The Ideal World According to an Architect-Entrepreneur

The Ideal World According to an Architect-Entrepreneur

We conducted an interview with Anton Gonnissen, CEO of ABS Bouwteam about his rather atypical but successful career path as an architect. During this interview he explained to us why, in his opinion, a different relationship between architects, the construction companies and end customers increases the construction quality, helps control budgets and ensures the income of architects. Very challenging and always interesting: the view of a successful architect-entrepreneur on the evolution of architecture and the construction sector in our country.

Gonnissen is a man with a vision, that will soon become clear for whoever reads this interview. With 30 years of experience, first in the role of architect and then as a ‘customized total-package-entrepreneur, advisor and partner’ as he likes to describe it, Gonnissen, namely, has single-handedly redefined the role of architect. Successfully, because his company has more than 1,400 construction projects on the honor list, has 26 employees and nowadays has a yearly revenue of 26 million euros.

We asked the CEO how he has seen the role of architect change and where he thinks the future lies for this profession. Mainly because the trajectory that Gonnissen himself has followed was not the most logical one.

From God-the-Architect to the Clockwork’s Creative Cog

One ascertainment is significant for Gonnissen and at the same time a sign that the role of the architect is possibly changing. Just consider the following numbers. Ten years ago, the first step of half of the private house builders was to find an architect who would help them realize their dream. Nowadays it is only slightly more than a quarter of the private clients who take the same step.

So, who are those builders that construct the other 70% of the houses? That are the developers, Turnkey companies en construction teams, as Gonnissen likes to describe his own company. Those construction companies still do not make the design, Belgian law still prohibits that, even though our country has become more and more the exception within Europe because of those legal regulations. However, if construction companies maintain a division between the ‘design team’ and the ‘construction team’ then they can offer the end consumer, to phrase it beautifully, an ‘integrated solution’, which neatly fits within the legal framework.

And that is exactly the service that Gonnissen offers his clients. Where it was completely usual a few decennia ago that individuals with plans to build first hired an architect who would then negotiate with several contractors, according to Gonnissen that is now completely in the past. The architect who postures or behaves like an almighty, all-controlling persona and who plays out contractors against each other, is, according to Gonnissen “possibly a cause of problems rather than a guarantee for success”.

Gonnissen: “The classical model where an architect behaves like this, is never completely honest towards the client. Architects who, so to speak, select ‘objective and independent’ contractors in dialogue with the client, mostly keep up appearances. They alternate between the same few contractors to make it appear that they don’t play favorites. At the same time, they actually do not have an objective way to make price estimates and to compare quotes well.”

Integration Leads to Quality

The role of the architect in this relationship with clients and contractors is actually simultaneously too large and too small. That is mostly because the architect does assume a kind of coordinating role, but it is impossible that he carries the end responsibility. The quality of the execution is in the hands of the contractor, while the client should manage the finances and the architect himself does not have sufficient means. No wonder that this often ends in disaster, with as a result lengthy procedures, run-away costs and projects of bad quality projects.

And that is exactly the point that Gonnissen wants to make: “There have not been any complaints for any of the 1,400 completed constructions after the first year of guarantee. Of course, we do make mistakes sometimes. But thanks to the integration of design and construction, and thanks to a relationship of trust with our partners we can correct those mistakes quickly internally without duping the architect or the client.”

Conclusion? Architects and construction companies should consider evolving to a b2b-marke to professionalize, to improve the quality of architecture and spatial planning, to reevaluate the statute and income of the architect and to offer the client a better total experience. In our neighboring countries that professionalization and integration have already existed for a long time. Legislation and tradition have caused Belgium to fall behind in that respect.

Still, Gonnissen is satisfied with the current evolution, in spite of the antiquated legislation and the sector that sometimes holds on to outdated principles. Keeping into account the ever-faster evolution where the private client does not first approach the architect anymore with his commission, there is a need for a new protocol. Integrated construction teams such as ABS offer what the private builder expects nowadays: a single communication point that assumes the responsibility for the complete project. Contractors and architects can no longer point an accusing finger at each other and it becomes harder to shift blame. It now concerns a single integrated construction team, a design/build/maintenance team.

Why not Architects-Contractors?

Anton Gonnissen himself graduated as an architect (St. Lucas, 1984) but he resigned from the Order of Architects a few years after graduation. The reason for that radical step? When Gonnissen started his construction company he was no longer allowed, legally, to operate as an architect. That legislation seems to severely impede through Gonnissen’s vision on the role of architects. That is not necessarily the case.

ABS Bouwteam solved that problem by cooperating with architects who have sufficient qualitative experience and knowhow and who accepted that a preliminary discussion and choice based, on location, specific creativity and style are meaningful and useful. First an intake conversation takes place together with the client, just like it would be the case with a ‘classical’ architect. Once the wishes and possibilities have been discussed and an option has been chosen, ABS proposes a continuation discussion with an architect’s office. Both the architect and the client then make the decision to work together in complete freedom.

Gonnissen emphasizes it several times during our conversation. This way of working is based on trust relationships. That is also the reason why ABS is not in the habit that the end consumer may choose which sub-contractors are hired. As a highly educated professional in the construction sector (and the ultimate responsible party) it is the total-contractor who will hire the best professionals, based on his experience, with the ultimate goal to make the project successful.

In this story, according to Anton Gonnissen, the architect of tomorrow has two possible roles. Either you take charge of the creative part and you accept the commission to only do what you do best and nothing else. In this scenario you do not need to worry about execution and customer relations. Or, you choose for the role (and probably also for a career) as total contractor and coordinator of construction projects, where you will mostly use your knowledge of architecture for quality control, in the communication between the client and the design team and, of course, in your contact with the architect-designer.

Naturally, all of this only works when there is a perfect understanding, and a shared vision between the total contractor and the designers. The construction company has to be sure that the architect they contact for their client understands his task perfectly and is able to fulfill this too. They also have to be able to count on it that the architect shall refer the client back to the construction company for the concrete realization of the project.

The World is Changing, Architects Cannot Stay Behind

So, how does Gonnissen see the ideal world? What should the construction sector look like in 20 years? The answer, no surprise there, sounds a lot like the company that Gonnissen created himself.

“It would be ideal if half of the architects took the step into a construction team and the other half would continue to work independently. That would improve the quality of construction projects and special planning enormously.”

It may be clear that the function of the architect has changed enormously in the past few years and there are even more changes on the horizon for the near future. That is logical too, comments Gonnissen: “Between now and twenty years ago, the job of architect has already changed completely, except for one aspect: the creativity.”

Finally…

As promised, something to think about, a fascinating conversation and a man with a vision. We thank Anton Gonnissen for having taken precious time to share with us and of course we hope that our readers are inspired and challenged by his interesting ideas. How exactly the role of the architect shall evolve, remains to be seen, of course.

This is a subject that evokes different opinions within the sector, so we would like to stimulate the debate. What is your opinion? Take a minute to let us know your reaction, we love to hear your feedback!