ask the right questions

20 October 2014


I’m interested in questions – in fact I’m more interesting in asking the right questions in any situation. I am beginning to believe that people end up at the wrong place or the wrong conclusions partially or wholly due to asking the wrong questions.

We’ve read many-a-blog entry and many articles that criticize the architectural profession when potential clients, and building owners are unaware of the process of design, value, costs or fees. Therefore, they generally ask the wrong questions when contacting us for the first time. That can be seen as an opportunity – I get it.

We have taken the blame for not educating the public, not giving adequate information, being arrogant and not explaining our value. Oftentimes the first question out of the mouth of a potential client or inquiry is “how much does it cost.” I’m not disagreeing with the critique of my profession, but today I’m going to defend my profession and critique the other side.

Now it is always a fair question (when money is being spent) to ask how much will this cost? Whether that is the cost of the service or the cost of construction or whatever cost is in question. Most of us need to know how much something costs before we buy it. It’s a fair question. However, many of us, whether intuitively or objectively, look for other information when making a purchase. Most times that information is actually more important.

For instance if you buy lunch at McDonald’s you will look at the price up on the menu board but you’ve already answered questions in your mind prior to going there. For instance you already know what they sell, the quality of the food and the risk you’re taking by eating it. You may discount that, but in essence that is information you need to know before going there or at least eating there. Call it silly but it’s true. McDonald’s is common knowledge; the architectural design process is not.

medium_12195367365When buying something else of reasonable value, many other questions ought to come to mind. For instance, if you were planning a wedding and were ready to hire a photographer or caterer, I hope you would ask more questions beyond how much.

The difference with architects is most people have never hired one, nor has anyone they know worked with one. There is no basis for common knowledge. Presumably they are starting with no knowledge, no assumptions and no basis on which to make a decision. Therefore, the first question is how much – it’s visceral. My position is one ought to be more concerned about the quality of the end result (i.e. photographs, food, or building) or the details of the process than the cost to get there.

How good is your food? What is your style? Can I see or taste some of your work? Are you available? Do you know about the details of my situation? I would really like ____, can you do that? What is your name, what is your quest, what is your favorite color? Shall I go on?

I admit a downfall in my profession is that the expected range of architectural fees is not common knowledge. This is compounded by the fact that we can’t even quote a fee without considerable information anyway. Moreover, many avoid following an objective process to compare or reconcile one architect against another. Yet the cost of construction is an equivalent mystery and some seem to be more concerned about the amount they’ll pay for an architect rather than the (larger) cost of the construction itself.

So where do we go from here?

My advice to those who are considering construction, developing or buying property (and that venture involves hiring an architect) is to do your homework before you make the first phone call. If you are serious about your project – especially as an investment – then do some research. The onus is on you.

I’ve had several people contact me recently and start the conversation out something like this. “I’ve never done this before, how much will it cost?”

Here are some other ways to start the conversation that will be more effective and will get you to your decision about whom to hire quicker. There are probably many others – so maybe my architect friends can lend a few more and I’ll insert them here.

  • “I’ve never done this before, what are some things I should be considering?”
  • “Are you familiar with this property at (state the address)? I’m considering _____ with it.”
  • “What are the critical questions one should be researching before ____?”
  • “I’m considering buying this property for ____, may I ask you how would you approach this project?”
  • “We are considering building a new ____, what factors would determine the construction cost and also the architectural fees for a project like that?”
  • “I’m interested in ___. Can you help me with that? How would you go about that? I need to determine the critical issues involved and the expected development costs.”

From there you will definitely get a read on whether or not you want work with this person or firm – which will ultimately lead to answering the question about cost.

None of this negates the need for our profession to constantly work at selling our value, explaining our worth or demonstrating our skills. All of those things are true. However, I can’t excuse the lack of preparedness on many people’s part, in an information rich society, prior to embarking on the most expensive or the largest investment one will ever make, which is in construction and real estate.

I strongly believe the sooner one engages (and hires) an architect, the probability for success increases radically. Be less concerned about the fee initially and more concerned about whether this architect is right for you and I’m sure their value will surpass the cost.

Try one of my questions above – and let me know how it works.



photo credit 1: kygp via photopin cc
photo credit 2: blu27. via photopin cc
photo credit 3: Simon Lieschke via photopin cc

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