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“First and foremost, architectural practice is about people”: a chat with NBRS’s Rodney Drayton

“First and foremost, architectural practice is about people”: a chat with NBRS’s Rodney Drayton


Ahead of an appearance at the Business of Architecture and Design conference in Sydney on 11 November, NBRSARCHITECTURE’s director of operations Rodney Drayton chats to ADR editor Elisa Scarton about being an effective practice leader and how technology has already changed the way architects run their business. 

What skills and experience do you think you need to be an effective practice leader and which ones do you personally use as director at NBRSARCHITECTURE? 

First and foremost, architectural practice is about people. This includes our staff, clients, business partners, contractors, neighbours and our broader community. I think great practice leaders need to understand how to better connect people, draw out each party’s core mission and values and ultimately what they want from the relationship that the practice has brought them together for. What has got that person up that morning, and what are they hoping to achieve from a certain interaction? How do they express their vision or how can we as creative professionals help them to achieve that vision?

In terms of leadership skills and experience then, I believe it’s as much about listening and empathy as it’s about the skills in turning and synthesising those ideas into something that engages with the core values of the individual.

NBRSARCHITECTURE has a mission to create life changing environments through our creative partnerships. Those partnerships may be internal to the practice or external with our clients and business partners. We strive to hire employees that want to be part of that mission, and who have that passion within them to drive for social change through architecture, whether that’s for a student in a school, the audience at a performance or an inmate in a correctional centre. As director of operations, I personally aim to reinvigorate that passion throughout the operations of the practice and to find ways to refocus and align even the most mundane activity to how it will help the employee, and ultimately the practice, achieve architecture for social benefit.

What do you think will be the greatest disruptor to the architecture industry over the coming years?

I think the entire construction industry over the past few years has really struggled with the idea of ‘risk’, with most parties trying to push it as far away from themselves as possible, sometimes exposing downfalls in the system as elements fall through the cracks. We’ve seen that in well publicised building failures, and then changes in procurement models for projects that attempt to shift responsibilities to parties that might not have the best visibility to the core reasons why the projects were initiated in the first place.

I would like to think, perhaps hope, that the architecture profession can in some way disrupt itself in the coming years by forcing the conversation away from the ‘transfer of risk’ towards sharing the risk by emphasising ‘realisation of value’. Too often we are set up to drive towards the cheapest price rather than the best value with some form of commercial benefit being the primary driver. If architects truly believe that they can drive social benefit in the environments that they bring forth for their passionate clients, then the value is more than dollars and cents. We recently saw Greta Thunberg call out world leaders for talking about “money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth” over a care for our natural environment. How do we as architects make the same passionate argument to move away from pricing risk towards valuing creative solutions for social benefit?

How has technology changed your approach to running your business already?

I like to think that the best creative professional is like a frictionless conduit between a client’s vision and the realisation of that vision in whatever form that needs to take. As an architectural practice, that starts at really understanding the big idea behind the project from the client’s perspective and then seamlessly navigating that idea through design, documentation and construction to the realisation onsite in association with the many stakeholders that play a part in bringing that idea to life. The ‘business’ then of architecture is about making sure there is more time and space for the big ideas to occur, and the right people and tools to nurture that idea along the journey. As generational change occurs in our workforce, and particularly generations that have not known a time when it wasn’t possible to use technology to instantly communicate with each other, our approach is to leverage the speed and breadth of communication platforms available to us to bring all parties on a project together in more meaningful ways.

With offices in both Sydney and Melbourne, NBRS is constantly looking for ways to move more of our business into the cloud. We employ Autodesk BIM360 collaboration tools to host both our Revit models and those of our consultants in an environment where all stakeholders can see the co-ordinated project come to life in near real time. We utilise Kronos Workforce Ready in the cloud for recruitment, training and skills management and to ensure the needs of our employees are well managed. We are moving our other project and business operation files into Microsoft SharePoint to increase our ability to work from anywhere at anytime, and we are working towards migrating our Total Synergy practice and financial management system into the cloud, which gives us a lot more ability to integrate our data into systems that can help us manage our projects better.

Your practice is committed to being at the forefront of innovation in the development of spaces that encourage holistic wellbeing. How has technology helped you achieve this outcome?

Over its 50 plus years of operation, NBRSARCHITECTURE has been focused on life-changing environments through creative partnerships. Our projects focus in areas of education, health and wellness, sporting and cultural institutions and in the area of transformative justice facilities. Each of those areas has its own innovation journey as it relates to technological advancements, and we as architects are there to help our clients understand how to draw the best from this technology to improve the social outcomes for their communities. The environments we design are for those communities, which are made up of people each engaging with technology and the speed of information and communication in our world today.

In the practice of architecture, we use immersive tools such as 3D animations to visualise projects and allow for glimpses into the future environments we are creating. We use communication and collaboration tools aligned to the way our clients and their communities like to engage, to best draw out the big ideas that will achieve transformative outcomes. I believe technology has become an enabler, helping us collaborate, innovate and visualise to develop life-changing environments that strive to achieve the visions our clients have for their communities. We do though continually need to ensure it does not become a disabler, particularly in the early phases of a project, stifling creative discourse and driving towards architectural outcomes before the real work has been done to understand where we are driving to.

The Business of Architecture and Design (BoAD) conference is at the Parliament of NSW, Sydney, on 11 November.

Rodney Drayton will be speaking at the Digital Transformation in the Business of Architecture and Design seminar at midday alongside Total Synergy product manager Paul Hemmings and Aileen Sage Architects co-director Isabelle Toland. The seminar will cover how NBRSARCHITECTURE has changed its approach to running a business, delivering projects and developing strategies for growth in the midst of technological innovation. Attendees will also get to ask questions and get practical advice on how to harness digital transformation opportunities in the business of architecture. 

Buy your tickets now.

The inaugural BoAD is all about looking to the future. The architecture and design industry is evolving quickly and this conference has been designed to provide attendees with an agenda that will inform them of the changes that are taking place within the built environment – changes in technology, new business models and where investment is coming from and going to. It will provide business and practice leaders with key take-outs that can be applied to their planning whether they are leading a multinational or small local practice.

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