Lessons learned, and learned again

2016-04-13 10.01.55


Great company motto

I met a former client at a social event last year, and he introduced me as “his Designer” who had worked on his store, but actually I designed it.  She just helped”.

About a year after finishing that project, along came another client with very definite ideas and his very own 3D model.  The General Contractor balked at anything on the drawings that he hadn’t done before.  Metal studs seemed to be especially problematic (“Can’t we build all of this in wood?“), and don’t even think about specifying Simpson connectors.  Even the building department called to complain about the GC. It quickly became my least favourite project since starting my firm, and it ended on a sour note.  We have no photos of it. Months of work, and nothing to show for it.

Those two experiences are exceptions.  Most clients are an absolute pleasure to work with.  They love what we’ve done for them, and happily tell other people what a great experience it was.  It’s those good clients and good experiences that keep us going.

But when a project goes off the rails, or a client decides to do their own thing, it’s hard not to wonder what you did wrong.  How did I lose control of this situation?  Was it ever under my control to begin with?  Am I a control freak after all?!

It’s a balancing act between the Architect’s responsibility for the design and the client’s tastes – and money.  We may advise, strongly suggest, or highly recommend.  When it’s a matter of life safety, building code, or trying to defy gravity, we will absolutely stand up for what we believe is correct – and legal.

But what about design differences?  “I just don’t like it” is a really tough thing to get past. All that effort to build a collaborative relationship, to build trust and communication with that client, will go out the window when they decide that they just don’t like yellow and no way is it going in their space.  Been there, done that… changed the paint colour.

We were taught in Architecture school to take ownership of our work:  to define it, design it, and defend it. Stand up for your choices, even if critics tell you that you’re wrong. The freedom of design school made it seem so easy!  But if a client doesn’t like yellow, no matter how much you advise, there will be no yellow.  Not even if you call it Venetian Cream.

All summer, I’ve been overthinking those two not-so-great client experiences while in the midst of another similar situation.  I’m thinking a lot about how we approach our projects, and how we work with and communicate with our clients. I am also thinking about perceptions, both ours and theirs, and both real and imagined.

How can you keep everything on track?  We don’t have it all figured out.  But we’ve learned a few things in our short four-year history.

1.  Do look back:  Trying to find the lessons learned from the experience is essential, not just from a technical perspective but – perhaps more importantly – from a project management and client relations perspective. For our office, we are going to try doing an informal, unscripted post-mortem-of-sorts on each project.  I’m starting to think that we will need to include clients and colleagues, too. Architects rarely go back after the dust settles and ask “How did we do?“.

2.  This is how we do it around here:  Perhaps we weren’t clear with our clients about how the design process would unfold. We think that we explained how we would work on the design – with their input – and then present them with some options.  That we would guide them in making the dozens of small decisions while keeping the bigger picture in mind so they didn’t get overwhelmed. We need to put that on paper, and hand it to them at the first meeting.   I know residential architects who do that, but not any commercial architects.  It’s also a really helpful document for new staff.

3.  Understand who’s who and what’s what:  Sometimes I think a degree in psychology would really help.  How can we anticipate a building owner who will push to start construction before the design is complete?  Or decisions that are made on the fly, on site, and without our presence or involvement?  When you deal with multiple people on the client side, there is the risk of one or two people overruling the wishes of the others. Apparently that explains why the walls are a different colour than we were expecting them to be….  There are group dynamics at work and the Architect needs to understand that, as much as possible.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a large institution, family business, small start-up, or government agency.

4.  The internet of things is on sale:  What about materials that are ordered online rather than from the sales reps that we bring into the mix?  This has happened on several of our recent commercial projects.  We may need to come up with a company policy on how to handle owner purchases for commercial projects.  Again, this happens in residential work and it’s cool, but not so much on commercial projects.  It can cause friction with the reps that we work with on a regular basis, and those relationships are really important.  It may also lead to a whole heap of trouble if we don’t know what is being ordered, and don’t have an opportunity to review the specifications before someone hits the “Buy Now” button.

5.  Take really, really, REALLY good notes:  Not to overstate the obvious, but good communication is critical.  With some projects, we can pinpoint exactly where we didn’t do a good job of keeping up with it.  With others, it seems to come out of nowhere and smacks you on the back of the head.  Communication comes in many different forms and we have to keep track of it.  Document everything – every phone call, side conversation on a site visit, and even every text.  Always try to repeat back what you think you heard or read, just to be sure you understand the intent.  Emails are notorious for being misunderstood – it’s that whole lack of tone thing.  Texts can be just as bad.

6.  Don’t give up just yet:  Okay, that one is for my own benefit.  There have been a few days (well, more than a few) where I really thought I should opened that coffee shop (you were right, James!) or gone off to study viticulture (yes, you can do that).  Being a small firm Architect is not easy.  Sometimes it ranks slightly below root canal on my list of favourite things.

But here’s the deal:  we started on this crazy adventure because we wanted to do projects better, to design great spaces for people, to make Architecture fun, and to make a living doing all of that.  That’s a pretty good business plan.

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