It is amazing that how a client talks with their architect can make such a drastic change to the success or failure of a project. Architecture is a unique art in that no one person has complete control over the outcomes. The architect is working with the owner’s budget, program, and style preferences. I cannot tell you how many times I felt a project could have turned out better. If the client had a more realistic budget for their goals. Or even sometimes, if they had just not chosen that exact color of paint or roofing. The contractor is working with the ideas that were usually decided before they joined the project. That means they often can’t affect the design except on the margins, especially if it was bid out. The client is completely dependent upon the contractor and the architect to achieve their vision within their budget. In that way, communication among parties is key, and a helpful way to think about it is prescriptive versus descriptive language. It won’t solve all of our problems on a project. But it will at least keep everyone working towards the best solutions when we know what is the most important.
This framework is similar to how building codes are written. Prescriptive language is best used for items that are non-negotiable. It can also be useful for very simple items. It is best use by people who know exactly what they are doing, i.e. someone with experience. This is saying things like: “I want a pole building.” Another example could be: “I need at 10×16 roof deck on the rear of my house.” This is great when someone knows exactly what they want or need.
The problem that can come with prescriptive language is when someone is talking about things they don’t understand. We’ve had many projects go through struggles because something someone asked for was illegal, impractical, or expensive. Sometimes, that’s just the way it is, a non-negotiable item might be worth the trouble it causes. For example, that 10×16 roof deck may be a challenge to support structurally or provide a stair access to. However, that deck may also be the entire reason the client bought that lot. In general, use this method if you definitely want something to happen specifically and are willing to fight for it.
Descriptive language is describing what you want as a goal rather than a criterion. For instance, a client may say they want a pole building because budget is the over-riding concern. Pole buildings have a reputation for being cheap to build, but that is only true if you embrace the nature of a pole building. The more a client moves away from a simple box clad in metal panels, the less money they can save and the better the chance the pole building might not be the way to go. Descriptive language allows wiggle room for the architect (or contractor if they are involved in the design process.) This allows a client to harness their expertise to make suggestions to achieve the goals that the client really wants without necessarily incurring the costs associated with a poorly chosen prescriptive direction.
I like to encourage clients to tell me what they see as the “must-haves” in prescriptive form. Things like size, number of bedrooms, design requirements, or budget are great for this framework. Design requirements could include things like large windows facing something or double height spaces or open floor plans. These are all items that are simple to understand and will allow a design professional to be efficient with their proposals. Specific construction technologies or products will probably not work as well. This is especially true earlier in the design process and should probably be more descriptive. Directives like “I’d like a craftsman style”, work well early, especially if backed up by inspiration images. We can discuss what that means to a client and given then other criteria, what might be the best way to achieve it.
So, as you talk with your architect and contractor, remember, that they are there to assist you and have a lot of experience. Try to let them know the sort of items you want in terms that allow them to make suggestions. This increases communication, gets everyone on the same page, and can lead to a more successful project.