Perspective – do you have it?

Bob Borson —  June 28, 2011 — 25 Comments

M C Escher drawing "Relativity"

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Over the weekend I engaged in an interesting conversation that walked the line between friendly and hostile. We started off talking about McMansions and our mutual disdain how the priorities of the home-buying public has changed from a quality to quantity mentality. I do not like McMansions and I think they create bigger problems than just simply creating unsightly and poorly planned buildings. The neighborhood where I live is rife with these sorts of projects, and as an architect who specializes in residential projects, I am always at risk of inserting my foot in my mouth when I go over to someone’s house. If this is the first time they have had me over and they know what I do, it doesn’t take long for them to ask me what I think  of their house. Since I don’t want to lie – and I have no interest in climbing up on my soapbox – I tell them the truth. It generally goes like this:

New Friend: So you’re an architect, do you design the inside of buildings or the outside?

Bob: I design both, but mostly I focus on residential projects.

New Friend: So you design houses? What do you think of my house?

**we interrupt this conversation for a brief point**

This really is a cruel question to ask an architect. You are either oblivious to the predicament that you have just created, or you want to hear an “expert” tell you that your house is great – regardless of whether it is or isn’t.

** resume**

New Friend: “… What do you think of my house?”

Bob: “What really matters is what you think of your house. What’s your favorite part?”

New Friend: “I just love the kitchen and all the closet space and ….”

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Crisis averted for now. The best part about that answer is that I am not lying, but speaking to an even deeper truth is that I don’t to have a conversation about architecture with someone who clearly judges their house with a different measuring stick than I would judge one of my own projects. And that is o-kay with me because it is their house and if they love it, I am genuinely happy for them. Maybe I have shifted my moral position a little because I design fairly large homes that typically exceed the needs of the occupants. On more than one occasion, I have found myself defending what I do, that I am part of a problem systemic to the quantity over necessity debate. I will agree that it is hard to justify a 5,500 square foot house for 2 people, so I don’t try to do it anymore. I’m not suggesting that our service level ever changes based on the size of the house or the project budget – we don’t take every project nor are we hired for every project for which we interview. We work in a specific quality range so regardless of the project size, they are get the same attention and development.

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MC Escher "Swans"

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What it comes down to is that when you hire me (or hopefully any architect for that matter) to design a home for you, projecting or imparting popular current social values and mores is not part of the services I am offering.  Occasionally some marriage counseling comes into play but that’s a value added service that comes standard with basic services. If you want a 5,500 square foot house and have the means to pay for it – great. I haven’t now, nor will I ever, tell someone who wants to retain my services to piss off  because they don’t need what they want. That, my friends, is not my job. Discovering that good clients are better than good jobs takes some experience to figure out. I’ll help you pick out a front door, I’ll help you design a trellis in your backyard, and yes – I will design a 10,000 square foot house that 2 people will live in – because that is what I do. I am an architect and I design houses.

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even better

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  • Koandalit

    good perspective on things… 

  • Pancholi Twinkle

    Most of the architects must have faced that quake a lot many times… and the most amusing part is that although we know that a single distraction will shoo the conversation away, everytime; we always come up with different and creative/innovative/witty comments everytime! we, the architect species, will never cease to surprize/amuse ourselves!! and then, we grin to ourselves in private which says… “crisis averted!!”

  • http://twitter.com/mondo_tiki_man Jonathan Brown

    The first time I’d had this curve ball thrown at me was when I came down to visit my future wife’s family while still a student.  Passionately idealistic, and deeply rooted in philosophical deconstructivism (largely cured of both now, however), I was wracked a plethora of issues about their “southern plantation-style” home, few of which I could voice out loud.  I dodged it too.  Instead of talking about the style, I noted that I really liked how it was sited slightly askew to the street (set on 4 acres of land) and, like the Parthenon, it is very pleasant to approach it from an angle where you can engage the length and breadth of the building, not just as a flat facade like so all their neighbors. *whew*

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  • Harry G. Seidel

    Bob,

    I am very sympathetic, your professional history is very similar to my own. While I too am  idealistic about architecture’s potential and feel passionately that the most effective solutions for our climate crisis are offered in the building sector, my advocacy, not unlike yours, often (nearly always) smacks against a wall of client preference for grand statement and “ignorance of” or “indifference to” the collective environmental impact. 

    The past (3) years have been such a disaster for the building sector and we all have suffered. Many are under employed or gone all-together so I respect the 100 for 3 years aspect.

