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WORDS THAT BUILD: Work with Clients to Develop Plans That Place Human/Spatial Relationships First

Tip #17: Shape dialogues with clients to catalyze designs promoting clear meanings of human relationships in proposed spaces.

By Norman Weinstein
August 4, 2009

Editor’s Note: This is the 17th in an exclusive series by Norman Weinstein focusing on the overlooked foundations of architecture: oral and written communication.


Architecture is in the business of designing spaces for human relationships to unfold. That seems so obvious that you might wonder about the need to insist upon it. Yet just try to find a single architecture school in North America where this truism is the primary guiding principle of a professional curriculum. Since so many young architects are professionally educated to be design-driven, not client-centered, communication skills necessary for a successful practice, particularly verbal skills and interpersonal social skills, are seen as secondary to design acumen. In a captivating book narrating architect-client interactions informing designs, Constructing Twenty Five Short Stories, architect Margaret McCurry describes the back-story for her design of the Reinke residence in New Buffalo, Michigan:


Some clients collect pictures of objects, rooms, or entire houses that interest them. Madeline and Bill had no such clippings, nor had they any preconceptions. The house’s appearance, they stated, was secondary to the larger issues of the interrelationships with the family, and the relationship with the land.


Here’s my contention: this working up of a design with architect and clients always begins with clients holding vague visualizations of an architecture promoting varieties of desired human/nature interrelationships. But this is often not made clear by clients because images of architecture as a disembodied thing rather than relationship-incubator are easier and quicker to communicate. This problem is compounded by mass media coverage of star architects as spectacle-makers, icon producers – and rarely as relation-builders within the context of the community where their spectacular architecture abruptly shows itself off. And graphic representations of architectural plans either depict architecture sans people, or architecture surrounded by computer-generated humanoids with all of the “realism” of “Second Life” avatars or video-game characters.


McCurry’s interaction with the Reinkes in developing a design suggests a workable approach – even for clients who come to the table with a seemingly well-formed agenda in terms of building image. But as helpful as a desired image and/or program are – the client with only a partial comprehension of a “green” building is commonplace now – even more helpful can be a thorough, mutual understanding of the network of human relationships within a proposed project. Suggest that your clients draw “maps” depicting flows of psychological “traffic” among dwellers within a proposed structure. This can be done for a multi-story office building, a multi-use condo complex, shopping mall, or religious site just as readily as for a private, multi-generational residence like the Reinke’s home. It will naturally be time-consuming, depending on the size and complexity of likely relationships within a multi-leveled structure. But this initial time spent in pinning down client desires for relationship-cultivation within architecture promises long-term rewards in terms of long-term client satisfaction and future work opportunities.


So keep receptive to the psychological as well as aesthetic and utilitarian needs of clients. In a very simplistic and breezy way, the AIA advertisement of a few years ago suggested that homeowners should hire architects for remodels when family members whine about having to share a single bathroom made a similar point to the one I’m making now. Practically, this means asking “need” questions of clients that alternate between issues of simple spatial utility (a six-member household needs a second bathroom, no surprise there), to issues of complex psychological needs (how do you design an Alzheimer’s treatment center that offers spaces where the interrelated communication and comfort needs of family caregivers and medical staff can be successfully met?).


For an architect to ask questions to clarify the relationship needs of clients first is not to advise architects to play “junior therapist” by asking psychologically invasive questions. I’m suggesting that psychological sensitivity to how clients perceive crucial relationships acted out daily within possible architecture is smart business thinking as well as the essence of smart designing.


If some clients feel they can’t easily verbalize their desired relationships within architecture, ask them to draw a quick sketch of an architectural idea and label within the sketch the areas where specific types of interpersonal experiences might be cultivated. For example, in designing staff lounges within a call center, initially ask: What design could promote high-quality social and educational connection among workers while enhancing contact with the natural world? Playful examples of maps depicting possible places for desired interpersonal transactions can be found in You Are Here: Personal Geographies and Other Maps by Katharine Harmon, and The Atlas of Experience by Louise Van Swaaij & Jean Klare.


Perhaps there would be nothing amiss in architecture schools being primarily “design-driven” – if “design-driven” meant a method of working that took into account how design initially and ultimately draws meaning from the play of daily human relationships within spaces that define our lives.



Norman Weinstein writes about architecture and design for Architectural Record and The Christian Science Monitor. He consults with architects and engineers interested in communicating more profitably. You can reach him 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.


WORDS THAT BUILD: Faster! Deeper! Broader! 
Tip #16: How to balance high-speed communication with in-depth communication.


WORDS THAT BUILD: Translate Images Into Touching Performances 
Tip #15: Cultivate communication with clients that translates architectural imagery into experience at their fingertips.


WORDS THAT BUILD: Emphasize Words with Lasting Resonance 
Tip #14: Cluster symbolic and mythically-charged keywords in communication with clients.


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


WORDS THAT BUILD: Taking Advantage of Interruptions in Architectural Communication 
Tip #12: Cogent communicators exploit opportunities offered by interruptions.


WORDS THAT BUILD: Faceting Architectural Communication 
Tip #11: Effective communication evolves out of cross-reflective details. 


WORDS THAT BUILD: Use Space Creatively When Designing Your Client Communications 
Tip #10: Use paragraph spacing in writing and pauses in conversation to promote "out of the box" thinking.


WORDS THAT BUILD: Making Your Client's Contradictions Productive 
Tip #9
: Work with your clients' contradictions to discover possible solutions.


WORDS THAT BUILD: Initiate Conversations with Designs that Engage Your Clients 
Tip #8: Write dialogues engaging materials and processes with clients.


WORDS THAT BUILD: Creating a Site Analysis That's Out of Sight 
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.



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


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.


Book Review: A Perspective from One Elevation: "Conversations With Frank Gehry" by Barbara Isenberg

Gehry's conversations offer portraits of an astute listener as well as talker, an architect as aware of his flaws and limitations as of his virtues.


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


(click on pictures to enlarge)


© 2009