Clients, Not Projects

Davenport Campbell & Partners

This is a story about an architectural practice located at the very epicentre of Sydney, one of the world’s most dynamic environments in terms of architecture, design and construction, and with considerable expertise in interior design – though far from exclusively.

The company is Davenport Campbell & Partners (Aust) Pty Ltd. Peter Wager is Managing Director and he estimates the company as being in the “top five” in its field nationally. Its history is one of slimming down rather than the usual growth, because from its origins in 1977 it was at one stage, Peter says, “probably the largest architectural firm in Australia.” But it underwent many changes and the company was effectively rebuilt since 2001 along more client-focused lines.

This reorientation was in line with the changes going on throughout the broader architectural sector. “A lot of people chase projects, but we really try to win – and then retain – clients,” Peter explains. “It is all about clients.” The leaner, meaner Davenport Campbell, a very well established company, thus became a leader of the ‘new wave’ of practices delivering more of what the client wants and less of what the architect tells the client he is going to get.

That has not moved the company away from what might be termed the mainstream of business and clients. There is a substantial proportion of work in the financial sector and a major client is the Commonwealth Bank, for which Davenport Campbell does the majority of projects. “Obviously working for CBA is very good for us, but we also have other key clients in the form of KPMG [a current project is for this client’s property a Barangaroo] and IBM. We do a lot of work for Telstra and we also work for QBE and Woolworths.” Peter pronounces himself reasonably satisfied at this spread of corporate names across several business sectors rather than ‘just’ the financial area which sometimes seems to outsiders to be the only one with any money to spend in these difficult days.

Despite the wealth of projects in and around Sydney, Davenport Campbell has full nationwide capability; for example it handled CBA’s Bankwest Place project in Perth in 2012 (33,000 square metres of ‘activity based working’, of which more later, which has enabled the client to increase headcount by 20 per cent without requiring extra space while drawing rave reviews from the staff). A current project of note is the family law courts in Darwin; such work is handled comfortably at arm’s length from Sydney headquarters. “It’s not that one cannot go to a meeting in Darwin occasionally,” shares Peter, “it’s just that you need to be more organised and more focused when you are there.” There may or may not be economies in running from one rather than several offices, but Peter points out that the real value-add is the expertise and knowledge of the client’s wishes that Davenport Campbell brings to any project. “We know the client and we know the way they like things done.”

There are further economies in the company’s overall philosophy of the designs involved. Without resorting to a fully modular approach to, say, banking interior fit outs, Davenport Campbell applies the ‘activity based working’ (ABW) approach across most or even all of its projects. This means there is a common thread across the portfolio. ABW, says Peter, is interesting not least because a lot of companies say they understand it and can do it. “But,” he says, “I think there is a lot more science about what needs to be done than many people realise.”

The company’s team members have the opportunity to travel and meet counterparts in other countries, “in particular people who are experts in the change-management aspects of ABW. As a result, I think we can say we are pretty much at the front of the ABW wave.” Indeed, Davenport Campbell is part of a network of like-minded practices worldwide, informal but communicating on a regular basis and sharing ideas and experiences. “We like this kind of contact because there are opportunities for our clients to benefit from it as well as for us to know what is happening around the world,” explains Peter.

There is nothing intrinsically new about ABW, although it has been slower to spread through Australia than in Europe where it has become an established philosophy of design over the last 15 years or so. It is essentially a development of the concept that people work better when you take away their little box, or ‘office’ and put them into a larger, less limited environment so they can move about (or ‘Stand and Deliver’, as the Sydney Morning Herald once eloquently compressed it in a headline).

However, ABW is rather more complex than what used to be called ‘open-plan’, says Peter. He acknowledges he is not the expert in this field (though Davenport Campbell does have the country’s top ABW specialist). “It’s about identifying what functions people carry out during the day at work and giving them all the appropriate work points to be able to do them.” A typical office-based executive, for example, may need to write a report at some stage during the day so there must be an area available that is conducive to report-writing; there must be a collaboration space where several colleagues can sit down together to discuss a problem, equipped with suitable technology to encourage communication. “It’s about providing the right environment for staff to carry out their functions each day in the best possible manner.”

ABW, says Peter, is not only applicable to high-profile and large-scale high-street names – but it is essential to work out what the client needs. “You have to first understand what the actual tasks are of the workers. There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ in ABW.” An emerging problem is that people are looking at the ABW examples provided by the banks and are seeking just to copy them. But these environments are at their core not design projects as such but more scientific – call it work study, ergonomics or any of a number of inter-related disciplines, but unless there is first a study of what is required, no amount of pretty architect’s drawings will make it work any better than a conventional office space. The briefing and needs analysis takes some time. “It’s about really getting into the DNA of what the client does and how they do it.”

This forms something of a change of direction for architects and designers who are becoming more multi-disciplinary in their service offer. “You need to be smarter. We have done a lot of thinking about what our company should be and what we do is aim for excellence. Nowadays, with interior fit outs, we are no longer just selecting chairs and tables; we have to understand the workplace and be workplace strategists.” There is a lot more psychology involved; Davenport Campbell’s staff is half architects, half designers but Peter and his colleagues ensure they spend plenty of time studying and attending seminars in fields that help people to think about different strategies and different ways of doing things. This actually goes toward making the job more interesting than ever, Peter agrees. “It’s not just a matter of laying out a series of workstations. You are thinking about making people’s work life better, which is rewarding.”

Does the practice ever get it wrong – has there ever been a case of ‘back to the drawing board’? No, says Peter without complacency, because there are many checks and balances in the development of a project. “We have a lot of peer reviews; we are not designing in a bubble.” There is what is known as Pin-Up, a weekly event where someone working on a project pins up the latest ideas and everyone else in the office offers a critique. This keeps projects real and focused on what is really needed, as well as preventing Davenport Campbell’s own staff, working from a surprisingly traditional-styled building in Sydney’s CBD, from feeling excessively comfortable.

Home Automation

Call it ‘domotics,’ and you are likely to receive a blank stare, but refer to it as ‘smart home’ or ‘home automation,’ and you will get a nod of acknowledgement. For the past few years, consumers have heard the word ‘smart’ attached to countless products and services, from food and drink to snacks like popcorn and mobile phones, which no one seems to refer to as a ‘cellphone’ anymore. Yet what, exactly, constitutes ‘smart’?

January 17, 2019, 5:27 AM AEDT