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It’s clear that if we want to keep on winning contracts we are going to have to go beyond our training

[AJ WRITING PRIZE] Shortlisted: Dominic McAndrew

Have you heard the story about the architect dressed in black? Or perhaps the one of the arrogant, self-important architect dressed in black, with a Moleskine sketchbook and Rotring pen who is an insufferable coffee snob? It’s clear there are a lot of misconceptions about our craft and, as the AJ highlighted earlier this year (AJ 19.07.12), a survey by InBuilding found the public is blissfully unaware that we endured arduous years at university and multiple nights without sleep to accomplish this.

This misconception is something of a double-edged sword. The built environment has been all too willing to speak at length about how we will lose even more contracts through the collective misconception, but little has been said about the added value we as architects could and should return to our clients to battle it.

Historically an architect is defined as a ‘master builder’. In recent generations the profession has morphed into an all-encompassing design - and emotional - support system that involves as much hand-holding and battling the ‘Grand Designs school of client education’ as design and architectural prowess.

It’s clear that if we want to keep on winning contracts and maintain that all too troublesome cash flow, we as architects are going to have to go beyond our training - and even our comfort zone - to give clients what they couldn’t even dream of needing.

Customer service is a strange thing in the built environment. We are providing a service to our customers, so you would think we would know a thing our two about it. However, the public’s disenchantment with the profession is testament to the fact that, at best, some of the field is providing a substandard service.

The hospitality industry will constantly inform its employees that one disgruntled customer will tell 10 people about their experience, compared with one or two for a positive experience. This makes me wonder: if architects don’t take that extra step to be extraordinary, to engage and to inspire, what damage are they doing to their reputation and our collective reputation? Could this be the key to the salvation of the architectural community?

In these tough times more and more young architects like myself are turning to jobs in retail and hospitality to counterbalance the national and international placement shortage. It’s without doubt that the people and customer service skills these young architects are learning outwith our sector are a very powerful tool, a tool I have found has been met with arrogance and snobbery by the industry.

In my restaurant we go out of our way every day to make everyone feel special, make our menu accessible and empower patrons to experiment with new ingredients. We do this because it generates revenue and creates a good reputation, and most important, it’s quick, easy, cheap and painless to do.

As architects we are all passionate individuals - it was a tough time at university, we needed our passion to get through the semester. So why, pray tell, are we letting our craft down by not making our work accessible and providing a service and design that not only the client didn’t know they needed but a design the client realised they needed through our mentoring and insight?

If you don’t believe me (and, let’s be honest who could blame you, I’m not even qualified yet) take a look at Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s ditched proposal for Aberdeen’s Union Terrace Gardens. (AJ 30.08.12). Charles Renfro and team have gone beyond the call of perceived duty and provided spaces and qualities the people of Aberdeen could never have dreamed of needing, wanting or even using. Compare this with the easily palatable runners-up - sticking to the brief, providing what was asked for and not breaking the status quo. Testament to DS+R’s proposal is the turnaround in public opinion for the granite web during the public consultation and winning the local referendum before the lethargic Labour-led city council unceremoniously axed the project.

Of course, customer service in architecture is not a new idea. Le Corbusier gave residents of Unité d’Habitation things they could never dream of needing in their utopian paradise. It does seem, however, that we’ve all got a bit lazy in recent years.

Technology, of course, is now making it easier than ever to provide added value and insight to our customers at little or no cost. There are endless web services for design collaboration targeted towards peers in the creative industries, but it certainly appears few have adopted this to inform and inspire their clients throughout the design process.

Rapid prototyping and facilities like MAKlab at The Lighthouse, Glasgow, are transforming model-making from a boutique product for high-end projects to an accessible and engaging tool, not only for design development, but also client ignition.

We spent many years learning to read plans and imagine spaces; our clients didn’t. But this is no excuse for us not taking that extra step to inform and inspire the market, without being perceived as arrogant and inaccessible.

Ironically, these tools have an exponential worth to firms beyond that of the client: quickly and effortlessly providing the infamous friendly and collaborative design environment everyone thinks they have, and facilitating positive development of our architecture vernacular and identity through new technologies.

In recent years this journal, like many others, has told a blow-by-blow, doom-and-gloom story of firms going out of business, redundancies and falling workloads. For sure the industry is having a hard time at the moment.

The main question is: if we as architects focus on the quality of service we provide, will our workloads increase? The hospitality and retail sectors are riding out the recession by providing better service than ever; there is no reason why we as architects cannot do the same. Surely, better service and engagement with our clients can only be good for our work? Perhaps the best work of your career is just an inspired client away.

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