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how to be a good client... and get a good project






Case study: Waterfront house - Gig Harbor Area


When I was an architecture student and on the editorial board of The Fifth Column, the Canadian Student Journal of Architecture, I got to interview John Patkau (Patkau Architects). I naively asked him "what was your favorite project and why?" I remember him saying something like "the good clients get the good projects".


As I continue in my practice - working with people who want to build - that sentiment resonates. My hope is that reading about the process of collaborating with the owners of a waterfront house near where I live in Gig Harbor will be instructive for others preparing for a successful collaboration with an architect.



in my file


One of the first things I find in the paperwork I saved from this project are two typed pages from the owners. They wrote down what rooms and spaces they wanted the house to have and added some bullet points about how the spaces would be used. My pencil marks on the page document my follow up questions.


These lists and conversations are how we develop what we call "the program" of the building (or the scope of the project). What you might have assumed to be pretty straight forward has some nuances that are worth exploring. To generate better ideas and to avoid misunderstandings, I strongly recommend that all future building occupants work on this together - even the kids!


Some of the items on the initial wish list evolve with the design of the house. Because priorities often change as you work through the design, the final projects usually don't simply "check all the boxes". That doesn't make defining these goals any less of a critical starting point.



what's your style?


I never ask this question - the answers aren't enlightening.

Instead we discuss the following:


What kind of feeling to you want the house to have?

What sorts of things are you attracted to?

How do you like to live?

What materials do you love? Colors?

Tell me about your favorite places.

What do you love - or hate - about where you are living now or where you lived before?


It is helpful if clients compile photographs, but those collections are much more insightful if they also include some specifics of why they choose a particular image. Sitting down with clients' pictures is like being a psychologist with inkblots (do they do this or is it just something seen on tv?). I need to know why the picture was selected - it is too easy to jump to the conclusion that the clients like the ceiling height, when in fact it very well might have been the light fixture over the table that prompted them to save the image.


In the case of this particular house, the clients had also prepared a couple of pages of notes covering some of the topics listed above. I also talked to them about the house they were living in and reviewed their binder of inspirational clippings.



working with the site


A bit of jargon that I often hear myself saying is "we want to work with the site, rather than against it". What I mean by this is that we aim for the building to both benefit from, and to enhance, the place. There are going to be difficulties if characteristics of the site are at odds with the program.


It is wonderful to discuss feasibility before a site is acquired. The owners of this house already owned the property when we met and that's pretty common. They had spent some time there and we also met on site and considered it together. It was a unique place with a view, mature trees and extreme slopes. Having a topographic survey took a lot of the guesswork out of how to site future buildings and having clients who understood the potential - and also the challenges - of their land contributed to a project that compliments its surroundings.


Views, slopes, existing and future vegetation are really important factors when evaluating the appropriateness of a particular plot of land. Other things to consider are utilities, access, zoning, environmental regulations, easements, neighborhood context and orientation.



to the drawing board... and back to the drawing board... with pencils, erasers and trace paper


Putting some thoughts into graphic form comes after defining the project intentions and opportunities. It is very rare for first gestures not to need refinement. During first design meetings, options are discussed, clarified and weighed. We draw on drawings or on trace paper on top of drawings or both. This is the time to take the time to get it right - and to make sure that everyone understands how the drawings describe the building and the spaces it creates.

On this particular project, the clients did that and I think that their satisfaction with their house reflects the care put into their contributions during the design process.


thank you... thank you... thank you!


Difficult to express how truly grateful I am to all my clients who trusted me to design their homes. Flipping through the file on this project brings back memories of hard work and also of delight in the journey and in the people who embarked on it with me. The best clients are partners in the design process - and they get the best projects!



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