Architects and the Facilitation of Development Meetings

Posted Jan 13th, 2023 in Design, Business of Architecture

What do architects actually do?  In the past, it was largely a matter of designing buildings, creating drawings to instruct builders, and seeing that the builders implemented things appropriately.  These are still part of what architects do, but things have changed.  One of the often-overlooked elements of creating and renovating buildings is the facilitation of processes, especially as things have become more complex, and approval and regulatory processes have increased in importance.  Making these things happen is an integral part of virtually every real estate-based endeavour.  Processes that unfold efficiently and allow creativity can considerably enhance project value, and one in which architects usually play a very important role.   

The Concise Oxford English Dictionary offers a definition: “facilitate… make easy or less difficult or more easily achieved.”  The online Cambridge English Dictionary goes further and defines ‘facilitator’ as “…someone who helps a person or organization do something more easily or find the answer to problems, by discussing things and suggesting ways of doing things.”  Clearly, this is desirable when it comes to creating better buildings more efficiently, yet this simple definition does not fully capture the depth of the possibilities of facilitation. 

The creation or modification of buildings, urban settings or infrastructure involves a process with many characteristics that make the facilitation function more important and complex than for many other management activities. 

  • Building inevitably involves groups of people, who will probably never meet all together; they may only ever work together on one project;
  • Participants may only be involved in certain aspects of a project – for example soils engineers’ work tends to end once a building rises from the ground;
  • Project teams are usually non-hierarchical with no clear overall ‘boss’; 
  • There are contractual (and sub-contractual) relations between the project team members that may define formal flows of information;
  • Most team members have professional obligations that require that they cannot just do anything a leader wants.  This includes the architects and engineers, through specialist consultants, such as land surveyors, environmental consultants, accountants, marketing people, real estate agents and lawyers, to the trades – plumbers, electricians and gas installers who are all required to adhere to specific codes and practices;
  • Most team members have their own specialisations, so have knowledge that should be available to benefit the project;
  • Specialisations abound – for example roofers tend to know how to do their work efficiently and safely, and sometimes know why premature roofing failures occur, so enabling the flow of information will decrease the likelihood of future problems. 

All of this means that one important role of architects is to act as facilitators in what should be a collaboration between participants – to enable processes that make the best use of a wide range of project contributors.  This facilitation role does vary with, for example, the project definition and design stages having different objectives, and having different participants than the construction or commissioning stages. 

Formal facilitation processes, as led by a professional facilitator, are rare in the development, design and building world, so architects, engineers and various managers take on the role.  This usually occurs informally, with the participants not knowing they are facilitating or being facilitated.  Hence, this sort of facilitator faces multiple tasks, usually including his/her own role in the project as manager, architect or engineer. 

Nevertheless, the literature on formal facilitation offers useful ideas. 

  • Good facilitation can allow various types of groups to work together effectively, with a minimum of conflict.
  • That the objective is to create a process that encourages insightful, creative and collaborative problem-solving that advances the project efficiently.
  • Good facilitation creates a structure that encourages the sharing of everyone’s perspectives and ideas. 
  • The process often is iterative, as it explores solutions to project issues.
  • The tools can be quite simple.  Strangely, one of the best tools to support effective facilitation remains paper flipcharts and a set of coloured markers; this, in contrast to many higher-tech alternatives, better encourages a flow of unstructured, unconstrained thought to be collected, viewed, and recorded.  Flipcharts encourage conciseness – long sentences are foreign to flipcharts.  They can also be pinned up on walls, showing the thought processes through notes, drafts, charts, scribbles and even scratched out ideas everyone thought were dead ends. 
  • Participants should, at least for meetings which are essentially facilitative, be regarded as having equal status, which can be difficult given various organisational structures.
  • A record of the meeting is necessary to recall and implement the resolutions (and matters requiring more data and/or discussion) made through the process. 
  • Quite apart from the dictionary definitions, a successful facilitative process leads not just to better solutions to design issues, but acceptance and engagement with those ideas, by members of the project team. 

There are a variety of potential issues to be avoided, accommodated or resolved:

  • Inevitably, the biggest issues always have to do with people and various personality types.  The point of many meetings is to generate ideas, explore their feasibility, and develop them.  Yet this can be destroyed by dominant personalities, who follow their own agendas, while undermining quieter and more thoughtful, and perhaps more experienced individuals. 
  • -Normal human issues in collective decision-making have to be dealt with.  Frequently, people will acquiesce to the apparent views of the seeming majority, even though they have other, and perhaps more appropriate points of view.  The management literature has many examples of this sort of failure.
  • One difficult task for the facilitator is to recognise that the facilitation activity is very important in itself, and he/she has to keep their individual preferences somewhat under control, even as they conduct the session and crystallise the results.  In development/ construction the facilitator is often an expert in some area. He/she has to tactfully manage the facilitation process in order to get acceptance of their own knowledge, without crushing the input of other participants. 
  • Immediate attacks on ideas are to be deterred.  Positive aspects of suggestions should be brought forward before anything negative. 
  • There can be issues with matching space to the facilitation meeting process.  More recently, with the rise of online sessions, meetings are often not face-to-face.  This adds another concern, as it becomes easier for participants to become passive.
  • -There are often differences in weighting of desired outcomes at different project stages:
  •       (a) Looking for creative solutions (this is always significant throughout any project, but especially important in early project stages)
  •       (b) Looking for technical solutions (searching for specific solutions)
  • Formal facilitation sessions may last a day or more.  Interestingly, while this might be a good use of time because of the significant costs of creating buildings and the related potential for savings and efficiencies, it is likely that most development/construction meetings will be, at most, a few hours in duration. 

In the everyday world of creating buildings, formal facilitators and facilitation sessions are uncommon.  Effectively, the role of facilitator tends to fall on some member of the overall team of people who have some project role – often one of the key designers, often an architect or engineer, who has to steer the process to desirable outcomes, but may not know they have become the primary facilitator.  It may be desirable for this role to be more recognised, transparent and defined.

The use of some of the basic concepts of collaborative facilitation will help to achieve enhanced project results and value.  Hence, even an awareness that one is playing a facilitation role, should help in making approval, design and construction processes  more productive.

This piece was prepared by Ian Ellingham, MBA, PhD, PLE, FRAIC, who is an architect and land economist, and has, as a development manager, has worked to facilitate many projects.  He has also worked on research funded by various government bodies in Canada and Europe, and by the private sector.