Home    Site Search   Contact Us     Subscribe



WORDS THAT BUILD: Coping with chaotic communication challenges

Tip #1: Learn to enjoy communicating with your client.

By Norman Weinstein
April 11, 2008

Editor’s note: We are very pleased to introduce Words that Build, an exclusive series by Norman Weinstein that will focus on the overlooked foundation of architecture: oral and written communication.


Suppose you could dramatically reduce the amount of wasted time and chronic re-scheduling blighting your projects? Imagine you could drop concerns about diminished building quality and increased liability, and dissolve hassles of miscommunication among clients, contractors, and construction crews? If this sounds like a fantasy from a marketing department, you are absolutely right. I’m paraphrasing an ad from a distinguished software manufacturer for the latest version of BIM.


The catch? Every single feature of BIM has the potential to streamline the process of materializing architecture – but only when the client’s program has been clarified and translated into terms that make sense to the architect who then has to further translate the client’s architectural vision and budget and schedule to engineers, contractors, and sub-contractors. The bottom line is: no architectural software can deliver anything valuable without clear input from a tangle of human relationships consisting of parties with various capacities to communication intention. To address this, I’m doing a monthly column about the overlooked foundation of architecture: oral and written communication.


If the complexities of interpersonal communication seem tangential to designing and business success, then you can believe the promise of the BIM advertisement that the software liberates you from such messy complexity and enables you to do what you do best – design buildings (though the copywriter doesn’t seem troubled by the question of just WHO you’re designing for).


In reality, clients are fickle. They change their plans and budgets with the carefree abandon of a teen rollercoastering through hormonal jolts on a first date. Engineers don’t necessarily talk your language or share your sense of artful design. Contractors and sub-contractors can nod their heads as you talk and then blithely use materials and processes counter to your spoken or written intentions. And numerous construction workers might know less than a dozen words of English, while you might know five words in their language. You know this. This keeps the “plot” of the profession – think of architecture as a self-propelling story like the Arabian Nights – thick and cliff-dangling.


Since most architectural schools don’t prepare architects to cope effectively with chaotic communication challenges suffusing the entire building process, I’m going to offer some tips monthly. Starting with . . .


Tip #1: Learn to enjoy communicating with your client as if you’re captivatingly engaged with an ongoing puzzle. It can be a deeply rewarding experience – or a ritualized form of sado-masochistic entertainment. The positive mind-set to bring to the client is one of sensitive educator and translator. A sensitive educator listens as much to what the client says as to what goes unsaid. Ask the client for a written description of architectural desires, as well as for drawings, photographs, toy models, or even “Sketch-Up” graphics. Your first job is learning how to translate client desires into a language that “re-designs” desires by considering necessary constraints. The constraints are: site, budget, schedule, climate, sustainability, meaning within community and/or global context, and levels of skill available locally and affordably to complete the project.


There’s an obvious paradox here: you want your client to talk and write and draw as expansively as possible – and then you want to narrow their capacious imaginings into a language that is actionable, one all parties can live with and profit from. This is time-consuming and potentially patience-trying. It also entails educating clients about exercising those arduous virtues – restraint and patience. Meantime, encourage your clients to visit your office and learn what you do and the written and graphic language you work in. Encourage them to study a dictionary of architecture and construction. Offer a simple demonstration of how BIM software can help architects, engineers, and contractors to work “on the same page.” But underscore how this database-driven software is an approximate and symbolic translation of what client and architect agree upon.


See if what you do best as an architect combines building sustainable buildings with building sustainable human communication through smartly designed words.


Norman Weinstein writes for Architectural Record and other architectural publications and teaches communication skills to architects. He can be reached at

(click on pictures to enlarge)


© 2008