Working with architects

The Coach House Education Centre, Orleans House Gallery, at night. Photo Patel Taylor Architectural Practice
The Coach House Education Centre, Orleans House Gallery, at night. Photo Patel Taylor Architectural Practice

The most successful new or refurbished learning spaces – whatever the size – have come about from a close understanding between client and architect of what is needed. That means talking and listening, as well as designing.

It is the individuals involved, and their ability to collaborate effectively, that determine the success of the client-architect relationship. This means understanding each other’s approach and needs in terms of designing and fitting-out the space; and identifying and acknowledging gaps in expertise or knowledge of both client and architect.

When an architect is on board, your task is to decide what is needed and to provide a ‘starter brief’ as a guide. The architect’s task is to add value, and some magic, to that brief and to the eventual space. Your joint task is to come up with the final brief that will deliver what the client wants and the architect can design. In short, it is a two-way process.

In some cases the architect can provide new insights into the location, shape and content of your learning space, but don’t expect architects to know everything about your learning activities and their requirements; insist on additional expertise being brought in where necessary.

In developing their briefs, many sites have found it useful to take their architects with them on inspiration visits to other venues – even to different public buildings, such as theatres. These visits can also be effective in getting internal stakeholders on board and in generating excitement for a project.

Our case studies show that it is best to have one person act as the main link between staff and architects. Establish regular and straightforward ways for staff to consult together. How this is done depends on your organisation’s culture and staffing structure, but bear in mind the following important points:

  • Do not to allow hierarchies to restrict the involvement of the learning team in the consultation and decision-making processes – whatever the size of the project. Our work with a wide range of organisations highlights that the head of learning should always be part of the senior management team, and be seen as a key player in planning any learning space project
  • Ensure that everyone is involved in the consultation process in ways that are effective, transparent and trusting. Many organisations have used face-to-face presentations or design workshops to communicate with user groups
  • Although visuals can be helpful, avoid unrealistic artists’ impressions of learning spaces showing many more users than will actually be possible
  • Ensure that the development process includes clear sign-off points and that a record is made of all decisions taken
  • Set aside time for all involved to engage with brief-development, otherwise day jobs and routine tasks will get in the way
  • Make certain that everyone understands what is being proposed. Explain technical terms and architectural drawings and jargon. Always say when you don’t understand something, and encourage others to do the same Working with your architect

Working with your architect

  • Architects appreciate a strong client who knows what they want and is competent to write a good working brief
  • The journey from concept to outcome happens best where someone within the institution is championing the plans for the learning space
  • Find out which architect within the practice is in charge of the design for the learning space; it is often not the lead architect
  • Allow plenty of time to consider the plans: if in doubt, seek advice
  • Architects’ plans tend not show the room dimensions in square metres; this information must be requested. Remember to request the square metre dimensions before and after fit-out
  • Provision must be made from the outset for architects’ revision drawings
  • Research other learning spaces with similar dimensions to yours to see what is possible, keeping in mind that large institutions do not necessarily have better learning spaces. Smaller institutions sometimes offer more realistic and inventive models

Gillian Wolfe CBE, Learning Spaces Specialist Advisor

RIBA Plan of Work guidance

Since its conception in 1963, the RIBA Plan of Work has been the definitive model for building design and construction processes in the UK, and has also exerted significant influence internationally.

The RIBA Plan of Work 2020 organises the process of briefing, designing, constructing and operating building projects into eight stages and explains the stage outcomes, core tasks and information exchanges required at each stage.