Privacy, Architecture, and the Internet

October 16, 2013 — 33 Comments

Privacy on the internet is a serious matter and with all the opportunities for architects to share their information, certain considerations need to be made … it’s not always our information to share. Believe it or not, I spend a considerable amount of time thinking about the privacy of my clients. A lot of the people I work with know of this site and it’s normally just a matter of time before they become regular readers. For most of them, they think it’s pretty cool to have their project documented as thoroughly as I do – not to mention all the stories that I tell that happen when the clients aren’t around.

But that’s most of my clients … not all of them.

Part of the reason I wanted to introduce the topic of privacy, architecture, and the internet was I received a negative comment on my site earlier this week and it really got under my skin – not really sure why, it was an ignorant comment. This site is ridiculously lucky in that very few comments are derogatory in nature and even less make their comments personal (i.e. “You’d know better if you weren’t so stupid”). I have very few rules on my site and I almost never moderate comments on my site because people generally avoid name calling and typically make what they have to say constructive. If you make things personal or if you can’t figure out how to make your point without cursing, it isn’t worth leaving up. At any rate, this particular comment negatively judged one of the projects and I thought to myself, “How can you judge a thing without understanding it?”

I know that I open myself up to evaluation and possibly criticism just by putting something out there for people to see – and I think I’ve accepted that consequence. However, this most recent exchange led me to start thinking about how important it is to explain how sharing information works on this site.

Let’s start with The Plans

Weekend House Lower Level plan

Weekend House Upper Level Plan

The plans above are the only full plans I have ever put on this site that were designed for a specific client. I did this project for a high school friend of mine and it was the basis for my low-cost modern home challenge. Simple shapes, simple roof plan, off the shelf window package, millwork package most likely from IKEA … and it still hasn’t been built. I still have my fingers crossed that one day it will but this isn’t a real house at this moment (remember “It doesn’t count if it doesn’t get built“?)

I have shown partial plans on Life of an Architect quite often … but never the entire plan. Unless I get permission from the client, I won’t publish their plans on this site – regardless of the fact that we technically own the design. I still think of myself as a service provider and if the client doesn’t want their project on this site, I won’t put it up here. Sometimes, not having the plans makes understanding the project immeasurably more difficult … sorry but that’s too bad for you. I know that if I look at popular shelter magazines, it is becoming more and more common that full plans are not available as part of the presentation package – but that doesn’t stop me from trying to figure out the plan myself based on the images shown.


Let’s take a minute and talk about The Images

Bob Borson Instagram Map

If you didn’t realize, I take a lot of pictures. Once I started writing this site, I quickly became aware of the perils of using other people’s photos and what a complete pain in the ass that was … as a result, I use my own pictures and images almost exclusively. There are actually a lot of articles that I would love to write but I would have to seek out images from other sources and I just don’t want to deal with what that process involves.

If you follow me on Instagram or Life of an Architect on Facebook you would see that I put together a lot more photos than I show on my site. I might be out one a job site and take a picture of a nice foundation vent cover and while there isn’t enough to it to warrant an article on the site, I still want to share it with other architects, designers and homeowners. One thing that I have to be mindful of is the geo-tagging capability that programs have built into them. Some companies want you to locate yourself at their business on Instagram but I have to be careful what images end up on the map. The image above is my geo-tagged photo map (at different zoomed in levels). I really like this feature and use it frequently … but not everyone wants their business or project tagged in my photo stream. Considering that over 300,000 people a month come through this site, it might not be as big a deal if your grandmother is taking kitten pictures and geo-tagging where she took them (preposterous example – like she would even know how to geo-tag her kitten pictures), but I get to work on some pretty cool projects and it’s not outside the realm of possibility that some architecture curious fan of the site wants a closer look at some detail I showed in a post. Clients probably don’t want strangers sneaking around their bushes at night to see “how the ceiling at the back patio finished out” and I can’t say that I blame them. Either they have thought about it and don’t mind having pictures of their house out there for public consumption, or they HAVEN’T thought about it and instinctively decided that they don’t want their pictures out there for mass consumption.


Finally, let’s talk about “The Money” 

Residential Construction Costs

I saved this one for last because it’s most simplest one to explain and discuss. I don’t EVER talk money on this site when it comes to a specific client’s project. Even when the client is on board with showing plans, drawings, photos … anything and everything … I won’t share the financial particulars of their project. I don’t even ask them. Pretty simple and obvious to me as to why this is a good decision. As I sit here typing this up, I am trying to think of a story to tell to make my point, but nothing this particular is coming to mind. I have written posts on residential construction costs before and if you and I were sitting down in a non-public forum I would probably share a few more particulars with you.

