Launch Slideshow

Road Trip

A well-planned client tour can ensure that an architect and client are on the same page architecturally, financially, and emotionally.

Road Trip

A well-planned client tour can ensure that an architect and client are on the same page architecturally, financially, and emotionally.

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    SKIDMORE, OWINGS & MERRILL

    Highlights from a tour of Brazil, undertaken by architects from Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and their clients on the Bank Boston project in Sao Paulo. Managing partner George Efstathiou looks at stone samples. Far left: Client Bob Winslow of U.S. Equities Realty examines some local fruit.

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    David M. Schwarz Architects

    Before designing both the Schermerhorn Symphony Center in Nashville, Tenn., and Las Vegas' Smith Center for the Performing Arts, architects from David M. Schwarz Architects and their clients visited concert halls to garner inspiration. From left, venues in Berlin, Zurich, Vienna, and Toronto.

Client-architect tours have generated their share of surprises. Boston architect Charles Rose recalls the time he escorted a group of Benedictine monks, from a college in Pennsylvania, to look at religious architecture around Boston. The monks wore simple cassocks while riding in a plush Learjet. When the plane hit an air pocket, jolting all the passengers out of their seats, Rose saw an opening for a joke: "I didn't realize that Benedictine monks levitated," he said. Unfortunately, the quip didn't fly with the monks, who chose another architect, despite the fact that Rose's eponymous firm had won the initial design competition.

The occasional awkward moment doesn't dispel the practical benefits of a well-planned client tour, which can ensure that an architect and client are on the same page architecturally, financially, and emotionally. "Most clients come to the table with preconceived notions about design," notes David M. Schwarz, president and CEO of David M. Schwarz Architects in Washington, D.C. "Without an articulate vision of what's desired, the design process would take far longer. Tours are a way to establish a common vocabulary with the client, an opportunity to show them how to be a better student of architecture, and it's where the individual participants clients and designers are forged into a team."

Jeffrey J. Gunning, who leads the retail group at RTKL in Dallas, says the growth and increasing complexity of mixed-use and vertical retail design is the impetus behind a number of client tours he has been involved with. "The purpose of the tour isn't to sell us as architects and designers; it's to give the client and the architect common reference points," he explains. As such, he says, it's important to show the clients a range of designs, and not just your own firm's. On a recent tour, two executives from the Tamdeen Group in Kuwait saw six open-air "lifestyle centers" in Scottsdale, Ariz., and in the Los Angeles area, only two of which were designed by RTKL. An inclusive tour not only broadens the client's familiarity with design trends but reinforces the client's trust in the architect as an expert, which deepens the relationship. In this instance, it also led to a commission?RTKL has designed an enclosed retail project for Tamdeen in Kuwait.

Planning for Two Days or Two Weeks

Ideally, client tours are planned by the architect and funded by the client, and the architect's party is reimbursed for its expenses and time; reimbursements are often integrated into the overall project fee, or awarded on an hourly or daily basis in the rare event that the firm is not hired after a tour. According to architects interviewed for this article, the typical trip lasts two to four days, although they can run as long as a week and a half and cover two or three continents: In 2002, Schwarz led a group of 10 clients and designers on a whirlwind tour of seven classic concert halls in the U.S. and Europe that cost an estimated $400,000, footed by the client (the Nashville Symphony). "We were like a rock band on tour," Schwarz laughs.

Sometimes the architect doesn't even have to leave home. Rose says he's benefited from casual walks around Boston with visiting out-of-town clients in the early stages of a project. "We do a lot of university work, so we're in a good place for that," he says. Exploring an area that you know intimately has advantages apart from convenience. Rose recalls accompanying the president of the University of South Dakota to Boston-area business schools and student union buildings, where they homed in on details like the logistics of food service. "Being very familiar with the architecture of an area is an advantage in terms of being able to get very specific," Rose says.

Rachel Lindsey, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at Chicago State University, had her department undertake its own in-state tour prior to choosing a design for the school's planned new science and technology center. "We're restricted in terms of choice of architects by the bidding process a state school is subject to," she says. "Therefore, it's crucial that we educate ourselves … before we begin working with the design architect." Lindsey's itinerary of Illinois schools included the College of DuPage and Harper College. HOK's Science + Technology Group, which helped select the peer institutions on the tour and set up appointments with them, has been retained as a consultant in the planning phase. "I think the project benefits when the client and the architect can inform each other," says Jeff Schantz, the senior vice president at HOK who directs the group.

"My favorite client tour occurred when we were designing the interior gardens for the Mall of America. We were to design the gardens to look like the native Minnesota landscape, but our clients [from California] really didn't have an idea of what that looked like. So we held an 'Explore Minnesota' tour, visiting the Mississippi flood plains, Minnehaha Falls, and other sites. Much of what we saw that day became a part of the project."

McRae Anderson, McCaren Designs, St. Paul, Minn.

Planning arrangements vary, but, in general, architects make itinerary suggestions and clients then organize the trip, using commercial or private carriers. Seasoned planners say it's important to create an itinerary first and get the clients to buy into it, so they'll understand when they're hurried along to stay on schedule. And keep your group well informed. "We create a brief description of each stop on a trip, so that the clients can develop their line of questions ahead of time," says Gunning of RTKL. "If they have the opportunity to prepare, they'll absorb new information more easily, and that cuts down on potential communication errors."

Unguided tours can have unexpected-and unnerving-consequences. Leigh Breslau, a design partner at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) in Chicago, recalls the time some clients went on a self-guided tour to see theater facilities designed by SOM and competing firms. But a tour of one theater hadn't been properly arranged, and the only person able to escort them inside was a recently hired stagehand, who promptly told them everything he deemed wrong with the design. (Luckily for SOM, it was a competitor's project.) "Accompanying the client is certainly recommended when possible," Breslau says dryly. And if you can't, someone at the firm must take on the responsibility of matching clients with knowledgeable hosts at the facilities.