Collective Creativity

Architect Ann Fontaine-Fisher on the role of collaboration in design facilitation.

The most successful design projects don’t happen in the splendor of solitude but, rather, when stakeholders work together toward a common creative goal. “I’ve worked on many different projects over the years, each with a unique team of participants,” says Ann Fontaine-Fisher, a principal at PDT Architects. “By encouraging a collaborative and inclusive process, it reduces the potential for problems and becomes a significant driver for success.” MH+D asks Fontaine-Fisher to tell us more.

Q. How is architecture in practice different than architecture in theory?

A. As students, we spend several years in school exploring the art and science of architecture in preparation to launch our careers as designers. Then, in practice, we discover that good design is only one piece of the puzzle in making a project a success. Most often, a project forms to respond to a need or solve a problem. It starts as a simple design concept with a small group of people, but as it develops, the team gets larger and the exchange of information becomes more complex. Architects are design facilitators in that they organize and lead teams of people with varying perspectives and expertise. They help establish clear goals and a process to achieve them, and they co-create a design that embraces collective talents and fosters excellence.

Q. What does a collaborative project look like?

A. Collaboration happens at multiple levels and involves communication among the design team, the client’s project team, and the construction team. From the client side, a project team could include any number of stakeholders from varying backgrounds. My client’s team typically includes physicians, nurses, administrators, facility managers, and sometimes patients. Everyone comes to the table with unique knowledge, expertise, and experience. The design team is made up of architects, interior designers, engineers, and consultants. Within the design studio we assemble a dedicated team for each project, although anyone in the office could be called upon to contribute their talent and expertise for a particular problem that needs resolution. For many projects, a construction manager is brought into the process early on. Their involvement may influence the selection of materials and systems as they affect the project’s budget and schedule.

Q. Can you give examples of how differing circumstances can influence the outcome of a project?

A. A project early in my career involved a building with a beautiful site and no budget to worry about. The client had little experience in developing a project of this size or understanding the business-operations side of it. The design was completed only taking into account the client’s vision. As construction moved ahead, last-minute client changes made progress painfully slow, affecting the integrity of the design and the morale of the builders. By the end of the project, both the design team and the contractor were depleted and equally relieved that it was over. It’s an example of a project that lacked collaboration and negatively affected everyone involved.

At the other end of the spectrum was a project I worked on a few years later, designing a new breast cancer center for a local hospital. At the kick-off meeting, stakeholders included a surgeon, oncologist, radiologist, and nurse. Not surprisingly, everyone had a personal connection to breast cancer. We talked about the issue of fragmented patient care, along with patients’ excruciatingly long wait times for test results. Each of us had expertise to share, and it was clear that there was synergy. The mission was to create a patient-centered, one-stop facility that would be private, supportive, and comfortable, while dramatically reducing the time between getting a mammogram and having a treatment plan in place. Fluid communications and the team’s positive energy overcame any obstacles. The project was completed and proved to be a great success, even with a modest budget.