Ask the Architect: Nigel Ostime

Regular ADF contributor, and partner at Hawkins\Brown, Nigel Ostime answers our questions on the role of the architect, and what designers need to learn from other sectors when it comes to efficiency

What made you want to become an architect?
As a teenager trying to decide what to do with my life, like most people who want to become an architect I knew very little about what the job actually entails, but – presumably also like most people – had a vision of designing and realising beautiful, well-crafted buildings. I enjoyed drawing and I suppose at that time I thought it would be a rewarding and stable job. Well I was right about one of those!

In my first year a tutor told us (too late as we had already committed!) that architecture was no way to earn money. I think it went over our heads anyway to be honest. What he didn’t say was that it is also part of an industry that suffers from the turmoil of a fluctuating economy. I have worked through two major recessions, both of which have had an impact on me. But no regrets.

What do you like about it most currently?
My role at Hawkins\Brown allows me to pursue two particular interests. The first is enthusiasm for driving efficiency in the project process and making more time for the iterative design process where as architects we add the most value.

The second is in design for manufacture and assembly (DfMA) and digital technology, both of which I promote through my work and through the organisations I am a member of. I am currently leading the development of a second edition of the RIBA’s DfMA Overlay to the Plan of Work, which is due for publication in the autumn. And I am starting a group within the Offsite Alliance which aims to bring together architects and manufacturers of offsite products to better understand each other and find ways to promote modern methods of construction.

If our industry doesn’t get to grips with these things, we are destined for hard times; I firmly believe this is mission critical.

What is the hardest part of your job?
I think architects always struggle with too much to do, in not enough time, and I am no exception to that. It stems from our innate enthusiasm and always wanting to push the boundaries.

What advice would you give to architects starting out?
I am an advocate of the benefits of networking and of keeping on top of current affairs: who is doing what, and the big topics of the day. I can point to a number of rewarding outcomes from doing this, all totally unforeseen and unplanned but which would not have happened without being prepared to invest time and energy in keeping in touch, and putting people in touch with each other.

One by-product (paradoxically, it seems so long as it is not what you set out to do), is that new opportunities arise serendipitously that otherwise would not have.

How have you adjusted to new ways of working since the pandemic?
As one of the lucky ones with a spare room to use as my home office, it has been pretty easy really, although like everyone I’ve missed the company of colleagues. Working from home has been a catalyst for using technology to communicate and it has no doubt changed the way we work forever. We are starting to go back to the office but only part-time, and this looks likely to continue for the foreseeable future. The workplace is now focused on collaboration, with task-based activities taking place remotely. There are advantages and disadvantages, but the pandemic has no doubt brought about change more quickly. We may well have arrived at this place without Covid-19, but it would have taken much longer. The greatest changes in society happen as a result of turmoil of one sort or another, and this is one outcome of prolonged lockdown.

What is the biggest challenge of chairing the RIBA Client Liaison Group?
I set up the Group seven years ago with a view to making the institute more outward facing, and to hear the views of clients on what our profession does well and where we need to improve. We’ve published some interesting reports over the years, but the biggest challenge is persuading members to follow the very clear messages clients are sending out. The fact is architects (and no doubt other professionals) find it difficult to change and to find time to initiate change. We need to step back from the coal face and pause for reflection if we are to achieve the elusive continuous improvement that we see in the manufacturing industry, but not in ours.

What is your proudest professional achievement?
I have written nine books for the RIBA and I’m proud of what they have done to help students and practitioners in a very practical way. But my proudest achievement would be the buildings where I can legitimately lay claim to have been the author. There is a sweet spot in your career where you get to lead while still not being bogged down with practice management, and all those buildings derive from that time.

What single technology innovation would make the architect’s job easier?
No one became an architect to write schedules and do the more prosaic pieces of work the job entails. Where architects really add value is in the creative design process, so whatever digital technologies take away the mundane and free our time for that are great in my book. This does to some extent mean accepting standardisation, which many architects are afraid of. But technology is essential to our future success.

Hawkins\Brown has developed a significant portfolio of digital design tools and plugins and we are now starting to look at software as a service, something I didn’t even know about a year ago. This is where our future lies as a profession and we must embrace it. The next big thing will be ‘servitisation’ (suppliers’ shift in focus from manufacturing to providing services).

What’s your big short-term goal?
I’m pretty passionate about persuading the architectural profession to embrace DfMA and adopt a manufacturing mindset. But these things start small and closer to home, so we are on a journey to broaden our knowledge of modern methods of construction within the practice and the necessary optioneering process that must happen at concept design stage (RIBA Stage 2) and make this ‘business as usual.’

Is architecture sometimes more about being a good diplomat than being a great designer?
You do learn over time that the best way of achieving your goals is through collaboration. I always try to listen carefully and be prepared to learn from others.

Nigel Ostime is a partner at Hawkins\Brown Architects