How do you encourage your architect or designer to produce the best possible solution for you?
It doesn’t matter if your project is large or small, any building project represents a significant investment and it is essential that the eventual design solution meets, or ideally, exceeds your expectations. There will always be a need to balance functional and aesthetic considerations. Sometimes this happens with ease, and sometimes it can be more of a struggle.
It depends, in part, on the skill and tenacity of the architect. Are they working on the right strategy? Have they exhausted other possibilities? It’s partly down to circumstance. Is there a good fit between the project brief and the site or existing building? And, yes, it’s partly down to your approach too. Is there some flexibility in your thinking? Is your brief both challenging and achievable?
I genuinely believe that all designers want to produce their best work for their clients. I think it’s in their DNA.
If it wasn’t already innate, an architect learns this characteristic while at architecture school through a process known as the ‘crit’. A crit (short for critique) is a review of a student’s design work; it happens periodically throughout the development of a project and is a pretty public affair. In the early days of a project, it might be quite small and informal with a single tutor and a few students. But at the end of the project, the final crit might comprise several external critics, other tutors and a large audience of students.
When I first experienced the process, it was something of a shock. You feel very exposed standing up to present in front of your peers and tutors. Of course, it’s wonderful when you’re on the receiving end of unconditional compliments but, in my case, such occasions were infrequent.
The more typical response involved comments that damned with faint praise...
‘I appreciate your intentions, but I’m not sure that what you’ve come up with is fully resolved’.
‘Nice idea but I don’t think it works’.
‘Yes ok, I get where you’re coming from, but I can’t help thinking that there must be a better way’.
When bombarded with these seemingly negative comments, it’s easy to fall into the trap of becoming defensive. However, I learned to see the crit more as a testing ground for ideas, as an opportunity to obtain other people’s reactions to things, and I used the feedback to genuinely inform the next iteration. I learnt to be more relaxed about whether that meant starting again or keep going.
You may have noticed that these put-downs are all just slightly more sophisticated versions of that standard school report criticism, ‘could try harder’. And I think that the educational analogy is probably appropriate since every design project is, to some extent, a learning experience; architect and client jointly figuring out what they’ve got, what’s possible, what works and what doesn’t.
Your role as the client on a design project is an interesting one and is worthy of some consideration. Of course, you are the recipient of a professional service but, unlike other forms of service, you are also an integral part of the process. You have a role to play as a critic and as such, you have an opportunity to push for something better.
I would encourage you to be clear and honest about what you think, even if this might sound negative. You are under no obligation to justify your thoughts; such is the luxury of the critic’s voice. If some things are not quite right, don’t be afraid to say so. Even when everything is looking good, keep pushing for more. Ask if there is a better way. Your designer will always want to respond to the challenge.
‘Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.’
This article was written by Andy Foster for the November ‘18 edition of the Sherborne Times.