Behind every good architect is a good client; good clients are necessary to good architecture. Don’t take the wanted poster too far, we need living clients. We want good clients; we have good clients.
After all these years of practicing architecture, one conclusion that I am comfortable making (and I hope other architects agree) is that good projects require good clients. Good architecture follows along. I acknowledge that the absence of said person doesn’t preclude good architecture, but it makes it quite difficult and near impossible in most situations. This goes for residential or commercial projects, from doghouses to skyscrapers.
Read enough about architecture and one will typically find in the story where the client was active and involved; that client was likely a good client. It is true that we can find colorful stories and tumultuous relationships, even adversarial partings between the client and the architect occurring at times. Nevertheless, the client who paid for the building must have positive contributions that extend beyond merely writing a check.
We could talk all day about the different types of clients that we’ve had, but that could prove endless and divert our attention to fruitless areas. It can be established that there are experienced clients and inexperienced clients. Experienced clients have worked with architects on multiple occasions, they understand the process, they navigate through proposals, contracts and the startup process well. Getting to the “meat” of the project is something they’re generally eager to do as the rest is familiar. Inexperienced clients have never worked with an architect, or perhaps they did on one occasion with varied results. I guide my prospective clients to educate themselves quickly on basic matters so they can be informed and make decisions early on that they’ll not regret later in the process. Educated (and empowered) consumers are great people with which to work.
Aside from the level of experience, three categories came to mind as I considered this topic, but there are limitless versions and hybrids. I move forward carefully as I dare not insult any of my clients or potential clients either intentionally or accidentally. Respect and appreciation is something that should always come to their mind as they consider their relationship with me. For the most part, I’ve been extremely fortunate.
- Indifferent client – Unfortunately, this client may not see the architect as a volitional choice, but as a dictate beyond their control. They tend not to value or care about the contributions or the input of the professional, but perceive it merely as a mandated governmental stepping stone to get to their goal of having a structure where they can conduct their business. In other words, they’re told they must hire an architect, therefore they (grudgingly) move forward. They’re not hostile, they’re just not interested. I have found there is often a lack of understanding of value available and the fee paid is merely an expense rather than an investment in a service and a relationship that can yield not only shelter, but lend branding, increased productivity and health to their business. I may have thickened my hyperbole for the sake of a point, but one must be careful when an inquiry comes in from this type of client.
- Frugal cheerleader – This client often has limited resources, but seeks the best value with the best fitted architect for the best architecture that that they can get for their investment. They tacitly or overtly challenge their architect despite a limited budget, often suffering through cuts and compromises, yet remain passionate enough to trust their architect to make the best of their limited resources. If this client lends appropriate freedom, unexpected positive results can ensue within great constraints. Good results can occur if expectations are managed well, disappointment can come when the root of the idea is lost when the money is not there.
- Indulgent artists – This might be the client most architects think they want; however, that’s not always true. This client is willing to pay to get what they want – at any cost. They afford tremendous latitude, demand the highest quality which often leads to the deepest of exploration. Frequently, these projects appear on the cover of our favorite magazines. This is certainly something to celebrate if this occurs, but my caution is with no limits to budget, there is no limit to expectations. As both parties agonize over the details to achieve a unique work of art, tumultuous struggles occur which may have unfortunate consequences. This could go either way. Tread carefully.
Regardless of what traits you might exhibit as a client, the one aspect that can make the most difference in the result is the client engagement and open relationship with the architect. Whether the project is large or small, I have found the best projects come from a client that is involved in the process, interested in the result and contributes their vision balanced with an unmistakable trust for their architect. When one first seeks a professional that best fits with their personality and needs, but is well suited with their project type, that sets them up for success and satisfaction. After having hired the architect and worked through the program and constraints, let the architect do their job. Don’t design for them, don’t hold their arm while they draw, but trust them to find the best solution within the context. There needs to be ongoing dialogue and continuing exchange during this process, but the worst thing one can do is tell the architect that they think they “have it all figured out”, then expect the architect to merely ‘draw it up’ to either reduce the fee or give a feeling of having designed it themselves.
This mode of thinking expands beyond hiring of design professionals. Be a good client (or customer) with whatever services you hire a professional for assistance. Once you’ve made the right choice, let them do their job – whether they are architects, accountants, graphic designers, photographers, computer repair persons, bakers or baristas. If you don’t get the result you want, perhaps the error wasn’t on the part of the professional but in your choice or your contributions (or lack of trust) to the one you hired in the first place. It’s something to think about today. Seek out good clients rather than good projects.
Image 2 credit: By The U.S. Army (Searching for opposing forces) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons