The ideal client

mr. perfect

The relationship we enjoy with our clients is a unique one. We work very closely together with them, often over a number of years. A good client can make even the most difficult project a pleasure, while a bad client can make the easiest a misery. Whether a client will be the former or the latter can often be sensed in the first meeting, but as with any relationship the full tapestry of her personality takes time to be revealed.

The intensity and emotional involvement of the design and construction processes will mean we grow close to our best clients. While we may begin their projects as strangers, we often emerge as friends.

One might expect such a critical element in the success of a project to be something we curate. However, while much effort on our behalf goes into describing what we do, what an architect is, very little in fact goes into explaining what a client does and is. Luck plays too large a part in this arena. We have had clients who understand very well the distinct roles of client and architect, but we have had others treat us like draftspeople or even servants. Perhaps some delicate role education would have prevented these misunderstandings from becoming so painful.

Glenn Murcutt has said he expects his clients to work very hard on his projects, and we imagine he is certainly in a position to only accept those who are prepared to do so. But this statement is at least somewhat true for any positive client / architect relationship. We need a client to invest in her project, dedicate time and energy to it, so that we can better shape it to her needs, tastes and way of living.

This is but one dimension of the role of the client. To understand the nature of the ideal client, we must first ask:

What is a client?

In a world dominated by online shopping, faceless corporations and consumption, a client is almost an archaic concept. Indeed, to understand what a client is, it helps to take one further step back and understand what differentiates her from that other type of consumer, the customer[1]:

client \ˈklī-ənt\
1) one that is under the protection of another
2) a person who engages the professional advice or services of another

customer \’kəs-tə-mər\
1) one that purchases a commodity or service

The client is not the same as the customer. Notice how the dictionary definition of the latter makes direct reference to a commodity, the entire nature of the customer being shaped by the good she hopes to purchase. A customer for a pair of jeans is by nature different from a customer for a wedding dress. The dictionary also makes no reference to the need for expert advice: when the customer walks into a store, she already knows what she wants, be it a car or a chair or a box of cereal. She has a problem (she’s hungry) and knows how to solve it (she buys a box of cereal).

In contrast, the client is shaped not by the good she hopes to purchase but by her relationship to her service provider. Like the customer, she has a problem (she wants somewhere to live) but unlike the customer, she doesn’t know how to solve it. This is typically because the problem is sufficiently complex to require specialist expertise to solve. Thus she engages an architect to help her solve her problem, to provide the house she needs but cannot yet understand.

So, a client is someone who has a problem that needs solving, but lacks the vision and expertise to do the solving on her own. We often think that an important part of the architect’s role is to provide guidance through the murky waters of design, so the further definition of a client as one who is under the protection of another resonates with us. The client solves her problem thanks to this guidance from, and in collaboration with, her architect.

client customer

What is an ideal client?

We have been in practice for long enough to have worked with an ever-widening variety of clients. Some are intensely involved with the design and construction processes, interested in participating in every decision and attending every site meeting. Others are much more hands-off. Some are remarkably design literate, while others can only read floor plans, and yet others only physical models. Some are confident in their decision making, others require extensive support and hand-holding. Some interfere with our work, second guessing and micro-managing us, others leave us alone to get the project done.

We have had good clients and bad clients, and have grown familiar with the qualities that comprise both. The ideal client is:

1. Self-aware

She understands herself, her lifestyle, her tastes and her preferences. She is able to communicate these characteristics to us so that we may enshrine them in our design solution. She recognises that she is not a customer, that she does not know how to solve her problem. She has engaged us to do what she cannot and is comfortable with this relationship.

2. Honest

She treats us not as an opposing force that must be managed, but as a partner in the shaping and execution of her dream and our design vision. She is honest with us, providing both positive and (constructively) negative feedback. She is also honest with herself, recognising that her budget and brief must be aligned with one another, a process of compromise that will require a great deal of self-reflection.

3. Trusting

She inescapably comes to us with a pre-formed picture in her head of how she imagines her project will be. But if we were to design that picture, we would not be doing our job as architects. Our mandate is to take that picture, understand its ambitions and qualities, and improve upon it. A positive emotional response to our design is ideal, but when our proposal differs from the picture in the ideal client’s head, trust in our vision is essential.

4. Decisive

She is not overawed by the quantity of decisions that must be made during the design and construction processes. She can review all the possible kitchen sink options, accept advice on the ones most suitable, choose, and move on without second-guessing herself. She understands that the construction of a building costs a considerable amount of money, and is prepared (if not necessarily overjoyed) to spend it.

5. Committed

She is committed to design quality and appreciates that a work of architecture embodies relationships to history, culture, the city, the street, the natural environment and future generations. She is enthusiastic about our interest in these relationships and is committed to exploring them with us. She shares our architectural values of sustainability, craft and the sublimely utilitarian. She understands the difference between cost and value, and is willing to invest in good design.

What can we learn?

The importance of good clients has long been understood within the architectural community. Historically, the best relationships between architect and client have produced works of great art: from the Medici and their numerous patronages, to the Kaufmann family that commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright and Richard Neutra, to Denton Corker Marshall and their careful collection of jewel-like houses. When the symbiosis during the journey is right, there is no limit to the success of the destination.

To paraphrase Murcutt again, the future of an architectural practice is more powerfully defined by the clients and projects we refuse than the ones we accept. We think he is referring here to the business of architecture. Good clients are vital to the ongoing financial success of a practice: they pay us now, and market us to their friends so that future clients will pay us later. As discussed recently, Neil and Murray Raphael’s loyalty ladder proposes two relationship tiers above client to which an architect can aspire: the advocate and evangelist. In a profession where repeat clients are rare and word of mouth is king, our clients’ preparedness to procure new projects for us is essential.

