Are the most articulatearchitects always the best at selling their design ideas? Not necessarily. Convincing clients—and contractors and review boards, for that matter—to go along with your vision can be tricky. San Francisco architects Steven House, AIA, and Cathi House, principals of House + House Architects, recall a client who disliked the color green, but who embraced a sage-hued house that complements the surrounding Mexican desert. And then there was the gentleman who said that the only thing he knew for sure was that he hated corrugated metal. Yet when the time came to pick materials, he approved it for his home’s roof and siding.
Did the positive reactions rest just on the strength of the scheme? Good chemistry? Personal charisma? Or did it help that the Houses showed the Mexico client 30 percent more color samples than usual, part of a process they call “helping them see.”
“With clients, we speak naturally and with a passion,” says Cathi, who gave up using architectural lingo long ago.
E.B. Min, AIA, a principal at Min | Day in San Francisco, agrees that clients respond poorly to academic-speak. Every architect should be lucky enough to have mentors like hers: landscape architects Topher Delaney and Andrea Cochran, who produced bold, sculptural gardens bordering on avant-garde. Min paid close attention to the way they talked and the words they used. “I realized they wouldn’t talk about their work as if it were a precious art piece,” Min says. “Andie always talked about how what they were proposing works for the client, and why it works—not that it’s cool. It resonated with me because the work we do is both intensely practical and functional, but obviously more than that.”
Design as Verb
Veteran architects realize that working relationships carry more weight than lines on paper. A theoretical framework is a useful way to see things, and architects are trained to use esoteric language to establish their authority. But to get things built they need to both inspire people and put them at ease. It might seem obvious, but for Williamson Chong Architects, in Toronto, trust building starts with the mundane: a detailed schedule outlining how they will get the job done. “Most of our clients are in the city, and each location has its own set of regulations and hurdles,” principal Betsy Williamson says. “You explain the big process and then make it seem effortless. Once they are confident about the services side, they tend to trust us more with design.”
While passion is contagious, so is a sense of rigor. Clients can see you’re not following a script. “Trust has to do with doing your homework,” says John Sparano, AIA, principal at Sparano + Mooney Architecture, with offices in Los Angeles and Salt Lake City. “You have to show clients that you understand their needs, the program, budget, site, and jurisdictional issues.” And, he adds, routinely exceeding their expectations—going the extra mile to explore all the possibilities—helps maintain that trust.
For DeForest Architects, in Seattle, that means eliciting what is emotionally important to clients. One way to do that is with early, guided conversations. The firm asks clients to list the places they’ve lived and, in five sentences, describe the most memorable ones. In response to a current client’s request for “a place in the trees,” for example, DeForest’s design registers the history of the wooded site. A tree cut down to make room for the house will be milled into desktops, and the flooring will subtly mark where other trees stood. The exercise often resonates deep down. It’s a good place to start a project, and to return to as a touchstone.
“Design is a verb,” says principal John DeForest, AIA. “The value of what we do is more than just the nice photos at the end. It is also the experience we provide and the depth of meaning it adds to the final product.”
When you have a strong conceptual base, you can add layers, agrees Louise Braverman, FAIA, owner of Louise Braverman Architect in New York City. “It gives you a reference point for later showing why something makes more sense logically than something else. Sometimes clients don’t realize that these arbitrary things fly in the face of what they want to do on a larger level.”
Arthur W. Andersson, AIA, principal at Andersson Wise Architects, in Austin, Texas, likens the process of hatching emotional guideposts to making a Rorschach test. The architects solicit textures, colors, and images from clients and post them on the studio wall. “We let them wash over us; our job is to distill and edit,” he says. “Ernest Hemingway wrote the final chapter of AFarewell to Arms something like 46 times. We tell clients, ‘It becomes your house, but not overnight or even in two months.’ ”
Braverman does something similar. She talks to clients about design as a generalized idea that will get more specific over time. “You will see things you don’t like, or are unsure about, and that is fine,” she says.
The Art of Persuasion
Preparation matters, of course, but as the project develops, clients inevitably have ideas that clash with the direction you’re going. Architects have varying techniques for resolving product and material disagreements. When San Antonio, Texas, architect Jim Poteet, AIA, LEED AP, recently designed an all-white loft, he was able to flip his client’s request for a black-painted guest bath by suggesting black-on-gray wallpaper. “We talk about the play of light and how a space feels rather than relating it back to some kind of intellectual construct,” he says.
Most patrons want to be challenged, and they want their architect to be confident and definitive. Some are interested in hearing the design presented in words architects might use to talk to each other. Others want to feel like a part of the process. Either way, Min tries to come on confidently, but without arrogance. “Any time we’ve started with the way it looks, it hasn’t gone well,” Min says. “We give them something they’re not expecting, but it does what they asked it to do. There might be something inventive about the design, and they’ll see it and agree with it.”
Often, she says, people resist a strong color that she’ll suggest. So she brings mock-ups, showing degrees of the colors they wanted, including her more intense choice. “If they insisted, we’d be prepared to follow through, so we’ll have options that are good and make sense. But often they see what a difference the color makes, and then they get really excited because we did all they asked, and more. Many of our clients are analytical too; they want to understand the internal calculus—why we like something or don’t.”
