"Thoughts and Observations on Architecture and You"

Topics of importance for people about to build or renovate

Living room of a new Oakland, California house

Attributes of Terrific Clients

I meet regularly with fellow architects and building contractors to talk about various issues of mutual interest. We often discuss the key reasons why one project is successful, and another less so. There is general agreement that the property owner’s attitude, intelligence, and approach to doing the project work have, perhaps, the greatest impact on the quality of the services that we provide.

Recognizing this, when an architect and a contractor meet a property owner to discuss a project, not only is the owner evaluating each individual’s fitness to do the work, but the architect and the contractor are assessing the impact that the owner’s personality, budget and schedule limitations, and design and construction understanding will have on the chances of developing the type of working relationship that is essential to have a successful project.

Architects and contractors are likely to evaluate building opportunities in different ways because of differences in their education, work experience, and business goals. Nevertheless, it is useful for owners to be aware of traits that both groups value in potential clients:

  • A steady, upbeat attitude — Designing and building something for someone who remains positive when dealing with the emotional ups and downs of construction is a pleasure. An upbeat client will draw out the best effort from his architect and the building crew. No one wants to disappoint an owner with whom it is a delight to work.

  • Patience — Each step in the design and construction process is taken for a reason. The work needs to be done intelligently and with disciplined care to achieve the highest long-term value for the effort. Owner actions to speed the work along, while understandable, rarely come without a price. That price often only becomes obvious a few years after the work has been completed, as construction problems arise prematurely because someone was inattentive or took unwise shortcuts when trying to finish the work quickly.

  • Design and construction familiarity — “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” Savvy owners remember that their design and construction intuition has been formed on far less knowledge and experience than that of the people they have retained for assistance. These owners always contrast their judgment and inclination with that of their consultants before making key design or building decisions.

  • Candor — Clear, honest communication throughout a project is critical. At the start of the work, if an owner does not convey budget and schedule goals, as well as factors peripheral to the project that may impact major decisions, the architect and the builder can’t assess the project’s feasibility or effectively plan its execution. During the project, candor between the parties is needed to confirm that the quality of the work being done is meeting expectations. If it is not, changes can be made at the time when they will be most effective.

  • Flexibility — There are hundreds of large and small tasks to complete in a building project and, often, things do not go as planned despite everyone’s effort to be vigilant. Completely destroying and redoing recently finished work saps resources — money, time, energy, enthusiasm — and stops work momentum. Realizing this, astute clients examine each problem situation with their architect and builder to determine if a less extensive modification to the completed work can be made that will not compromise the owner’s goals and preferences. Such owner flexibility is often rewarded later in a project when the architect or builder has an opportunity to provide assistance beyond that contractually required or expected.

  • Timeliness — An owner is asked to make many decisions over the course of a project while busy attending to normal work and family duties. Owners who are well organized and can make project decisions quickly keep the design and construction work moving forward without delay. Delays play havoc with attempts to coordinate the work schedules of multiple project participants, many of whom have responsibilities at other project locations. Labor inefficiencies caused by delays invariably lead to frustration on everyone’s part and increased project cost.

  • Support for creative design and craftsmanship — Regardless of the size of a project’s budget, owners who support the efforts of their architect to produce interesting design, and of the building crew to provide good workmanship, are likely to get more of both than their budget suggests is possible. First-rate architects view each project as an opportunity that tests their creativity and challenges them to provide “the best design for the buck.” Similarly, talented craftspeople are often enticed by design work that is different from the work they are normally asked to do. Many love thinking of ways to build unique designs efficiently and well, and welcome any challenge of their manual skills. When these individuals are fully engaged in the project work, we all benefit.

  • A desire to pay promptly — Timely payment is an affirmation that the services rendered have been appreciated. That appreciation often means as much as the payment itself to the small business owners who receive it, and their desire to provide even better service increases.

As mentioned earlier, owners should be aware that architects and builders can have very different financial and managerial goals. These goals have a major impact on the types of clients and projects they believe are a good fit for their company’s strengths, limitations, operating style, and overhead structure. For larger organizations of both groups, projects with tight budgets that lack sufficient profit potential may simply have to be dismissed, regardless of an owner’s attractive traits as a potential client. Conversely, those qualities might prompt an architect or a builder to assist an owner with whom he senses some affinity, despite his doubt that the project’s financial reward merits the effort needed to do it properly.

Difficult economic times do not diminish the importance of choosing people with whom to work who have the personal traits we value most in our business relationships. In the course of a construction project, when things are going well, those traits will be welcome; when things are going badly, those traits will be essential if problems are to be resolved intelligently and amicably. Only then will property owners, architects, and builders know for certain whether they have chosen their project partners wisely.

John McLean, Architect
San Francisco
(415) 777-9767