Years ago, in the days before cyberspace, Madison, Conn., architect Duo Dickinson, AIA, remembers toting a slide carousel of his work to the home of a prospective client. Halfway through the show, he heard a massive sigh. “Shall I stop?” he asked. “Yes, I think you'd better,” she replied.
Dickinson laughs about it now, because fortunately, such awkward moments are a thing of the past. Matching up aesthetic ideals between client and architect has never been easier, thanks to Google. By checking out a firm's Web site, clients can tell at a glance whether they're on the same wavelength—and if not, no harm done. Homeowners have their pick of architects who are well-versed in their vision of paradise, whether it's an ivy-covered cottage or a vernacular post-and-beam house. However, even in the most compatible of professional relationships, differences of opinion crop up in the myriad decisions that go into designing a home. Maybe the architectural mismatch concerns the site: the client wants to put a rustic farmhouse on a suburban plot, or a symmetrical Colonial on hilly terrain. Maybe it's a matter of mood: those cherry kitchen cabinets on the homeowner's must-have list don't strike the right architectural tone.
Whereas commercial clients are hiring someone to reflect an image or brand, designing a home is personal, and the ability to negotiate aesthetic differences goes right to the heart of what it means to work with residential clients. It doesn't help that the message from academia is often that doing a “pure” design which doesn't get built is better than adapting to what the client wants. On the other hand, when inexperienced architects try to design something outside of their own artistic predilections, the result is often mediocre.
“There's a little bit of the chicken and the egg thing going on,” Dickinson says. “You have to create an oeuvre someone can look at. The best residential architects I know are those who have an aesthetic vision that's adaptable to different clients and sites. The only way it's ‘hackish' is if you do something not aesthetically valid for you.”
what lies beneath While some architecture practices strive to be all things to all people, artistically speaking, others hew to a clear stylistic direction. Modernist architect Brian Messana, AIA, of New York City-based Messana O'Rorke Architects, insists he has never had a major disagreement with clients, because they want what he offers. Still, familiarity can breed dissent. On a recent project, Messana resisted giving his clients the book-matched wall of walnut cabinetry they'd seen and loved on another of the firm's projects. “In each project we evolve, and our ideas change,” he says. “In this project, we wanted the wall to be all white so it would be more abstract. In the end, they decided to go with the walnut, because they felt it was easier to maintain.” In the grand scheme of things, it was a minor setback. But the firm's biggest struggle is convincing clients to pare down. “If your work is about reducing everything, the most difficult part is not so much the materials as the program,” he says. “How do you merge this consumerist mind with more of a reductive aesthetic?”
Miami architect Max Strang, AIA, has also staked his reputation on a distinctive contemporary look. The firm's clients share his love for tropical-inspired modernism, so they're generally willing to go along with his ideas. But to ensure that there are no surprises, his contract includes a project description that refers to “environmental modernism”—a catchphrase meant to clarify the firm's philosophical bent. “If, in midterm, someone wanted to change the style to Mediterranean Revival, I could not do that,” he says. “It would constitute a change of scope, because of what we have in writing.” Even so, every project brings the inevitable compromises. “At the end of the day, I am providing a service to the client,” he says. “If I lose the argument, I just won't photograph the building from that angle.”
In the world of design decisions, some of the misalignment between client and architect can be avoided with a frank, upfront discussion about the thinking that drives an aesthetic. Rick Harlan Schneider, AIA, LEED AP, a principal of Inscape Studio in Washington, D.C., says his firm's modernist style evolved from its mission of sustainability. He tells clients that there's a type of function and detailing that goes along with that value, such as choosing streamlined shapes over ornate ones and letting the grains of materials show instead of covering them with paint. “Clients, even the savvy ones, don't really know that on a conscious level,” Schneider says, “but if you talk them through it, they quickly get on board.” And although he loves the classical detailing and old construction style that characterize the homes of many of his clients, it's simply not what he has chosen to practice. “We pose it as making a good fit,” he says. “We don't know the details of a Georgian or a Craftsman bungalow as well as we know contemporary. We want clients to buy into that so they're not asking for something that doesn't play to our strengths down the road.”
Sometimes, too, it's the practical arguments that prevail. Just as artists face pressure from galleries to do work that sells rather than experiment with new ideas, architects have to deal with clients who fixate on work they've already done. Basalt, Colo., architect Harry Teague, AIA, says his work has changed quite a bit over the years, mostly because he's figured out how to make buildings that are better suited to the climate. “When I wasn't sure of myself, we based a lot of our work on vernacular forms because they worked here,” he says. “As we've done more work, we've learned how to use materials that improve with age,” such as metals, stone, cementitious board, and porous screens that shield a house's skin from the harsh weather and ultraviolet rays. “With those practical concepts, I think we're able to take what people were expecting and have them learn along with us,” he continues. Teague makes sure people understand the point to which his firm's work has evolved—and that it doesn't want to get stuck in a rut—before they sign on.