It may have been difficult to hear, but architects attending Reinvention 2010 got an earful from an editor, a custom builder, and a fellow architect about what clients really think about architects, in the panel discussion “Reality Check: What Clients Really Think About You.”

James H. Schwartz, editor-in-chief of Preservation magazine in Washington, D.C., spoke as an editor and as a client who has used architects with varying degrees of success. “What’s obvious to you is that the people you are working with are going to understand your vocabulary and what you’re talking about,” Schwartz said. “But they don’t. This is the most common response we hear from clients at the end of a complicated architectural project—there were just too many things they didn’t understand. I think this translates into a wonderful opportunity for all of you.”

So how do you improve the process? Schwartz gave some suggestions:  

-The initial interview is key so explain the process: What services will be provided? What is the realistic timeline? Will a colleague assist you?

-Talk about money.

-Give frequent updates; clients are never too busy for an update.

-Avoiding surprises is something all of your clients would love. “The easiest way to avoid surprises is with thorough communication and conversation.”

-Educate with images or models.

-Identify a time when you’re always available.

-Seek opportunities to communicate.

-Keep copious notes.

-Define “completion” of the project.

Coming at the issue from a different perspective was David Prutting, of Prutting & Co. Custom Builders in New Canaan, Conn., who’s worked with architects on own his personal residence ,on a speculative residential project and on behalf of his custom home building business. He spoke  about how architects can better work with contractors and clients. Using feedback from clients and his staff, Prutting offered ways architects can improve these relationships:  

-Clients don’t read plans like you do, so give realistic estimates and cost of construction. “That’s rule one through nine.”

-Be careful what about the first numbers you throw out. “Clients never forget.”

-Lower expectations and surprise them with overperformance.

-Be realistic. Let clients know the truth.

-Consider the builder as a consultant for value engineering.

-Pretend you’re the builder when you look at your plans.

-Invest in mock-ups.

-Limit your clients’ options.

-Streamline your specs and keep plans readable.

“I tell my people who work for me that our goal is to make architects look good,” Prutting says. “I’m a patron of architecture and good design. I tell my clients it’s easy to second-guess, but really hard to first-guess.”

Architect Dennis Wedlick, AIA, of Dennis Wedlick Architect in New York City, gave an emotional presentation on how architects can improve their interactions with their clients by thinking of the relationship in a different way.

“The relationship between a residential architect and their clients is very personal; it’s best described as codependency,” Wedlick says. “For a period of their lives, our clients need us and we feed off that need. We have to recognize that as part of the work.”

Your clients’ lives are the mosaic of your architecture, Wedlick continued “It’s a myth that architects don’t listen to their clients or that they don’t know how to listen. Our clients don’t have any training on how to communicate,” Wedlick said. “How do you describe a dream? We just need patience. We just need to do the best we can to inert [what is this word supposed to be? their dreams and their fears and their limitations.”