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Testing tradition: design and build or traditional?

Criteo’s Mike Walley discusses cross-Atlantic comparisons and why sanity or madness hinges on the right team.

21/02/2022 3 min read
This article first appeared in Mix Interiors Issue 218


I have recently had two office redesign projects running concurrently. One being handled by a design and build firm, usually abbreviated to just D&B, and the other by the more traditional cabal of architects, consultants and contractors all herded into place by a project manager, usually known as ‘Traditional’. It gave me the chance to examine the different methodologies and to see just how these two very different beasts behave in the wild.

I have usually worked with D&B companies, as opposed to the traditional route, as it is by far the most common methodology used in Europe. Recently though, I have had to work in New York where D&B is almost unheard of and so I found myself employing a huge number of people with titles like ‘expeditor’, ‘contracts manager’ and ‘MEP consultant’.

I was excited to think that all these terribly clever people would be working to realise my new office design and had visions of myself lounging in a coffee shop with a conference call in my ear, listening to how smoothly everything was going. I am not so naïve to think there wouldn’t be one or two bumps in the road, but I was almost looking forward to the discussions where we came up with intelligent solutions and kept it all moving.

What I didn’t expect was everyone to start pointing fingers at everyone else and shouting that it was their fault, followed by a series of arse covering manoeuvres that would make your average sack full of cats stop and take notes. All the while, the clock was ticking.

I thought I would try and speed up the process and clear up a lot of the discussions about how to do things by sharing images and details of two other sites that had just completed their refurbishment using the same design. Big error.

Instead of using the data and images to expedite some decisions and do away with the need for material choices as they had already been made on the other sites, the budget went up as everyone said they didn’t realise how complex the design was and the delivery date moved off into the middle distance because unusual materials like wood may be ‘hard to source’ in the US.

I soon learnt to leave well alone and come to terms with the fact that, in the Traditional methodology everyone has an agenda and delivery of the project is just one item on the list. You can’t accelerate things because it shifts responsibilities in the group, implies cutting corners and upsets the balance of power, and that just gets you pushback – from everyone.

Meanwhile, back at the other project, the D&B team is all over it. The benefit of everyone working for the same company is evident. Their main target is to deliver the project the way I want it. They hungrily accept any data or insight I can share to shorten decision times and if things go awry, everyone blames the designer and moves on. Everyone’s reputation hangs on the successful delivery of the project as a whole and not just one part of it.

So, at first look it would seem that D&B is the way to go, but not so fast. If I use a small, hungry D&B company for my project, do they have the resources to cope if, say, there’s a Covid outbreak in the team? Is the business sufficiently liquid to make my mobilisation payment secure? Do they have the clout to get the contractors attention? So, let’s use a large D&B firm, yes? No. A large D&B firm behaves just like a Traditional style cabal of specialists. Each department is too far removed from the next to create a solid team and the departments all have an agenda, with my project just an item on it.

After much thought the solution was obvious. I should stop building big offices and stick to small, 50-person sites using small, hungry D&B firms where I get to deal with the owner. This will mean I am more likely to hit time and budget targets, my hair will remain a rich dark chestnut colour for many more years, I won’t sit bolt upright in bed at 3am realising something crucial has been forgotten and I am more likely to reach retirement without an ulcer. Job done.

Mike Walley is Senior Director of Global Real Estate & Workplace Strategy at Criteo

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