Client Confusion: The Architect’s Dilemma with Stakeholder Engagement

Most professional service trades have clear client relationships. A barber cuts a person’s hair or a financial advisor invests a client’s money. Architecture, however, offers a less relatable clarity of mission. Though Architects have standard “clients,” they also typically have professional obligations that are broader in scope. Besides clients, they service various stakeholders as part of a professional mission which combines public expectation and social good. This dual mission doesn’t necessarily have to elicit conflict; clients hire Architects precisely because they are able to consider the expectations of multiple stakeholders for the long term value of their projects.

Following are types of stakeholders, divided into four general categories: Clients, Communities, The Architect, and the Construction Industry. Understanding how design solutions respond to each of the various stakeholders may offer insight into three major shortcomings of contemporary architectural practice: the architectural compensation model, client relationships, and designing contextual projects. The most successful projects tend to develop design strategies that incorporates active input from the various project stakeholders.

[Note: This article is written to represent this issue for commercial projects, which broadly includes any type of architectural project larger in scope than a single family home. Single-family residences don’t typically have the complexities of stakeholder engagement.]

 


            STAKEHOLDERS            

 

CLIENTS

The Owner-Client

This is the standard use of the term client: the entity which pays the Architectural fee. This might be a developer, an institution, or a governmental organization. The Owner-Client generally owns the land or rents the space for the project.

Owner-Client Liaison

Considering the larger size of some Owner-Client entities, there is often a project liaison to represent the interests of the Owner-Client. This person can make decisions on behalf of a much larger client organization. On occasion, the larger client organization and the designated liaison might have differing goals.

User

In many projects, design goals will differ markedly between the Owner-Client and the people who will actually use the finished project. For an office space, this split may be between management needs and staff needs. In multi-family buildings, there could be a vast chasm between a developer’s interests and the long term needs of future residents.

There are of course common interests between Owner-Clients and Users. An example of mutually beneficial design solutions might be in an office environment where staff productivity goals – aided by elements like daylighting and fresh air minimums – can pair nicely with office worker happiness.

In many commercial projects, however, the eventual users of a space must have their needs defended by the Architect. In multi-family housing for example, designers have an obligation to advocate for architectural elements that may lead to more comfortable occupation for apartment dwellers, regardless of cost implications. This opposition can manifest in many parts of a project, including material selections, acoustics, daylighting, and the quality of products.

User Groups

Users can be subdivided into separate groups, depending on the project. For an institution such as a school, there are important differences between the needs of the administration, teaching staff, and students. For a retail environment or hotel, the management, back-of-house staff, salespersons, and consumers, all have various requirements related to the design of the space. Managing these user groups within one architectural project requires a deft ability to allow the design to benefit the building’s eventual occupants, none of whom typically have input during the design process.

 

COMMUNITY

Neighborhood Groups

Neighbors have become increasingly vocal in their needs for satisfaction. This is especially true in some of the more progressive regions, such as the urban areas of California and New York. Architects in these regions must directly engage with communities to garner support for their projects. Designing community benefits into larger projects can be an expedient route for project approvals in communities that value neighborhood input. Community stakeholders often have interests in direct conflict with Owner-Clients. The Architect must often act as a mediator between them.

Urbanism

Whereas the “neighborhood groups” references the people involved as external stakeholders of a project, there is an adjacent agenda for the Architect to respond to urbanistic goals for a project. An architectural design should aspire for a symbiotic relationship with its context. Though an undoubtedly broad term, context can refer to physical context, historical context, typological context, sociological context, or cultural context. An Architect might choose, for example, to advocate for adding more public spaces within a project or hiding the parking underground, even when no other stakeholder has voiced a preference for such elements. These larger urbanistic goals may sometimes be referenced by zoning codes, but the concept of “urbanism” is typically an invisible stakeholder for whom the Architect must advocate. Understanding urbanistic goals is one of the major pedagogical components of an architectural education.

Jurisdictional Authorities

Jurisdictions exert varying amounts of control over the planning process of a site. Zoning constraints and district plans govern much of the urbanistic output of a site. But those prescriptive goals may be entirely different from a designer’s or client’s concepts about what creates a great space.

