I remember being intrigued by a story one of my design teachers told me in the early 1980s, after a trip to Japan. He'd been meeting there with a potential client for more than two years when he finally realized no legal contract was forthcoming. It turned out this prolonged cross-continental conversation was the contract, establishing the trust and the protocol for a very large project now proceeding on just a handshake. Of course, legal contracts are necessary in our fast-paced and litigious culture. But too often in the course of an American architecture practice, the pre-design phase is given short shrift by architects or their clients in the rush to an agreement.
The interviews, research, conceptual work, and just plain time looking at buildings or books or neighborhoods together—the getting to know each other—that comprises a significant part of this phase and is considered part of the education and “interview” process by client and architect alike is often unpaid, thus leading to its foreshortening. Yet it's the very foundation of our work, essential to responsible and appropriate projects and potentially the basis of a mutually informed and lasting creative partnership between architect and client. During pre-design, we get to know our clients, decipher their aesthetic proclivities, listen to how they make decisions, establish ways of working together, and clarify the communication and documentation process that forms the basis of the contract.
We've all heard about or experienced firsthand the horror stories that transpire when this discovery phase is truncated. Working drawings are half done, but then the program suddenly changes and the building has to be redesigned; or a client's budget is exceeded because he or she didn't know how to calculate overall project costs and a lawsuit ensues. Sometimes unclear lines of communication result in surprising switchbacks deep into a project when the silent partner speaks up. Worst of all is when a lack of clear records regarding the design or a shifting scope of work necessitate the abandonment of the project tens of thousands of dollars later, leaving large bills unpaid. Bruised egos are the least of it.
self-direction In my 25 years of practice in residential architecture, I always insisted my clients spend whatever time was necessary in pre-design before they signed any contracts with me—or anyone else. It was my philosophy that if warning bells go off during this phase, or if this “up-front” work goes unpaid, then we'd best go our separate ways, ASAP.
Yes, I lost some potential clients, and that was hard when business was slow; and yes, the client sometimes spent a little more money than expected at the beginning of the project; but in the long run, we both saved a lot more time and money by avoiding misunderstanding and building trust.
Recently I decided to limit my practice substantially. I found myself focusing on the front work I have so long enjoyed: education, programming, research, master planning, conceptual design, feasibility, and resource development. It turns out I've stumbled on an under-served niche in our field because the phone hasn't stopped ringing since.
Who are my clients? Contractors, realtors, developers, homeowners and home buyers, and a growing number of architects who are too busy to vet all their clients or provide full programming or feasibility services in-house. I develop a package of materials outlining existing conditions, program, budget, timeline, aesthetics, and project goals and strategies they can refer to and use throughout their project. I charge either an hourly or a flat fee, depending on the required scope of work.