Looking Forward to Monday Morning
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, “What qualities would make us good clients?”

The contractor, not wishing to appear presumptuous and perhaps fearing a trick question, paused thoughtfully. Before he could answer, one spouse began to speak of the clients’ mutually decisive personalities, letting the contractor off the hook by answering on his behalf.  The contractor, in turn, built upon the clients’ self-assessment by asserting that decisions be made before construction commencement, indeed a very important recommendation.  After listening for a bit, I interjected with a simple thought.  One trait could singularly describe the best clients, “attitude”.

This attitude is, of course, a positive attitude.  Commissioning a custom home is a rare event for the very few, and the stresses that come with the process are appreciated only by the same few.  Many clients, especially first-time clients, approach the design and construction process with fear and even dread.  This hesitation comes from a reasonably educated expectation that their dreams will cost three times the budget and be delivered in double the allotted time.  Accordingly, the informed client comes to us with their antennae up, ready to fight to protect their interest against the casino run by the egotistic architect and the opportunistic contractor.  Even when a project runs smoothly, budgets and schedules still may dramatically inflate causing tensions to surge.  While decisions made during the planning and construction stages frequently add cost and time – causing schedules and costs to outpace original projections – unanticipated conditions and late-stage additions invariably arise during construction, furthering the delta between budgeted and the actual.  Maintaining a positive attitude when project schedules and budgets slip can become extremely challenging, especially when a culture of blame erodes the collaborative spirit.

While the actual responsibility for maintaining schedule and budget lies with the general contractor, the architect directs the movie and manages the team.  Along with designing, drawing plans, and preparing specifications, the architect’s job is to set the tone for a project. This cheerleading of sorts is most notably needed when the aggregate of additional work, expense, and schedule extensions – not to mention mistakes – threatens to infect a project that began as exciting and rewarding.  Helping all parties maintain a high level of confidence in the team, the process, and the project outcome ensures that clients enjoy the process and make good decisions along the way.

A story from a recent project is illustrative.  The project was running well over budget and beyond schedule, and daily problems during the finishing stages were materially outnumbering successes.  At the end of a particularly difficult and contentious meeting, I found myself in the client’s library calling the team back.  I pointed to an exquisitely detailed section of millwork and asked everyone to pause, to take a deep breath, and to smile.  Sometimes focusing on a small success can bring everyone back together.

There is a wonderful parable 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, and I encourage others to join me in maintaining a positive attitude – no matter how tightly their jaws may be clenched.