Time to read: 8 minutes
At the heart of your architecture studio are the relationships you enjoy with your clients. They are the driving force behind every project. They are the people who set your scopes and budgets. They are your risk-takers, design ambassadors and tastemakers. They are inextricably tied to your successes and failures. While a bad client relationship can destroy even the most incredible project, a good client relationship can elevate a humdrum one to something special.
You may have encountered the 80/20 rule before: the axiom that 20% of your client relationships cause 80% of your problems. Your best clients sail through your studio on the lightest of breezes, a gentle joy to behold. Your worst drag you through the mud of anxiety daily. They not only cause 80% of your problems, they dominate 80% of your focus, time, energy and mental wellbeing.
But as a profession, architects don’t talk about clients much. Especially not the rotten ones.
What’s it really like when clients turn villainous? What are the tools of their nefarious trade? Is it possible to spot the warning signals ahead of time? And are there management principles that you can deploy to arrest the runaway train, or even get the heck out of there before the proverbial hits the fan?
Well, like all architects a decade or more into their practices, we’ve experienced our fair share of villainous clients. And survived to tell the tale.
We’re pretty sure someone smart once said that a problem named is a problem halved (or not; we may have made that up). Regardless, we’ve given some of the villains we’ve endured cute names to help demystify them. We invite you to use them during your next therapy session. And, in the meantime, we invite you to read on for a dissection of the first villain, in which we explore their behavioural characteristics, share our experiences with them, and suggest some best-practice management approaches should you ever have the misfortune of encountering one in the wild.
Villain #1: The Co Architect
The Co Architect can sometimes be confused with the sort of client we imagine you love (because we love them too): passionate about design and hugely enthusiastic to be embarking on their project. Both clients are avid subscribers to design journals, visit furniture showrooms for fun and are eager for their project to be the best contemporary design has to offer.
But there’s an important difference between the two.
The design lover wants you to do the design. Perhaps along the way, they’ll ask you a whole bunch of questions about the project and plan on being closely involved with key decision-making. But ultimately, they trust you to do your job.
By contrast, the Co Architect wants to hijack your decision-making process. They want to use all that time they’ve spent trawling showrooms to fill out your lighting schedule for you. Hell, they’d love nothing more than to be invited into your studio, given a desk and put to work. The Co Architect may even have serious opinions about things they really shouldn’t: things like roof drainage, or glazing orientation, or the integration of structure within the fabric of a building. Things that you only have an opinion about because you studied architecture for five years and have been working in the building industry every day since then.
The Co Architect may not realise this about themselves, but they do not trust you to do your job. They want to inject themselves into your finely-tuned process and make your job even more difficult than it already is.
How to recognise them?
To our collective discomfort, we’ve discovered that many of our villain types can hide in plain sight deep into their projects until… whammo! There they are, suddenly making our lives miserable halfway through the documentation phase.
Fortunately, there’s a great question you can pose to unmask the Co Architect very early on in a project, possibly even during the first meeting:
“How much decision-making control would you like in your project?”
If your client (or prospective client) responds with a maniacal laugh and declares,
“All the control! I want it all!”
You know you’ve got a Co Architect on your hands.
For advanced players, and depending on your own proclivities, you can refine this question with a few careful qualifiers. You can ask your client to indicate their preferred control over different stages of the project. You may be nonplussed by interior design, but an absolute control freak for sustainability. And you can offer your client a scale of 1 to 10 to choose from, knowing that lots of 8s is your trigger point (or for those badly burnt in the past, even just a lot of 5s).
How to manage them?
OK, so you’ve got a Co Architect on your hands. Maybe you’ve decided you can live with the extreme collaboration. Maybe the aforementioned unmasking happened so late into the project that you feel the best way forward is to finish the damn thing off. Or maybe you just really need the cash. What now?
Our best advice to you on this front boils down to a single word: boundaries.
