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Tête-à-tête With Clients

It’s a semester like no other that’s characterised by endless Zoom, hours rooted to a single chair and learning how to have a social life (or just life, in general) through a screen. Yet, one thing that 2020 has been able to provide, despite all its overwhelming stresses, is opportunity through connectivity. For me, this very specifically means access - to lectures, talks, conversations and other opportunities whose widespread reach is a sudden, but welcome boon, to students like me who were otherwise limited by time and location logistics.

With this newfound access, I find myself being exposed to a wider set of individuals whose thoughts and ideas I am able to hear, absorb and allow myself to be intellectually stimulated by. On one such zoom call, I was intrigued by a design+build owner’s wish for his clients. He wished his clients were emotionally prepared for the number of decisions they’d have to make in the process. It was a statement that forced me to pause and consider the number of emotionally intensive client interactions he would have had in his career to make such a claim. It also got me thinking of how this emotional preparation could potentially save both parties multiple bouts of exasperation.

As architects, we‘re taught to ‘put ourselves in the client/user’s shoes’ when we design, but this idea of empathy stops with the design process. It’s ironic that we hardly ever proactively prepare both ourselves and the client for the emotional journey that accompanies the design process. Clients are obviously extremely invested in the project and this is all the more apparent in the case of single residences and other cases where the client themselves commission, finance and use the building.

Semblances of preparatory work exists in the form initiation surveys, where the architect begins to scope out the client’s interests and tastes. Some architects opt for less formalised versions of this preparation, often in the form of phone calls or casual meetings to get to know the client better. However, these surveys are almost always design aesthetic or program centric and never moves beyond our ‘scope of work’. Whose job is it then to prepare the clients for the emotional upheavals the process entails ? The architect is not entirely responsible for this, but we can have the insight to initiate this to a client who probably wont see the frustrations coming. By having a preparatory conversation, we as architects employ some of our non-cognitive skills, which we only otherwise use in the networking world or when we’re scouting new projects.

By helping prepare the client, we are presenting them with the opportunity for forethought on how they'd like to handle conflicts and disagreements. It’s synonymous to any team project where it helps to set the ground rules and clear lines of communication before one steps into the process. It’s also a way for architects to sharpen our inter-personal skills, which is half our required skill set. The permanency of our work can often make clients wish ‘they knew better then’ or ‘had done it differently‘. Being emotionally prepared can help the client forego these illusions of regret and instead focus on productive ways of working with the architect on getting what they want.

Maybe our client initiations can act as a starting point to include these conversations and interactive ways to prepare and start off on common ground. After all, as Frank Lloyd Wright put it - “A doctor can bury his mistakes, but an architect can only advise his client to plant vines.” Might as well be well-sorted than sorry.

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