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Risk and architecture

Building things, as we all know, is a risky endeavor. I think of myself as an optimist, but the reality is that there are countless things that can go wrong. There’s approvals risk, political risk, market risk, construction risk, design risk, and many other kinds of risk, some/many of which will be entirely unforeseen. If you asked me two years ago, I wouldn’t have listed pandemic risk as being all that high up on the list.

So one way to think about the process of building/developing is that it is an exercise in risk mitigation. This makes it sound a lot less sexy than “city building.” Given this, there can be a natural and understandable tendency to want to repeat what worked the last time around. Why make a change and introduce more risk into the system if you don’t have to, right? This is arguably one of the reasons why it is often said that the real state industry isn’t all that innovative. Too busy managing risk.

To give a specific example, let’s say you’re really focused on managing design risk. In this case, you might make the decision to always work with the same architect. This way you can establish a set of typical approaches and a standard spec. You know how to work together and you know what you’re getting when it comes to working drawings. Rinse and repeat as best you can.

There is also something to be said about a kind of product-driven or branded approach to development. In this case you want some consistency to help build a specific brand and experience. And just because you’re using the same firm, doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t innovate and be design forward. This is what great architects do. Think Foster + Partners and Apple. Their stores are powerful brand symbols but also wonderful and highly site specific.

An alternative approach might be to continually use different (design) architects. And maybe partnering with an array of celebrated firms is part of your brand story. You introduce a certain degree of design risk because you’re now trying out and building new relationships, but you could perhaps argue that you’re mitigating other risks. Does using a brand name architect help to reduce market risk, for example? In some markets, it’s almost essential.

I don’t think there’s a right or wrong approach here. Use the same firm, or don’t. Use international starchitects, or don’t. The point is simply that development is fraught with risks that need to be managed. Design is one of many. How you choose to do that depends on what you’re trying to do and what you’re after.

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