Client commandments: what a perfect client would never, ever say to an architect

Client commandments: what a perfect client would never, ever say to an architect

Jonathan Held

If I sense that a prospective client has a sense of humor, or is going to be “troublesome,” I’ll give them a copy of the attached. I don’t know whether it accomplishes anything in their minds, but at least I’ve deluded myself into thinking that my rear end is covered.

Eight things your architect doesn’t want to hear:

1. “how much is this going to cost me?”

It’s one thing to commission an architect to take the time to develop an estimate. Given sufficient time and an intensive level of research, he can at least give you a ballpark figure. But it is pointless to put him on the spot. He will most likely either give you a number way higher than you thought you would have to spend (the “covering-himself” method) or an unrealistically low estimate (the “‘client-will-love-me-for-this” method). Particularly in low-scale construction and renovation jobs, the variables are simply too many for accurate estimating. I always say that the best estimates are the ones you get from the bidding contractors. Be willing to wait for those.

2. “i only have blank to spend.”

Truth be told, your architect could probably care less about your misadventures in the stock market. If he is sensible, he will have forewarned you that the contractor’s estimate doesn’t represent everything you are going to have to spend to finish the project. Cost overruns are practically inevitable. What the architect is saying is that your money troubles are your own, not his. So don’t monopolize what little time he has with unproductive whining about money. Save everyone, including yourself, a lot of grief by certifying that you will have access to all the cash the project will require for its satisfactory completion.

3. “the workers just stand around not doing anything.”

Every time you stop by the jobsite to inspect progress, you notice that the workers don’t seem to be working very much. Sometimes they don’t seem to be working at all. Sometimes there aren’t even any workers there. Naturally you convey this to the architect, who dutifully reports this to the contractor. But don’t expect the architect to go storming around the site handing out shovels and pickaxes. That’s not his job. And he doesn’t need to hear this complaint more than once. Some workers ate great. Some do no more than they have to do to keep their jobs. That’s just the way it is nowadays. Believe late, it’s as frustrating to the contractor as it is to you. Just remember, you were the one who went with the lowest bidder. And if the workers aren’t doing anything, then where did that big hole in the ground come from?

4. “If you had been here, this wouldn’t have happened.”

The contract you have with your architect probably stipulates something vague like “project management” or “construction supervision.” In essence this means that the architect or someone from the architect’s office is going to show up once or twice per week to hear all about your money woes and your complaints about the workers and, if there’s time left, inspect to make sure that the project is proceeding according to plan. Nevertheless, there is often sufficient time between these visits for a builder to commit a serious gaffe that will have to be undone, frequently at the owner’s expense. If you want to lessen the likelihood of that sort of thing happening, you’ll have to pay your architect to have a representative on the site at least once a day, a costly premium that will probably run you more than what it would take to remedy the occasional screw-up.

5. “where’s my work permit?”

You’ve hired an architect who is experienced in the ways of building department procedures and who has told you it will take a certain amount of time to acquire a work permit. As with pricing, such “guess-timates” are often unreliable. That’s because usually during the permit acquisition process, something will happen to retard progress: A plan examiner will issue objections to your application. A plan examiner will be taken ill. A plan examiner will be indicted. You decide to add a bidet to the master bathroom. You decide not to add a bidet to the master bathroom. Aw, what the hell, you decide to put the bidet back in. The possibilities are endless. Try to remember that everyone is doing the best they can on jobs for which every owner has paid top dollar to be first in line. The permit will come through. It will. It must.

6. “i’m sorry to be calling so late, but …”

It’s 10 p.m. You’ve just noticed a crack in a newly poured footing. You pick up the phone and call the architect. Possibly he has already mentioned that you should call anytime, day of night or weekend. This is the sign of an architect who is desperate not to lose a client. Which isn’t to say he isn’t a good architect. But it is to say that he has allowed himself to be taken advantage of. Other architects may disagree with much of what has been written here, but on this I believe my colleagues and I concur: We ate routinely exploited by clients who interpret our “scope of services” to mean everything up to and including driving their kids to school. So for goodness’ sake, don’t bother the architect with trivialities after, say, 8:30 p.m. And, unless the fee was exorbitant, weekend calls should be avoided altogether. Architects do work long hours, but not that long. Short of a house collapse, whatever it is, it can wait.

7. “i can get you a lot of work.”

There may be architects out there who want to hear this, but in my experience this statement–often uttered during the first meeting and well before the architect has even been retained–is really meant to drive down his fee in exchange for the nebulous and often illusory hope of future work. In fact, when an architect hears this, his antennae should twitch, because he is in the presence of an operator who haggles incessantly, schmoozes incessantly, complains incessantly, and is usually an all-around pain. Architects: Sometimes there’s no choice but to take on a client who you know will be trouble, so make certain your fee proposal includes an allowance for the extra aggravation. And whatever you do, don’t lower your fee just because the guy has an aunt somewhere who needs to legalize a shed.

8. “how long do you think it will take to finish this blank?”

Here there is no need for vagueness. Without even seeing the drawings, I can tell you exactly how long it will take to finish your job: It will take exactly as long as it takes, not a day more or a day less. Admittedly it is difficult to draw comfort from so glib and overriding a statement, but a willingness to compromise your vision and not micromanage the project will see you through. Be patient. It may seem like it will never get done, but it will. It’s just not going to get done as quickly as you’d hoped or expected, and it’ll probably cost much more money than you’d hoped.

Your architect must have told you that. But you probably didn’t want to hear it, either.

Jonathan Held, AIA, is an architect in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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