View of Bristol skyline
I work for a large multidisciplinary engineering company, Atkins – a member of the SNC-Lavalin group – and during the pandemic, we saw people naturally shifting away from working collectively in the office, to practise more within their own core disciplines. This has continued to influence working practices as staff have returned to the office.
A multidisciplinary practice is made up of a number of different professionals, each of whom will bring their own skillsets to the table. If they do so effectively, a much wider range of expertise can be called upon early in a project, allowing for a smoother client experience.
Following the period of COVID-enforced lockdowns, we made a conscious effort to return to collective working practices in our Bristol infrastructure team – which includes architects, building surveyors, mechanical, electrical and public health engineers, landscape architects and structural engineers. We did this simply by starting to meet on a weekly basis to explain more about our respective roles.
Every week, someone from each discipline gives a presentation about their role, sharing five pieces of information that are either helpful for them to know when working on designs, or useful for other designers to be aware of. This has become a good way for the teams to reintroduce themselves, and has enabled better initial discussions about projects.
As building surveyors, we are often engaged at a later stage in the process on a refurbishment scheme. This could mean we need to solve problems with the design that has already been prepared rather than having the opportunity to influence it from the start.
The same is true of other disciplines, such as services design and space planning – functions that can sometimes be pushed downstream. In contrast, early engagement enables wider understanding of the design parameters as well as better coordination, which in turn leads to a better end result.
A multidisciplinary team should also be more economical. As a building surveyor, I am occasionally involved in a range of roles, although this naturally depends on the scale of the project.
Working as part of a multidisciplinary team, however, means that you are able to find the correct person to do the work – even if this only entails answering a query or two – rather than approaching a separate consultant. Not only is the work then designed by an expert, it is often quicker as they have the necessary knowledge and resources to perform the task efficiently. This can promote trust in the profession as it ensures people with the right skillsets are carrying out the work most efficiently.
On a recent project, for example, we had an issue with drainage that I passed over to our public health team. While I probably could have resolved this myself, it would have required much longer than the half a day it took a public health engineer to fix.
Deferring to others' expertise does not mean that you do not learn. Just sitting next to someone from a different discipline means you can pick up things without trying.
It is fascinating to work alongside other professionals and see how they tackle the same tasks as you in different ways. This can lead to more effective problem-solving and ultimately a better end result.
To become privy to someone else's ideas can help you find a solution that you may not have previously considered, especially when that someone is not as close to the problem.
It also gives you a better idea of what everyone does, what they need to know and what they look out for. They are able to explain the key elements of their design in a straightforward manner, helping others gain a full understanding.
We have a number of regular presentations and design reviews where members of the wider team present what they are currently working on, or the successes or failures of recent projects. This will often highlight lessons that can inform future projects being passed to the wider team.
The team designs the whole scheme, so if there is an issue we deal with it as a team. Our clients understand that we take ownership of the whole project rather than just a part of it, as such we are responsible for how it progresses.
Each design team is carefully considered: our system allows us to search for the most suitable person for a package of works, and our checking process includes a multidisciplinary review.
This means that aspects of a design can be queried by people with a different point of view, who are able to spot potential risks from their perspective outside of the building surveying team.
Since the pandemic finding the right resources within the company has become even easier, as we are well set up to work from anywhere. This means that you will be working on projects with people in different locations, and sometimes in different time zones. As a result, we rarely have an issue with resources as the pool of people is so large.
'Our clients understand that we take ownership of the whole project rather than just a part of it'
A further benefit for the client is that there is always one point of contact. This ensures continuity of service, and should the client require additional services we can often provide these. That in turn spares the client time finding new consultants – and it also ensures there is a wealth of project knowledge already in the team.
Furthermore, using the same teams for new projects with the same client means that any specific client processes are understood as well. While this can sometimes add extra time to a scheme, embedded project knowledge of this kind avoids the need for designers to learn such processes from scratch. It also helps to make sure that the end result is better for the client, as the team is already up to speed with preferred specifications.
While writing this article, I also wanted to understand how those with their own practices choose who to bring into their design teams. From my discussions with those in this position, it generally seems to begin with networking: once you find a consultant who works for you, an ongoing relationship is established.
This process continues until you have a pool of consultants to choose from to ensure you can always complete a project. It also gives you greater choice in ensuring you are forming a team that can fulfil the brief most effectively.
However, working in this way entails more administration, as the multiple parties all have different processes and requirements to manage. Using external resources may also lead to fewer opportunities for design changes.
Once the design is frozen so it can be issued to an external consultant, there is less capacity for changing it. If a design remains internal, though, the overlap between when one team stops work and the next starts at least give some leeway for revisions.
Generally, our 'five things' sessions have been beneficial following COVID-19, as they provide a good reminder of the benefits of working in a multidisciplinary team, and the breadth of resources we have.
We provide a good one-stop shop for our clients – which removes much of the stress that finding multiple external consultants could cause.