Great Expectations….in Architecture

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The movie Great Expectations always intrigued me because of it’s depiction of social hierarchy and the lengths to which those of us closer to the bottom will go to claw our way to the top once we’ve had a taste of that life. At some point we reach a line that we must decide if we’ll cross and continue that climb, knowing that we will fundamentally be a different person from the moment of that crossing. Architectural practice is similar.

Each new client comes with their own Great Expectations for their project. That is, they come to the relationship with a predetermined set of goals and perceptions about how things will work and what their end product will be. Those expectations will typically center around getting more than what they are actually paying for and expecting you, the architect, to deliver it for them.

This is where 9 out of every 10 potential clients that contact me lose interest and move on to someone else. I have learned, through hard experience (another blog post coming on that subject soon), that the first and best thing you can do for a potential client is to give them an open and honest reality check about their project, their budget and their Great Expectations. You will not do yourself or your client any favors by telling them what they want to hear in order to get their signature on a contract. And this is the line you can not cross. Once you do, your practice will fundamentally change and you’ll never truly succeed.

Most clients, especially residential ones, learn about architects from the movies and the shiny pages of high end design magazines. They see us as magicians who make amazing things happen with no money and everything happens smoothly and without difficulty. Dashing that particular fantasy right off the bat will save you many sleepless nights. Believe me.

Your client needs to know right up front, before you even think about drawing up a contract, that you are not a magician, you are not a miracle worker and you are not the Messiah of building and construction (though, admit it, you tell yourself that all the time). You are an Architect. You are the first piece of the puzzle that is their new home. You are their advocate and most importantly you are their bullshit detector.

Your client needs to know that you will call them out when they come to you with an unreasonable request that will destroy their budget, their timeline, their overall design goals, whatever it is. You can not be their friend, you have to be their voice of reason, which no one wants to be. You won’t be entirely popular during the process, but when the job is done and you hand them their house keys, you’ll be the star of the show because they’ll finally see that all of those unpopular decisions you had them make helped steer their Great Expectations into reality.

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daily post: an architectural fiction

Walking down the street, you encounter a folded piece of paper on the sidewalk. You pick it up and read it and immediately, your life has changed. Describe this experience.

image courtesy of treehugger.com

image courtesy of treehugger.com

Truly exceptional clients do not come along every day. There are challenges to overcome with each new client, with each new project and with each step along the way through construction. What ultimately determines the success of a project is your ability to manage all the players. But every great once in a while you come across a client that is a true pleasure to work with. This is a story about one such client.

Walking down the street, muttering to myself how miserable that last project was, “my God I don’t ever want another client like that – never satisfied, constantly making changes even during construction, and no, it’s not ok to change your mind on the wall color AGAIN once the contractor has finished the punch list and final payment is due…”. I look up and marvel at the beautiful historic buildings in the city. I wonder briefly if those architects had to deal with similar issues….most likely. A carefully folded piece of paper sitting neatly on a storefront window ledge catches my eye. “That’s odd.”

I walk over and pick it up, thinking to myself only after the fact “this could be covered in snot….or worse – whatever, lets see what it is.” I unfold the heavy paper – it feels like a cotton stationary. Written on the inside, in a careful and precise block script are the words:

“Hello. You’re my new architect. I’m across the street at the coffee shop. Come find me and lets talk about the project that will change our lives.”

I think to myself, “this guy/gal is obviously a crack-pot. I must meet them at once.” I head over to the coffee shop. I walk in the door and scan the room with no idea what or who I’m looking for. I’ve still got the paper in my hand as I scan over to a small table halfway down and off to the side. A man is sitting there, about middle aged, a little gray starting to show, but otherwise youthful, in shape and dressed casually in jeans, loafers, a button down and a pair of Ray Bans lying next to his black coffee. I like this man already.

He looks up and sees the paper in my hands. He smiles and waves me over. I smile back and head that way. I reach the table, he stands and offers his hand. We exchange a firm handshake as I say “Good morning. I’m Jeremiah, you’re architect.” He smiles and laughs, “Yes, indeed you are. I’m Alexander. Coffee?”

“Yes, indeed.” I look up at the barista, “black with two sugars, please.”

“You must think this a little strange”, he says. “Oh, more than a little”, I say with a smile. “But I’m in a unique position where a life changing project would be incredibly welcome.”

“That’s good to hear”, he says, “because that’s exactly the kind of project I have in mind.”

He begins to tell me about his project. It sounds too good to be true. It sounds wonderful. I try hard to contain my enthusiasm (I’d really like to hug this man) until he’s finished. I interject a few questions here and there when it’s appropriate, probing mostly to find out if this man escaped from some local nut house (he can’t possibly be playing with a full deck).

Near the end of the conversation we discuss his budget, which is incredibly reasonable for what he’s described. We talk about a percentage fee, which he feels is perfect for his needs and even understands that costs may come in higher which would increase the fee. It’s all still sounding too good to be true, and I’m thinking “at least I got free coffee out of the deal”. Just then he asks about retainer to which I answer my standard (this is usually where the conversations with client’s ends), and he takes out his check book and hands me the retainer right there.

