When doing a building project, momentum is key to a successful project. Clients show up at the first few meetings with bright eyes and lofty dreams, but who drives the project after the newness has worn off and you are bogged down by the details of the project? This is a discussion that I have had with fellow architects, clients, and marketing professionals in the last month and I thought it merited discussion.
When a project first starts, the architect needs to lead the momentum. One of the biggest reasons that projects fail is poor project management. After the first meeting, the architect should propose a time and an outcome for the next meeting prior to leaving the first meeting. Give the client a schedule of events. Unless the client has built a home or designed a project before, they have no idea what to expect. The architect should ask for a project budget and a timeframe. Then they should backtrack from the end date to create a preliminary schedule. Before leaving the first meeting let the client know “I’m going to provide you with (XYZ), does it work for your schedule to call you or meet with you on (X) day at (X) time to discuss”. This establishes a next meeting and requires that the client sets aside time to continue the discussion of their project. It starts the momentum from the very first meeting, lets the client know that the architect is organized and reliable, keeps the client on track, and lets them know what the next expectation is.
Now that you have made it through the first five meetings, because I’ve been told that five is the number of contacts necessary to get a client to “buy in”, you are underway on the project. It is at that point that the client and architect are now both responsible for maintaining the momentum. The second reason that projects fail is due to the client or the architect having lost track of what the problem was that needs to be solved. When an architect gives the client homework, and they don’t do it, it backlogs the project. It pushes back the timeframe and increases the budget because now the architect has to have more meetings to maintain the process. I also feel that it is important to give the client no more then three decisions at a time. Clients can get distracted by all the choices available and have difficulty staying on one course. This is the point at which projects can derail, as the architect or owner has lost sight of the problem that needed to be solved. Many studies have been done on how people make decisions, and it is clear that the client needs to maintain the goal in mind in order to get through the process and arrive at a solution to their project. Although the information age give us endless possibilities, if an architect provides a client with endless design solutions the momentum of the project can be lost very quickly. There is always some other way to do it, so providing the client with fewer options based on an architects professional opinion will keep the project moving forward and help keep the focus on the problem that needs to be solved.
Clients often have no idea what the architect is doing or how much time they spend researching, planning, designing, or discussing the project with fellow colleagues, city staff, regulatory boards, and other jurisdiction requirements. It is important to know that they are going to spend far more hours dedicated to a client’s project, on things that clients typically don’t get involved with, but are necessary to successful projects. So when an architect asks the client to do a little homework, please do it before the next meeting, or call the architect and let them know that something came up. Reschedule the meeting for a time when the homework is complete and everyone is ready to discuss the project. These steps are necessary to maintain momentum. If the client requests weekly meetings, make sure there is something to discuss at each of these meetings, solutions that move the project forward. If the architect feels that weekly meetings are unnecessary, explain why to prevent micro management of a project that slows down and delays the work, it is up to the architect to manage the process and provide enough information at each meeting to instill confidence in the client. The client does not know how to evaluate an architect’s ability. So with all clients educate first and design second. It’s hard to know what people don’t know, once you already know it. Clients who have done a lot of research will appreciate the architect’s opinions on the subject. Clients who have not done a lot of research will appreciate the information that is necessary to make their project truly successful. I firmly believe there is no such thing as too much education, but there can be too much information. So it is the architect’s responsibility to listen to the client and keep their goals in mind.
It can be very difficult as the architect to both listen and teach. There is a fine line between explaining your project and listening to the client’s response. Answering questions and writing down answers or questions from the client all while explaining a design process or thought can be tricky. If the architect works as a team, it is often beneficial to include a team member during the discussions that takes notes and can provide an alternate viewpoint when necessary. However, in residential design, the budget may not be able to afford the extra cost.
Maintaining the momentum during the project often happens through contact with the client, a simple reminder of what is going on, and providing them with valuable information. People often worry about “bothering” their clients, or clients “bothering” their architect. If you are going to make contact, just make sure you are providing valuable information, then the client, or architect, will be happy to receive your correspondence and feel like the project is important and a priority. In many ways a design project is like a relationship. The better the communication, the better the project.
So as a client, if you are getting ready to design a new project, keep in mind that it is a two-way relationship with the architect to maintain the momentum of a project and complete it on time. If you are an architect, it’s important to remember that you are not only the architect, but also the project manager, and maybe the technician who has to complete the work. Create enough time to do all of them, explain to the client how long it takes, and what the process is. By educating the client everyone will be happier and a successful project will emerge.