Charles Rich

“I do the boring bits!”

Charles Rich, is a prominent consultant mostly hired by architects to deal with their contract and appointment issues. We spoke with Charles about his services and the implications of Brexit and the pandemic.

Can you tell us a bit about your professional background?

There’s quite a lot – going back to 1964! 

I spent 25 years in contracting, working on major projects around the World, firstly with Costain and then with Wimpey, after that I had 18 years corrective training at Foster + Partners. Since 2006 I have been running my own practice. “Timeline” on the Consultancy’s website has the details.

You are working as a freelance consultant mainly for architectural practices. What do you provide and how do you work with them?

I do the boring bits!

The biggest demands are to review architects’ appointments and to advise on contract administration.

The more interesting thing for me is design reviews looking at buildability and completeness for contractors’ information requirements.

Some practices retain my services on a permanent basis, others come as-and-when they have a need for advice and assistance. I keep it flexible so that I only provide the services which are needed.

What are the benefits of architectural offices working with an external consultant like you?

First and foremost they have over 55 years’ experience on tap, without  having to retain this in house. Secondly, I provide contractor style input into the designs, which would not otherwise be available to architects.

My experience means that I know the script by heart: by this I mean that nothing much actually changes, so I am aware of what happens, or could happen, next if certain actions are taken, or agreements made. 

I help architects to get a reasonable agreement as far as appointments are concerned and help them in the running projects.

One of the big benefits to architects is the quick phone call or email exchange about anything which they feel that they need some brief input or another view.

What are the biggest contractual mistakes architects make while being appointed and how do you help them to avoid these mistakes? 

Too often architects are afraid of tough contractual negotiations in case they lose the project.

Sorting out appointments is not part of an architects day job, they are creative people, not liking the chore of legal niceties: so I can read through the details of a draft appointment, mark it up and flag up the difficult points. Architects do not always understand how to argue their case, so I often sit alongside them, or deal directly with the Client, during negotiations.

I issue my clients with a guidance note “What Not to Sign” highlighting key points. Some of these are that reasonable skill and care must be applied to the Services and duties, there must be no guaranties otherwise PII will not respond, avoid milestone payments and get protection from default of others.

We see more architectural offices merge or buy each other around the world to become more powerful in large tenders. Do you think we’ll see a reduction in the number of architectural practices in the UK while they will become larger in size?  

No I don’t think so, in fact I think the larger practices spawn many smaller ones. 

If you were to make a list of those practices where the founders spent time with a larger practice then it would be a very long list indeed. I know this from just the sheer number of practices which have come from Foster + Partners over the years, some large, some small. Large practices give very good experience in running projects, but can offer little scope for individual design, which is why many people leave and set-up their own practices.

Also, the majority of architectural practices are less than 10 people. There are many more small projects than large ones, so size does matter, as large practices are not interested in smaller projects. As long as this market exists architects will form practices to meet the demand.

The practices which suffer are those in the middle which compete in both markets!

Wembley Stadium designed by Foster and Partners in joint venture with HOK, was one of the many large projects Charles Rich involved with. He put together the joint venture agreement and sat on the board of management throughout the project. On his last day with the Foster and Partners, he authorised the issue of the practical completion certificate. (Photo by Wikiolo)

What do you recommend for the Business Development managers of architectural practices in order to deal with the effects of Brexit? 

Firstly, look at the rules. UK has accepted European qualifications for architects; Europe has not reciprocated.

Secondly, it is a myth that architectural practice is a level and even playing field throughout Europe. Each country has its own laws relating to architects, their own standard appointments, services to be provided and liabilities.

Nothing has changed in this regard. It is essential to understand the set-up for practicing architecture for each country and respond accordingly.

So read OJEU notices, make sure that your practice gets proper registration in each country, look into collaboration with local architects and carry on as before.

You are also a senior lecturer in MSc BIM management at Middlesex University? What are your views on the architecture offices in the UK in terms of adapting themselves to contemporary BIM systems?

When the course started 8 years ago we spent a whole day with the first cohort debating “What is BIM”, now it is not a topic of discussion. This shows how far the profession has moved already.

BIM is an efficient design tool, which I first used back in 1978 on pipe racks in an oil terminal. It is not new technology: an opportunity to go into BIM was missed when moving from drawing board to CAD, so the profession has been playing catch-up.

No one now discusses the merits of parallel motion v CAD; in the same way this question should not now arise. Practices not using BIM will become uncompetitive and seen as backward looking, practices must adapt otherwise they will be left behind.

You mentioned the course, it is very focussed on management, this is because the technical side of BIM is relatively straightforward and can be taught. The key for architectural practices is that BIM requires much more management and is a really good opportunity for architects to reestablish themselves at the heart of projects, an opportunity which I think is passing many by.

Your clients are medium to large size practices which have a certain kind of reputation or history. What would your first advice be for a young, small practice to develop a solid design management process? 

Actually that is not true, many of my clients are less than 10 people.

My advice will be firstly to get a few small projects under your belt, be hands on and fully understand the whole process of running a project and a business. 

Some pointers: I would encourage peer reviews at regular stages through the project. Really get to grips with the process, when to stop optioneering and get on with the design. Understand what is really important to the design and what is not. Understand that good design is not expensive in terms of the finished building. Develop good communication skills, particularly with the Client, and respect the views of others.

If the longer term aim is to grow the practice then management skills will need to be learned, the hardest will be being able to delegate! This is because businesses do not grow entirely in a linear fashion, there are step changes to be made at various points which involve increased management and processes.

I also teach BSc Architectural Technology. Each year the first year students’ project is to divide into teams and design a three storey extension to an end of terrace townhouse. This is designed to bring out all the relevant design management skills and processes. It is in the first year syllabus because it is vital to understand all aspects of the design process. Something of this sort could be used as a business game if there are no live projects.

Always remember that cost must inform design.

How do you communicate and market your own business to gain new clients? 

Well I do have two websites and both of which have not directly generated business at all!

A lot of my work comes through word of mouth and networking, particularly the annual MIPIM event, the later are of course on hold now! I also do regular posts on LinkedIn.

I notice that, after I have met people, if they are interested in finding out more, then they visit the websites.

In normal times networking is the key. I was given some very good advice, when I started the business, which was “stay current”: in other words, just do things so that people are aware that you are out and about and active.

2020 was the year of missing annual targets for almost everyone but it was also a year to think about the way we make business and how we can develop it. What have you missed and achieved in the last year and what do you plan for 2021?

In terms of business, 2020 has been no real change, one client cut back, another came on board. The workload has been much the same.

People have come into my world, where I have had a home office for many years. This has enabled me to close the West End office and reduce overheads in a number of ways.

My video conferencing skills have improved a lot, particularly with the University and different clients. I have to use six different video meeting systems! Also adapting to online teaching has been a challenge which has been successfully resolved. 

2020 has brought a sea-change for architects Grenfell, not Covid, being the driver. The result will be architects requiring more help. The big ticket items are:

  • PII – hikes in premiums and severe endorsements regarding cladding and fire.
  • Building Regulations – major changes in how these operate are foreseen.
  • More emphasis on QA.

My plan for 2021 is to be prepared and ready to help architects through these difficult changes which will have a big impact on their culture.