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Technical leaders in a world of specialists

Technical leaders in a world of specialists

14 December 2016

Change is accelerating in architecture. On the technical front, development areas are fast overtaking traditional architecture skills and it has become the age of the specialist. So how does the technical lead in a practice, faced with an avalanche of new information, manage to stay on top of everything and look after design quality standards?

The answer is that you have to give the lead to a lot of other technical experts.

At Allies and Morrison the director responsible for technical quality across the practice of more than 300 people is Mark Taylor, who leads a technical team of six, each with their own area of expertise and focus.

'You have to be an all-rounder. As architecture progresses new specialisms emerge. All people tend to specialise these days, the days of the general architect are numbered,' he says.

Asked if he's still the go-to person for answers, he says A&M have go-to people all over the place.

Taylor's route to technical leader took in spells in contracting and building surveying prior to architecture, and a mid-career MSc in façade engineering. He was attracted to façades because he sees them as the most 'technically-loaded component of a building'. Formerly a member of the steering committee of the Society of Façade Engineering, he now chairs a committee responsible for General Building Codes at British Standards.

Allies and Morrison's 41-storey, terrazzo clad residential tower Two Fifty One is currently rising above London's Elephant & Castle. Photo by Mikael Bekson, courtesy South Central Management / Allies and Morrison

His advice to would-be technical leaders is to take every opportunity to be hands-on with some aspect of building.

'I've learned more from making, fixing and researching than from several degrees in architecture and engineering,' Taylor states. 'Also, don't focus just on buildings, learn from parallel industries that are ahead of ours.'

He watches developments in digital technology, the car industry with its JIT (just-in-time) and zero-defects management techniques and the space industry. He sees building physics and, of course, BIM as the most obvious areas of development in architecture at the moment.

At Levitt Bernstein, the Technical Manager is Andy Jobling, who says the key qualities needed for the job are an understanding of how buildings work, how they are constructed and the properties of materials.

Although a CAD manager early in his career, he likes to remind people that while you might be able to draw something to six-decimal places in CAD, on site it's all very different and success depends on understanding how building components will actually be put together.

Prior to joining Levitt Bernstein, Jobling's responsibilities went from CAD manager to manager of production information across the practice, followed by added responsibilities for QA systems and training. He took the same job description to Levitt Bernstein 20 years ago, where he also took on the role of CDM Principal Designer for the practice.

Five years ago the practice set up a technical team that became responsible for the drawing stage of all projects. Jobling says his colleague now takes the lead on production information for projects, while he takes care of the 'peripheral stuff'.

Apart from being a member of the RIBA Regulations and Standards Group, Jobling sits on the Wren Insurance Association's technical forum keeping an eye on potential sources of professional indemnity claims. Where once the forum's members would generally look after their practice's technical support, specification and CAD, these jobs are now too much for one person, and practices will have IT managers, BIM managers and perhaps specification specialists.

BIM, with all its requirements for defined work processes, is about to arrive at Levitt Bernstein. Jobling predicts that BIM will make work processes less flexible than they have previously been, but he says there is such a wealth of information that can be captured on projects. This should all make the BIM switch worth it.

BIM comes with the promise of so much embedded technical information that it looks like a digital rival to the traditional technical leader.

Jobling says that while a lot of young architects will go down the BIM IT route, there will always be a real need for people who understand how buildings are put together and how their components will perform.

He applies the same argument for members of the RIBA Regulations and Standards Group, which he says has an important role to play in informing the development of future products and software.

'It is important that it is not just left to the software engineers to design the software. As with standards, the authors need the technical input so that they understand what we need, what will work. I welcome the RIBA's activities in this area,' he says.

With thanks to Mark Taylor, Director at Allies and Morrison, and Andy Jobling, Technical Manager at Levitt Bernstein.

Text by Neal Morris, © RIBA

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