the time, years later, when a project he managed was the winner of a major redevelopment competition, he realized that it was the team that made it happen. A group of architects, transitional housing experts, landscape architects, engineers, neighborhood groups, and the developer had worked together, each contributing their talents and commitment to a common effort. Indeed, the best architectural projects are the result of many individuals working together—working co-operatively, of course, with mutual respect and recognition of individual skills and disciplines. It is impossible for one to design in a vacuum. “It takes the contributions of many to produce a really successful project,” Bernhard says. “Working together requires letting go of one’s ego. This hurdle isn’t always easy to accomplish with architects.” MH+D talked to Bernhard about how assembling and managing a team can be a major contribution to a project’s success.
Q: How do you install a sense of ownership in the members of a team?
A: One of the greatest thrills I get out of the profession is encouraging a sense of ownership of a project. This begins with the client “owning” the project. Subsequently, the ownership sort of morphs to the architect who—along with landscape, engineering, interior, and other consultants—invests their time and talent to the extent that they really “own” the project and imprint their “stamp” upon it. Next, the contractor takes owner- ship by creating this entity from bricks and mortar, all the while imparting their craft into the building. I recall looking in on a formidable residence my office designed. Over a weekend I was delighted to see a carpenter being photographed by his wife in front of a custom-designed staircase, his hand on the railing that he had been crafting. The building benefited from what the carpenter was contributing to it, just as the carpenter was enriched by his contribution to the building. Finally, the ownership reverts to the owner, who establishes their own signature on this place where they will live or work.
Q: How does this fit into the whole building design the AIA endorses?
A: The AIA has wisely endorsed working together by supporting “Whole Building Design.” While this may not be the intuitive approach I advocate, it is nonetheless an integrated design concept that encourages the design, technical, and construction team to look at project objectives, materials, systems, and assemblies from different perspectives. It consists of two components: an integrated design approach and an integrated team approach. It deviates from traditional planning and design in which specialists are somewhat isolated from each other. It’s a holistic appli- cation that draws upon the knowledge pool of all the stakeholders throughout the life cycle of the project. Several means are used to support this process, including design charettes—focused, collaborative meetings where the team is encouraged to exchange ideas and step beyond their own field of expertise. In other words, working together.
Q: How do clients work into your approach?
A: The client is an integral member of the team. They are, after all, the origin. They represent the financial means to create a project, and they will be its ultimate users. So, naturally, their input—architectural programming—is a fundamental component. But a skillful client knows their role and knows when to defer to others whose knowledge or experience is more relevant. It’s akin to raising a child—you have to know when to let go. Not all clients understand this, and if micromanaging ensues, the project usually suffers. The Internet certainly hasn’t helped this, as today everyone seems to be an expert.
One of the best clients I’ve had was a business executive who wanted to build a substantial new residence in Pennsylvania. He flew to Maine and spent a day thoroughly defining what he was looking for in that building: how he wanted it to feel when he came home, the materials that excited him, how rooms should flow together, how the building should represent his values, and even how there should be an adjunct bedroom for his wife to slip into when he snored. He then left it to the design team and, with the exception of weekly telephone meetings, stayed relatively uninvolved until the house was thoroughly designed. The result—which was a team effort—was an exceptionally well-designed residence, which addressed all of his programmatic needs.
While my approach to working together isn’t rocket science, it is a talent. It’s more than a management skill—it’s imparting an integrated design by means of several disciplines. When carried out successfully, it’s gratifying to all, it’s fun, and it results in darn good architecture.