Unspoken Communications: A How-To for Young Architects

Most architects are one-person think tanks, who curate their own ideas, manage their own media, and develop their own business. New clients are likely to be recommended by word-of-mouth and unlikely to be strangers. These relationships will be warmer and closer than the corporate norm. But they pose a unique challenge, because the architect then has to be professional with someone who’s probably a friend or a friend of a friend. As a result, unspoken communications are often more critical than spoken ones. They convey things that need to be clarified for professional reasons in cases when, on a personal level, it might be considered tactless to state them too officiously, or to even state them at all.


Being There


It’s not unusual for clients to believe their project is the only one you’re working on. You need to gently correct this. I used to bring to meetings a slightly beat-up A3 leather folio of work in progress. Most sketches and drawings were in plastic inserts but some were loose pieces of tracing paper, marked-up reductions and other miscellaneous stuff. As I was flipping through to find the drawings to present, I’d often notice that clients were curious about what else was in there. I’d like to think they were reassured to see other people entrusting me with their project.


They shouldn’t ask to see your other work but, if they do, remember that their project is the most important and interesting one you have. Don’t downplay the others, lest they imagine you doing that to theirs, but do mention what’s unique about the other ones and how you’re going about it before segueing back to theirs. This isn’t some kind of analog media posturing. You actually do have other projects on the go and need to manage expectations.


Being Available


If there’s a project manager, contractor or one or more other consultants at your progress meetings, then you’ll usually have at least a week until everyone’s schedules align for the next one. The last five minutes of every meeting is usually devoted to the checking of calendars. Let the others speak first as you don’t want to be seen with too much time on your hands. It’s ideal if everyone settles on a window that you have but don’t appear too pleased if they do. It’s good to not be seen fitting your client in around others.


Being Unavailable

In the same vein, at meetings, place your mobile phone on the table within reach but face down. Have it on vibrate and, if it does, look slightly annoyed, apologize, and switch it off without turning it over or looking at it.


Dealing With Uncertainty


If you’re working with a client for the first time, it’s not uncommon for them to ask for alternatives. It could be they don’t yet trust you to deliver what they want, or it may be they don’t yet know themselves what they want. Either way, it’s best you offer to produce three options straight up. You don’t want them to approach two other architects and besides, you get to learn a lot about what they want. It saves time. The problem is, you’ve maybe already filtered universes of possibilities in your head and arrived at a likely solution.


Here’s something a graphic designer taught me. Take your first idea and then imagine its opposite. You now have two ideas. Next, combine those two into some sort of combination and you now have a third. Present them all with equal care but make sure the one you believe in is called Option 2. It will be the one chosen. I think the reason this works is that the “opposite” option always has something extreme about it – it will almost certainly look expensive to build. The “combination” option can easily look like the synthesis it is. It may even look cheap and unimaginative.


The featured image shows this principle at work. It was a simple job for an attic addition. I wasn’t shy about saying Option 3 will be the cheapest to build or Option 1 the most expensive. This was not a false choice. I framed my preferred option but also provided my client with a framework for understanding it.


Unspoken Communications and The Art of Compromise


Once I had an institutional client whose members were divided between those wanting a “traditional” solution and those wanting a “modern” solution, but the client could easily have been a husband and wife. What I wanted was to solve the deadlock and move forward. I already had two opposite ideas but, this time, the preferred Option 2 was the combination option that both sides could see a bit of themselves in. You must present it as a standalone concept called something like “contemporary.” You can’t let anyone think of it as a combination or even a synthesis, and definitely not a compromise.


The Power of Unspoken Communications


A boss of mine once had the CEO of a large client say something like “I’ve had an idea for our next building” and proudly hand him a sketch. The idea involved a “rather distinctive” silhouette. Boss left saying “I’ll get to work on it” but the design he took back a week later was minus said distinctive silhouette. CEO says, “You’ve left out the best bit!” Boss says “I’ll fix that” and he did, for there wasn’t going to be a third chance.


Ignore Unspoken Communications At Your Peril


When you’re a sole practitioner there’s rarely such clarity. Once, a different boss of mine was designing a house and taking his time about it. (Strike one.) The clients were patient because, after all, they’d engaged the architect to make certain decisions for them. The problem was they didn’t see enough “for them” in the decisions being made. (Strike two.) It didn’t help that they were overly deferential and didn’t want to appear rude or ungrateful. The only mutually face-saving course of action was for them to claim financial difficulties and cancel the project.


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