haiku for the book “The Architect’s Guide to Residential Design” by Michael Malone
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haiku for the book “The Architect’s Guide to Residential Design” by Michael Malone
by LiveModern Webmaster — last modified Mar 05, 2012 09:42 AM
by bubba of the bubbles (firstname.lastname@example.org) — last modified Mar 04, 2012
Let’s superserve the client
And then build a house
Holy bug butts this is a good book! Well written, well organized,and well thought out, it’sthe best description of what happens and why when designing a house with anarchitect that I’ve found. Written by anarchitect for architects getting into residential design, I reckon it coversthe stuff that doesn’tget covered in school, namely how to interact with clients during the process.Malone has clearly thought deeply about this part of his business.
As a (ahem) consumer of architectural services, I thought hisdescription of the typical client was eerily spot on (it’s odd reading about yourself bysomeone you’ve never met…). And his empathic approach--puttinghimself in the client’sshoes when sh!t goes wrong and responding accordingly--is admirable (andgreatly lacking in client services in general these days…). As a client, it was veryinteresting to read about the architect’sperspective of the design process and “appropriate” client feedback into thatprocess. This is a book that needs to be read by architects and clients alike.
Malone states that it takes three qualities for someone to want anarchitect-designed house: Ego, patience, and money. We were surprised by theego bit. Not that we don’thave ego (my bride has nearly none, but I probably have enough for the two ofus… [step back from the car withyour hands up!]), but that came out of left field. Malone equates the egothing, in part, to thinking that there’snot a single house out there to fit your needs; therefore, you feel the need tohire someone to design and build the “perfecthouse” for you (probably applies us; we attribute our desire to build a house to wanting to go green and particularness in material choices and color). Or it could, in part, be to beat the Joneses (definitely not us;Malone practices in Dallas—there’s a lot of Jones-beating up inDallas). Patience is needed to work through the drama of the design and buildingprocess (yep!). And, of course, money. Building an architect-designed house is typicallya rich man’s (or woman’s [or couple’s]) sport.
An interesting insight into this critter called “architect” is how they (or at leastMalone) react to client design preferences: “During your initial interviews [the clients]will usually tell you up front what they are looking for; some may even havebooks or magazines with specific houses or, even worse, various elements ofhouses they fully expect to see incorporated into their new home.” This sentence made me go “hmmmm” and pull my earlobe threetimes. I had thought that showing architects precedents was a good thing (andswear I read that somewhere). From a client’s perspective, it lets the architect seewhat your general design preferences are and lets the architect respectfullydecline if those preferences don’talign (“Sorry: I don’t architect houses that looklike Burger Kings.”).I certainly understand an architect not wanting to deal with an exhaustivelisting of required elements: The architecture at that point is driven bydesign elements rather than use and program.
Malone’sdescription of a residential architect’spotential client base is spot-on. He notes that the client base is a smallworld that either knows each other directly or have contact through social andbusiness networks. Indeed. For example, one of the architects we considered andthen unconsidered was because a pal of ours had had a terrible experience withhim. Some sentences that resonated with me for some reason: “Bad word of mouth can hurt you,especially if you are terminated by a client who has been paying fees for workshe or he considers unsatisfactory, without you being able to finish theproject.” and “They will now be faced withselecting and hiring another architect and moving forward from scratch, apotentially devastating charge to be leveled against you.” Just saying…
Malone advocates that architects use what amounts to basicbusiness communication strategies (which, admittedly, even businesses struggleto employ). Namely, using agendas for meetings that clearly describe thepurpose and goals of the meetings, written communication following meetings,and ongoing written summaries of decisions. One thing I’ve learned in my professionaland personal life is that communication is key. Not surprisingly, that alsoapplies to designing and building a house.
Malone notes how design and material choices and preferences ofthe architect can cause a budget to go awry just as design and material choicesand preferences of the client can cause a budget to go awry (and Gawd forbid ifboth run amuck!). And Malone is clever in noting that an architect’s vision is much more likely tobe realized if the architect is attentive to budget issues up front. If not,the client or builder will “fix” things to fit the budget (true,true: a couple builders told us during the dissolution of Round 1.0: “Just get the plans from thearchitect and then we’llfix everything in the build.”).
