I have a co-worker—let's call her Sally. We sit right next to each other, having
worked on the same healthcare design project for the past year. She is my go-to
person, and I trust her completely. However, there is more to the story: Sally
is more than a co-worker to me. She's the enemy.
You see, Sally and I
work for different architectural firms. Under normal conditions, we would be
competitors, trying to annihilate each other in proposals and interviews to
acquire a key commission. So what allows us to work together so amicably
Sally and I are participants in a decades-long trend of
architectural teaming for healthcare design. A variety of attractions can
overcome a natural distrust of another (potentially competing) firm: a new
client or geographic area or an office that is local to the client. It also
allows us to add staff with less vulnerability.
There are two types of
team structures: a joint venture partnership, balancing rewards and risks
between the firms; or a prime consultant with an associated architect, giving
one firm control. Work can be divided by discipline or phase, or the team can be
blended. It is this latter model that put Sally next to me. The bottom line is
that, at the time of pursuit, teaming seems like the best way to get the
project, even if each firm gets less of it.
Of course, not everyone is a
"Sally." It's quite possible to dislike your partner, and frictions can hurt the
project. Additionally, team roles can become chaotically unclear. Further, a
future competitor may learn too much or pigeonhole the other firm into a
supporting role. For the client, the upside of tailored resources is often
offset by a complex organizational chart that is inexperienced as a team. Teams
work best when there is a shared culture, roles are clear, and both firms gain
from the association.
While teaming is not new, the economic downturn may
lead to more shotgun marriages as firms woo clients with a dazzling lineup of
talent and experience, hoping to figure out logistics later. Thus, it will be
vital to pay attention to some trends that introduce new variables into the
First, the general adoption of Building Information Modeling (BIM)
is blurring the distinction between design and production, a classic division of
roles between paired firms. On the other hand, BIM remedies some of the
coordination challenges of the classic local firm formula.
apropos to local firms, pundits long predicted that technology would make us all
virtually local. That promise is yet to arrive for clients who still want an
actual significant person nearby. At the same time, healthcare clients
increasingly depend for vision and value on the innovation of a national
A third key trend is Integrated Project Delivery (IPD), which
blends architects, engineers, contractors, and client representatives into a
single-entity project team. IPD is expanding architects' conception of the
project team, training them to play better with others, including erstwhile
So what is ahead for these "marriages of convenience"? If
healthcare clients get used to cherry-picking consultant teams, that will make
it more difficult for firms to go it alone. Like major motion pictures, now
launched by several studios, so the sole firm authorship of significant
healthcare projects may become the exception.
Current calls to reduce
healthcare costs may result in the reexamination of prior models of care
delivery: semi-private rooms, for instance. Thus, firms with a long history may
have a better perspective for balancing historical models with recent
innovations, offering a new incentive for firm association.
all architectural firms may survive the current downturn. Especially vulnerable
will be the recent colonization of national practices in lucrative regions—too
recent perhaps to have taken root. As these colonies fold, many of the
employees, and even partners, stranded in foreign territory by a difficult
housing market will eventually find themselves welcomed into local firms. While
design has always been a "small community," the upcoming shuffling of
allegiances may well be unprecedented. It could result in a much greater
willingness to partner.
As for Sally, I will keep rooting for her, even
when she's back where she belongs.
Eric Meub, AIA, LEED AP, is vice
president at SmithGroup and serves as the design principal of the San Francisco