Close, Honest, and Collaborative: A Look Inside the Client Engagement Process at a+c architects
By Raffi Arzoumanian
"Every project is a small journey. Initial visions for a design may be grander or more modest than where we ultimately end up. "
No architect wants to be on the receiving end of that phone call - the one where the client announces the project is on-hold, and it's clearly related to the construction bids that just came in. It's a key indicator that the client wasn't kept involved, and now the reality doesn't match their expectations. Through decades of practicing architecture, I have seen just how crucial it is to ensure that clients stay close to the progress of their project’s design through all phases. It’s the best way to balance the budget, the vision, and practical considerations, so projects actually get built, and clients are pleased with the result.
In other words, when clients engage a+c architects for their commercial or residential project, there’s no such thing as “sign off and go away” after the initial design is complete. Our engagement process with clients is defined by a continuous feedback loop through all phases of design, including schematic design, design development, construction documents, and construction.
The client’s input continually enhances the design, and consistently touching base gives us the chance to keep the client educated on cost, code, and other real-world conditions that can impact a project’s design and completion. The result is that the client is never in the dark, and the project evolves in a natural way – leaving room for changes of heart, and expansion or contraction of the budget as the client may wish. Above all, keeping clients involved and engaged means good communication and alignment on all sides from start to finish.
What makes our approach to client engagement so successful? A few principles may explain it:
Allowing the client to freely share their vision: To truly understand what clients want in a space, we need to hear about the dream scenario first. We start by asking clients to describe everything they are looking for, unfiltered. “Don’t think about the budget” is a common directive I offer in these initial conversations.
Once the preliminary vision is documented, we can comment on how we can bring these objectives to life in light of costs, code, site constraints, and other considerations. It is usually at this point in the conversation that we begin to understand what the client needs, because the client can see what may or may not be possible and will start to prioritize elements of the program or design.
By absorbing the client’s ideal vision first, and then exploring all the possible routes for achieving it, we initiate an honest and robust dialogue that sets the stage for continual refinement of the design throughout the process.
Keeping cost in the conversation at all times: Many clients are understandably attached to specific budget numbers at the beginning of a project. But typically, the client needs more information to decide if the budget will truly deliver what they want and need. In our process, cost remains a core part of the conversation at every phase. This means showing clients the value of every option and price point to allow them to make educated decisions about the design of their space.
A recent residential client had spent years working with other architects and was getting nowhere on their project. We worked with them to analyze their program and then developed three options of increasing scope, presenting a cost / benefit analysis for each. With more choices and a deeper understanding of what each price point would yield, the client was able to see broader possibilities for their home and move forward with a design.
Staying flexible and nimble: We always leave room for clients to change their mind, and in fact, welcome it. We encourage our clients to review drawings at any time and weigh in. By keeping our clients connected with the progress of the design, we can react to changing feelings about the new space and make sure the design evolves with shifting preferences. We are always ready to pivot and rethink when necessary.
Changes are not always convenient for several reasons, not least, the possible impacts to budget. The key is again ensuring that the client understands cost impacts at every turn. The inconvenience of a change, even when it moves the budget, is usually nothing compared to the client’s satisfaction with the result.
Nothing is impossible: A recent commercial client presented an idealistic vision for their project. Despite our team making them aware of high costs, they minimized budget concerns throughout the course of design – until bids came in. When the reality finally set in that the ideal vision was twice the specified budget, it could have spelled the end of the project, or at least required a whole new contract for a complete redesign.
I personally hate to see the kind of disappointment this can bring, and strongly believe there is always a way to achieve a client’s goals, with some creativity and compromise. Instead of closing the door on the project, we quickly made adjustments to the design to let the client see how something very close to their original vision could be realized at a more desirable price point. This allowed the project to move forward – with a happy client.
Every project is a small journey. Initial visions for a design may be grander or more modest than where we ultimately end up.
We let the client figure out the best fit organically by offering insight and guidance as well as fostering honesty, transparency, and open dialogue at every point in the process. In delivering projects this way, we create buildings and spaces that truly match desires and needs – that will also continue to do so for years to come.