Those are the three big privacy categories for me on this site and I think about what I’m saying and what I’m showing with regards to these three items in every single article I write. If that means that it’s harder for the reader to understand my point or truly grasp the depth of my creative genius than so be it. I either need to do a better job of explaining it or I need you to understand why I didn’t really explain it in the first place.

Thanks for understanding and being part of an amazing online community. The sharing has certain limits but so far, I think we’re doing pretty good pulling the curtain back and exposing most of the good stuff.


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  • I havent seen an architect do what you do with this website. Many have a blog section (sometimes) talking about their projects only, not giving amazing insights as you tirelessly do on here Bob.

    A negative comment started this post but I was honestly waiting for something like that on here. You know when you visit popular architecture website (ArchDaily, Designboom, Dezeen or the likes), it’s pathetic how people just go personal & literally insult those famous architects on their “massive” projects while I believe not many of those commenting have actually built doll houses…

    It’s a pretty sad trend in the profession when those arent doing much are to quick to criticize those making something because they had the guts to show the “world of architecture” what they have achieved…

    Never underestimate your weight in this field, your insights are appreciated from across the pond in South Africa and DR Congo, where I personally work.

    Your experience(shared to the world) is helping thousands to find their paths and try to achieve a 10th of what you are currently doing…

    Keep it going.. If you stop, well, some of us might just taking the new task of swearing at you for leaving us in the cold 🙂

    Bless you Bob…

  • Zachary Schweter, R.A.

    Hi Bob – As an Architect – i agree i never post project location or specifics outside of loose design criteria. (ie: Westchester Waterfront, or Connecticut Weekend Getaway ) Although i do post project pics. My clients (95%) understand that i will never give up location without prior consent. There are those that wish their projects not to be published, however i explain to them that i depend on the outcome of their projects to help me get more projects (as per my proposal). Furthermore that 95% of my clients understand that i will be contacting them in the future so that i can send potential clients to see firsthand the completed product as well as have them talk about the process with the previous client and their experience.

    BTW – awesome blog – just stumbled upon it – will be following

    Zachary Schweter, R.A.

    ZS Design Architect, PLLC

  • Linda Slater

    ‘Nuff said.
    Go Bob!

  • Ethan

    Your blog is great, I hope you keep posting.
    Anyway I just finished reading this post and wanted to comment on the picture section. I’m not sure most people know that many cameras have imbedded GPS sensors that place location information in the EXIF data attached to the image. This is especially true for smartphones. Run some pictures through a EXIF data viewer online and see all the unseen data available. Fortunately you can disable or erase this metadata.

    • great information Ethan – thanks for sharing

  • timmmahhhh

    As for the negative comment, sad but no surprise. Social media, and especially Facebook, has provided a forum for passive aggressive nastiness that I could had never fathomed before. My traditional June 14th post is “Everyday is Flag Day on Facebook, if you include freak flags.”.

  • timmmahhhh

    I had the issue of posting construction progress photos of a client’s home come up once. I do address the issue in my contracts, stating that I have the right to anonymously publish their photos as it is an important part of our marketing. As you once mentioned in one of your posts, Facebook is great for showing process and progress, in contrast to websites where finished products are expected.

    The client became a fan of our business page and even “liked” many of the photos posted. Then one day they asked me to take them off for privacy reasons. I reminded them if the clause in my contract giving me the right to do so but said I would respect their wishes.

    Thy are in an affluent area and many of their other rrich relatives live nearby. They also inherited a business from their parents and one brother took some clients and started a competing business. Same person also takes delight in criticizing everything else about my client, including nitpicking their project. Perhaps I need to add a clause stating that we are not responsible for your relatives being a-holes.

  • Javier Boyero

    I coincide bob! Regards from Argentine

  • Bill Reeves

    I’m sorry you had to write today’s blog. It is a dose of reality. There is too much anger out there and it shows up everywhere.

    I like one of your comments about “It doesn’t count if doesn’t get built”. Around here we call it the perfect set of drawings.

    Carry on.

    • Haha – that’s a good name for it. Why aren’t I more proud of all the perfect sets of drawings I have in the office??

