Looking Forward to Monday Morning
A series of essays on business, architecture, and the business of architecture.
Programming as Priority
by Daniel Frisch
Posted January 28th, 2019

My Monday morning bully pulpit has given me great pleasure, and I always look forward to presenting a subject whose theme is broader and more foundational than others.

Sharing and discussing ideas on Monday mornings, we have collectively identified the building blocks that make the firm’s work consistently exceed expectations.  Successful projects are formed early, combining a nuanced understanding of the project program coupled with the creative and insightful schematic designs.  Creating a robust project program demands a deep dive; assessing, challenging, and refining the initial criteria of a client’s wish list.  Working with a client to understand and define their program is, perhaps, the most significant role a residential architect can perform.

As a start, it may be helpful to share how we use the term ‘program,’ and how much the term encompasses.  At the most basic level, a program documents the project requirements, including the obvious functional priorities such as the number of bedrooms, or the importance of a view, and of course, the project budget.  A more nuanced program also includes a stylistic set of priorities, even if these priorities are less clear than the functional or economic necessities.  Every project has a wish list, and most clients come to the first meeting with their architect with a good idea of their priorities.  With this in mind, our standard form contract lists the very first phase of professional services as ‘programming.’  While a client may come prepared with a pre-conceived understanding of needs and desires, it is our very first task to help further define, refine, and elaborate a more robust program including subjective goals far beyond the pragmatic.

In thinking about what distinguishes the work of DFA, I think it has much to do with sincerely engaging with each and every client in helping to rigorously develop the project program.  The process is at once both analytic and intimate.  Why is a project being considered, and what does it mean to the client?  Are the economic priorities ones of investment, or availability of capital?  Are we being commissioned to build a home that might be sold in a few years, or is the hope that the home sustains future generations?  Do spouses agree on these issues, and many more?  The programming phase can bring clarity and also create confusion.

Social-emotional issues further complicate issues. Is it a project priority to showcase the client’s success, or perhaps, to conceal?  Is the home to be designed to entertain with the expectation of a continual house party?  Will they host dinner parties worthy of a dedicated formal dining room?  If the living room does not have a TV will it be used?

Schematic design, which follows programming, is filled with optimism and creativity and is the most exciting phase of any project.  While flawless execution during each phase of the design and construction process is essential, schematics set the table.  It has taken us years of study and practice to realize that a rewarding schematic design phase is not the kick-off, but the product of first-rate programming.