Scales of Community

The scale of what means “community” can vary greatly, from one block to whole regions. Architects have to nimbly navigate the various needs at all of these scales.

 

THE ARCHITECT

Personal

It is no secret that many Architects maintain personal design goals for a project. This can manifest in stylistic elements or theory-based architectural solutions. Architects should be self-aware when their personal design goals align or contrast with the various other stakeholder goals for a project.

Critical Benefit

Adjacent to personal goals of the Architect are goals of professional stature. This is where the agenda of the Architect is to further a status within the field, either to the practicing trade or to academic audiences. Such a goal could be for a particular design award or an architectural journal entry.

Firm Marketing

Sometimes an Architect or his firm may make design decisions to directly benefit from project imagery and publishing. A project design solution might, for example, better represent the firm for generating new leads. There may be photographic moments designed into the building’s DNA for flashy appeal, or vendors that may be preferred during specification due to their substantial PR departments.

 

CONSTRUCTION INDUSTRY

Vendor Editorial Policy

Admirably, Architects have a strict editorial policy with regards to specification. Due to conflict of interest laws, we cannot accept any financial gain other than from our clients. It’s important for non-architects to understand our independence within the industry:

“An architect shall not solicit or accept payments, rebates, refunds, or commissions whether in the form of money or otherwise from material or equipment suppliers in return for specifying their products to a client of the architect.”

State of California, Architect’s Practice Act

The fact that Architects must refuse financial gain for product specification is noble. Unfortunately, clients are generally unaware that their Architect is an impartial arbiter for determining the best products and materials for a project. Though vendors are therefore not a direct stakeholder in a project, they do benefit from the established client/architect relationship paradigm.

Vendor Influence

Though not part of the typical licensed Architectural practice just mentioned, clients should be aware when a designer does have incentives outside their client’s interest during the specification process. Such an arrangement might happen for interior design projects, where furniture or lighting vendors may offer interior designers a commission on their products. A designer also might be hired as a resale designer, wherein the designer’s compensation is the markup on items they purchase on behalf of the client, incentivizing greater product cost over product value.

 


            WHY IT MATTERS            

 

COMPENSATION MODEL

Misalignment

There is an important misalignment to understand about our profession: we have a culturally expected level of public service – for example, to build “better” communities – but no economic model to incentivize “better” designs. Good architecture can improve a community. But, other than infrequent government projects, the communities don’t pay for buildings. So how should we represent that economic value? Currently, there is no compensation or incentive to assist certain stakeholders who would otherwise benefit from a direct relationship with the design process.

Residual Value

An Architect’s professional obligation is to produce construction documents. Since they do not have ownership of the finished product, they cannot gain from the residual values of their designs. A good design, for example, may enable greater commercial benefits for future tenants; it may achieve higher rents than comparable buildings due to added value during the design process. Should Owner-Clients consider financially incentivizing Architects to strategically add value?

There is also an issue of public realm, wherein neither a client nor an Architect can reap the benefits when their projects are featured visually as part of an urban environment for unrelated commercial purposes. A prominent example might be when a contemporary building is featured in a car advertisement. In contrast to the creators of the entertainment industry – such as directors, creative directors, writers, actors, and set designers – Architects have no ability to harvest income post-production.

Specification

Architects may also not be properly compensated for our impartial specification process. If Architects could choose, would they switch to a commission model for financial gain from associations with contractors and manufacturers?

 

STAKEHOLDER RELATIONSHIPS

Client Relationship

If the Architect chooses to withhold the reasoning behind certain elements of their design agenda, communication with the Client can become disingenuous. Because an Owner-Client may expect design solutions to respond only to their requirements, an Architect must often secretly defend what they determine to be broader stakeholder goals. This opacity may lead to elements of distrust in the client relationship.

Community Relationship

Similarly, lack of transparency in the design process can complicate the relationship of a particular Architect with a community, as they are driven to defend the goals of their clients. Worse, such opacity – even antagonism – may discredit the architectural profession in communities.

 

MISSED DESIGN OPPORTUNITIES

With a clear comprehension of stakeholder concerns, design solutions can be clearly aligned with stakeholder goals. Miscommunication in the design process, however, might result in solutions that respond poorly to stakeholders beyond the Owner-Client’s economic interest.

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