      • Bill Reeves

        It stinks. I know. I did a large church addition complete with building permit and contractor, and the church changed their mind and decided to go another direction. A perfect set of drawings. It didn’t help.

  • Mark B.

    You or another architect must have taken the image of the money . . . they’re all ones.

  • Kat

    Glad you turned it into something productive. That person would know better if they weren’t so stupid. I personally enjoy the fact that this commentshpere tends to stay respectful and professional. I have little patience for those who cannot express themselves appropriately. There have been some times where I almost shed a tear because I would love to know more about a project you’re working on, but client privacy is of utmost concern and I think you do a great job of giving us lots of info without giving us any client information that could jeopardize their safety.

    I only hope that one day when the AIA convention goes to Dallas, that they arrange a “Bob Borson Designed This” tour. Because it will sell out. Maybe they should schedule six.

    • That would be a boring tour … unless we made it a booze cruise.

  • Mark Wilson

    Bob-Hard to believe anyone would mistake your writing and writing style as anything but humorous, professional sharing of information. In the relatively short time I’ve subscribed [can’t remember how I found the site], I’ve enjoyed reading your thought provoking posts and look forward to reading each one. Privacy is critical in this age of “digital footprints”, and your post is spot on. Can’t remember reading any one mention, item, article, or word, that stuck out as a potential privacy issue, but thanks for reminding of the importance of privacy. Kudos:)

    • Thanks Mark – privacy is something that is always at the forefront of what I’m doing on this site … probably because when I started, I was doing it 100% on my own time, with my own resources (that one’s still true) and I didn’t ask for permission.

      Live and learn!

  • MarvinOne

    I’m someone who gets mad when people tag me in photos and put them on facebook. In a world where personal information can be found too quickly via the web, I prefer to not have my face and name linked. I think personal privacy trumps everything else and your clients simply may not want the world to know what’s happening with their new house. It’s hard for us because we see sharing that information as learning about our craft, the way a doctor publishes study results, but it’s still someone’s private residence and their safe haven. You’ve taken the right approach, bravo.

    • Thanks – I know a few people who are crazy protective and it isn’t because they have stuff they want secret, it’s more of a “I can’t control what happens to it” mentality. I can’t help but wonder how things will develop for this younger generation who grows up putting anything and everything out there without the wisdom of experience whispering in their ear that not everything needs to be shared.

      • 1irishdell

        Hence, why it is so important for our generation to be that “whispering wisdom,” encouraging them to understand the potential ramifications of putting it all out there. And monitor them until we feel they are old enough to get it. It’s a crazy world we live in now, and it’s only going to get crazier.

        • The same reason we protect children from learning every lesson the hard way. Some thing heal, but some things have to be forgotten and not that everything is recorded, it never hurts to remind people that things will be there forever (or at least until the apocalypse)

  • Excellent post Bob. As much as one might like to show every or lots of photos from a project, client privacy comes first. They didn’t decide to write a blog, we did. Good point on the geo-tagging, Google Earth is enough to send people over the edge when they realize their project can be viewed from above, by anybody with a computer if someone really wants to look. While it is much more difficult to keep things private today, your belief in “client first” is likely one of the components to your success. 🙂

    • let’s hope!

      I was visiting one of my sisters several months back and took a picture of her house … it took her all of a nano-second to say “don’t geo-tag that!”

      Too bad I am faster than a nano-second. That moment reinforced the lesson.


      • I turned the geo-tagging off on everything – so I can try to stay under the radar. 🙂

  • Marchitect75

    Thanks for the post. I think its hard for someone to really criticize a project without know the client, buget or decisions behind the scenes that take place. These factors play a big part in a project. Thank you for all of the posts on this website. You are doing a great job!!!

    • I have written on this site many times that to appreciate a thing, you have to understand it … that’s not actually true but it doesn’t hurt!

  • kerry hogue

    great post. you have it nailed.

  • Hallie

    Bravo! Great to see that you turned what could have been an ugly situation into something insightful, something that we could all learn from.

    • thanks – after a while, I was seeing the point being made even if the delivery method was a bit unproductive.

  • Jake

    haha, i know the feeling. Usually so hard skinned but every once and awhile something gets under it 🙂 no worries it happens

    • I refer to it as “getting pulled offsides.” The truth of the matter is that when it does happen, depending on how you choose to handle it, it can be an opportunity to clarify your own positioning.

      Thanks Jake, I appreciate the support