Edward Hodges, AIA, a principal at DiMella Shaffer in Boston, recalls his firm's recent unsuccessful bid for work on a college residence hall. During the interview the architects had made a joke about something, and whether or not it tipped the scale, they later heard that the selection committee didn't think the architects knew them well enough to joke around. “I'm a pretty relaxed guy and always thought humor was good,” Hodges says. “If that didn't seem right to them, then maybe we weren't a good fit.”

Equally confounding was New York City architect Frances Halsband's experience interviewing for a dormitory project years ago at an Ivy League university. She got the job and later became friends with a member of the review panel. When she asked why her firm was chosen, he replied, only half-jokingly, that he didn't know anything about architecture; he just picked the guy with the nicest tie. “Talk about not taking it personally,” says Halsband, FAIA, a partner in R.M. Kliment & Frances Halsband Architects. “We've got a partner with a really nice tie, we've got an asset.”

Rejection—whether personal or professional—is painful, and for architects it's par for the course. In the human drama that accompanies the interview process, everything is up for grabs, from political savvy and presentation skills to the cut of a suit. When you're competing against like-minded peers, the underlying reason for the turndown may be elusive or, like the tie incident, totally subjective. Or it may be crystal clear: Your firm isn't big enough, it lacks experience in a given project type, or there's a mismatch of ideas or personalities. While young architects feel the pain the most, those who've lived through a spate of rejections have learned to move on with grace, good humor, and often, relief.

talk therapy

“I think as your practice matures and both you and your audience understand better what it is that you have to offer, the idea of rejection becomes less emotional,” says Jennifer Luce, AIA, Luce et Studio, San Diego. “It's a very important place to get to.” Recently, a client came to her 17-year-old firm looking to make changes to a modernist historic house, and a lively conversation ensued. But after thinking about it for several days, they both came to the same conclusion: The relationship wasn't a good fit because Luce envisioned a different scope of work. “When we met to speak again, it was very pleasant,” she says. “Over the years you [come to] understand the specifics of your process and who will react best. With a couple of questions we can tell whether the potential client will embrace the process or not be very interested in the way we do things.” Luce views her in-depth investigative process as critical to matchmaking success. “Because we are so communicative up front and all the information goes on the table, I don't even see it as rejection anymore,” she says.

That's the ideal scenario. Inevitably, though, there are times when the stars seem to be aligned and you still lose out. What's worse is when, nine months later, you see the results of the other guy's work and feel bad for the client. Allan Farkas, AIA, a principal of Eggleston Farkas Architects, Seattle, recalls two projects lost in the last couple of years. He thought one architect subsequently did a stellar job, but the other one missed the point. “In retrospect, you think, ‘This one turned out great for the owner,'” he says, “but on the other project, you realize you could have done a better job.”

Farkas, who often competes with the same group of firms, views a rebuff as a chance to learn how his firm is perceived and what went wrong. “It took us awhile to start asking why we weren't chosen and whom we're competing against,” he says. “We're very polite out here; people don't ask those questions.” Now, however, he asks promising clients for the courtesy of a phone call when they're close to a final decision. It gives him one more opportunity to hear their concerns and clear up any misperceptions. Sometimes, he says, the second conversation helps him understand that his firm isn't right for the job. On the other hand, clients who've selected Eggleston Farkas often provide the most honest feedback. “We've been told we don't seem particularly enthusiastic at times,” Farkas says. “Now we make sure that when it's a project we really want, we say so.”

Even if criticism is excruciating to hear, architects are primed for it in school, points out Todd Walker, AIA, a principal of Memphis, Tenn.-based Archimania. There's plenty of harsh feedback from professors, and students are taught to take it in stride. “We are constantly rethinking things, and that's part of the process,” Walker explains. “Sometimes we reject our own designs.” To illustrate the point, he tells the story of a visiting client who overheard the staff architects in a heated design debate. Later the client called to say that it sounded like they were arguing and to ask if everyone was OK. “I said, ‘I'm sorry you saw it that way; that's actually the way we communicate. We're passionate about what we do.' I think because we're wired that way, rejection by clients is easier as long as they're interviewing you for the right reasons.”

Indeed, some rejections are tougher on the ego than others. In the grand scheme of things, it's better to be beaten by a first-rate design firm than by a mediocre one, and architects save time and trouble by determining whether the clients have done their homework. “You have to ask who they're talking to, because if they say they want more complex modern work with commercial materials, and the other firm doesn't do those things, it tells us the homeowner isn't sure what he wants,” Walker says. Other times, his firm willingly wages an uphill battle. For example, Archimania recently lost a bid to design buildings for the children's garden at the Memphis Botanic Garden. “We were one of two firms short-listed for the job,” he says. “We knew our competition does good work, and they had done a children's museum and we haven't. Sometimes we try to sell the approach that, because we don't have preconceived ideas about a project type, we'll do the best research we can. But the things we want to change aren't always in our control.”

As its identity has evolved, Archimania has tightened its target client list. The partners routinely scrutinize Request for Proposal questions and nip ill-advised ventures in the bud. Sometimes, Walker says, architects get caught up in pursuing a project and don't stop to assess whether they really want it. “It may be harder if you have to make the rejection,” he says, “but by doing it, we've gained some respect from potential clients. They say, ‘Oh, I now [understand] what you guys do.' It might even be a way to better sell your firm down the road.”