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 was looking forward to this Monday morning’s meeting more than most, as I would be presenting a subject whose theme is broader and more foundational than usual.

In sharing and discussing ideas on Monday mornings, we have collectively identified the building blocks that make the firm’s work so consistently exceed expectations. A successful project outcome is based on the success of our very first steps – the nuanced understanding of the project program coupled with the creativity and quality of 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 (and unfortunately much overlooked) 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 program, 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 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 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? Often times the client lacks confidence with the answers and internal conflicts emerge.

Complicating matters further, are social-emotional issues. Is it a project priority to showcase the success of the client, or perhaps, to conceal? Is the home to be designed to entertain? Is the expectation of a continual house party realistic? 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?

I’ve always felt schematic design, filled with optimism and creativity, 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 rewarding schematic designs are not the kick-off, but the product of first-rate programming.

As a footnote, it is no wonder that computer science has adopted the terms ‘architecture’ and ‘program’ to describe its hardware and software. Since our first and most essential task in residential design is programming, perhaps we have become a tech company after all.