Your project leader walks up to the team and asks for a volunteer. A hushed silence follows. Your colleagues glare are at their screens with manufactured vigour, only to avoid eye contact with their task master. Some steal furtive glances across the office, resisting the pressure of the crushing silence that has befallen. Eventually, and with much reluctance, you raise your hand, if only to relieve the tension. You have no idea what is going to be asked of you. Perhaps you will learn something? Perhaps this will be to keep your hand down in future?
Going first is especially daunting in a creative environment where it can feel as though your work and ideas are used as an unfair measure of you as a person. Creativity is a forced and vulnerable process. Ideas are by definition unresolved and fragile. On top of this ideas and decisions are influenced by the context in which they are made. The process is fluid. A solution to a technical problem might be shouted down one week, only to be agreed as the best option the following week. Context is everything. To improve your design process you must practice your response to context. To do this, you must overcome the fear of going first.
As contributors to many of today's design teams, architects must put themselves and their views up for review on a regular basis. In spite of the discomfort this causes it is where the most can be learnt about a project and its stakeholders. It is better to be wasteful during the design process than it is to be wasteful in the construction and inhabitation of buildings. All projects begin with somebody putting an idea into the open. This is when a project is most fresh and flexible, it is the time of greatest possibility. For young architects, this stage can be daunting. It was terrifying enough to offer your work up to the scrutiny of university critics, now your ideas are to be interrogated by clients, town planners and the public, all of whom have very different perceptions and expectations.
To overcome the fear of going first, an architect has to realise that they cannot be effective in their role if they do not make their views heard. From concept design, through to technical design and construction, the idea must remain at the centre of the process. Anything that is conceived in the abstract to then be brought into the physical world must compromise, the laws of gravity, economics and build-ability are too powerful. It is the architect’s responsibility to develop the vision for a project and protect the design throughout its navigation of these challenges.
By going first, architects have the opportunity to instigate positive design conversations and influence project outcomes. This is achieved by asking the right questions at the right time so that problems are resolved. Subsequently architects spend most of their day keeping an eye on multiple issues. The complexity of today’s construction industry coerces architects into a reactive design process, defined by standards and regulations beyond our control. Architecture that surrenders to these constraints becomes no more than a physical representation of the law. Compliance with the regulations can be onerous, but it is essential so that all buildings protect users and the general public. An architect must reconcile these often conflicting influences while defending the original creative vision.
There is much talk about the architect’s continuing “marginalisation.” Too often, this discussion overlooks the fact that the construction industry has evolved and is now too complex to allow a single profession to take sole responsibility for the design, specification and delivery of buildings. Architects have modified their role to focus on presenting a strong design intent at the beginning of a project, then work hard to keep themselves at the centre of the design process to ensure that the idea is realised. All building professionals are the facilitators of great work. The best way for architects to protect their influence is to cultivate a basic yet broad knowledge of the other specialisms within the construction industry. Be greedy with what you can learn from others, because understanding what is most important to your fellow consultants makes for easier and more inclusive design processes.
In all of this, you should always reserve the right to change your mind. Every decision is influenced by its context. More often than not the ideas that work out well are just as much a product of favourable context as a bad idea is a product of unfavourable circumstances. All that we can do is learn from past decisions, and to do that we have to raise our hands, and go first.