    The imperative remains however and my strategies (mostly aimed at reducing carbon footprint) now include a greater emphasis on; the quality of the architectural experience rather than quantity; the “personal comfort” advantages inherent in smaller rooms; greater attention on the biology of the home (I have yet to find a client unwilling to spend on safety of the interior air quality); and integration of the building to the landscape and outdoor rooms. I practice in NH and we have the luxury of relatively low density so outdoor space is still private and useful.

    Beyond the building science and “keeping the water out”, I view my role to be to provide knowledge and perspective the client is unaware of. I do this with heartfelt passion and the genuineness sometimes finds traction. Often though, I too feel like a passenger on a roller coaster hanging on with modest impact.

    Screening clients, to only work with those we agree with and which are nice people to serve, is an art to be sure and something I have yet to manage. I know of a firm however that does  use their web-site successfully for this purpose. They have a unique style (simple, elegant but not classical) and they direct potential clients to the site, with instruction to only call back if they love what they see. I have always admired this straight up approach for it’s simplicity and honesty. 

    Thanks,

    hgs

     

  • http://www.architectresume.org/ Architect Resume

    Simply
    superb blog to be bookmarked! Hope this be shared with face book and students
    will love to see this info on cover letters. I have already shared this with
    many of my friends!

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      thanks!

  • Anonymous

    Bob, between this post and your last one with the Virgin Mary ceramic tile comments…well, you’d better pray…a lot. Three strikes and you’ll be out, for good.

    Actually, if our clients were completely rational, lived to the tightest of their means, lived with the least space they could…well, none of us would have a job and they’re be few architectural gems throughout time. Can we rationalize architectural ethics in a capitalistic society…somehow my friend.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      that’s why I donate a lot of time to charity, because apparently I am an evil person on the other days.

  • Ronelson69

    Bob –

    I have been in that ‘conversation’ too many times to count…

    Keep up the great (and always funny) work.

    Rick

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Thanks Rick!

  • will

    Bob,

    I enjoyed your post, however i do have some apprehension about the suggestion that architects should not consider ethical or moral implications of a given project.

    taken to it’s logical extreme this seems to suggest that architects should not have boundaries and surely you would agree that architects moral compass should come into play in at least determining which jobs to accept – is it not appropriate to refuse a public project for example, which may serve to glorify a despotic middle eastern regime and built on the backs of semi-slave labor?  This may seem extreme relative to designing a 5000 SF house but this is the dilemma facing a large number of western architects.   Do we have no moral responsibility for our clients’ projects and where is this boundary?

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Of course we have a responsibility! I agree whole-heartedly. I have tried to touch on some of the missing bits in this post within the comment section but I’ll address you specifically. 

      I am from Texas and I am genetically programmed to be a “don’t tread on me and my rights” kinda guy. I would never take on a project that was at odds with my personal feelings – but that is decision that gets made after the first interview. Since my conversation over the weekend was specific to McMansions, I wanted to clarify that despite designing large houses, I don’t feel that I create or add to the perceived count total of the McMansion population. I don’t have a problem with large houses in general … but let’s say they need 10,000 square feet because they need to set up the sweat shop sewing room and need the space to house the platoon of 8 year old orphans that are going to be working and living there. I’m pretty sure that I would pass on this project regardless of the fee. 

      I can come up with an extreme example to explain any side to any argument but this wasn’t my intent. I’m just not willing to take heat from an out of work architect who is collecting unemployment about how evil I am for designing a house larger than 400 square feet per occupant. The only steps that you can take when a client comes to you and asks for something irresponsible is A) turn down the work and let that client go to the eventual builder who will take his money and deliver some stain in the community or B) take the project and try to be part of the process and hopefully guide the solution into more favorable territory. Where that line resides can only be determined by the individual but it is my hope that I am more of a contributor than a detractor.

      Read the comment section in this post – it touches more squarely on your point:
      http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com/modern-house-friendly-neighbor/

      cheers – and thanks for adding your voice to the conversation – this is a good one.

      • will

        Yes, I completely sympathize with your option B) as described above, and certainly take no issue with the course of your career and work.  My question, which has no answer, is how to draw the line between A) and B)?  Where is the line that we should be unwilling to cross?  The argument “someone’s going to do it so why
        shouldn’t I?” could be logically extended to almost any unethical behavior.

        I have been thinking about this a great deal relative to China.  China recently has been snatching dissidents off the streets without charges and placing them in indefinite detention – including artist and architect ai wei-wei. (recently released.)  I have many friends and colleagues doing architectural work there – so how should they respond?  At what point do you try to be part of shaping things for the better and at what point do you refuse to participate?  This is a different political spectrum that 5000 sf houses, but there are still ethical issues at stake – true for many, if not most architectural projects.  It’s ok to make a decision to weigh one factor (such as a need to feed our families) over another, but none of us should pretend that we don’t bear concrete political and ethical responsibilities.

