Here’s an idea:
Let’s superserve the client
And then build a house
Holy bug butts this is a good book! Well written, well organized, and well thought out, it’s the best description of what happens and why when designing a house with an architect that I’ve found. Written by an architect for architects getting into residential design, I reckon it covers the stuff that doesn’t get covered in school, namely how to interact with clients during the process. Malone has clearly thought deeply about this part of his business.
As a (ahem) consumer of architectural services, I thought his description of the typical client was eerily spot on (it’s odd reading about yourself by someone you’ve never met…). And his empathic approach--putting himself in the client’s shoes when sh!t goes wrong and responding accordingly--is admirable (and greatly lacking in client services in general these days…). As a client, it was very interesting to read about the architect’s perspective of the design process and “appropriate” client feedback into that process. This is a book that needs to be read by architects and clients alike.
Malone states that it takes three qualities for someone to want an architect-designed house: Ego, patience, and money. We were surprised by the ego bit. Not that we don’t have ego (my bride has nearly none, but I probably have enough for the two of us… [step back from the car with your hands up!]), but that came out of left field. Malone equates the ego thing, in part, to thinking that there’s not a single house out there to fit your needs; therefore, you feel the need to hire someone to design and build the “perfect house” for you (probably applies us; we attribute our desire to build a house to wanting to go green and particularness in material choices and color). Or it could, in part, be to beat the Joneses (definitely not us; Malone practices in Dallas—there’s a lot of Jones-beating up in Dallas). Patience is needed to work through the drama of the design and building process (yep!). And, of course, money. Building an architect-designed house is typically a rich man’s (or woman’s [or couple’s]) sport.
An interesting insight into this critter called “architect” is how they (or at least Malone) react to client design preferences: “During your initial interviews [the clients] will usually tell you up front what they are looking for; some may even have books or magazines with specific houses or, even worse, various elements of houses they fully expect to see incorporated into their new home.” This sentence made me go “hmmmm” and pull my earlobe three times. I had thought that showing architects precedents was a good thing (and swear I read that somewhere). From a client’s perspective, it lets the architect see what your general design preferences are and lets the architect respectfully decline if those preferences don’t align (“Sorry: I don’t architect houses that look like Burger Kings.”). I certainly understand an architect not wanting to deal with an exhaustive listing of required elements: The architecture at that point is driven by design elements rather than use and program.
Malone’s description of a residential architect’s potential client base is spot-on. He notes that the client base is a small world that either knows each other directly or have contact through social and business networks. Indeed. For example, one of the architects we considered and then unconsidered was because a pal of ours had had a terrible experience with him. Some sentences that resonated with me for some reason: “Bad word of mouth can hurt you, especially if you are terminated by a client who has been paying fees for work she or he considers unsatisfactory, without you being able to finish the project.” and “They will now be faced with selecting and hiring another architect and moving forward from scratch, a potentially devastating charge to be leveled against you.” Just saying…
Malone advocates that architects use what amounts to basic business communication strategies (which, admittedly, even businesses struggle to employ). Namely, using agendas for meetings that clearly describe the purpose and goals of the meetings, written communication following meetings, and ongoing written summaries of decisions. One thing I’ve learned in my professional and personal life is that communication is key. Not surprisingly, that also applies to designing and building a house.
Malone notes how design and material choices and preferences of the architect can cause a budget to go awry just as design and material choices and preferences of the client can cause a budget to go awry (and Gawd forbid if both run amuck!). And Malone is clever in noting that an architect’s vision is much more likely to be realized if the architect is attentive to budget issues up front. If not, the client or builder will “fix” things to fit the budget (true, true: a couple builders told us during the dissolution of Round 1.0: “Just get the plans from the architect and then we’ll fix everything in the build.”).
