“Build Pittsburgh” Lecture: Being your Client’s Trusted Partner

I gave this talk April 12, 2018 at this year’s “Build Pittsburgh” celebration.  In the words of the AIA Pittsburgh organizers, “Build Pittsburgh brings together a community of architects and building industry professionals and provides opportunities to interact, network, and connect.”  This year’s theme was, “Design with Purpose”.  Former Pittsburgh AIA chair architect Jeff Murray invited me along with three others, to speak at the event.  Our topic was,


“Building client relations, managing expectations, and advocating for design.” 


Hi, I’m Eric Fisher, the sole practitioner architect of this group. I suppose that makes me the wild card. Or at least I think of myself that way. My claim to fame is that for the past five years, when you Google Pittsburgh architecture I have been at or near the top, despite the fact that I’m kind of a one man band. It’s just me, the interns, and whichever freelance project architects I’ve been able to convince to join my team. We currently have multifamily housing projects, homes, a restaurant, a downtown law office, and a Youth Center on our desktops.


And we’re an interesting assemblage for sure. For one thing we are profoundly multicultural. In the past five years, I’ve had employees from Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Dubai, Columbia, India, and three from China. For another, folks are attracted to the sort of projects we do so I can attract a really talented group.


As well, we are pretty much paper-free, so when clients walk into my office, which doubles as my home, it’s open and clean. I make everyone take their shoes off. If you’ve been to my place, you’ll know the walls are dense-packed with artfully crafted architectural models. I designed and built the place myself.


Clients know that we are always experimenting in the office. We run the office as a studio so usually something cool is going on when they stop by: Either a competition is underway, or a model is under construction, or there’s a new piece of Fisher Architecture designed furniture to check out. Music is usually playing over the stereo. There’s a certain sort of potential client who comes in and likes the aesthetic and is put at ease by the informal, creative environment. Other folks are turned off by those qualities – maybe they associate quality with a more traditional environment – but I tell myself I likely would have lost them anyway. This certainly isn’t the only way to run an office, although I would like to think so.


My policy is one of “radical openness”. The principles of this radical openness, as I’ve come to define them, are to:


1) Share a vision
2) Work in the open. Don’t hide your true intent, ever.
3) Talk to everyone, all the time
4) Kill your ego
5) Give praise and credit to all
6) Talk about the money
7) Talk nuts and bolts. Don’t be too abstract.
8) Be courageous. Feel the fear and do it anyway.
9) Lead by example. Do your own designing and don’t be afraid to draft!


The way I see it, acquiring and keeping clients is sort of like dating: You leave yourself open to have something happen, but the fit has got to be right on both sides. That makes me feel better as potential clients visit for the first time, because I know I don’t have to be a salesman. If it works, it works. My work speaks better in my favor than I ever could. And I know that if a potential client chooses to go in another direction, then we were likely not what they were looking for. Conversely, those people I click with tend to stay around and we tend to get along throughout the project. The home designs, especially, take a lot of patience. I’m one of those architects who are more than OK with the “handholding” process of educating clients about design.


However, as willing as I am to meeting new people, and as eager as I am to design their projects, and as confident I am that I can design their projects with competitive fees, even so sometimes things don’t work out, especially the get-er-done ones where the clients may not respect what architects can do. It breaks my heart every time. Despite that fact somehow I remain open when I meet new clients. I’m able to forget poor experiences and shrug them off as an aberration because I tend to genuinely like the people who want me to design their projects. It’s complicated: For one thing, I’m a trusting guy. Really. For another, I really, really love design. So I tend to like folks who actually want me to do strong work and will actually pay me to do it. It makes me feel good that I can actually help these educated, intelligent people who are choosing to come to me. And they in turn feel good because they see that I really can help them.


