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Leading Collaborative Architectural Practice
Phil Bernstein

Erin Carraher and Ryan E. Smith with Peter Delisle

In the same issue, I wrote a speculation on the future of project delivery, specifically the nascent concept of Integrated Project Delivery (IPD). But much more interesting was an interview on the state of practice with a collection of established, older architects including luminaries like Harry Cobb, Max Scogin, Toshiko Mori, and Marion Weiss. Weiss is quoted early saying, “collaboration can really strengthen design when different kinds of expertise come together,” a comment that tacitly acknowledges the need for multidisciplinarity in architecture. Later, however, she declares, “I don’t want anybody manipulating anything I am working on until maybe mid-design development. I want input but not to have others equal at the table.”2 The designer gives, and she takes away.

In the intervening years the idea of collaborative delivery has taken hold more widely, catalyzed by improving digital technology and broader implementation of IPD models and their brethren, the so-called IPD-ish projects, all of which reward the results of designers, builders, and clients working together toward mutually agreed ends. These approaches depend entirely on a deep understanding of how teams work, how options are generated, and how decisions are made together by the team driving the project. As building design and construction teams attempt these lofty goals, how should they operate, especially given that none receive any training in theories, principles, or techniques of working together?

The business world is replete with advice and competing theories on this front, running the gamut from self-help guides that promise to “make you a better leader” to comprehensive scientific research on the nature of decision-making and team cooperation models. Almost none of this has been applied to the discipline of architecture.

Into this breach step Erin Carraher and Ryan Smith of the University of Utah and Peter Delisle of Austin College who offer a timely, sprawling, and comprehensive text that attempts to cross-pollinate these two worlds by defining and explaining various methods and techniques to achieve, as described by Steve van Dyke of LMN in the introduction, the “dynamic orchestration of adaptive, collective design processes that challenge entrenched, contentious project delivery models” (viii). With twenty-one chapters on such topics as “Leadership Effectiveness,” “Task-Relationship Behavior,” and “Communication Fundamentals,” the authors serve up a gigantic smorgasbord of approaches and techniques in almost every possible corner of the collaboration universe, from team development to communication through conflict to “leadership in practice.”

Seemingly attempting to leave no collaborative stone unturned, the text covers project delivery, physical work environments, team building, digital tools, leadership development, and many other topics. The effort is commendable for its sheer ambition to address every zip code of the collaboration universe; it is rich with interviews, project examples, and extensive diagrams that attempt to demonstrate the principles at hand. No matter what your question about collaborative technique, you will probably find a relevant chapter in this guidebook.

In that sense, the book is much stronger as a reference manual or toolkit than a comprehensive theory of architectural collaboration. Reading from front to back feels more like a walk through the business section of your local Barnes & Noble than a coherent explication of a clear theory of design and construction collaboration. The methods of collaboration are far more energetically explored than the reasons to use them in the first place. Chapter 3, ostensibly about “collaborative environments,” covers physical space (colocation rooms), collaborative contracting, distributed team structure, social structures, training, technology tools including BIM planning, leadership approaches, and roles/responsibilities distribution—the head spins. There are useful diagrams (like the BIM execution plan), but many equally simplistic pictograms. I would have much rather seen a detailed plan for a functioning colocation room than four emoji collaborators standing in front of a stylized display screen examining “Conflict B.”

In the program where I teach, our first-year graduate students spend the spring and summer designing and building housing for a local homeless services agency. They work in teams by necessity, often for the first time in their architectural education. As part of that sequence we spend a few short weeks teaching leadership, collaboration, and decision-making with faculty from our management school, essentially transplanting pedagogy from one part of the campus to ours and using examples like IDEO and tools created for corporate settings. This is good enough as far as it goes, but our discipline needs to develop its own theories and techniques for collaborating, if for no other reason than to make sure that the architect remains central to project development.

With time and effort—perhaps by researchers like the authors of this text—that theoretical foundation will be established, and the practical platforms will follow. Despite some of the more simplistic advice sprinkled through the text (“Why collaborate? Because you can’t afford not to” [299]), the implicit message of this book is that architects will always be dependent on collaboration, and we need to learn not just to participate in the required processes, but to set them up and lead them. If we are to maintain our relevance in the increasingly complex world of building, that’s excellent advice we ignore at our peril. Carraher, Smith, and Delisle have made a good start toward that goal.


Jay Wickersham, “Learning from Burnham: The Origins of Modern Architectural Practice,” Harvard Design Magazine (Spring/Summer 2010): 21–22.
William S. Saunders, “Architectural Practice Now,”  Harvard Design Magazine (Spring/Summer 2010): 32, 42.

Phillip G. Bernstein is an architect and technologist and Lecturer in Professional Practice at the Yale School of Architecture, where he has taught since 1988. He was formerly a Vice President at Autodesk. Prior to joining Autodesk, he practiced architecture as a principal at Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects. He writes and lectures extensively about practive and technology, and has been published in Architectural Record, Architecture, Architecture + Urbanism, Design Intelligence, Fast Company, Fortune, Architectural Design, and Perspecta. Phil was co-editor of Building (In) The Future: Recasting Labor in Architecture, published in 2010 by Princeton Architectural Press, as well as BIM in the Academia: Technology’s Implications for Practice and the Academy in 2011. Phil received a Bachelor of Arts magna cum laude with Distinction in Architecture from Yale University and Master of Architecture, also from Yale. He is a Senior Fellow of the Design Futures Council, a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects, and a former Chair of the AIA National Contract Documents Committee. He is licensed to practice in California.

How to Cite this Article: Bernstein, Phil. Review of Leading Collaborative Architectural Practice, by Erin Carraher and Ryan E. Smith with Peter Delisle. JAE Online. May 7, 2019.  http://www.jaeonline.org/articles/reviews-books/leading-collaborative-architectural-practice#/.