It takes time to develop stereotypes, and with the owner’s representation being a newer niche service in the AEC industry, we have not fully formulated a stigma, but it appears to be in the works. As an architect turned owner’s representative fifteen years ago, I have gained a perspective as I guide clients through the design and construction process. I quickly learned that there are owners sometimes buy into widely held beliefs stemming from architecture and construction professionals’ stereotypes. Despite consistent efforts to shed our respective stereotypes to owners, they continue to resurface time and time again.
Most people form their understanding of the profession of architecture from the cinema or news articles about high profile projects, such as airports or art museums. The prominence of “starchitects” took off in the dot com era of 2003, and some owners we contract with are still reacting to the perceived attitude stemming from the a-typical, opulent, dot.com-driven design. Some of the stigmas that have yet to fade from owners’ minds are the tendency of architects to over-design, not listen, and be arrogant. Design teams continue to overcome these issues by marketing themselves with tag lines like, “We Listen.” While this is a step to acknowledging an owner’s concern, but we advise you to take it further, so your tagline is not just a platitude. We strongly discourage offering up solutions based on your perceived understanding of the project before hearing directly from the owner’s leadership team on their goals, be it a need or want, then devise possible solutions.
Being an owner’s representative, you learn many reasons why owners were reasonably concerned about the stereotypes playing out as true; the doubt often stems from the communication taking place. Like most professions, architecture has geek-speak. After a particular design team interview, the client looked at me and asked, “What’s a beacon, and why do I need one?” and, “Who is this BIM person they keep mentioning that they work with?” We encourage design professionals to drive collaborative design processes to mitigate the owner’s concerns, not go straight for the technical solution components. Allow your clients time to ponder the ideas presented and follow up with them outside of the group setting to ensure they understand the process. This proactive communication will break down any arrogant stereotype immediately.
General contractors are also a victim of stereotypes. Many of our clients’ exposure to the world of construction is through a small project at their own home or of that of a friend’s, and not via experience with a larger, sophisticated organization. We all know that home renovations are often an emotional undertaking frequently filled with frustration, founded or not, towards the general contractor. Additionally, general contractors are tied to the subcontractor market, which increases risk by having many more personalities on their team. We continue to see language in the owner’s representative RFPs related to quality control inspections, cost validation, and change order mitigation; this is telling of the stereotypes held by owners of general contractors. The stereotypes forged long ago continue to seep into our clients’ frontal lobes inhibiting their ability to make decisions related to who they can trust to construct their next project. General contractors continue to respond to the concerns with a push for negotiated work with full transparency and have gained much ground overcoming stereotypes by demonstrating their worth with open-book processes.
As the owner’s representative role evolves, we see stereotypes for the service formulate. One is the belief that “Owner’s representatives don’t provide value to architects and contractors.” I can understand why the AEC industry sees little value in the services of an owner’s representative. Like the owner’s financial department, much of their work to finance a project goes unseen by our AEC colleagues. Many of our responsibilities take place behind the scenes as we serve as a direct advisor to the owner and, depending on the agreement, have limited interaction with the design and construction team.
Another stereotype we hear is: “Owner’s representatives have their favorite teams in place.” This perception is of great concern. It boldly contradicts the purpose of our role to serve as an independent consultant. Our mission is to build the best team at the best value to the owner and the project at hand. Like AEC professionals, owner’s representatives are focused on specific project types. Actively working in common markets naturally increases the odds of working together multiple times. One only needs to review the Colorado recreation center market as a prime example.
The latest evolving stereotype could be the worst of all, “Owner’s representatives can’t be trusted to run a fair process.” Unlike architects and contractors, deliverables of the owner’s representative are less pronounced as we manage the processes on behalf of the owner. Our refined processes of procurement, quality control, budget management, and payment are only valuable if our integrity remains at the highest level of fairness and transparency. If anything can quickly formulate (or solidify) a stereotype, it is a news article that holds up a mirror to an industry’s bad behavior, which, unfortunately in Denver, has recently happened.
You might ask, wouldn’t some of the stereotypes mentioned above be good for an owner’s representative business? I would have to say yes; but the fact is that there is no benefit for us to conduct our business in a way that perpetuates any stereotypes. If a client has concerns about their project and has a propensity to apply stereotypes, it is our job to hire the firm that puts concerns to rest, not one that bolsters fears. Part of our job is to build a personal connection and help the owner find team members that are a cultural fit with the owner to build optimal trust. As an advisor to the owner, the owner’s representatives should work diligently with the AEC team one on one to address any concerns the ownership team has at the onset of the project. This approach encourages communication and allows the team to dispel any preconceived notions that may affect their performance and the project.
In a world of divisiveness and self-absorption, the entire AEC project team must confront the concerns of the owner directly. Owner’s representatives have a unique power that comes with the role—something I didn’t expect when venturing into the industry fifteen years ago. Like any power, it can be leveraged for self-promotion, expensive dinners, or worse. While we can’t speak for other owner’s representatives, a fundamental guiding principle of Wember is to prove these stereotypes to be as mundane as possible, but time will tell how we are defined, as no stereotype isn’t without some element of truth.
Paul Wember, President