how to treat your architect

billy joel 52nd street

I am boldly going where not too many have dared to go. I’m being honest about how to treat your architect. Be forewarned I’m going to spell it out.

Now I want to go on record that my current clients are wonderful and I treasure our relationships. I have many past clients that I consider dear friends. Furthermore, I’m not crying the blues here due to a fragile ego. I just believe it’s just a matter of education. As in any relationship, if you don’t learn, read or care about enhancing your relationships, they’ll probably fail at worst, or be unhealthy at best. We as the service providers must deliver the best service for our clients; it’s our duty and it’s the right thing to do. However, it’s a two-way street, it takes two to tango,  or  (insert your own idiomatic relationship analogy).

Allow me to offer a list of things to consider as you hire and work with your architect. Remember, this is a relationship not just buying a product or ‘just buying a service.’ If you want the ‘most for your money’, consider these things carefully.

  1. Be honest – This is a virtue that is most important in any relationship. Most, if not all of the suggestions listed below come back to this one. Our relativistic postmodern world tells us we can alter truth to fit our situations. They’re lying. Your architect does want you to be honest with them. Tell them what you’re thinking, what you like as much as what you don’t like. If they’re worth hiring in the first place, they’ll really appreciate your honesty. Remember, honesty without grace and discretion can also be rude.
  2. Call them back – This is primarily true for those searching for an architect. Once you’ve made an inquiry to an architect for their services and they’ve called you back or sent you a proposal, call them to let them know if you’re still interested in working with them or if you’ve decided on some other direction.
  3. Tell them why you didn’t hire them – Architects will give up considerable time to meet with you, review your project and discuss how they plan to work with you. They may have even gone as far as to work up a scope of services and a fee proposal. This takes time, thought and money. If you choose not to hire them, so be it. But be “man-enough” or <insert your own idiomatic phrase> to tell them honestly why you didn’t hire them and hired someone else. We cannot grow or alter our interviewing or proposal skills if we don’t know why we “lost the job.” It’s the least you can do in exchange for their time. The Golden Rule always applies to these situations.
  4. Tell them why you did hire them – Ok, you’ve signed the proposal and wrote them a check. You’re obviously comfortable with them. Now tell they what they said or did that gave you the confidence to hire them. It’s not just an ego boost, but it will help them understand in more specific terms how they have earned your trust. We already feel accountable to our clients. This only increases when we know why you like us. Try it and see what happens.
  5. Tell them your actual schedule and your actual budget – Too often we lie to people about this item thinking it will be abused otherwise. We tell someone to show up earlier than we need them to show up because we believe they’ll be late. We lie and tell people we want to spend less than we are willing to spend because we think they’ll go over our figure. This doesn’t work in a healthy relationship. Tell your architect what your drop-dead-bottom-line budget is and tell them again if it changes. Don’t tell them a number and then spend twice that just to avoid a higher fee. The same goes for your schedule. Trust goes both ways. Wouldn’t you like your architect to trust you as much as you want to trust them?
  6. Be patient – Yes time is money and you would like to enjoy your project sooner than later. However, architecture is made by a process. Hiring an architect is like being on a journey. First of all, they probably have other clients other than you ***gasp***. Also, coming up with creative solutions doesn’t always happen by simply sitting down and working on your project. This is a subject all to itself, so I’ll save further discussion for another day.
  7. Learn to differentiate between what you want to spend and the concept of ‘expensive’ – This requires research and careful work alongside your architect. The architect’s role is to work within the boundaries of your budget. You may have to make hard decisions about what you can include in the scope of work. Some aspects might have to wait until a later phase or be scrapped altogether. However, just because a design feature does not fit within your budget doesn’t make it expensive. It just means it’s outside of your budget. Saying something is expensive has an implication of spending more for something than it gives value in return. This will frustrate your architect.
  8. Be engaged – The best clients are the ones that are engaged in the process. This goes beyond discussing or talking about the fun aspects of design. It means you listen to your architect and are interested in the variety of issues and concerns they’ll share with you. When they ask you for input and a response, schedule time in your busy life and make the necessary decisions. I’m not advocating taking over the role you’ve hired your architect to play. Just pay attention to their work, review the drawings and information they give you carefully and be part of the conversation on all levels. If you’re getting bored at a meeting, end it and schedule another one.
  9. Respect – Aretha couldn’t have sung it any better. Besides honesty being “mostly what I need from you”, respect is probably the second most important trait to give to your architect. Yes they are being “paid for their work”, but they really crave and deserve your respect. This goes for their time, their talent, their experience and their efforts. They may not solve your problems on the first go around, but they want to please you and they want to make great architecture. We all believe it will improve your life. Architecture is made by a process and comes out of a creative, but educated mind. Your architect is a professional and deserves to be treated as such. If they’ve acted otherwise, then go back to the first item above – be honest with them. If they’re worth hiring, they’ll deserve the respect.
  10. Pay them…promptly – Have you noticed as Americans we’ve developed a habit of looking at bills and invoices as optional. I’m amazed at how many people feel they can use a service or have access to goods or products and not pay for them. Ask around and someone will vent about someone who owes them money. Architecture is a business and when a service is rendered to you, you must pay for it and pay for it immediately. Do you want your architect to be motivated to work on your projects within your schedule? Then write them a check as soon as the invoice arrives. Architects will generally work first on the projects that have no unpaid balances. Why should they work for free? Read item #9 above. Besides the business aspects of it, it shows a lack of respect for them and their work. If there is a reason you’re withholding payment, go back to item #1 and be honest with them. You still owe them the money, but if you need to clear the air, then speak up.

