I'm back in the office after a rousing Reinvention Symposium in Seattle. The subject of the conference this year was “The New, New Reality.” Many of our speakers focused their presentations on alternative practice models and proactive ways to keep good design opportunities in front of them, even while the economy continues to falter. It's obvious to them that the old ways of doing business are losing their effectiveness—if those methods were ever terribly effective in the first place.

No one has been untouched by the housing bust and the lending crisis, but it's always been especially tough for residential architects to get work, and tougher still for them to attract compelling, lucrative work. A large part of the problem is the mystery that shrouds what the profession actually does. Out of that mystery comes a great deal of intimidation and trepidation on the part of the lay public. Those of us on the inside of the business often forget what a leap it is for the uninitiated to muster the courage to call an architect for a remodeling job or a new house commission.

I have friends who write about architecture for established shelter magazines who are nonetheless hesitant to consult an architect for their own projects. They don't know whether they'll have to pay for that first meeting to discuss the project; they fear the architect will try to push his own design agenda; they're at a loss for how to express what they want—even though they're experts in translating an architect's design intent for a mainstream audience.

At Reinvention, our Rising Star Leadership Award winner—John Brown, RAIC, of housebrand—was one of the most popular presenters. He shared his successful strategies for demystifying the design process for mainstream clients. One that especially resonated with me was his description of his “office.” He doesn't have one.

Intuitively, he understood how scary it is for a would-be client to step foot into a traditional architect's office. It's not unlike a visit to the doctor, the lawyer, or the undertaker. The somber lobby area, the formal conference room—these signal to the outside world an irrevocable, possibly painful journey ahead.

But what if potential clients felt free to come browse your work and learn more about what a residential architect does? Brown has a thorough website where some of this tire-kicking can occur, but he understands the importance of making it happen in person as well. So, instead of an office, he has a furniture store as his welcome mat. He displays design magazines and books that people can peruse in a comfortable, no obligation-to-buy environment. And he hosts public seminars there that address important topics on home design, with plenty of opportunities for people to ask questions.

One by one, this approach peels back the layers of resistance and fear. Ah, this is what an architect does and, hey, it's not just a solution and a service for the intrepid wealthy.

Maybe you can't open a furniture store as your place of business. But you can consider all of the physical and psychological impediments you unwittingly put between you and your next client. Take down some walls, literally and figuratively. Reach out instead of hunkering down. Be the first to extend the olive branch of welcome.

Comments? E-mail S. Claire Conroy at cconroy@hanleywood.com.