Precedents Day

We’ve yapped about precedents in various blog posts, so it seems appropriate to present our precedents on Presidents’ Day. A precedent is “an act or instance that may be used as an example in dealing with subsequent similar instances.” So in architecture, a precedent is a building, a finish, or a solution that came before that can be used to guide a solution in the here and now or in the future. In our case, we used precedents to define our stylistic preferences. It’s unclear to me whether or not architects like to see client-provided precedents or not. Michael Malone, in “The Architect’s Guide to Residential Design”, suggests the answer is “No”:

“During your initial interviews [potential 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.”

I’m fixated a wee bit on that “even worse” bit, which suggests architects don’t want you lugging your books and magazines into their offices, thank you very much. Ultimately, I think every architect’s preference is to have a (book-less, magazine-less) client walk in their office, slap a pile of cash on their desk, and yelp, in a Zsa Zsa Gabor voice, “Design me a house!”

We assembled and distributed our list of precedents to potential architects for our project before we read Malone’s book. But truth be told, we still would have done it after reading Malone’s book. The Zsa Zsa Gabor approach would make me nervous unless I knew that I would love whatever the architect came up with. And even then, that’s a risk. What if Mr. Cubist Architect was having a mid-life crisis and decided all his projects would now be Beaux Arts, and you were the first “beneficiary” of this revelation? On the other hand, what if you were courting International Style architects with what you were expecting would be a gothic castle with a Minnie Mouse themed landscape design? It seems to me getting the broad style questions and expectations settled early, before contracts are signed, is important.

What Malone may be concerned about is the potential specificity of a client’s request. If you go into an architect’s office with a photo of a house and state “I want my house to look exactly like this house”, that’s a problem. That house may not fit your program, your site, your orientation, or your budget and may trample on the creativity of the architect you’re talking to as well as the architect who designed the house you like (not to mention the folks who built a house they thought was unique).

We provided a herd of precedents (14) with some carefully calibrated additions (one with a curve and one with a shed roof) to indicate what we were open to. We also included a few notes of what we liked and didn’t like about each house. If you do this, I strongly suggest you use “weasel words” (‘We “prefer” a side entry.’ versus: ‘We require a side entry.’) unless you truly have a deal-breaker in your design vision. Speaking of side entries, we have a preference for them (but didn’t demand one); however, note that our current design doesn’t have one. This was a case where the architects had the flexibility to present a non-side entrance solution as part of a broader plan, a plan we ultimately adopted.

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