Architects treasure their clients and are painfully aware that without clients, there are no projects. We are driven by a strong sense of ethics and a duty to provide our clients the best service possible. I would venture to say most of us want to far exceed your expectations and in some cases blow your minds. We enjoy pleasing our clients. However in a relationship, both sides must work at making and keeping the relationship healthy.

Has this helped? What would you add to the list? What do you think? It’s ok, be honest.


 Billy Joel 52nd Street image courtesy of Sony Records 1979

Mies photo credit, Frank Scherschel, LIFE

how to treat your architect

16 thoughts on “how to treat your architect

  1. Great article Lee.

    To expand on “Call them back”, to do so is to take the high road most of us profess to live by but often, when it actually comes to picking up the phone with bad news, don’t.

    We let our reply be in the form of silence. An example: In the last two years I interviewed with two builder/developers. One headquartered in California (but doing a local project here in Maryland) and one in Delaware. Both CEO’s maintain a high online profile of both not only them personally but their company as “treating people right”, “Great company”, “We have the highest of standards”, etc..

    I was not the architect selected for either project and while both promised to “call me back”, for the Delaware guy all I got was silence but the California guy called me up personally at 8PM east coast time. And this guy’s the head of a big multistate corporation but he didn’t send me a note or have some assistant do his bidding. He picked up the phone himself and made a point of talking to me. Didn’t like the news of course but couldn’t help but have the greatest amount of respect for the guy. On the other hand It took about two weeks of unanswered phone calls and emails for me to realize the Delaware guy was all talk and no substance.

    So call back Mr./Mrs. Client, even if it’s bad news. You end up looking good…or even great!!!

    And one more to the list: If you Mr./Mrs. Client hire an architect, keep him/her in the design loop during construction. Don’t let your design/build contractor or interior designer or your next door neighbor start making those seemingly small design decisions now that the project is “framed up”.

  2. This is off-topic, but thanks to you, two of the architects in my life (my husband and my closest girlfriend are both architects) both got the What the Architect Says book from me for Christmas.

    If I could add anything to the list, it would be do not work with your spouse as your architect. I have been waiting for four years for drawings for our cabin in the mountains. 🙂

  3. This is an excellent list Lee Calisti. My question is: how would you get this information to prospective clients before they hire an architect and in such a way that wouldn’t come across as offensive? I don’t imagine you would want to give it to someone who has just contacted you for a potential job? Of course, people can read your blog, and they may do so if they are planning to contact you, so I guess that could work if you have a blog on your web site. For a greater (client) forum, I think this blog post would be great one for Houzz and I would love to see the responses.

    I also think that Doug Burke’s suggestion of keeping the architect in the design loop during construction is a very good potential addition for this list.

    I have two suggestions for list:

    1) If you expect your architect to help you stay within a budget and to know the cost of your project, then do keep track of cost and tell them what the actual cost was when you are all or almost done with the project. How else are we supposed to know the impact of our design decisions and suggestions and the cost of things for future clients?

    2) Be a great communicator with your architect during the design and construction process. Respect your architect’s time. If your architect e-mail or call you, then e-mail or call them right back. If you do not have an answer to a question they raise at the time, then tell them when you will. It helps your architect stay on track on your project, work more efficiently and develop ideas faster.

    1. I can’t say I have answers to your questions, but it is something I will continue to think about in the future. My first response is what you stated already that someone would read the blog.

      Again, the blog is about sharing how we think so it’s an open invitation to the blog if you care to know how we think. I agree with you, this list would appear offensive if given as a set of demands upon a first interview.

      If you have any further ideas of getting any of my thoughts to a larger audience, I’d love to hear about it. Thanks for reading.

  4. Ted Thomas says:

    There should be only one item on the list and it’s #10 on your list.
    Although, ‘call them back’ might make my list as well… though no one seems to do that much these days.Nor do they answer the phone when you call them.

    A sad commentary on our ‘modern’ lives…

      1. What would Mies say to all of this? I’m thinking very little. Perhaps he’d sit quietly as if he’s searching for his words, blow the smoke out from his cigar, shake his head and get up and leave the room.

  5. Great article Lee!

    I haven’t always met with “mature”, discerning folks that aren’t trying to get something for little or nothing. I’ve had mostly good to great clients and they are gold.

    I’ve thought about #7 on occasion – a mature client that is not trying to “get somewhere” through someone else will understand that costs are costs and that some things have more or many costs and they tend not to use the word “expensive” quite intentionally.

    In terms of #10, I don’t email or mail drawings or invoice payment requests – never have and never will. My design agreement and construction contract are lump sum guaranteed price with design fee terms and construction landmark-of-completion progress payment schedule along with fee escalation clauses.
    If the client’s requested changes/increases in scope add to the fee, my additional fee is agreed to, documented, signed off on and are added to the next progress payment. In my case, I work on local projects for local clients – so I arrange an in-studio mtg for design review and full payment of each phase before a client receives a copy of drawings. I’ve never had push-back from a prospect or client about this nor a client slow-pay or no-pay.

  6. I was looking for information on hiring an architect and found your blog..thanks for putting it all together. I really like the”be engaged ” part as i think is the most important part on the client side.

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