How clients inspire architects
We like to do “programming.” In the architectural profession, the program is the client’s statement of the requirements to be met in a design. We usually want to work with the client in the shaping of the program because we feel that it is frequently done poorly and because, when done well, it is inspires the design team and leads to greater satisfaction for the client.
Two recent examples illustrate the difference.
We are very interested in the places and spaces where products are designed and developed. We have an innovative framework — The New Technical Workplace — that reflects our experience and thinking on these places and how a shift in approach makes them more effective. So we were happy to get invitations to propose on two projects this week.
One of the projects was for a co-working space to support new product development entrepreneurs and nurture the successful launch of their companies. The project emerged out of a very well-backed initiative in a city with a strong history of manufacturing but little recent industrial development and not much identification with it. The people behind the project had experience in co-working spaces at a smaller scale and had now taken a lease in a large building to significantly expand the program. They expected to spend about $10 million on improvements to the space.
The other project was for a vehicle design and manufacturing start-up. The company had developed a prototype for a small sports car, learning certain techniques from the aerospace industry. Now, relocating to Detroit to attract manufacturing know-how, they were designing and developing a new kind of commercial vehicle and needed space for their rapidly expanding team. They expected to spend about $1 million on their space.
After initial conversations with the leadership at both organizations, we decided to decline the invitation to propose on the $10 million project and to pursue the $1 million project.
Why would we do that?
It all began with the way these clients presented their projects to the competing architectural firms. We saw them both as great design opportunities. One of them did not see it the same way.
The co-working venture had developed a typical design program — a dry list of functional spaces and area allocations — and included it in their RFP. They then led tours of their existing space and their proposed new space. In the existing space, they pointed out some of the cool toys that get generated when clever people get together but very little about the features of the space and how it met their mission. In the new space, a large open warehouse, they gestured here and there to indicate where they thought certain functions should go.
But a lot of what we expected to hear, we didn’t. There was very little passion in their presentation. We heard nothing about what being a product development entrepreneur was like. We heard nothing about what the different stages of product design and development were like and how their needs evolved. We heard nothing about the community of mutual support and learning that we assumed would arise in a well-designed co-working space. Although they said that “product is the differentiator” separating software and hardware co-working spaces, we heard nothing about how their venture would uniquely meet the needs and support the success of entrepreneur makers.
But those are the things we shape a design around. Hidden in between the list of functional spaces in the program is the soul of the organization and the lives of the people who will work there. Hidden in that dry program are the inspiration to design the kinds of places and spaces that activate an organization and amplify its accomplishments.
Since this organization would choose an architect on the basis of a competitive proposal process, and since we would have no opportunity to help them develop a more articulate expression of what they wanted to achieve and why, we declined to propose.
The other client spoke differently.
In our initial conversation with them, we expressed a concern for their budget, believing that is was very tight for what they wanted to do. We also said that we thought our fees would look disproportionate to the scale of the project budget and they probably would not choose us as a result.
Their response moved us. They explained that they were moving very fast. Their ideas were attractive to investors and they were hiring at a rapid pace. They needed this next place to operate in and to accommodate their team, but they did not yet have the resources to put more into place than product. They liked our New Technical Workplace model and offered an animated response to how they could leverage it in their own project. They anticipated the size of effort they’d need from us and, rather than recoiling from our fee expectation, they explained that they had already earmarked that amount and more in their project budget. They were now seeking someone who could work with them over the span of development of their company while accepting that, in these early stages, resources were spare.
We immediately started working on our proposal. We called contractor friends to see what we could do in working together to reduce the cost of our services and speed the construction of the space so that these guys could get to business sooner. We started developing approaches for components of the design that could be fabricated off-site and progressively installed in the space even after they had occupied it and opened for business. We looked for the young stars in our firm and began pulling them toward the project. We all jammed on how a space for people like this could benefit from clever thinking about configurations and materials.
One client will get proposals from architects who will appreciate its scale but move their energies in other places. The other will get responses that deliver much more than a functional space.
A building is a powerful tool in support of the purpose of a company. In commissioning one, the passionate expression of that purpose is a powerful motivator.
A version of this post can be found on Medium.