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The Diary of an Anonymous Architect #13

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The latest in an ongoing series about the day-to-day travails of an experienced and embattled practitioner. This week: understanding clients

‘Jack and Jill going up the hill storybooks and fairytales…. ’ T. O’Malley via B Womack

One effect of the recession has been an increase in private residential work – inexperienced new clients that can bring unexpected new risks.

We won a competitive pitch to design a new house for inexperienced clients – their first go, dipping toes in the world of architecture, planning and construction. They liked our ideas, we all got on very well and progress was good - they praised our design, signed it off and asked us to prepare a planning submission.

But these days lay clients don’t take a book to bed they take the world wide web - for a crash course in architecture. By chance the structural engineer mentioned that our clients told them that during their belated research they’d contacted a housebuilder who had standard designs they found attractive. No drawings to interpret, no CGI’s, no fly-thru’s – they walked round the real thing, smelt the baking bread, drank the coffee. We received an email shortly afterwards complaining of our inadequate design proposals and dilatory performance. Plus threats of reports to professional bodies etc, demanding refund of all fees paid to date and our appointment terminated forthwith.

The clients had changed their minds but what to do?  Blame the architects

The clients had changed their minds but what to do?  Blame the architects. Our fees for work carried out were paid but not without unpleasantness. Without the innocent tip-off, making our case could have been much more difficult and protracted.

Another friendly practice told me of their design for a large, fairly simple house extension for lay homeowner clients. Apparently the clients’ main concern was cost and cost control. All to no avail when, just before tenders were sought, the clients approached a builder recommended to them by friends. The architects requested a meeting with clients and builder to discuss tendering, cost control and timescales. The builders told the clients they worked open-book - just wages for their team (which the builder knew) plus the cost of materials and everything else (which they didn’t know). 

The clients were solicitors and the architects wrote in detail advising them of the risks of proceeding in this informal way based only on the recommendation of well-meaning friends. Without a JCT (or any) contract there would be nothing except goodwill to control the builder and the architects would not have a traditional Contract Administrator role without a traditional contract to administer. 

As the clients reached the end of their tether and funds they wanted a scapegoat

Hard to believe but the builder got the job. No budget, no price, no programme, no contract. The anticipated construction period doubled, so did the original budget. As the clients reached the end of their tether and their funds they wanted a scapegoat. You guessed.  Blame the architects and withhold fees as compensation. The architects took the hit and moved on. 

A small practice we know was dismissed from a project they fought long and hard for through endless planning difficulties and delays. The client had been fully involved throughout but nevertheless thought their architects were culpable. The architects could have used their formal appointment to retain the job but chose to walk away. With inexperienced clients it’s often not just about business it’s also very personal. Tough for some to separate and when trust is lost difficult interpersonal relations could only become impossible however unfair.

Another professional couple researched practices on the internet and chose us to improve a shabby but interesting old house they owned. What was never revealed were extreme but politely unstated differences between what he wanted and what she wanted.  The email eventually arrived – maybe there’s an online resource – unjustly claiming incompetent design, delays, usual threats of reports to professional bodies and demanding the return of fees already paid. With new architects appointed the clients continued to pull in opposite directions. Neither of them could decide what they wanted, they just redecorated and sold up.

There should be a Code of Conduct for clients

Complaints to ARB and the RIBA are so routinely invoked perhaps there should be a Code of Conduct for clients. Anyone who signs up agrees to read the documents, follow the plot and listen carefully to advice – possibly for a discounted fee. Unrealistic maybe - but private clients can be the making of new practices. Some however who may themselves be professionals, likely educated on architecture, planning and construction after only a few hours surfing the net are the ones to approach with caution.  No amount of handholding helps when the worms turn. However friendly clients may seem don’t just text or tweet or rely on a friendly chat round the kitchen table. Correspond - confirm everything in writing - fill the job file as though your professional life depended on it. It may one day.

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