In disagreements, usually there’s something right about clients’ thinking, observes John Ike, LEED AP, a principal at Ike Kligerman Barkley Architects, with offices in New York City and San Francisco. The key is to approach it in a different way to reach consensus, perhaps by telling a story, showing a photograph, or taking a trip. When recent clients insisted on divided-light wood windows in one section of a home that mixes modern and traditional elements, principal Thomas A. Kligerman, LEED AP, steered them away from the idea by evoking Greenfield Village near Detroit, a mélange of historic districts built by Henry Ford. “Fortunately, they’d just been there and I was able to move the project along toward coherence,” he says.
Words are powerful, but so is presentation. Andersson often relies on impromptu sketches to get clients onboard. “I can draw my buildings upside-down for a client on the other side of the table; if something is confusing, they get it,” he says. Sparano arrives at meetings with three simple models that illustrate his thought processes. Patrons are impressed that the firm is exploring issues they hadn’t even thought about.
But is there such a thing as too much information? Williamson recalls former employers who earned trust through their stellar service ethic but successfully hid the hard work of design. Rather than showing every iteration, the firm presented one glorious concept where all of the client’s problems were solved.
The Houses, who are poetic yet down to earth, don’t agree. They believe that technology, as seductive as it is, can shortcut complexity. “We show clients every sketch and scribble,” from prevailing weather diagrams to a series of organizational ideas that address how they might live, Steven says. “Straightaway they let go of the picture in some magazine from the grocery checkout.”
When clients say, “We love this material and have to have it in our house,” the Houses behave as if they agree with them. It’s best if you can help clients come to conclusions themselves, Cathi says, as they did with the woman in Mexico who had ruled out green. “We let them know we’re on a journey and help them find answers from the right sources—the light, setting, color of the sea and sky. We look at their art, furniture, the things their home sits amongst and say, ‘Let’s put them together into a beautiful palette.’ We’ll put up samples—see how this looks with that—but the green goes in there to help them confirm or disallow what they’ve already felt. They are always the ones who say, ‘It has to be green.’ ”
Of course, clients represent only half the effort of getting designs built. Architects have to switch gears verbally when talking to stakeholders such as contractors and planning commissions. Once you hand over the drawings, the builder has all the control; and often, tradespeople don’t understand the big picture they’re working toward, Poteet says, putting his finger on one of the challenges of inspiring high-quality field work. “Most of the buy-in comes from having subs who are up for new things, but I realize now that they’re working on faith,” he says. “We show them photorealistic renderings when the budget allows. Once they understand what the project is going to be, they become very excited.”
Aware that the success of a building depends on the materials and the people who handle them, Andersson, too, uses samples, images, and words to show subs what he’s after. “We often say we want these buildings to last 2,000 years,” he says. “They look at you funny, but the people who make our projects have a great understanding of materiality. If you keep it simple, you just have to step out of the way.”
But as projects become increasingly more complex, collaboration matters more than ever. Contractors usually avoid stepping on people’s toes because they want referrals for future work—all the more reason why they need to understand a design’s origins. DeForest shares records of how the concept has proceeded and the things that matter to the client. Then, he says, the contractor doesn’t have to wonder whether he owes it to the client to mention that a particular curve will be cool but really expensive.
“I’d rather contractors understand the dialogue that’s been going on and feel perfectly comfortable offering another idea. Often they edit themselves because they think, ‘Oh, John really wants to do that complicated roof system.’ No, we want to do something that delights the client and that they can afford,” says DeForest, who tries to use language that makes design approachable and engaging.
Ditto for review boards, where straight talk is essential. And there’s no substitute for researching baseline requirements. While review boards are interested in big issues such as adherence to ordinances, community groups, which are often comprised of non-architects, care more about upholding property values. Sparano achieves buy-in by providing context with models that accurately represent neighboring properties, and striking a balance of clarity and conviction.
Knowing ahead of time how much leeway may be granted helps, too. Even a veteran like Ike can miscalculate. Recently, while presenting to an architectural review board on Nantucket, he was surprised when a 2-inch deviation from a house’s existing window alignment was denied. After tweaking the design, Ike adopted a friendly conversational style that still failed to sway the jury. “I solicited their thoughts and subtly played up the fact that I was from New England and had spent summers at the shore, but they rejected it again,” he says. “I didn’t realize that 1/2-inch made such a difference.”
Sometimes a one-on-one effort can reverse a vote. After committee members politely denied Min’s proposal for a substantial addition in Los Altos, Calif., she invited each member individually to the site where she demonstrated how the design would respect the neighbors. It passed unanimously.
No one wins every battle. But when it comes to conveying ideas, Min has had success occupying the middle ground between high-minded and homespun. “Our clients usually have art in their lives somewhere, so it’s a given they’re looking for creative energy,” she says. “If you’re happy with what you’re showing, they get excited too. You don’t have to be self-conscious about it.”