Whether you’re embarking upon large-scale new construction, a small backyard studio addition, or a project of any scale, there’s a tendency to think that the most important opinion in an architectural endeavor belongs to the person with the checkbook. And to some degree, that’s true: An architect’s goal should be to satisfy her or his client’s needs. In fact, the AIA Code of Ethics lays out specific ethical standards and rules of conduct that compel architects to “serve their clients in a timely and competent manner.”
At the same time, however, architects are also charged with “continually seek[ing] to raise the standards of aesthetic excellence, architectural education, research, training, and practice.” To guarantee both you and your architect are getting the most out of the project, here are a few ways in which clients can help—or hinder—the process.
A client may feel like his or her chief responsibility is to explain what they want and then make timely payments. But the client-architect relationship is actually considerably more complex than that. Architects are problem-solvers, and often their ability to think outside the box is why you hired them in the first place, so it’s important not to curtail creativity with preconceived notions.
As architect Elizabeth Emerson, AIA, of New York– and Washington, DC–based E/L Studio explains, it’s critical for clients to be receptive to architects’ ideas. “The number one thing I’m looking for in a client is that they have an open mind,” Emerson says. “When a prospective client says, ‘I already know what I want to do and just need someone to draw it,’ that isn’t going to be the right fit, because that’s like saying, ‘Hey doctor, my side hurts, it’s this. Can you write me a prescription for X, Y, or Z?’ If we don’t have a role to play in figuring out what the solution is, then it’s not going to work.”
“We encourage our clients to find imagery that they like, and that they connect to somehow,” Emerson says. “People don’t have a lot of tools for communicating what they want or what’s going to work for them. As a culture, we don’t do a good job of incorporating design thinking and architectural language into education.”
“The number one thing I’m looking for in a client is that they have an open mind.” - Elizabeth Emerson, AIA
That’s where tools such as Pinterest and Houzz allow clients to start to explore certain looks that feel like what they might be after, even if they don’t know the terminology with which to express it. Your architect will be better equipped to design the right spaces for you if, say, your Pinterest board is full of A-frames versus farmhouse Gothic.
While architects can transform spaces through programmatic reconfigurations and clever structural manipulations, they’re not magicians. Andy Fuhrmann, a vice president with Clark Construction, put it this way at a recent seminar on the process of architecture: “The one thing we can’t fake is time.” In other words, no amount of wishful thinking will accelerate your project through the roll-of-the-dice that is permitting; having a realistic understanding of how long a project will take goes a long way toward ensuring a smooth relationship with your architect.
“One of the biggest red flags I see is schedule,” Emerson says. “Someone will have a vacation house that needs a renovation, and we’ll ask when they’d ideally want to be complete with construction. And they’ll say by Memorial Day, and it’ll be January or February. That’s just in no way possible: Going for municipal permits could take a week, or it could take 6 months—and then there’s the build.”
Of course, it will help move things along if you’re fulfilling the more basic duties of being a client: paying the bills, making decisions, and communicating your desires for the project. But if you can also bring your inspirations to the table while maintaining a receptive attitude toward the architect’s ideas and a realistic timeline, your project has a much better chance of becoming something of which both you and your architect are proud.
About the author: Deane Madsen, Assoc. AIA, is a writer and architectural photographer based in Washington, DC. He is the founder of Brutalist DC and the former associate editor of design for Architect Magazine.