“Lets get started right away” he says “and please send me your contract as soon as you can.” He hands me a card with his contact info and we go on our way. I stand like a statue, stunned, bewildered, wondering if I’m being filmed right now. I look down at the card he handed me. It’s nothing terribly special – white card, black type, clean and simple font. His position and industry aren’t terribly special either. By all accounts this guy is your “Average Joe”, but he GETS IT. He understands the value and the need for an Architect – not just the service but the end product as well, which will be his home.

Over the next few months we collaborate on the design, sometimes effortlessly and sometimes it might seem we’re carving off each other’s flesh with a spoon. But always it comes back to the initial project goals. Early in the process the contractor was brought in to join our little menagerie of collaboration. The final, refined design was bid successfully and construction began. Securing a good relationship between the three of us, Owner, Architect and Contractor, early was key to the ultimate success.

At the end of the project, some 18 months later, I sat down to a glass of wine with Alexander and I asked him “So, did this project change your life?”

He seemed to think about it for a second and a smile came to his face and he said “You know, I can honestly say, my life won’t ever be the same. Thank you for all your help.”

I smiled back, “The feeling is mutual, my friend.”

This story is a complete fiction. I have not had a client like Alexander yet, but I’m still young enough to be hopeful and diligent enough to try and educate my potential clients enough to make them like Alexander – appreciative and aware of the value not only of the services of an Architect, but the value of the final product as well, which is their building – whether that building be a home, a garage, commercial office space, pizzeria, deli, bathroom, outhouse or chicken coop. In the end we all want the same thing – a good and successful building.

Dear Monday, you rock

Ok, so today is Tuesday, which technically makes this post a day late….but whatever.

If you asked 50 people what their favorite day of the week is 49 of them will answer “Friday” and the 50th person will answer “whatever day isn’t Monday”. Most people love Friday because it’s the start of the weekend; they tolerate Thursday because it’s so close to Friday; they begrudge Wednesday because it’s too close to Monday and not close enough to Friday; they loathe Tuesday because it’s not Wednesday; and most people would like to forget Monday even exists. But Monday is really the BEST day of the week and here’s why:

1. Monday is the first day of your week. It’s a fresh start. This gives you the chance to reinvent yourself, to do something different, try something new, experiment, create and investigate EVERY WEEK.

2. Monday means you’re working. Let’s face it, in this economy, if you’ve got a reason to get up Monday morning and leave the house chances are you’re doing better than many others out there. Why wouldn’t you celebrate and be thankful for your own good fortune?

3. Monday means Friday’s mistakes are forgotten. Similar to #1, the weekend provides enough of a break between Friday and Monday to dull your bosses memory about whatever screw ups you made. Also, if you start Monday a little earlier than your boss, you’ve got a chance to fix those mistakes and start the week off even stronger.

There you have it – 3 concrete and irrefutable reasons to love Monday…..even though it’s Tuesday….or whatever day you happen to be reading this post. But whatever. Monday’s rock.

daily prompt: all grows’d up

When you were 10, what did you want to be when you grew up? What are you? Are the two connected?

At 10, like any incredibly indecisive child, I wanted to be many things – from a Math Teacher to a Motorcycle Cop (who didn’t love Chips?) to an Army Sniper (I was an odd child, I know). But, a few years before that my life was impacted much more profoundly and has dictated where I am today.

At about the age of 3 or 4 my grandmother took my mother and I to New York City for the first time, which, for her, was going home – she grew up in Brooklyn. At such a young age I don’t remember much, but what I do remember, with clear and pristine detail, was sticking my head out the window of the cab, eyes bulging out of my head at all the amazing buildings. My mother was obviously concerned for my safety and repeatedly told me to get back in the car “right now, young man!”. :-\ Probably sound advice, but I doubt I listened very well. Still don’t.

A few years after this, at the age of 7, I helped build my first house. Yes, that’s right I HELPED BUILD our home. I went around the entire foundation with a pair of snips and picked off all the little rebar ties. Then once framing started my mother and I grabbed several dozen boxes of nails and hammered down the subfloor sheathing for the first and second floors. It took just 9 months to build and we managed to live in the home for just over 7 months before we had to move for my parents job relocation (sonofa*&&%^$$#**^*).

Over the years these experiences have stuck with me in incredibly ways. Like I mentioned, I’ve wanted to explore other careers, but architecture and construction were always my first loves. In my senior year of high school I had a free elective and decided to take drafting. My teacher saw some talent in me and gave me increasingly more difficult assignments, though I still finished all of them a full month before school was out and had absolutely nothing to do with my time.

Fast forward 15 years from that class and I’ve graduated college with my Masters in Architecture from one of the best programs in the country and am now 9 years into professional practice with only 3 exams standing between me and the legal title of Architect. To say I’m living my dream would be an understatement. I’ve said before that Architecture is not a forgiving profession. You’ve got to want it, otherwise the humdrum, day-to-day grind of client meetings and schedules and site visits and billing and RFI’s and Addenda, etc. will drag you down, chew you up and spit you out.