Getting the most out of your architect (at the outset)


Architects that work with local government project managers are part of the team charged with delivering public works for the community. As such, a focus on working effectively with architects and designers can help to minimise time, expenditure and professional frustration for the benefit of the project and everyone involved.

As a director and project architect in a boutique practice whose raison d’etre is to serve the public, we hold the same values as local government and are grateful to be able to work for the community.

For the most efficient and successful building projects, the following points warrant careful consideration:

• how to work with your architect to develop the brief (only once!)

• other skills and expertise your architect has that go beyond ‘building design’

• why each project needs a ‘guardian angel’.

Recently, on local government projects of varying scale in sports, public infrastructure, community, and early childhood and health services, I have been working closely with local government project managers. These professionals are fundamentally at the coalface of delivering projects for their constituents. Their role cannot be understated!

I have the privilege of working with project managers who have come from a range of building and design professions, some who come from a hands-on building and trades background, and others who have practiced as architects and designers on large city-building projects. Regardless of their background, the best project managers come with a lot of experience, and also a unique way of doing things that is related to their professional and project experience.

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Notwithstanding the levels of administration and reporting they must generally adhere to, project managers are fundamentally the ones responsible for delivering to their community. They also have a lot on their plate and, in my experience, they appreciate as much help as they can get!

I’ve also tendered on a lot of local government projects, with varying levels of success. Most local government organisations engage with professional services outside their walls to provide professional design, documentation and procurement services. Sometimes this is out of need, as they don’t have the expertise in-house, and sometimes it’s driven by commercial and derisking imperatives, which makes sense given the number of ratepayers and the amount of money allocated to civic services.

When it comes to new capital projects, the project managers reading this article will know better than the author, but there are usually months, even years, of planning, feasibility, investigation and conversations to work out where the community need is, and where ratepayer funds might be best spent on new projects. Often, project managers, in conjunction with their service departments and relevant community stakeholders, will put together a document like a functional brief. This is usually well before they have engaged any external architects.

Functional briefs are usually very prescriptive, quantitative documents, and this is intentional. Their tone is quite factual. They often come with minimum sizes for certain types of rooms, and design principles that are not industry standard. These documents are a great starting point for preparing a return brief; but when they are treated like a project Bible, a disconnect between architects and project managers can occur.

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Above: Community engagement seminar for Belvedere Community & Child Centre (author centre).

Getting something in writing from the client on the outset is great – I wish more clients did this. On some of my smaller projects, I ask clients to fill out a questionnaire before I meet them. We always write a return brief and ask the client to sign this off before we start design work. I see this questionnaire as a living document that is written in partnership with the client, not just created by my team. The purpose of this process is to understand the client’s expectations about what the project is, and it also gives us design guidelines about what we are working on. Often, through the process of roundtable discussions with the project client group and stakeholders, different ideas and approaches come up. As independent advisers, architects can ask the difficult or unspoken questions in the room, getting to the crux of what a project actually needs, what a project could be, and how a project could contribute to its urban and social context into the future. Writing a return brief in partnership with the project client group is as much about confirming the quantitative (the functional), as it is about confirming the qualitative (the pragmatic, and the other intangible qualities that are desired).

There are also financial incentives attached to the return brief. If you have signed your architect’s return brief, and if, during the design process, you as project manager have asked them to change or add programmatic items not previously discussed, commercial-minded architects could use this as an opportunity to claim a variation for cost and time because the nature of the work has changed from what was previously agreed; however, on the flipside, if the architect has not addressed items specifically listed in the brief, unless there are
mitigating factors as to why this was the case, having a return brief is for your benefit.

Even when my team has designed a fantastic building that’s within budget and program, it’s not up to me to decide whether a project gets built or not. Clients are the ones that drive this. Celebrated Melbourne-based architect Adj. Prof. Peter Elliott AM says that as much as a project needs someone to lead it, public projects need a guardian angel to really help them along. These are the people behind the scenes who believe that the design is worthy of getting built, and do everything within their power to make it happen. Project sponsors fulfil this role, but project managers can also step into the breach and get behind a project.

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Your architectural team will ask difficult questions to challenge expectations with long-term thinking in mind. Working in a conscious partnership with your architect when writing your next project brief will result in the best outcomes for your professional team and the local community.

Redmond Hamlett is a director of Woollan Hamlett Architects Pty Ltd. The company specialises in community, education and small projects. For more information phone 0414 838 317 or visit

Article originally published in the Australian Local Government Yearbook, Edition 26 2019.