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Cottee Parker and Studio Nine talk Practice Management

An architect’s day-to-day business involves numerous project and practice management tasks incorporating variables such as project costs, time, resources, capacity, documentation, communication, contracts and accounting. All of these management functions take time away from things architects love to do best — like design.

To compete as a leading architecture practice it’s important to manage these variables efficiently and accurately, ensuring the practice is sustainable and profitable.

Architects are, for the most part, advocates of technology, especially when it comes to design. It’s therefore not a surprise that the leading, competitive architecture practices adopt technology for business management in order to streamline their practices, operate a lean business and manage efficient, organised, accountable and profitable projects.

Practice Management for ArchitectsTwo such leading Australian architecture practices are Studio Nine and Cottee Parker Architects. Both early adopters of CAD, BIM and design software, they also believe in fully-integrated practice management software to help manage both the ‘big picture’ of their practices and the critical details on each project.

Studio Nine and Cottee Parker Architects have each been using Synergy Practice Management (Synergy) software for over five years.

Studio Nine director David Ey said being able to view all project levels in one place allowed for accurate financial tracking and better control of budgets.

“Profitability is an obvious and important benefit, though in a day-to-day sense, it’s aspects such as efficiency of information, reporting and budgets that add value to all [stakeholders],” Mr Ey said.

“From a project management point-of-view, directors don’t necessarily need to get bogged-down with small details and can maintain a higher-level overview of the bigger picture… we’re able to create different levels of access to project information and correspondence so team members can work with what they need to complete their part of the project efficiently.”

Cottee Parker Architects' finance director David Hooker said the obvious overall benefits were tracking project time and costs, monitoring progress and invoicing accurately.

“Total Synergy is totally reliable for that sort of information,” Mr Hooker said.

“I think one of the great benefits of Synergy is the integration of project information with cost tracking and invoicing… the nexus between resource allocation and finance.”

Software for architecture practices

While there are plenty of software systems on the market to help business efficiency, not all are tailored for specific industries or domains. Enterprise resource planning (ERP) software is often built on a massive corporation scale and not suited to small to medium enterprises that make up the majority of the architecture industry; customer relationship management (CRM) systems don’t tackle the need for document management, timekeeping and accounting requirements, for example.

Architecture practices have some very specific needs when it comes to managing their businesses. In this regard, it’s important to use systems designed for those needs specifically, rather than trying to adapt something around the pain points.

David Hooker said 70 per cent of Cottee Parker Architects's costs and resources are the people making up the various project teams.

“The critical thing is being able to plan the resources a project needs over its whole life,” he said.

“A Synergy software update we are implementing is resource and capacity planning – this improved Synergy functionality allows us to quickly assess our capacity across the office and ensure we allocate resources effectively and efficiently on all projects.”

Architecture practice... in practice

We asked Studio Nine and Cottee Parker Architects for real-life examples of how they benefit from business management technology with their respective architecture projects.

Affordable housing (Photography by Treehouse 3D)Studio Nine is working with the Canberra Investment Corporation on a project formerly known as ‘Affordable Housing’. According to the Canberra Investment Corporation website, an aim of the project is, “high quality, functional and flexible housing options at prices that meet the affordability criteria”.

Studio Nine’s task is to help make affordable housing ‘genuinely affordable’ while creating ‘funky’ buildings that appeal to the targeted demographic, as well as freshening-up and adding some variation to the streetscape; giving the buildings some individuality.

By using integrated architecture practice management software, David Ey said Studio Nine is able to “maintain detailed notes, create sub projects and track variations very quickly”. The sub projects also translate through to the practice’s administrative system, not only picking up the effort, but also adding to the [administrative] filing system ‘nomenclature’.

Cottee Parker Architects is in the middle of its largest project to date — Upper West Side in Melbourne. A master planned, mixed-use development, it occupies almost half a city block at the western end of Melbourne’s CBD.

The Upper West Side development consists of four towers — by using integrated architecture practice management software, David Hooker said Cottee Parker Architects has been able to improve each stage of the project.

Upper West Side Melbourne (Photography by Luminova)“We have gathered a very detailed and accurate database of information from the first stage of the project that has allowed us to plan subsequent stages with greater accuracy and efficiency,” he said.

“We have a dedicated, highly skilled team working on this project. We have been able to extract utilisation data as the project has progressed through each stage meaning we've been able to deliver productivity gains over the life of the project.

“How we set fees, assign tasks to our people and manage cash flow has become a seamless process. This allows us to be efficient from the first day of each stage of the project, greatly improving outcomes for the practice.”

Low-risk tenders with accurate data

A critical benefit of integrated architecture practice management software highlighted by both Studio Nine and Cottee Parker Architects was that of producing accurate tenders.

In gathering and analysing detailed project information — reports, time, resources and costs, for example — tenders can be prepared for projects with a level of accuracy and detail that underpins a practice’s experience and reduces the risk of estimates based on a collection of spreadsheets, guesswork or gut feel.

David Hooker said the high level of financial management reporting allows for more accurately priced tenders and bids, providing a clearer understanding of the commercial risks associated with the price submitted.

“The value of the information we have in Synergy was particularly apparent when the GFC hit… it continues to be a significant benefit,” he said.

“Cottee Parker Architects is segmented into four business units — we’re able to easily track each unit, break them down to individual projects, and manage utilisation rates and KPIs.

“We’ve also adapted the contact management tools to work as a marketing CRM by maintaining accurate notes under each contact — we can segment prospecting searches depending on location, project type, and so on.”

David Ey said the accuracy of the data in Synergy allows them to create low-risk tenders.

“Resource utilisation information allows us to accurately track and produce jobs,” he said.

“It also allows us to quickly see where there’s more or less margin — we can be competitive in our pitches without taking risks or relying on guesswork.”

Architecture practice of the future

Both Studio Nine and Cottee Parker Architects consider themselves early adopters of technology within their architecture practices. Technology allows them to be responsive to clients, new business and projects as a whole — it also allows them to be more creative.

With greater efficiency comes more time for vision; more time for design. It opens up the business environment from mundane management functions to a truly creative space.

David Hooker said Cottee Parker Architects is more than enthusiastic about technology.

“Technology is imperative for our business… Synergy, CAD, 3D design tools, BIM — being early adopters of these technologies has definitely given us a strategic advantage.

“The adoption of cloud-based technology is now giving us even more opportunities for efficiency — our data is not only available to the architects on a project, but also to the engineers, developers and project managers.

“It enables transfer of data between contractors and sub contractors which, overall, improves the efficiency of the projects.”

David Ey said Studio Nine has always been a proponent of technology.

“We’re quite diversified in the fields we work in… technology allows us to be flexible and responsive. It allows us to keep life interesting!”