order off of the menu

Are you willing to order off of your architect’s menu?


If you are considering hiring an architect, let me applaud you. As you are going through the process of selecting an architect, there are many things to consider and many resources and websites that can direct you to an ample list of things one ought to consider. We are going to focus on a lesser one of those items in this post but first and foremost, let me emphasize that there are many factors that are important. I believe trust and chemistry are high on the list. For now let’s assume the short list has already passed through the experience or capability filter.


What type of work are they going to do for YOU is a question that is often overlooked or assumed incorrectly. Yes, architects will tell you that they will design a solution that meets the constraints and meets the context and whatever other criteria you throw at them. Nevertheless, ask yourself will this architect deliver the kind of solution you would like to see? Or are you open, flexible and comfortable to see where this architect may take you on this journey?  If you are an architect, have you asked yourself if you’re willing or able to go in the direction this client really wants to go?

Let’s look for instance at the variety of different types of restaurants in your area. Some restaurants serve a very specific type of food, perhaps a particular ethnic food, gourmet, specialty hamburgers or even fast food. That can be viewed as a narrow menu. Oftentimes those types of restaurants excel at delivering that specific type of food yet many restaurants pride themselves in being all things to all people by serving a broad range of food. It’s quite possible that the latter type of restaurant can deliver tasty food in a broad range. However, if your palate is a bit more discerning you may disagree.


When you walk into a restaurant at some point you will see a menu. You likely know something about it beforehand. Yet, I’m not aware of any restaurant where you can order something not on the menu. Has there mistakenly developed an understanding that when you walk into an architect’s office you can merely order anything you want and the architect will cook it up and deliver it to you hot and fresh? (If that doesn’t cause some conversation, I’m done writing). Remember, this has nothing to do with an ability to listen, resolve function, budget, code or any ethical responsibilities.

How does this or should this work in a creative field? Frank Gehry has been criticized for his quote “I don’t know why people hire an architect and then tell them what to do.” Although this may come off being brash or egotistical (which I in no way support), where does the creative talent and visual expertise of the architect come into play? The answer is nowhere if the client is holding the architect’s elbow as they draw. At no point am I advocating a lack of team involvement or no room for client preference, demands or wishes. The visual qualities of the project are likely more than style but their way to respond to the site and surrounding context.


I would not expect everyone to fully understand this and there are many architecture firms that are willing to do work in all types of expressions or styles. Why would we be turning away ANY work at this point – right? I’ll be honest, it has taken me over ten years to be brave enough to ask myself this question. I am not answering it for you as a client or for you as an architect. I’m just asking a question.

If you’re really looking for good design, perhaps great design, and you have a preference, a leaning, inkling, a proclivity, or a whisper of an opinion to a certain type of architecture, then as you are reviewing the other (perhaps more important) criteria one ought to review when selecting an architect you ought to consider this menu idea very seriously.


If you see that a particular architect has a portfolio full of neoclassical high-end residential and you’re more of a contemporary loft style person then will you share artistic vision? With most architects you will find a theme or at least a consistent thread that runs through their work that will show up in your work and your project. Why not? They probably have good reasons for why their work looks the way it does. If that is something you admire, something you would wish to show up in your work then I would consider using that architect. If it is drastically different from what you would like to see then ask yourself and ask them if they are the right person/firm for your project. Maybe they’re trying to break away into something new.


I don’t want to get the selection process out-of-order in terms of priority but after all these years of doing this, I find that the interest of the architect is often within their particular type of work. So as you are asking questions of your architect look at their previous work and decide if you can live with ordering off the menu.


photos are from multiple photostreams on Flickr (used under the Creative Common License)
Sarah Parrot  Michael Daines  Aaron Landry  Camknows

order off of the menu

5 thoughts on “order off of the menu

  1. I think this is a great pos and one we all need to think about. I have tried to be diligent about trying to create my “menu” in my public presentation, not only of my work, but also of myself. Most of the work i have done over the last few years will never make my marketing material because it simply is not the menu i want to present. I will, so to speak, cook off the menu, but i do not advertise that i do.

    That is one reason i like doing freelance work for other architects. I can get paid doing some off menu work and not have my name attached to it.

  2. Vicky says:

    I order things that are not shown on the menu at lots of food establishments! I appreciate flexibility and a willingness to accommodate my needs and wants.

    But yes, I agree it is important when choosing a professional that they share your vision and passion for a great outcome. Checking their portfolio is a handy shortcut.

  3. Andrew says:

    I see this all the time. It’s a fine line. You are hired to have an opinion, yet you want to come off as a neutral guide to refined options. Some architects have a beat them over the head attitude but I don’t believe in that. Flexible yet firm is the way to go. Explore all opportunities and present the best few. Be the tie breaker when necessary.

    Even when the client comes in the door because they want your “style”, you are still designing for them. And you want to try new things. Hopefully they want to challenge you as well. The goal is to be as matter of fact as you can so that you can give them as much information as possible. Let them decide for themselves. That’s being a designer and a team leader. Collaborative design.

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