How to win over landlord housing clients
There are two distinct housing markets as far as clients are concerned, the long-term owners and the speculators who build for short term profit. Claire Bennie, former Peabody development director, sees the long termers as the client group more likely to be inclined to make interesting choices of architect.
While two thirds of new homes in the UK are still built by the speculators, the build-to-rent sector is showing strong growth, with an increase of homes under construction of 47% between 2017 and 2018 alone, according to the BPF. Add to that the recent trend of local authorities getting building again, often emphasising design quality and long-term improvement of neighbourhoods, and the prospects for architects in the housing sector are looking up.
So what do housing clients want from architects, and how can practices without a long-standing track record of working in the sector get a foot in the door?
While at Peabody, managing a development programme of over 8,000 homes across London, Claire Bennie was described as the most significant commissioner of work from emerging architects. Herself trained as an architect, she now runs her own consultancy Municipal, offering client-side housing project advice, including design commissioning training, and project bid advice for the design side.
At the upcoming 2018 RIBA Smart Practice Conference on 4th October in Cambridge, Bennie will share her wealth of experience of the client side with the delegates, with the focus firmly on building relationships and winning work from the better targets, the long term clients.
Whether the client is a social landlord or from the emerging private build-to-rent sector, they share the same concern: they do not want to spend lots of money on maintenance. They are generally risk averse, Bennie stresses, so if they do meet an interesting architect they will have to be thoroughly convinced that the practice is clued up.
‘It is really important that the architect knows how to design and specify for long term maintenance. This means understanding all the cost implications of your drawings. This is real bread and butter stuff, like how often windows will need to be repainted.’
Bennie says she would like to see more architects talking to caretakers and others on the ground and listening to the problems they are dealing with. Around 70% of people employed by housing associations have maintenance-related jobs, very few are in development.
The next challenge for design-led practices is to stay with the project beyond planning permission.
Many clients do not trust architects to deliver. Furthermore, the low risk culture points clients in the direction of design and build and the transfer of risk to the contractor. Bennie argues that design and build can work where the client, the employer’s agent, the architect and the contractor all work together and understand the important details of the design that need to be preserved.
For the architect, this means being able to draw for construction, not just planning permission. The client has to believe that there will be a good relationship between the architect and contractor, so the architect will need to have some ‘nuts and bolts’ people on the team.
‘There are a lot of smaller design-led practices that are amazing at this, and others that do not know how to draw to build,’ argues Bennie.
As an example of how a smaller practice can stick with a large design and build project through to completion and produce something special, she points to Peabody’s Mint Street housing, built on a constrained site next to a railway line in London’s Bethnal Green.
Pitman Tozer was then a small, relatively untested practice but was ‘very savvy’ about what drawings needed to be produced. The project turned out to be a model of collaboration between consultants and contractors, including a re-thinking of the original brief by consultants along the way.
Another crucial skill Bennie emphasises is being able to listen to clients, a skill many architects claim to have when in reality they may not, she suggests.
This is all the more important when it comes to estates work, where the many sensitive issues can rapidly become flashpoints. Architects need to appreciate that they have stepped into something much more complicated than they may be used to, she warns.
For more information on Claire’s session and how to book tickets, see the Smart Practice Conference 2018 page.
Thanks to Claire Bennie, Director, Municipal.
Text by Neal Morris. This is a Professional Feature edited by the RIBA Practice team. Send us your feedback and ideas
RIBA Core Curriculum Topic: Business, clients and services.
As part of the flexible RIBA CPD programme, Professional Features count as microlearning. See further information on the updated RIBA CPD Core Curriculum and on fulfilling your CPD requirements as an RIBA Chartered Member.
Posted on 6 September 2018.