  • http://twitter.com/Splintergirl Amy Good

    Totally on board with you here.  I can’t tell you the number of times we’ve suggested to a client that a project could be handled more economically.  By rights, we feel the need to tell them that our product is strong and does not need overdone (for lack of a better word).  In the end, it is their CHOICE what they want to see.  We would be doing them a disservice to not provide that…and our employees who then do not get to work on the project.  We’ve not always agreed with the direction our clients took, but sometimes we have appreciated it in the end to see the finished product. 

    It is very much about the bond you have with the client and, yes, I can respect the project you mentioned that was keeping 100 employees employeed for 3 years.  In these times, that speaks volumes as well.  Great job!

  • http://www.coffeewithanarchitect.com Jody Brown

    First of all, I designed this soapbox (it’s all glass, nice right?)

    Second of all you should tell all McMansion owners that they are playing a significant role in the destruction of the American Dream, and then give them the bottle of wine that you brought as a house warming gift.

    Lastly, when it comes to design, the clients are in the drivers seat. Yes, but… sometimes they don’t know where they’re going, and they almost never now the most effective way to get there. I think, if you blindly follow their directions, you’re actually not providing a good service. They hired you as an Architect for your expertise and you owe it to them to share this expertise. There is a fine line between sharing your experience, knowledge, or passion, and telling people what they “should” be doing. Understanding where that line is critical.

    Also, lastly, If you as an Architect have big ideas; have a vision for how our city’s should develop; have a strong belief in how we “should” live; have solutions for some of the problems that our society struggles with? Then maybe you shouldn’t be providing a service for clients anymore at all. You should probably start to lead the effort to effect change. It amazes me that Architects are trained to visualize solutions, but wait for our clients to tell us what needs to be solved.

    And again, lastly, this comment is longer than any post I’ve ever written on my own blog.

    Great post Bob,
    J

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      I figured it would be stainless steel… and thanks for the lengthy comment, I’m sure your hand was cramping up by the end of it.

      I don’t disagree with what you are saying but you are making some assumptions on how my process works (because I didn’t write a 2,500 word post to explain it all – some people heckle me for the length of these things…).

      I view my job as a mix of things, not all of which I explain to the client, it’s just part of how I do business. One of the most difficult aspects of the projects I work on is managing personality types, corralling expectations, and protecting the owner from them self – keeping water out of the building is the easy part. What I don’t do is tell them that they can’t have a movie room in their house if that’s a program requirement. I may create a multi-purpose room that can accommodate several needs but after all the explaining and cajoling, it is their house and their money.

      We have been fortunate to have respectful clients who are happy to listen the the experts that they’ve retained. But do architects out there tell potential clients that they won’t take a residential project on because it’s not what the client should have? Talk about a God complex. If you want to create change and be a part of the process, you have to have a client and you have to have a project that actually gets built, otherwise, it’s all talk. Architects have already marginalized themselves by reducing the scope of their responsibility. Maybe if that wasn’t the case there wouldn’t be as many McMansions out there in the first place.

  • jbushkey

    At least you didn’t try to defend the lie that a 10,000 sqft home for 2 is “green”.  Our entire economy is based on people buying things they do not need.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      I can’t imagine anyone trying to sell a house that large for 2 as a green project – that’s a little silly, not to mention insulting to the person on the receiving end.

      Your last sentence is one that I could debate at length – it is certainly a true statement but not necessarily a bad one. That speaks to the perspective I mention. I have a house I am working on right now that far exceeds the physical needs of the eventual occupants – but it is also keeping about 100 people employed for 3 years … and considering how things have been going in the construction industry the last few years, I know those workers are happy that not everyone makes due with less.

  • architectrunnerguy

    And what’s an essential ingredient to a successful project is a good client. Good architects abound but good clients are comparatively rare.

    Doug

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Doug,

      We have been lucky in that the people who have been hiring us are coming to us because it us (if that makes sense). We are not the lowest provider in town but our value exceeds our expense and as a result, we get fantastic clients. While some are more involved than others, they all appreciate what we bring to the table – that’s why they are here with us in the first place.

  • Anonymous

    Great post, Bob. As much as I like to have both, I agree that “good clients are better than good jobs.”

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      It doesn’t take much to be a good client – besides all the obvious things like paying for services rendered. A good client to me is someone who is invested in the process as much as the product. I know that working with me, if past history means anything, will be a positive experience and we are going to have fun. At the end of the process we will likely continue being friends.

      See, that’s not so hard is it?