The New Client Landscape
Illustration: Michael Kirkham

When Mozilla contracted San Francisco–based MKThink to develop plans for the Internet software company’s new 54,000-square-foot headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., the architects faced concerns from their client’s staff about losing their existing workspace.

“Some [were] concerned about losing the office in downtown Mountain View,” says Jonas Kellner, senior associate at MKThink. “Part of the desire for the client was to make the staff be part of the design process and engage them in that before we started construction. By the time the design was done, staff members felt ownership in the design.”

The user-engagement strategy grew out of Mozilla’s past work with MKThink, which has helped design seven facilities for the Silicon Valley company in the last three years.

It also represents a promising approach to doing business in a field where client trends are notoriously difficult to gauge, and where variability, from conception to completion, is a constant.

Ownership’s Nuances

According to a 2014 McGraw-Hill Construction SmartMarket Report, commissioned by the AIA’s Large Firm Round Table, only 7 percent of owners believe perfect construction documents are possible, as design errors and omissions are still considered highly impactful sources of uncertainty. The report, “Managing Uncertainty and Expectations in Building Design and Construction,” ranked owner-related issues such as accelerated schedule, unclear project requirements, lack of direction and involvement, and program or design changes among the leading drivers of uncertainty on building projects. It also concluded that better communication and integration among project team members represent the most effective approach to reducing both the causes and the impacts of uncertainty.

“A client-focused design and delivery process requires the architectural design team to thoroughly understand and address the client’s ‘risk’ factors as they relate to the project at hand,” says Dale R. Dekker, AIA, a principal at Albuquerque, N.M.–based Dekker/Perrich/Sabatini.

“Budget risk, schedule risk, and design risk are all front and center in a client’s mind when selecting an architect,” Dekker says. “A design approach that documents and clearly articulates the cost and benefits of the myriad project decisions made during the programming, design, and construction of a project resonates well with clients. This approach has served our firm well over the years, as it establishes a confidence level with the client that he or she has made the right ‘choice,’ and it usually results in repeat work for years to come. It amazes me how many architects refer to a project as ‘theirs,’ which in my opinion totally negates the role of the client, who has the most at risk, usually money and reputation.”

In fact, research suggests that clients have become distanced from architects thanks to the emergence of third-party owner representatives and architecture firms’ increasing reliance on contractors

Jean Leathers, president of Practice Clarity, a national consulting firm that helps architects build their businesses, finds that architects leave a lot out of initial conversations about the value they bring that may be hard to describe, but could mean losing a potential client.

“Architects are constantly selling themselves short when they talk about what they do,” she says. “They point to buildings, landscapes, and exhibition models. They point to renderings and reports. But these are simply the tangible outcomes of their work. They rarely claim the highly valuable intangible benefits of working through the design process with an architect.”

“For example, architects perform highly complex kinds of thinking to elicit ideas, vision, purpose, business goals, and personal aspirations from within their clients’ heads,” says Leathers. “They analyze organizational structure and influence organizational development. They recognize and work with political agendas within organizations; help clients obtain financing, funding, and tax credits. They assess how to get buy-in, and then guide processes to gain approvals. The intangible skills and services that architects provide contribute just as much as the tangible outcomes to an owner’s success, such as more heads-in-beds for hoteliers, fewer re-admissions for hospitals, better ambiance for restaurants, and more memorable sporting events for fans. Architects would do well to claim the value they bring as competitive positioning against owners’ representatives and contractors.”

Michele Russo, senior research director for the AIA, encourages design professionals to capitalize on their abilities. “The time is really ripe for architects to realize their skill sets are not limited, to explore how to develop meaningful and productive relationships with clients, and to understand all the potential possibilities that clients may themselves not even know exist,” she says.

A co-principal at Chicago-based Space Architects + Planners and a member of AIA’s Small Firm Round Table, Jean Dufresne, AIA, agrees. Like MKThink, his firm has utilized a similar method, on a smaller scale, to engage clients and offer a sense of ownership for clients in the design process.

“It’s important to understand our client and make sure that the process of designing is pleasant and painless—and this applies to both commercial and residential work,” says Dufresne, who points out that the term “client” sometimes extends to the actual client’s kids, especially with flexible work environments where children are occasionally on-site.

“Depending on the ages of the kids, they sometimes get dragged to meetings, [and] we have started offering to the parents to meet with their kids,” he says. “We take an hour or two and set up a meeting with the kids, one-on-one. It may sound silly, but then the kids feel like they had a say in the project; they have a sense of ownership and a greater respect for the property once it’s all done.”

“The best of all of this,” Dufresne adds, “is that when the kid grows up, they will have dealt with an architect before, will have told their friends, and we have cultivated a potential future client.”

Numbers Rule

As for future clients (and future architects), the one evolving demographic that will influence the AEC industry sooner rather than later is how small Generation X is, in terms of sheer numbers of members, compared to the generations that came before and after. According to the 2012 McGraw-Hill Construction Industry Workforce Shortages SmartMarket Report, millennials—and their outlook—will soon dominate the workforce.

To better understand this demographic, the AIA partnered with McGraw-Hill Construction to conduct two studies that assessed the gaps between current thinking in the industry and that of the next generation on critical issues such as the use of technology and the importance of sustainability. According to Dufresne, these gaps are closing since, as clients, millennials are already playing a major—if sometimes challenging— role in the design process.

“They really want to be involved in company decisions and are looking to know everything about its operation,” Dufresne says. “Maybe part of that stems from the oversharing that occurs via social media, or the ease at which things are custom-made for this generation, or how things are curated for them [such as] custom phone cases, custom t-shirts, one-of-a-kind bikes. They expect the same from the environment they live and work in. You can customize the data stream hitting your phone and social media platforms—why not your office space?”

Fortunately, social media is not exclusive to any demographic and represents a valuable tool for savvy architects to maintain and grow their client base. Kevin Toukoumidis, AIA, principal of another Chicago-based firm, dSPACE Studio, which focuses on residential and small commercial projects, has benefited from social media, having seen his eight-yearold company grow steadily, even during the economic downturn.

“I think a lot of that has to do with how we market ourselves to an increasingly tech-savvy population,” Toukoumidis says. “As architects, we must be open to new ways of reaching clients. With my firm, we have attracted a lot of great tech-savvy clients who found us online, not through our company website but through other sites like Pinterest and Houzz.”

There’s always a strange balance firms must strike, though—related to their marketing efforts—between the “design ethos” of informed and engaged prospective clients and their own desires as professionals.

“All generations have required their own design ethos, and millennials are no different,” explains Dekker Perrich Sabatini’s Dekker. “[They are] open, transparent, social, plugged in, and determined not to do things the way the prior generation did. These are all design clues that work into all forms of the built environment—such as walkable neighborhoods, responsible design, mass transit, and mixed-use and social gathering places.”

Describing a new era in which a distinct sense of place is paramount, Urban Land Institute senior resident fellow Ed McMahon cites Richard Florida’s research in pointing out how the societal values of an era manifest spatially in the U.S., from the agrarian early nation to the industrial and consumer society. “The postindustrial era is about connecting people and ideas,” said McMahon. “In today’s world, capital is footloose and people can locate a business anywhere. So quality of place is becoming a deciding factor in where people decide to live, invest, vacation, or retire.”