Charles Nelson: Risk and the Practice of Architecture

This week, the National Architecture conference will take place in Melbourne for 2015. This year the theme of the conference is Risk. A simple four letter word that is an everyday concern for architects but one which is seldom openly talked about. To open this week’s discussion around the topic I caught up with an expert on risk in architecture, Charles Nelson. Charles is a veteran of the profession having a distinguished career over six decades and three continents. Having literally written the book, consulted to practice and mentored practitioners, he is now in the process of launching a new website to further the discussion on reinventing and rethinking architectural practice within the context of a struggling profession.

Charles Nelson


Red +Black Architect – Over such a long career you are well placed to have observed massive changes in the architecture profession. What do you think has been the most profound change?

Charles Nelson – Unquestionably, the impact of technological change: From T-square and slide-rule, from punch cards fed into mainframe computers to the compact and powerful electronic devices we all use today. Most importantly, the immense impact of the Internet on the accessibility of information.


R+BA – What is the DesignNode website about?

CN – The impact of those changes on the practice of architecture, and how these changes have led to a marginalisation of the role of the architect, where design services are largely perceived as commodities.

Design Node


R+BA – What do you hope to achieve through the Design Node website?

CN –Create an awakening; spur a global discussion; as to where we are, where we are headed, and what we as a profession can do to reverse the decline of the role of the architect.


R+BA – Unlike most Architecture based websites that primarily focus on the finished product, DesignNode is sharply focused on architectural practice issues. Do you think we have a deficiency in the discourse in this area?

CN –Rather than a “deficiency”, I would call it a near-absence; a desert. Design process is assumed, not studied for improvement opportunities. The focus is almost completely on outcomes, not on basic methodology.


R+BA – The upcoming 2015 National Architecture conference will be centred squarely on the theme of risk. From your experience, how should architects rethink risk to best face up to the challenges of the 21st century?

CN –Most architects unconsciously see risk as a “4-letter word” – something to be avoided. But risk is everywhere, in every project. This “head-in-the-sand” approach results in too many architects taking on projects they don’t know how to handle, or that they shouldn’t touch in the first place.

The irony is that proactive risk management can be a very powerful practice differentiator, and the firms that understand how to use it can gain an amazing competitive advantage.


R+BA – How would you like to see the Architecture profession change into the future?

CN –Move toward a position of taking more control over projects. However, this can happen ONLY where architects develop the ability to knowledgeably and effectively coordinate and integrate the diverse skills needed to create a modern structure. This is the missing component that no professional group is providing, so the contractors provide it, and in so doing, control the projects. Taking on this role, however, means that architects must focus creatively on risk, and learn how to walk on the hot coals without getting burned.

R+BA – What type of architectural practices do you think are best equipped to deal with the rapidly changing practice conditions?

CN –With rare exceptions, only the largest and best organised ones, such as HOK and Gensler – because they have the resources to fund research and deep change in the way they see project opportunities. That does not mean that the small-to-midsize firms have to be cut out of the action. But it does mean that those firms have to embrace a thorough re-think of the whole way they practice, have to embrace risk, and have to start thinking about design process before they start thinking about design outcomes.

R+BA – Thanks for your time and I look forward to catching you at the conference.

designriskCharles has also been developing a very user friendly tool for architects to assess the risk of projects before they take on a project. To find out more about how it works check out the website and watch the quick video.

Check back for daily updates on the National Architecture Conference starting from Friday.

Architecture is for Everyone


About Michael Smith

Architect and Director of Atelier Red + Black based in Melbourne, Australia
This entry was posted in all posts, construction industry, Interviews, News, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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