Change Orders
Illustration: Michael Glenwood

Have you ever overheard a colleague say, wistfully, “Well, that was a fine project, but the client just didn’t want me to put any architecture into it”? Or have you been tempted to express this frustration yourself? Faced with a similar situation at the beginning of a project, with an owner who appears at the very least indifferent to the insertion of Architecture (capitalization intentional), what range of choices does the architect have?

After all, as AIA members we have an obligation to fulfill, as defined in the AIA 2012 Code of Ethics & Professional Conduct, Educational Standard 1.2 Standards of Excellence: “Members should continually seek to raise the standards of aesthetic excellence, architecture education, research, training, and practice.”

This is a clarion call to architectural arms, but are there other sections of the code that provide guidance with respect to the limits of what an architect can and should undertake when client design objectives may be unclear?

There are, in fact, and in considering these sections of the AIA code we can determine how our design course of action is likely to be perceived as a dose of good medicine.

The section “Canon III Obligations to the Client” includes a pertinent warning in Rule 3.101: “Members shall not materially alter the scope or objectives of a project without the client’s consent.” What does it mean to “materially alter” a scope? An obvious test is whether a design feature or alteration results in an increase in project cost beyond the limits set by the client. And the architect must be at pains to understand whether budget limits mean spending every penny available or holding as prudently below those limits as possible.

Aside from the mandate to stay within budget, clients may have other reasons not to want Architecture inserted into their designs. Some of these include an institutional obligation for the building to not appear too expensive or for the organization to be perceived as profligate; a belief (as with some religious or cultural organizations) in humility of expression; a programmatic requirement for the contents of the building, and not the building itself, to be on display (as in art museums and high-end retail spaces); a reputation to maintain (as a hard-nosed developer, for instance); and an hourly owner– architect agreement, leading to the phrase “I’m not paying you to … ”

Barring these directives, if architectural richness and depth can be added at an acceptable cost, don’t we have an obligation to serve client and community?

And what about disclosure?

Even if you suspect that the client may not appreciate the Fibonacci series you’ve incorporated into the tile pattern in the corridor floor or the symmetry you borrowed from the south elevation of Palladio’s Villa Barbaro, don’t you have an obligation include the client in your thought process?

More aesthetic richness and design thinking go to the core of a project’s vision than can be layered upon a design. But if you are unsure of whether you can explain an architectural feature or solution to the project stakeholders, it may be a sign that you should reconsider your design motives—or it may be a sign that you need a little help with that explanation.

In any case, don’t underestimate the client, who may want to have good architecture (secretly, even passionately) but cannot quite articulate what this means. Your client may fear that good architecture translates into excessive cost—owing to the fact that sometimes architects indeed go over budget. But, in the pursuit of “aesthetic excellence … and practice,” as the ethics code says, the operative phrase is “continually seek.” No matter the budgetary restrictions, you have been hired for—among other things—your creative abilities. So get creative in that continual pursuit.

Kin DuBois, FAIA, is a member of the AIA National Ethics Council.