For many architects in Australia, a core part of their roles involves the ability to think, dream and create.

When delivering projects which are innovative and involve bespoke elements, however, many experience challenges in respect of structural limitations, inflexible consultants and site complexities.

This raises questions about how architects can work with engineers, builders and others to deliver projects which are innovative yet structurally sound and safe and constructed in a manner which is efficient and cost effective.

Peter Standen, a structural engineer and director of multi-disciplinary engineering firm Partridge, recently spoke on this topic at a session hosted jointly by Engineers Australia and the Australian Institute of Architects.  In a subsequent interview, Standen shared key points from this with Sourceable.

Scott Clements, managing director of civil and structural engineering and project management firm Inertia, also offered insights.

According to Standen, the most important thing is to gain alignment among the project team in the vision and objectives of the development.

For this to happen, he says several elements are needed.

First, buy-in from clients is essential. Once they decide to pursue a bespoke or innovative outcome, Standen says clients must be willing to undertake a process of iteration and design development to make this happen. When doing this, they should influence decision making at critical junctures but also be willing to allow architects and project managers to drive the process.

Next, selection of project team members is critical. This includes many types of engineers and consultants right through to the builders and forepersons.

Several qualities are needed.

First, each project team member must engage in the development and must want to be there.

They also need a commitment to building rapport and respect for the value which others bring to the table. Engineers, for instance, need to appreciate and respect the architect’s vision about how they are going to make volumes, spaces and aesthetics work together or how they are going to use light and ventilation to engage with the natural environment. They can then support the architect’s vision by devising clever geometric ways, materials or modes which can help to deliver upon this.

On a related note, all parties need to be humble and be willing to accept advice. Engineers need to be receptive to suggestions from architects or builders. Architects, for their part, should be open to suggestions such as varying materials or moving walls as a means to enable features such as bigger spans or larger cantilevers.

Next, all team members must have sufficient competence and expertise to fulfil their part in project requirements. This, Standen said, is critical. No matter how great the design concept, it can only be delivered by teams who have the skills needed to make it happen from a technical perspective.

Aside from being essential in themselves, sound technical skills are necessary to build rapport. Project team members, Standen says, will only have respect for and confidence and trust in others where they feel certain that they are dealing with a competent operator.

Finally, team members must be positive and have a ‘can do’ attitude. Their natural position must be that delivering on challenging designs is possible and that all reasonable avenues by which this can be done should be explored.

Next, Standen stresses the importance of early involvement of contractors and consultants.

Under traditional project delivery methods, clients approach architects who receive a brief and prepare a design before going to council for approval of the development application. Only after approval has been granted will other consultants be engaged before the project is put out to tender for builders.

By contrast, under the most successful projects with which he has been involved, Standen says engineers have been engaged for input prior to DA to ensure that issues associated with constructability are addressed and that allowances for matters such as building heights or ceiling zones are adequate. This, he says, brings forward additional costs but delivers value though addressing critical areas of risk in the approval process.

Also valuable at this point is input from quantity surveyors and/or builders. The former can provide insight on cost whilst that latter can advise on areas of constructability which could inform architectural details.

Next, critical architectural details should be worked through before issuing the engineering brief. On occasion, Standen says, architects and engineers have become frustrated as a result of asking engineers to press on with engineering design before important details regarding architectural design are nailed down.

This could be problematic, for example, where an engineer is engaged on a high-end residential project and the architect asks them to design the floor structure. Whilst the engineer might presume this is a carpet or timber floating floor, the client may in fact come back and ask for a polished concrete floor with hydronic heating. This could mean that the concrete topping might come in at 80 millimetres thick, adding in the order of 150 kilograms in weight per square metre.

When these issues are identified upfront, they can be incorporated into the engineering design with few problems. Where this is not the case, however, part of the engineering design may have to be reworked.

Finally, both the budget for consulting fees and the time frame and cost allowed for construction must be adequate. Compared with more vanilla counterparts, Standen says innovative and/or complex projects require greater effort to design and more time and cost to build. This can only happen where time frames and budgets are adequate.

Clements, meanwhile, talks of two important concepts.

First, strong project leadership is needed from the client. Clients, Clements says, set the budget, direction and ultimate objectives for the development. Thus it is critical that they, together with architects, set clear objectives and communicate these with the project team.

By understanding these objectives, all project team members can be clear about whether the client wants something similar to other projects, a little bit distinct or completely bespoke as well as how tight the budgets are.

He says this helps set the scene for conversations down the track. Even where the client or architect specifies that something unique or bespoke is required but that this has to be done within a constrained budget (something which is difficult), builders and engineers can at least appreciate the parameters around which they are working. Should the architect then come back with concepts which are difficult to design structurally or to construct within budget constraints, engineers and builders can at least come back to the architect and raise this as a discussion point.

Second, Clements agrees about the importance of early communication. Ideally, he says, key consultants such as structural engineers as well as builders should be consulted during design concept to enable issues or concerns to be identified and addressed early on.

At the outset, he says the architect would devise the initial concept. This would then be circulated to the builder and key consultants who would then get together with the architect and discuss their suggestions or concerns. This should happen at first before design concept is finalised and then at various stages throughout design detail.

This is important; often, similar functional outcomes can be achieved using different methods of which some might be more or less costly than others. This, however, may not always be readily apparent until consultation with key project team members occurs.

Clements also agrees with Standen’s point about mutual goodwill and respect. Ideally, he said, all parties should get to know each other and understand how others work and what their needs or requirements are.

Around Australia, architects pursuing innovative or difficult projects face challenge when it comes to engineering detail and important questions of constructability.

Where all parties cooperate in a spirit of mutual vision, trust and respect, these issues can usually be worked through to arrive at appropriate solutions.