Here’s another policy I have: I will always take a client’s ideas and push them to an extreme. I’m far more likely to jump off a cliff in favor of a bold idea than to sit on my butt and let the project come to me. Luckily my clients, at least on the “exciting” projects, are actually looking for this. They’ve seen the projects on my website and they’ve seen the models on the walls. They’ve heard me talk, and they know up front what they are going to get. So I take care not to disappoint them.


You become what you do. No sooner do you slip into the gray clay of your life than it assumes your shape. And then you never know for sure whether you are forming your life or it is forming you. So choose wisely. This is true for relationships and it’s true for architecture as well. If you present a provocative, thoughtful brand of architecture to the public then that is what they will expect from you. And the sort of people who will approach you will want what they have seen.


Its a cliché to say that it’s important to listen to your client. Yes of course it is, but there are different ways to listen. The phrase I use is “transparency”: You have to listen through the actual words that clients use and (attempt to) recognize what they are truly thinking and feeling. Sure I have an intern taking notes so I can understand their program. And yes I ask them to send me links to Instagram, Pinterest or Houzz pages that they like. But it’s significantly more of a challenge to determine their aesthetic interests, their capacity for risk, and their openness for the unexpected.


Because my desire is to fulfill the dreams of my clients, but in ways they may never have expected. “Sure you can live above your glass factory if you want, but we’ll have to cantilever your living space out from behind the building. Sure I can brand your business as green. Why don’t we build you a living wall and then construct your logo out of plants. Sure we can showcase your existing building; but lets do it by building a perforated metal screen in front and selectively revealing the old construction behind the new.” By listening carefully to your clients, you create contextually responsive designs. Therefore it your clients in the end with their needs who save you from designing the same building over and over.


And you know you’ve won when the clients think they’ve come up with the ideas themselves. And they kind of have, because as unexpected as the look of their projects may be, the projects directly reflect their goals. Here’s a piece of advice for the architects in the office. Let owners take ownership because it will make them proud to have played such a strong role in the design process. And then when things go wrong, and somehow they always do, the client is more likely to invest resources to solve problems because they are invested and the problems aren’t just the architect’s, they are theirs as well…


Clients love images. They tend to love seeing their plans brought to life. I’ve had other architects tell me they take care not to show their clients images till the end. I do the reverse. I love to sketch. Or I should say I’m compelled to sketch. So I’m constantly bouncing images off of clients, testing, probing, trying to understand what they like and how far I can go. Also, we design all our projects in Rhino and walk the clients through the designs on the big screen right from the beginning. Fortunately my clients’ tend to respond very well to these images. And even if they pull back on the reins, they know I’m doing my best to give them what they want.


Yet I’m ruthless about how much I think the projects will cost. Iliya, who has worked for me for five years, used to call me “the dream-killer”. It kills me to see the fallen faces when I tell some people how much it will cost to build their projects. But it’s better to know up front from a wince or a downcast face that the project won’t be moving ahead than to invest endless resources trying to force a project to happen. And in the end my clients believe I have their best interests at heart because they know I’m being honest. And I’ll keep talking about money.


“Installing geothermal wells,” I might tell a client, ”may cost you $25,000; but it will pay for itself in less than five years and save you $70,000 over twenty years.” or “Sure we can do that, but at $250.00/sf and 40 sf for this new piece of program it will likely cost you $10,000.00.”


That was how I came to design a thirty foot long automobile bridge for my Butler Street project. The clients would park on their roof and then descend down into their living spaces. It was cheaper than building a driveway.


I’ve got to admit I’m kind of winging it. I have make up my strategies as I have gone along to suit my inclinations and I’ve no doubt made every mistake in the book. But I’m a moral guy, and caring in my way; and clients sense that. They know that I’m fully invested in their projects and that I really care about the results. As I think about it, I’m realizing that I have a lot in common with the other presenters, who would likely also agree that maintaining an attitude of radical openness with clients, despite all the risks and responsibilities, can bring great rewards.


Thanks very much for listening. Please check out my website at “fisherarch.com”. Then follow me on Facebook, Instagram, Linked-in, and Twitter.

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