Schematic Design Phase, Getting to Closure

  • 16 June, 2020

Obtaining an education in architecture is certainly a broad and challenging experience. As students, we are immersed in all things related to architecture. We learn about art and architectural history, we study design and engineering, and we are enlightened by many courses intended to develop our capacity to be creative. While all of this may provide a great foundation to build a career in architecture, if you are like me, you'll discover that there is so much more to learn as you practice in the profession.

That brings me around to this second article in a series on "A Day in the Life of an Architect," this time focused on the Schematic Design Phase and how you reach closure with a client. In my experience, one of the biggest barriers to project profitability often occurs in the Schematic Design Phase, and that is an inability to reach closure or obtain well-informed approvals by the client.
Schematic Design Phase

It turns out that it is not just about the strength of a specific design concept, and it isn't necessarily just about how innovative the solution may be. Over my 41 years in this profession, I have found that having some abilities to persuade and sell are just as critical as any architectural-specific skill set. Selling design includes being persuasive in presenting to the client, team members, and other stakeholders in such a way as to achieve understanding and approval of design before proceeding with future phases of a project.

Now, don't get me wrong, clients need to have their programs and design criteria addressed. They also need to have construction cost and schedule aspects resolved. Even if all of that is provided, the client might still be unsure if they are "sold."

Over the years, I have observed that not reaching closure with the client in the design phase can lead to project delays, a higher probability for committing errors, and the need to re-work design solutions in more advanced phases of the project, all of which can be very costly for the architect. Sometimes, not reaching closure with the client in a timely manner can result in a tremendous financial hit to the project, and a firm overall.

So, how do you reach closure with a client beyond providing sound design solutions? In my experience, there are two critical elements to closure: confidence and engagement.

Let's start with confidence. From a client's perspective, the design process (and the practice of architecture) can be bit mysterious and unknown. As such, clients often lean heavily on the experience of an architect to provide them with advice and a clear direction. It's only natural then to expect that the client needs to sense that the architect is conveying a great deal of confidence in the solutions they are presenting. How an architect talks about the process and how persuasive they are in presenting become critical. The best way to build confidence in presenting is to practice, and practice often. There are people all around who could role play as a client in practice sessions. They include co-workers, other design team members, and even other clients that are not directly engaged in the project. During presentation rehearsals, the "mock clients" can ask questions and provide feedback. Doing this regularly should result in increased confidence, and improve reaching closure.

The second aspect to gaining closure is creating a high level of client engagement during schematic design. The client needs to feel that they were brought along at each step in the process. If the architect gets too far ahead of the client, they could be presenting solutions that leave the client wondering about the exploration of other options (even if the architect has already considered and discarded them). This could result in doubt developing in the client's mind-and worse-the client may not share their doubt with the architect until much later in the project. Obtaining closure and approvals will improve if the architect engages the client and paces them through the design process. Doing so will avoid gaps that can often occur when an architect is too far in front of the client.

Remember, you will learn a lot of things as you practice architecture and sharpening your communication skills will be one of the most important among them.

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