To effectively manage a Co Architect, you need to establish clear boundaries around your and their roles, and police them fairly yet firmly. Ideally you need to do so the moment your relationship begins and keep them battle-ready until the moment it ends. In other words, you may need to have your boundaries in place before you realise you’re working with a Co Architect.
We’re so glad you asked.
As will likely be a regularly repeated motif in this article series, we think the best way to establish the ground rules between you and a client is through your client architect agreement. Actually scratch that, we don’t think, we know. It’s written into the Architects Regulations. This can include things like:
- When and where you’ll schedule meetings (for the love of all that’s good and holy, please don’t agree to meetings outside of business hours or outside your office).
- What input you expect from your client during each project phase.
- How many revisions you’ll make to a set of drawings before you start charging extra.
Once you have these nuts-and-bolts items in place, you can turn to some bigger picture questions. Here, you’ll need to rely on your powers of strategy, observation and negotiation. Your Co Architect may enthusiastically want to get involved with every part of their project, but it’s your registration, insurances, reputation and profit margin that are ultimately on the line. You need to use these powers to assign yourself the position of Design Captain and your client the position of Design Lieutenant. It’s essential that you get the final call.
You can also use your process itself to corral your Co Architect in the direction you want, to shape their enthusiasm usefully even. A design brief at the beginning of the interior design phase will be like ecstasy to them, weekend homework that sees them back in the furniture, tapware and tile showrooms that they love, and out of that spare desk in your studio.
At the end of the day, what we have come to discover is that having a Co Architect on board is going to mean more work for you. More time checking the stuff that your client is producing, more meetings to talk through the stuff, more emails summarising the meetings. If you can, clearly define what things your client will Co Architect (e.g. fittings selections) and what things they won’t (e.g. everything else).
And when in doubt, you can always fall back on this fun fee schedule:
- I design everything = $100
- I design, you watch = $200
- I design, you advise = $300
- I design, you help = $500
- You design, I help = $800
- You design, I advise = $1300
- You design, I watch = $2100
- You design everything = $3400
This article has been adapted from Season 2, Episode 5 of In Detail, the podcast that takes you behind the scenes of creative business. It first appeared in Issue 171 of Architectural Review. I co-host In Detail with my good friends, Mick Moloney of Moloney Architects and Kate FitzGerald of Whispering Smith.
- I’m departing from my usual first person singular to acknowledge the essential contribution of my podcast cohosts Mick Moloney and Kate FitzGerald, who together contributed 66.6% of the content of this article. Or was it more like 90%?
- Victorian Architects Code of Professional Conduct; Architects Regulations 2015; Schedule 1, Division 2, Part 4. Similar codes of conduct exist in the other states and territories.
- This fee scale is of course meaningless gibberish. We don’t advocate for any act of collusion. Please get your own financial advice before doing important things like fee setting.
- Bond villain Oddjob from the film Goldfinger, 1964; image sourced from Wallhere.
So good! We are in the middle of writing some processes around ‘red flags’ because too often we push on thinking the fix is just around the corner. “At THIS next plan revision, they’ll sign off and things will be smooth sailing”. Our red flags will form part of our fortnightly planning meeting so that we hold each other account to what we will and won’t accept. Cheers!
Hi Bec. I think we’re all guilty of hoping a bad client will turn good, particularly if we’re optimists by nature (which I wager a lot of architects are). Great to hear you’ve got some processes in place to take stock on a regular process though.
Fun fee schedule amounts to a scale of colloboration. All of my clients are co designers and I’m the architect. The amount of free time and head space they provide me is great. At the end they get what they want and get so much pleasure in doing it. However, this is not for everyone. You must be able to let go, and not being chained to your fees.
Very interesting. So where on that scale would you fall, would you say?
Hi Warwick. Range between “You design, I advise” to “I design, you advise”. Note the sequence of the colloboration process. Most clients these days know exactly what they want and all they looking for is good advise.
Fascinating! I have to say our practice is pretty collaborative too. But not as much as yours by the sounds of it. We prefer to do the doing!