Great Expectations….in Architecture


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.

Daily Prompt: Nomadic Architecture

If you could live a nomadic life, would you? Where would you go? How would you decide? What would life be like without a “home base”?

Photo by A Yin - nomads of Mongolia.

Photo by A Yin – nomads of Mongolia.

Architectural practice, with few exceptions, is a territorial art and business. Architects typically operate within their own city, sometimes venturing into neighboring cities, but almost always within their state of residence. Mostly this is a product of the licensing process by which architects are only licensed to practice in an individual state. And, while getting licensed in multiple states is not terribly difficult, it is incredibly expensive and time consuming to maintain, so very few architects will maintain a license in more than one or two states at a time.

In my own practice, not having a license has actually made it easier to work on projects in multiple states and even other countries. There are challenges that come with that type of arrangement, but they are not terribly prohibitive. The biggest challenges are communication with clients, getting a basic understanding of the local laws and building codes, and tailoring your drawings accordingly. Luckily a set of architectural drawings are for the most part typical no matter where you are in the world. The same type of information has to be effectively communicated no matter what.

And when I began my little side practice now more than 3 years ago, this is exactly what I had in mind – a practice that was flexible, affordable to clients, and was not bound by geography. A nomadic architecture if you will. And, once I am fully licensed, this nomadic practice will be both more and less challenging. At that point I will need to decide on the few most advantageous locations to maintain licenses in, but it will also make partnering with other licensed professionals easier as well. And, after all, building a truly nomadic practice is entirely dependent on the relationships you build in the locations you practice.

Daily Prompt: Green-Eyed Monster

Tell us about the last time you were really, truly jealous of someone. Did you act on it? Did it hurt your relationship?

Image Credit - Monster's Inc.

Image Credit – Monster’s Inc.

Jealousy is a common emotion in architecture. Architects, by definition, and sometimes more so than doctors or actors, are egomaniacal whores seeking more and more attention and recognition. And, yes, I speak from personal experience. I used to think Architects were the first, last and only line of defense against evil contractors and ignorant owners who were only out to destroy the work of those select and elite few of us in the architectural profession……yeah, I was that guy.

And so, fueled by my bravado and entitled superiority, I ventured out into “the real world” of architectural practice. I was quickly stuffed into a cubicle that looked NOTHING like my college studio. I had no drafting table, no chip board, not even a friggin sharpie! I had a computer and a telephone with buttons I had never seen nor heard about and knew even less about what they did. But I held on to my ideals and my utopian view of the profession. I was “an elite”. This of course led to a deep jealousy for not just other architects in town (and all over the world for that matter) but even for other architects and interns in my own firm. Why were they working on the fun projects? Why were they talking to contractors and engineers and going out to the job site? Why am I stuck in this cubicle instead of in an office next to the partners?

This view didn’t last long. Luckily it didn’t last longer than my employment at that firm. One of the quickest lessons I learned was how dangerous jealousy and envy are when not properly directed in a constructive way. In the beginning I was jealous for my own recognition and reward. I thought that these were my projects and that my personal success was directly related to how many people clapped me on the back with an “at-a-boy” for the amazing work I had done. This attitude isn’t helpful. To anyone, anywhere, anytime. So just don’t do it.

Instead cultivate a healthy jealousy for your work as it serves your clients. Be passionate about their desires and wishes for their project. It may be your name on the drawings, but it’s their name on the property. When you put yourself in a proper frame of mind and channel your passion and your jealousy in a constructive manner, you’ll be amazed by how people around you will respond, especially clients.