Do Architects Advocate for the Client or for the Architect?
March 19, 2019
Will my architect be my advocate?
That is such a simple question, but one that stuck with me back when I heard it over a decade ago. I was at a happy hour and overhead someone’s client complaining about a bad experience with a previous architect. He felt that his architecture team should advocate for his interests and not just their own. After overhearing most of the story, I was struck by the phrase, “I just really wish my architect would also be my advocate.” It stayed with me for years and was a question I kept asking myself.
When I founded Board & Vellum, I thought a lot about how to make this place different. Part of that was a desire to find a spot in a crowded marketplace, but part of it was out of frustration with what I was seeing. I didn’t think of architects as just designers of awesome places but as professionals hired to advocate for our client’s needs. We’re the ones who know the tricks and the tools to move things ahead, so why aren’t we using those skills on behalf of our clients?
It is funny how one little overheard conversation stuck with me for so long and influenced a lot of my beliefs about what our job is as design professionals. So, what does that mean on a practical level? Obviously, our job is to take a look at your wishes and needs and then design a beautiful space for you, isn’t that enough? Not really.
Design professionals should be advocates for their clients.
It's not right (or helpful) to simply take control and impose our ideas on clients. Most of the clients we work with do have opinions about their spaces, what they need, things they don't like, and so on. And those opinions are valid. Even if we end up with a solution you didn't think of, or didn't think you wanted, we get to that point together.
Here are some practical examples of where we think design professionals should advocate for our clients.
Navigating zoning codes. Zoning codes are often ambiguous. We’ve found that there are multiple avenues when faced with a gray area in the code and that often times the first “no” you receive doesn’t necessarily mean you can't get to a final “yes.” Building departments are looking at black and white rules and sometimes diagramming and framing your response helps them understand that your approach is in the spirit of the code and therefore something they can approve. It takes time and patience but it can be a fight worth having.
Navigating permitting. Permit corrections can be challenged. Humans review sets of drawings for compliance with building codes and each person may interpret things differently than the next. We never aim to go against the spirit of the code and will go to great lengths to prove to building departments that our designs are compliant, even when there is ambiguity in the code. Just like zoning codes, building codes have gray areas and our job is to fight for our client’s goal and create effective arguments to get there.
Coordinating with consultants and vendors. Working with talented consultants and vendors is key to making a project shine. We have built an extensive network of people we work with and they provide amazing value and skills to every project. Working with their ideas, instead of just relying upon ours and making them conform to our concepts, is a way of bringing more value to the table. It doesn’t matter who comes up with the idea, our ego isn’t so big that we can’t get excited by a great idea that helps our clients out.
Illustrating our clients ideas. Let’s face it, every client has ideas that they bring to the table. Maybe they’ve lived in a house for twenty years and have an idea of what the floor plan should look like. Some architects may look at it and dismiss it quickly (sometimes for valid reasons), but until it is drawn and explored it will stay rattling around in that client’s head. Our job is to show you all the pros and cons of the options at your disposal, including yours. There are likely some great ideas in there and your architect should help advocate for the best solution, regardless of who came up with it.
In the end, you’ll want to make sure that you find a team that you can work with and who you feel has your back. Great design should be a given but having a great design that exceeds your goals and feels like a giant win should be your goal. Your design team shouldn’t just meet your program, they should advocate for you every step of the way.