Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Heirarchical politics within building projects

We had a meeting with the architect and the site foreman yesterday. The boss of the builders turned up too.  It felt a bit like he was our dad, come to check we were all playing nicely together. A couple of things have brought this to a head, but from my perspective it comes down to the heirarchy of the project management. 

In Japanese, the word "sensei" is applied to architects. This loosely translates to "teacher", but is also applied to doctors, lawyers and politicians. It encompasses some of the confucian notions of seniority and respect. As far as the architect is concerned, and I think this is architects in general and nothing personal about our architect, he's at the top of the tripod. In one direction below him is the client. The client is important as he is funding the architect's creation of an artwork. In another direction is the builder, and in the other are the subcontractors. Architects bring work to builders, so there is a sense in which the builders are working for the architects, and some respect and gratitude are due. The contractors have to work with the architect's plans, and part of the architect's job is apparently to check that the building is built to his plans. (I'm afraid architects are usually "he"s.)

Behind their backs I've heard carpenters call artchitects egakiya (picture drawers) and complain that it's easy to put things in place on a bit of paper, but not always possible in the real world.

In terms of relationships, the one between the architect and client is likely to be short-lived. Very few people will build a second house, and if they do they are likely to use a different architect. Clients may recommend an architect to their friends. 

The relationship between the architect and builder is much more important as the architect needs the builder to turn his drawings into buildings, and the builder needs the architect to bring in business. The architect may meet the same contractors on various different projects, and those relationships are long-term too. Obviously the relationship between the builder and contractors is important, so the three legs of the tripod are not all independent, but, as far as the architect is concerned, the relationship between client and builder should be kept to a minimum, ideally just the handing over of as much money as possible, and there should be no relationship between client and contractors.

The architect is reluctant for the client to talk to the builder because it makes the flow of ideas and the making of decisions much more complicated. Also, architects are human and do not know everything, and conversations between client and builder may reveal some weaknesses. 

So the way it's supposed to work is that the architect talks to the client and decides what kind of building he can get away with. He then takes these plans to the builder. The builder gets all the contractors together and builds the building. The architect checks this when necessary, or when he's not too busy on the next job--after all architects usually need to be starting working on their next project by the time the building starts on the last one. Then the keys are handed over to the client, who lives there happily every after.  

It's difficult to say, but I'm sure a massive percentage of clients are not really happy with the houses that are built for them, but with people in Japan being such stalwarts, and gaman being much more of a national institution than a stiff upper lip ever was in England, they usually don't say anything, and probably often enough don't even realise that their ideas and their ultimate welfare has been largely ignored in the process. 

We have presented challenges to this status quo in a couple of ways. For example, I want as much involvement in the building as possible, and not just in deciding what colour the walls are, but deciding where the wires and hot water pipes are going to go, deciding on the construction of walls, placement of insulation and puncturing of the thermal envelope to get wires in and out. 

We've been meeting the architect on a fairly regular basis for almost two years now, in a long and painful process of getting our ideas from vague notions, theories and preferences into concrete, through the filters of his extensive knowledge of building and his sense of style, and within the constraints of physics and economics, and all of our tenuous understandings of those. 

Before the concrete was laid, we started to have weekly meetings with the builder and the architect. These seemed to go well for a few weeks, but at some point petered out. We went back to the situation of meeting the architect, and the architect meeting the builder. This came to my attention acutely on Friday when we had had a meeting with the architect in the morning to discuss the lights in the house, and in the afternoon, when I went for my daily visit to the building site, I saw him talking to the foreman about installing the shutters, and saw the electrician putting in the wiring, based on a wiring plan that I had not even seen.