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WORDS THAT BUILD: Respecting Key Words as Materials for Building Durable Structures

Tip #5: Recognize the key vocabulary shaping your professional practice and share those keywords with your clients.

By Norman Weinstein
August 5, 2008

Editor’s note: This is the fifth of an exclusive series by Norman Weinstein focusing on the overlooked foundation of architecture: oral and written communication.


Are you ready to discuss “beautility” with your clients? Don’t race to your desk dictionary for a definition. You’ll only find a definition in Robert Cowan’s magnificent (and grandly overlooked) The Dictionary of Urbanism. As you might guess from the look of “beautility,” it refers to an ideal marriage of beauty and utility and was coined – then quickly forgotten – by an urban planner a century ago.


Too bad the word never caught on. But the need to communicate a balance of beauty and utility lives on in every architect’s practice. And while using an exotic word like “beautility” might evoke only client bewilderment, you do need to communicate an essential list of keywords, a working vocabulary, to explain the rhyme and reason for your services. This vocabulary can grow out of the deepening conversation at the heart of the first face-to-face meeting between architect and client.


How often do we hear a client wanting a building with a particular “style” and “function?” Your job is to thicken the conversation by gently asking questions about what the client means by “style” and “function” – in the most charming manner you can conjure. This questioning goes far beyond the literal denotative, dictionary-based definition of the words. The terms have a specific weight, color, durability under stress, and sustainability associated with your practice. While the word “function” in architectural communication can hold 1,001 meanings, your challenge is to communication the most salient sense of what makes one of your building designs functional in ways a client can appreciate.


A surefire way to practice this skill is to begin to keep a list of the keywords occurring regularly in your practice on index cards. When the word arises in your workday, sketch what the word suggests to you at that moment. Also, record moments when you perceive that a client is using a word to convey a meaning markedly different than your own. Within a matter of weeks, you’ll have compiled your own dictionary of an architectural vocabulary that you can share with clients as key terms under discussion demand refinement and focus.


For additional inspiration in terms of enhancing awareness of common architectural keywords in need of clarification, consult Adrian Forty’s Words and Buildings: A Vocabulary of Modern Architecture, Tom Porter’s Archispeak: An Illustrated Guide to Architectural Design Terms, and Crucial Words: Conditions for Contemporary Architecture, edited by Gert Wingardh and Rasmus Waern. These texts, along with Cowan’s, are not simple architectural dictionaries. They give the history of key terms and controversies concerning word meanings. Their word entries, as much as client queries, will compel you to get to the bottom of what you mean what you use a word like “function.” You might even want to try introducing “beautility” to your clients as a colorful word to mutually ping-pong in conversation until a design exemplifying beautility crystallizes.


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


See also:


WORDS THAT BUILD: Steering Your Client in the Appropriate Direction
Tip #4: See your writing as a navigational aid so your design intent clearly comes through to your client.


WORDS THAT BUILD: Playing with the Flow of Communication
Tip #3: Use language that playfully enhances the flow of design intentions between you and your client.


WORDS THAT BUILD: Clarifying Presentations to Clients through Rhythmic Emphasis
Tip #2: Use rhythmic accents to create a persuasive story to your client.


WORDS THAT BUILD: Coping with chaotic communication challenges
Tip #1: Learn to enjoy communicating with your client.

(click on pictures to enlarge)


© 2008