Writings

Looking Forward to Monday Mornings
A series of essays on business, architecture, and the business of architecture.
When Accommodation Equals Indulgence
by Daniel Frisch
Posted February 21st, 2019

We enthusiastically practice and teach “Yes,… And,” as well as to be guided by a “customer is always right” style of service. While these affirmative strategies form the bedrock of a successful professional practice, they do not apply to every situation or define every relationship.

Collaborating on the design and construction of a private residence is an emotionally (and, economically) charged exercise for all parties. Architects, contractors and clients each hold opinions about the process and details that may conflict with one another. When agendas start to veer, and the beginning seeds of distrust start to appear, mediation becomes more difficult. At first, the disarming approach of “Yes,…And” works. Yet, if agendas, opinions, or personalities diverge too greatly, “Yes,… And” can have an opposite effect. Affirmative strategies only work when parties behave collaboratively.

Sometimes, affirmative strategies can lead to over-accommodation and send projects careening down blind alleys. In avoiding confrontation and in an effort to appease, parties will strive to empathetically accept a differing, even if oppositional or inaccurate point of view. While disarming and well-intentioned as such moderation and reinforcement may be, disingenuous accommodation can easily become encouragement, or worse, indulgence. The upside of accommodation is elasticity and flexibility, which are at the heart of collaboration; but the downside is a lack of forthrightness and honesty.

Clients have needs and desires that are at times at odds and cannot be simultaneously embraced. Criteria and objectives, therefore, need to be prioritized, and not every need or wish can be fulfilled. While compromises and subtle resolutions are always good first steps when resolving conflicts, parties occasionally dig in, determined to pursue individual agendas or just simply to win arguments (at seemingly any cost). When this occurs, affirmative strategies can backfire and become counterproductive to everyone’s best interests.

In 2017 and 2018, we had a contractor who (among other shortcomings) repeatedly refused to produce revised construction schedules, and when pressed, submitted schedules that were both inaccurate and misleading. The client and DFA collectively chose to work with the contractor, rather than to demand performance or to terminate. Unintentionally, the contractor was given the belief that they could reach the finish line with only minor improvements to their management and performance. Unfortunately, the schedule issues were symptomatic of diseased project management. Every reassurance (accommodation) on the part of the client and DFA distracted us from harsher measures that may have in the end been wiser.

In addition to under-performing contractors, third parties (decorators and consultants) may also fail to deliver complete or timely information essential to move forward with an aspect of a project. Instead of confrontationally demanding completion of the subject task, architects and contractors invariably seek work-arounds. While supportive and collaborative, this type of flexibility and accommodation encourages further poor performance, amplifying mistakes and delays.

The exact same result stems from client indecision. Hesitant to commit to choices that are difficult to change, clients quite often endeavor to keep options open until the last minute and provide decisions with only ninety-percent commitment. Architects, designers, and contractors all too often hesitate to press the client for final answers. Applauding by accommodation the ninety-percent decision reinforces the opposite of that which is needed – a final (100%) decision.

The customer is always right, of course; except when a customer’s indecision and poor decisions are indulged by the project team’s accommodations.