Duo Dickinson, AIA, of Duo Dickinson Architect, and John DeForest, AIA, of DeForest Architects addressed the sometimes slippery slope of client relations in their breakout session at Reinvention. Both have stayed busy during the economic downturn, evidence that they might have made a substantial case for the value of professional design services in their markets. The crux, they said, was just that—design is a service not just an end product. Said DeForest, who’s based in Seattle, “You can sell a product as a commodity or product and service. A la Starbucks, we’re selling a product and a service and an experience.” The key to the latter is what the duo called “open design.”

For Dickinson, whose firm is based in Madison, Conn., the open design process begins with an open door policy. “We’ll meet anyone for free and do a zoning analysis.” And his website goes into remarkable detail about how his firm works and what everything costs, further helping to demystify the process. Once the client is drawn in, Dickinson stressed the importance of getting a clear idea of the clients’ means, budget, program needs and desires, and relevant building restrictions. He said he often sends a concept out to bid before design development to make sure they’re on the right track before fees rack up.

DeForest is equally welcoming to potential clients and that warm welcome begins with his website as well. Instead of emphasizing beautiful projects and awards, it introduces us to his clients, their lives, and the projects that resulted from their collaborations with the firm.  Once the client is in the fold, they receive a “welcome kit” with a pencil, paper, and chocolate. They also receive an extensive questionnaire and regular homework assignments designed to reveal their truest desires. One of the exercises has clients describe “five places you’ve lived in using five senses.” But the process isn’t all fun and games. Like Dickinson, with whom he worked as a young architect, DeForest believes in “peas first. We have to deal with budget, scope, etc., before the fun stuff—design.”

For both architects, their openness and approachability go a long way toward dispelling the fear factor many potential clients feel when beginning the intimidating journey of custom residential work. Trust begins before clients even walk in the door. “We do 30 to 50 projects a year,” Dickinson said, “and 80 percent of the projects that come into the office get built.”

“We’ve had clients tell us our homework assignments contributed to the house being ‘so us,’“ DeForest said. And that’s because the work is about the clients and not the architects—who wouldn’t be open to that ?