As mentioned in an earlier post, Malone advocates that architects use a questionnaire to survey the needs and preferences of clients. And he provides an example. A great idea, methinks. Gets the clients thinking about what they want and documents it in writing. Another interesting section of the book focuses on “soft bidding”: getting estimates from builders before working on design. Malone notes that he has “…a consistent history of projects that, when priced, come in over budget, making everyone unhappy and uncomfortable when they do. No amount of careful planning or candid disclosure of your thoughts regarding the cost can prepare the clients for a project that has a price they cannot afford.” He goes on to note that he tries “to do the maximum possible with every design opportunity”. Although admirable (design is good!), this pressures the budget. Something to keep in mind about architects…
Later in the book, he addresses bids over budget (“and they always are”) and notes that this is when most residential projects die (can’t tell you how many folks we’ve talked to that have worked with an architect only to have their project suffer a whimpering got-run-over-by-the-bidding death). He notes that this is where the client is often disappointed and angry (uh-huh) and the architect needs to exert leadership to ensure the project moves forward. Malone describes that leadership as leveraging trust earned earlier in the relationship into a discussion of value engineering and, if needed, changes in design. For his firm, he will often redesign and adjust the plans at no cost to the client.
It was real interesting reading these bits given our experience with Architect 1.0, which was, in short, a perfect storm of bad. He lost our trust as a good steward of our resources early in the design process; when things went wrong, he blamed us for things that he did (which were provable via written documentation [remember, putting things in writing goes both ways…]); and his leadership at the end was to try and save design elements and material choices he wanted over our program needs. That’s not to say we weren’t part of the problem. There were design choices we made that certainly added to the cost. And after reading this book, perhaps we had a misunderstanding of what an architect does.
About that misunderstanding: Malone suggests that architects provide a “service for fee” similar, say, to an attorney. Along those lines, you are hiring expertise to advise you, but you are making the decisions and hence the outcome, ultimately, is yours (hence Architect 1.0 stating that he was not obligated to design a house we could afford). From a consumer standpoint, this is there’s-a-monster-hiding-in-the-amply-sized-master-bedroom-closet scary if it’s not clear up front (and it isn’t clear up front) and if it’s not clear during the design process. When we hired an architect, it was not only to hire expertise to design a functional thing of beauty that met (most) of our program needs but also knowledge of general construction costs. The lawyer-service-thing comes into play because a lawyer will typically discuss your legal options and the implications therein (perhaps with a recommendation), but you ultimately choose the option and, hence, your fate. The same thing applies with an architect. If you want a $100,000 negative edge pool and the architect explains that it will bust the budget, you shouldn’t be surprised when the budget is busted when the project finally gets bidded.
On the other hand, be watchful for design decision traps where you are making critical decisions that impact budget without knowing it. For example, the architect might ask “What do you think about putting a negative edge pool off the back patio? It would look great juxtaposed against summer skies!” And you might reply “Yeah, that would be great!” assuming the pool fits into the previously discussed budget. But it probably doesn’t. This is an extreme example, but it happens with lots of little and medium sized design decisions that add up over time. If budget is a concern, always spew the phrase “Can we do this on our budget?” and “How are we doing on budget?” (although, as we learned earlier, that doesn’t guarantee anything).
We’ve received criticism that we were unreasonable in our upsettedness with Architect 1.0 because he designed a house we loved. Although I’m not an architect, I’ll go out on a limb and say that it’s pretty damn easy to design a house a client loves. There are lots of houses out there we love. We would love to live in about 90 percent of the houses we see on the AIA tours. One little problem: We can’t afford them. The true talent of an architect is designing a house the client loves within the budget. Although Malone notes the service-for-fee bit, he also notes that clients expect the process to produce a design that fits the budget and he runs his business accordingly. This is a case where reality (expectations/perceptions of clients) trump the theory of the service an architect provides.
Malone goes on to discuss contracting, construction administration, and the building process. He also includes case studies at the end of each chapter. At first, the case studies are rather rosy; something I was going to ding the book for (what do you learn from rosy case studies?). But then he describes, toward the end of the book, some particularly nasty situations and the lessons he learned from them.
This book is, quite simply, fantastic. I can’t say enough nice things about it. I have to think that it’s invaluable for practicing or soon-to-be-practicing architects. And it’s certainly invaluable to clients hoping to get a better understanding of the process and the inner workings of this critter called “architect”.