As mentioned in an earlier post, Malone advocates that architectsuse a questionnaire to survey the needs and preferences of clients. And heprovides an example. A great idea, methinks. Gets the clients thinking aboutwhat they want and documents it in writing. Another interesting section of thebook focuses on “soft bidding”: getting estimates frombuilders before working on design. Malone notes that he has “…a consistent history of projectsthat, when priced, come in over budget, making everyone unhappy anduncomfortable when they do. No amount of careful planning or candid disclosureof your thoughts regarding the cost can prepare the clients for a project thathas a price they cannot afford.” Hegoes on to note that he tries “todo the maximum possible with every design opportunity”. Although admirable (design isgood!), this pressures the budget. Something to keep in mind about architects…
Later in the book, he addresses bids over budget (“and they always are”) and notes that this is whenmost residential projects die (can’ttell you how many folks we’vetalked to that have worked with an architect only to have their project suffera whimpering got-run-over-by-the-bidding death). He notes that this is wherethe client is often disappointed and angry (uh-huh) and the architect needs toexert leadership to ensure the project moves forward. Malone describes thatleadership as leveraging trust earned earlier in the relationship into adiscussion of value engineering and, if needed, changes in design. For hisfirm, he will often redesign and adjust the plans at no cost to the client.
It was real interesting reading these bits given our experiencewith Architect 1.0, which was, in short, a perfect storm of bad. He lost ourtrust as a good steward of our resources early in the design process; whenthings went wrong, he blamed us for things that he did (which were provable viawritten documentation [remember, putting things in writing goes both ways…]); and his leadership at theend was to try and save design elements and material choices he wanted over ourprogram needs. That’snot to say we weren’tpart of the problem. There were design choices we made that certainly added tothe cost. And after reading this book, perhaps we had a misunderstanding ofwhat an architect does.
About that misunderstanding: Malone suggests that architectsprovide a “service for fee” similar, say, to an attorney.Along those lines, you are hiring expertise to advise you, but you are makingthe decisions and hence the outcome, ultimately, is yours (hence Architect 1.0stating that he was not obligated to design a house we could afford). From aconsumer standpoint, this is there’s-a-monster-hiding-in-the-amply-sized-master-bedroom-closetscary if it’s not clear up front (and it isn’t clear up front) and if it’s not clear during the designprocess. When we hired an architect, it was not only to hire expertise todesign a functional thing of beauty that met (most) of our program needs butalso knowledge of general construction costs. The lawyer-service-thing comesinto play because a lawyer will typically discuss your legal options and theimplications therein (perhaps with a recommendation), but you ultimately choosethe option and, hence, your fate. The same thing applies with an architect. Ifyou want a $100,000 negative edge pool and the architect explains that it willbust the budget, you shouldn’tbe surprised when the budget is busted when the project finally gets bidded.
On the other hand, be watchful for design decision traps where youare making critical decisions that impact budget without knowing it. Forexample, the architect might ask “Whatdo you think about putting a negative edge pool off the back patio? It wouldlook great juxtaposed against summer skies!” And you might reply “Yeah, that would be great!” assuming the pool fits into thepreviously discussed budget. But it probably doesn’t. This is an extreme example,but it happens with lots of little and medium sized design decisions that addup over time. If budget is a concern, always spew the phrase “Can we do this on our budget?” and “How are we doing on budget?” (although, as we learnedearlier, that doesn’tguarantee anything).
We’ve received criticism that wewere unreasonable in our upsettedness with Architect 1.0 because he designed ahouse we loved. Although I’mnot an architect, I’llgo out on a limb and say that it’spretty damn easy to design a house a client loves. There are lots of houses outthere we love. We would love to live in about 90 percent of the houses we seeon the AIA tours. One little problem: We can’t afford them. The true talent of anarchitect is designing a house the client loves within the budget. Although Malone notes the service-for-fee bit,he also notes that clients expect the process to produce a design that fits thebudget and he runs his business accordingly. This is a case where reality(expectations/perceptions of clients)trump the theory of the service an architect provides.
Malone goes on to discuss contracting, constructionadministration, and the building process. He also includes case studies at theend of each chapter. At first, the case studies are rather rosy; something Iwas going to ding the book for (what do you learn from rosy case studies?). Butthen he describes, toward the end of the book, some particularly nastysituations and the lessons he learned from them.
This book is, quite simply, fantastic. I can’t say enough nice things aboutit. I have to think that it’sinvaluable for practicing or soon-to-be-practicing architects. And it’s certainly invaluable toclients hoping to get a better understanding of the process and the inner workingsof this critter called “architect”.
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