How Do Architects Work with Out-Of-Town Clients?
February 19, 2019
Answering your questions about working with an off-site design team.
Can architects and designers work with clients who live far away? What if the clients are in the same city as the architect but their site is far away? How does this work?
While the majority of our project work is right here in the lovely city of Seattle and the suburbs, the percentage of our work that is located further outside the city limits — sometimes a short or long plane fight away — is growing. We’ve had to field this question a few times recently and so I thought I would outline a bit of our process and just how it works in general. This may also help you understand the process for working with any service professional who isn’t in your city.
First off, why would you hire someone who is far away?
Have you ever dated someone long distance? Hiring a design professional is a profoundly personal match. You want to find someone that shares your values, has the necessary skills, and is just someone you “click” with. Dating long distance may not always make sense at first glance, but sometimes a match is a match!
When you’re looking for a professional, it can often be more about who you click with than who is in the area where you’re doing the work. This can apply to clients who live outside Seattle who are planning on moving back (in which case the project is in the Seattle area), or it might be an issue of a client who wants to build a project where there aren’t sufficient design professionals to choose from. Numerous ranch, vacation projects, or retail projects in small towns have come our way, and with those, the clients have found us because they exhausted the limited pool of design professionals in the immediate area of the site.
In the end, finding a designer you click with — who you have faith in to get the project done — is far more important than finding someone down the street. We live in a digital age where location really isn’t everything.
What are the logistics of having meetings?
While the adjacency of your design professional to your site and to you isn’t, in my opinion, all that critical, how they communicate with you is critical.
Every few years, I read something about how the building industry is going to revolutionize any minute with prefab, or containers, or any number of really solid ideas. The challenge, of course, is that most of what we do is custom. Every site is unique, every client different, and the majority of projects we work on are specific and custom to the site — something where prefab or modular isn’t applicable. So, while the industry has been in a relative standstill in terms of construction, there has been a dramatic shift in how we communicate.
If your architect can’t fully embrace and understand technology, I can bet that communication will be a challenge.
Here are a few things that we recommend:
- A solid video conferencing software. There’s a million of these, but make sure you can screen share and mark up a document in real time.
- A good PDF markup tool. Bluebeam is our software of choice, and we can set up collaborative sessions with clients where we can all mark things up in a color-coded real-time session.
- A way to track decisions and upcoming questions in a collaborative way. As an office, we are mildly obsessed with Airtable. Some people love Smartsheet, or other such software, but whatever it is, find the one that works for your team.
- Test out how your architect emails. If they’re someone who prefers phone calls to emails and there’s a time difference between you, then it will likely be a challenge. Well-crafted and thorough emails are going to be required.
- Have a frank conversation with your design professional about your own comfort level with technology. If you haven't already, now is the time to learn your way around some of the current tech tools, as getting the most out of your long-distance communication is key.
- You can also set up a real-time project in a communication program such as Slack. We’ve found that for casual conversation, it is a wonderful tool. We can set up a project for our clients and then divide it up into different “channels” to track and discuss various issues.
What tips do you recommend for communication?
You’ve found someone you like and who isn’t stuck in the stone ages, so you know that you have a good chance of making this work. What other things should you be aware of?
- Communicating by video can be rough. Learn to not talk over each other and to let there be pauses in communication. It is the best way to ensure nothing is missed.
- Schedule quick video chats when one or two emails doesn’t solve the issue.
- Learn to mark things up and send them over in a PDF format. Every smartphone has a million apps that can convert images to PDFs and they’re invaluable to designers.
- Pinterest boards and Houzz ideabooks are fantastic if you include comments in the images. I can’t stress this enough. I’ve had many moments going, “Do they love that glass block wall or hate it?” (I pray every time that they hate it.)
- Mainly, make a commitment with your team that if something seems to be going awry that you check in over it. Emails, texts, and any written text can easily lose the intended tone. Checking in over video is an ideal way to see someone as close to face to face as possible and realize that you’re all just people and have the best intentions.
- During construction, weekly site meetings can be cost-prohibitive to attend. While the occasional flights don’t add much to the project cost (and should be used), weekly flights are likely not worthwhile. We like to schedule milestone site visits (walk-throughs at framing completion, electrical rough-in, waterproofing at windows, etc.) and then use good old smartphones and apps like Facetime to look at problem areas with the general contractor when we can’t be there in person. It works amazingly well if everyone is trained up.
How do you handle the jurisdictional requirements of a city that isn’t your own?
I understand why this is an obvious concern of clients, heck, I’d probably ask the same question, but the reality is that it really isn’t a big concern for any competent architect or designer. Architects are not experts. Anyone who says they are, hasn’t checked in with their lawyer either (the word “expert” is a big no-no).
Our entire job is solving problems. There hasn’t been a day in almost twenty years of working where I’ve known everything. A new jurisdiction may take some more time than one I know already, but it isn’t insurmountable or even that big of a deal. Every site is unique even in the same jurisdiction, so we will do our same due diligence to ”solve for the site” and the various applicable codes. Just make sure your hired professional is competent and seems like a problem-solver and not a box-checker.
What if your design professional isn’t licensed in the state (or country) where you want to build your project?
Now here’s a more interesting part of the equation. Each state (or country) has different requirements about what sort of design professional is needed for different project sizes or scopes. Sometimes, you may find someone you absolutely click with but who isn’t licensed appropriately to do the work where you want to build. What does this mean? Are your dreams crushed?
Absolutely not. There is a long history of having two design professionals on a job. You can have a design architect who comes up with all of the designs and drawings and another locally-licensed architect or structural engineer who can stamp the drawings, be the feet on the ground, and generally be a good local resource. This arrangement will slightly increase your necessary budget for design fees, but it can mean you get the team that you want for the site you want.
You may also get your architect to get a new license in that state (I’ve done that before), and that is sometimes fairly straight-forward.
In the end, having a design team and/or site that isn’t adjacent to you is definitely manageable and can be a great decision. With some careful planning, judicious use of excellent communication, and a determination to design and build a beautiful project, you can build a gorgeous project with your ideal team.