Inter-studio collaboration can produce truly inspiring projects. The combination of different styles can create stronger ties between architects, engineers and designers while breeding new design approaches. The collaborative process can lead to new and exciting results, but it’s also a route fraught with potential pitfalls. Failure to prepare for the potential difficulties inter-studio collaboration can generate could condemn a project before it has even begun.
As a firm with architecture studios in over 25 countries around the world, RMJM has a unique insight into the importance of successful collaboration in maintaining a consistent design vision.
Efficient and clear communication is vital to the collaboration process. Without regular inter-studio communication, creating a unified design vision becomes next to impossible. By maintaining a constant dialogue between studios, ideas can be shared, debated and crafted to ensure total cohesion across the duration of the project. With sustained communication comes a better understanding of the capabilities and design methods between each studio. This means the end result is a more coherent design, more likely to respond accurately to the client’s needs.
RMJM recently undertook the design of Metropol Istanbul (featured image), a large mixed-use development in Turkey. RMJM’s Istanbul and Dubai Studios worked in collaboration to complete the design on a tight schedule and a strict budget. The Dubai Studio brought the expertise of dealing with large branded mixed-use developments and the power to deliver such a large project in the tight time frames required. RMJM Istanbul brought the in-depth knowledge on the local conditions, history and social norms of the region. The Istanbul Studio maintained regular client contact throughout, acting as the communication hub for both the client and the two studios.
Just as communication is vital in ensuring both studios are working towards the same vision, project responsibility ownership is an essential aspect of the design process. By drawing up and agreeing to a complete breakdown of responsibilities across the different project stages, studios can effectively divide up the scope to ensure the project is completed on time, on budget and in line with the brief. This doesn’t just mean planning ahead. It means understanding the many stages of the design process and ensuring each is comprehensively planned, with each phase or sub-task clearly attributed to a specific designer or team.
RMJM generally use a responsibility matrix for managing this. This is a common tool generally used with sub consultants, applied in a very similar way for collaboration between studios. Tools should be kept simple clear and as visual as possible, as collaborating between different parts of the world often involves people communicating in a second or third language.
But a matrix does not guarantee good collaboration results. It’s vital that personal trust is built between collaborators. Between 2007 and 2009 RMJM’s New York Studio worked on numerous project in the UAE with the Dubai studio, producing innovative design work such as the Madinat al-Soor project. The high standards achieved in this project were only possible due the working relationship and trust built up between individuals of the time period.
A render for the Madinat al-Soor project in Dubai, a joint project between RMJM’s Dubai and New York studios
Strong support network
The need for a strong support network is also essential to the collaborative design process. The network must be capable of communicating changes to the entire team in a timely fashion, for example, changes in planning law, political influence, the client’s brief and objectives and other potential complications. To guarantee seamless cooperation between studios, all information relating to the project brief, budget constraints and or availability of materials must be accessible at every stage of the design process. A process should be in place to facilitate this, such as an online portal.
Whilst it’s vital designers maintain constant communication, so too must each studio’s corporate division be on hand to provide systematic support. RMJM faced the dilemma of working within a multi-studio, multi-disciplinary framework during the early stages of the Mecca and Medinah masterplan in Saudi Arabia in the late 1960s. To tackle the issues this approach posed, an interdisciplinary office was established in Jeddah, the major urban center of western Saudi Arabia. Local engineers and translators were hired to facilitate communication and encourage cooperation between groups. In doing so, the project became a truly collaborative effort, with local culture integrated into the design vision.
Understanding of individual capabilities
Taking advantage of individual and team strengths through coordination ensures every facet of the design process is managed by the most appropriate designer. Inter-studio collaboration is not a time to be modest. Each individual studio should be completely aware of their designers key strengths, and should make a case for why they would be best suited to lead that aspect of the design process. Collaboration is, at all times, an approach that requires an understanding of individual capabilities. Simultaneously, studios should also be honest about where they lack experience.
Understanding of local, regional and national culture
To understand the client’s vision, designers must first understand the culture from which this vision stems. To achieve a real understanding of another culture, designers must be ready to throw themselves into extensive research. Studying the architecture of the surrounding environment is just the start. To truly get a sense of the cultural context, designers must be willing to dive into the history of a city, as well as its national and international significance. In doing so, designers can share theories and design ideas with the long-term goal of creating a design that reflects both the local culture and environment.
In the build up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics for example, RMJM conducted extensive research into China’s rich cultural heritage. RMJM, who were in the process of designing the Beijing Olympic Green Convention Centre, then published a not-for-profit book to showcase their experience. The book, ‘Double 8’, captured everyday life living and working in China while exploring the country’s diverse architectural history. In doing so, the multi-studio collaboration conveyed their understanding of local culture, as well as their unified vision for the future of China’s architecture.
RMJM’s ‘Double 8’, celebrating life in modern day China
Drawing up a project programme
Understanding the time constraints of each studio is essential to the successful completion of the project, including factoring in time-zone differences. Ideally, time-zones should be used to extend the working day. By considering potential geographical hurdles as early into the process as possible, studios can establish a consistently reliable process of communication and a systematic means of sharing concepts. Regular Skype calls should be a must. An added advantage of implementing a detailed programme that includes not only deadlines but also key dates such as meetings will prevent time wasting later in the process.
Don’t let technology hold you back
Today studios rely increasingly heavily on design software and this opens up the risk of misalignment of the technology used by separate studios. Before allocating project responsibilities, every studio involved in the collaborative process should confirm they are on the same design software. If not, a plan needs to be devised for easy transfer between the studios’ different programmes. Failing to do this can cause details to be lost, or even damaged.