Looking Forward to Monday Mornings
A series of essays on business, architecture, and the business of architecture.
by Daniel Frisch
Posted December 6th, 2018

Recently, a particularly wise client was interviewing a potential contractor, and midway through the conversation, asked the question, “What qualities would make us good clients?”

One spouse started to speak of the clients’ mutually decisive personalities, and the contractor started to build on this, recommending decisions be made before construction starts (which is indeed very important). After listening for a bit, I interrupted with a simple thought; that one word could singularly describe the best clients: “attitude”.

Of course this attitude is positive attitude, not negative. Commissioning a custom home is an event which happens in life for only a very few, and the stresses that come with the process are understood by very few. Many clients, especially first-time clients approach the design and construction process with fear and, even, dread. The hesitation comes from the educated expectation that any project will cost three times the budget and take double the allotted time. Accordingly, the informed client comes to us with their antennae up, ready to fight and protect their interest against the egotistic architect and opportunistic contractor. Even when the collaborative design process succeeds and discipline prevails, budgets and schedules often dramatically inflate. Most frequently, decisions are made during the planning and construction stages that add cost and time to a project when compared to original expectations. To make matters worse, unanticipated conditions arise during construction, furthering increases to the budget and schedule. Maintaining a positive attitude when projects fail to meet their schedule and budget becomes extremely challenging, and a culture of blame erodes the collaborative spirit. Maintaining a positive attitude is challenging, yet essential.

The architect’s role is similar to a movie director or sports team manager, and while the actual responsibility for maintaining schedules and budget lies with the general contractor, the architect directs the movie and manages the team. In doing so, our job is to set the tone for a project, in spite of the aggregate of mistakes, additional work and expense, and schedule extensions that threaten to infect a project that started out as exciting and rewarding. It seems to me architects need more training in how to manage projects and relationships when things seem to go wrong. Helping clients maintain a high level of confidence in the team is essential to project success.

Recently, we had a project running well beyond budget and schedule, and during the finishing stages, problems seemed to outnumber successes. At the end of a particularly difficult and contentious meeting, I found myself in the client’s library calling the team back to the meeting. I pointed to an exquisitely detailed section of millwork, and asked everyone to pause, take a deep breath and to smile. Sometimes focusing on a small success can get everyone back together.

There is a wonderful joke about the empty or full glass that goes something like this. Some find a glass half-empty; others find a glass half-full; whereas the engineer finds the glass twice as large as it needs to be. I am happy to be an architect, and not an engineer. Electing to measure the glass as half-full suits my vision.

DF, 1-26-2018