I've just heard an appalling story. It's the kind of story that gets passed along the grapevine, becoming more damning with each retelling. It goes like this: A couple just spent a great deal of time, effort, and money substantially renovating their home. Their project was the typical back-of-the-house blowout to gain a new family room, kitchen, and second-floor master suite. Unlike most people, who rely on design/build remodeling contractors to do this sort of work, they hired an architect. In fact, they hired the hottest architect in town to guide them in planning, designing, and managing the project. They appeared to do everything right, but somehow something went terribly wrong.
The couple, both knowledgeable and enthusiastic about residential design, were very excited by the opportunity to remake their house to suit themselves. They were even willing to depart a little from the straight and narrow in the architectural style. Something a tad avant-garde and edgy was fine with them. Mostly, they wanted their cramped tract house to feel more open, warm, and bright. Again, these are all very typical requests. Surely, the experienced and talented architect would have no problem succeeding at this fairly basic assignment.
At first, it seemed like he did succeed. The resulting renovation looks handsome enough. It would probably show well on the pages of this magazine. And yet, it's a failure. After moving into their new, wide open bedroom, the couple discovered that they felt ill at ease in the space. Maybe it's the newness of it, they thought. They gave it some more time. The feeling didn't go away. Finally, they turned to each other and admitted the awful truth—they were fundamentally uncomfortable in the room. It's a feeling they never had in their dinky old bedroom.
So, they've now moved back into that old bedroom, where they're once again getting a good night's sleep. I don't know if they've told their architect what happened, but this is a story that should keep all residential architects up at night. It is a classic cautionary tale. Nothing about this client-architect relationship set off anyone's alarm bells. Indeed, it held a great deal of promise for both parties. And still, it spun out of control. So much so, the renovation is not only a disappointment to the clients, it is in a significant way unlivable. Thank goodness the clients had some of the old house left to retreat to!
What's the take-away from this story? The architect failed to educate, listen to, and communicate with his clients. And it's a very easy trap to fall into with seemingly savvy, eager clients. You think you can use shorthand with them and they'll just follow along. They're afraid to admit how lost they're getting during the process, so they keep their mouths shut instead of asking questions or confronting you. They figure they'll just trust you to make it turn out fine—because you're the best architect in town.
That's a path to disaster, and it's up to you to keep everyone off of it. Don't just ask your clients if they understand your design, make sure you ask them—repeatedly—if you understand what they want. After all, your priority is to give your clients what they want. Right? This story couldn't be about you.
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