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Book Review: A Subversive Book Every Architect Needs: "Architect's Essentials of Negotiation" by Ava J. Abramowitz

Supposedly architects don't need negotiating skills along with other communication skills because great design "sells itself." How lovely that an AIA legal counsel created this definitive book to shatter that thin myth.

By Norman Weinstein
June 5, 2009

If this headline seems over-the-top for a book authored by someone who never practiced architecture a day in her life, I’ll assert that only a critically-positioned outsider to the profession could have written a book with this valuable slant. Abramowitz has served as deputy general council for the American Institute of Architects and distilled her legal experiences with A/E/C issues in an earlier book, Architect’s Essentials of Contract Negotiation (Wiley, 2002). The cover of this new book suggests that Architect’s Essentials of Negotiation is the second (implicitly updated) version of Abramowitz’s 2002 book. It isn’t. It is much more.


Her topic isn’t centered upon contract negotiation. Her subject spans the entire negotiating process at the center of ALL architecture practice. That’s why this book is so slyly subversive. Instead of answering the age-old question of what exactly architects do with the pithy response of “design,” Abramowitz envisions architects designing-and-negotiating through numerous iterations because the optimal architect-client relationship, in all of its various dimensions, demands the constant exercise of negotiating skills.  


Her model for negotiation is essentially that formulated by the Harvard Negotiation Team and codified in Getting To Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In by Roger Fisher and William Ury. Fisher and Ury propose that negotiations should focus upon the common interests linking both parties, however contrary their stated positions and personalities. Getting to Yes has sold millions of copies, with some surely landing in architecture offices. So there is nothing unique in Abramowitz suggesting that Getting to Yes makes a dandy desk reference. Her position gathers power when you begin to realize the scope with which she envisions the negotiation process, crystallized as she responds to an architect-friend who complains about never having being taught negotiating skills in school:


“Architects have to negotiate everything – not only their salary each year, but also design with owners, school boards, contractors, everybody, all the time. How can you function without knowing how to negotiate?”


Using effective negotiating skills comes long before contract negotiation, Abramowitz cogently argues, and entails architects attaining the clearest possible comprehension of what their clients want and don’t want from them, painstakingly interpreting client communication whenever that information is pertinent to the problem solving needed for project success. Buttressing an architect’s ability to negotiate effectively is knowledge of a client’s previous history with other architects, their value system, and design ideas.


Interestingly, these skills in “reading” potential clients are generally as neglected in architecture school as are the Fisher/Ury negotiation skills. That is what makes this book so deliciously subversive. It throws a monkey wrench into the “business as usual” of many architecture schools where marketing and communication skills are cursory “add-ons” during a student’s last year, a neglect Abramowitz hammers at. Implicit in any “design-driven” curriculum concept is that the “business” side of design is what lawyers are for. Supposedly architects don’t need negotiating skills along with other communication skills because great design “sells itself.” How lovely that an AIA legal counsel created this definitive book to shatter that thin myth.


BTW, while this book is close to perfection, I would strongly suggest dodging the three superfluous introductions (nearly two dozen pages of endorsements from an owner, an architect, and a construction lawyer), and jump immediately into the author’s fine opening chapter. It was probably someone in a marketing department who thought it would enhance sales to have a triple “Good Housekeeping” seal of approval from everyone but the Pope. Open to any chapter and you’ll find a goldmine of practical advice about how to streamline and clarify negotiating key financial and design issues with your clients. Just the advice on how to decode purposefully obscure contract language justifies this book’s immediate purchase  If you’re involved in any way in architectural education, be subversive and recommend this book as the first assigned reading for entering students. This is what the world – of architecture and everything else – needs now.  



Norman Weinstein pens the Words That Build series and has written several book reviews for ArchNewsNow, and writes about architecture and design for The Christian Science Monitor and teaches communication strategies to architects. He can be reached at 


See also:


Op-Ed: Life After Ada: Reassessing the Utility of Architectural Criticism 
Ada Louise Huxtable deserves mucho thanks and praise - but other questions moving us to a new flavor of criticism have to be asked.


Best Architecture Books of 2008 
10 tomes from the superior to the indispensable


Book Review: You've Got to Draw the Line Somewhere

A review of Drafting Culture: a Social History of Architectural Graphic Standards by George Barnett Johnston


Book Review: "NeoHooDoo: Art for a Forgotten Faith," edited by Franklin Sirmans

Sharpen your pencils - and get ready to do a NeoHooDoo shimmy



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WORDS THAT BUILD: Re-invent Green Communication 
Tip #13: Try the spectacular 2-step program to cut fat and reduce telltale signs of greenwash.


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Tip #9
: Work with your clients' contradictions to discover possible solutions.


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Tip #8: Write dialogues engaging materials and processes with clients.


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Tip #7: Write a site analysis using words referring to senses beyond sight.


WORDS THAT BUILD: Learning How to Persuade Through Learning Variations on a Theme
Tip #6: Master a communications tool that generates copious variations on your theme.


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.


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.

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