Despite this understanding, the methods by which we might procure commissions from new clients – great or otherwise – are rarely discussed. Architects are, we believe, needlessly guarded about this subject. Rather than hoard this knowledge in an effort to gain a bigger slice of a shrinking pie, why not share it so that we can all get fair slices of a growing pie? We hope that by understanding what characteristics constitute the ideal client, we will be better armed to attract more of them.


[1] Dictionary definitions sourced from the Merriam-Webster online dictionary.

Image sources:

  1. Mr. Perfect, Mr. Men. Copyright Roger Hargreaves.
  2. Journeys of the customer and client, author’s own image.

From post-modern to past-modern

chai viticoleChai Viticole (Vauvert, 1998)

What was it?

A lecture held late last year as part of the Australian Institute of Architect‘s International Speaker Series. French architect, Gilles Perraudin of Perraudin Architectes, discussed his works and search for a timeless architecture. The lecture was attended by a sparse audience at sponsor Austral Bricks‘ Brick Studio and hosted by Peter Mallatt of Six Degrees.

Perraudin travelled extensively after his graduation in the mid-1970s, spending time living in Ghardaia, a city in the Sahara without any form of industry or access to external resources. The vernacular urban fabric, made entirely from materials sourced locally, left a lasting impression, the processes and aesthetics of building in stone finding their way many years later into his work.

Perraudin established his practice in 1980 and at first explored lightweight construction techniques and materials. Maison Ceyzérieu (1980, unbuilt) was his first project, a competition entry that promoted an architecture of minimal energy consumption. Designed around the concept of a house within a house within a house, the environmental isolation of the central core permitted energy-independent temperature control. Perraudin noted wryly that the client didn’t understand his design, wanting a normal house with solar panels on the roof, while his design originated from a more fundamental idea of a house requiring no energy at all.

Perraudin’s own house, Maison Individuelle (Lyon Vaise, 1987), continued this early exploration into lightness and thin skins. Mobile, nomadic and deconstructible, it reminded us strongly of Richard Rogers’ work of the preceding decades. Unlike Rogers however, Perraudin abandoned this experiment, arguing that the lightness of its materials was a lie: steel, canvas and aluminium might have appeared economical but they consumed exorbitant energy in their production.

This realisation led Perraudin to the architectural language he continues to use today. Chai Viticole (Vauvert, 1998), a winery he built for himself, was his first project in stone. Looking towards the Roman aqueduct for inspiration, the project employed very large blocks of stone uncut beyond their extraction from the ground. The stone had little embodied energy and promised great efficiency in its use, performing holistically as structure, skin, waterproofing, thermal mass and linings. This economy of material is central to Perraudin’s design philosophy, as are the project’s rhythm, proportion and light, tenants he asserted are at the centre of architectural expression.

Perraudin built the winery himself, with little help but from a small mobile crane to lift the blocks into place. The careful nature of the project’s masonry construction earned him the local nickname, The Egyptian, a fitting title for an architect whose contemporary works so closely resemble those of our ancient past.

cave des aurellesCave des Aurelles (Nizas, 2001)

What did we think?

Perraudin’s work is elegant but rudimentary, the scale of his stone blocks rendering everything else inconsequential. Inhabiting Maison et Galerie d’Art (Lyon, 2010) would be like inhabiting a landscape: walls are cliffs and corridors are canyons. The human scale is lost or ignored, very little operating within reach of, or of a size that can be touched and manipulated by, a person’s hand. This manipulation of the rudimentary occurs in his planning also: the Musee du Vin (Patrimonio, 2011) has open pergolas running around enclosed museum spaces designed to support the growth of canopy vines and encourage an outdoor microclimate. Instead of artificially managing diverse internal heating and cooling needs, Perraudin elected to simply push the museum’s corridors outside, letting nature do the cooling for him.

Perraudin eschews the millennia of materials development that has permitted new forms, fine detailing and the spanning of large distances. He has also disengaged with modernity at a cultural level: the heaviness of his structures do not lend themselves to a long life / loose fit understanding of occupation, nor do they facilitate activated street edges or contemporary living that moves easily between inside and out. By employing mass material assembled like supersized LEGO blocks, his walls become very thick, his openings are necessarily small, and columns are required at regular intervals.

This might seem an unusual direction to take, though in quoting French philosopher Roland Barthes, Perraudin clarified his position, “Suddenly I realised it didn’t bother me not to be modern.” Arguing also that “the evolution of technology is not a good focus for an architect,” Perraudin has, as his nickname suggests, firmly anchored himself and his work into a methodology thousands of years old.

maison lyonMaison et Galerie d’Art (Lyon, 2010)

What did we learn?

Perraudin spoke at length about values-driven architecture. Rejecting the image-driven discipline of post-modernism and contemporary architecture, he criticised the world’s architectural schools for graduating their students without an understanding of material and making. He argued that “schools mask their conceptual ignorance by guiding their students into various forms of extreme formalism. Architecture should be about satisfying a social need, not about addressing a financial condition.” When the latter is pursued, “architects are transformed into the stooge of speculation. It is not a question of talent, but ethics. Using natural materials will escape the constraints of speculative industries, and return to a socially-alert, environmentally sustainable architecture.”

This admirable position reminded us of Moshe Safdie’s oration we attended in late 2012, where Safdie reflected on his dedication to place-making, contextualisation and the ethical practice of architecture. Unfortunately, it also revealed the disconnection between the way both architects spoke about their work and the work itself.

Central to this disconnection was Perraudin’s use of stone. While he praised its recyclability, economy and capacity for adaptation and future flexibility, we could see none of these claims in the work he presented.

  • Recyclability. Each block of stone is the size and weight of a small car. Who would move them, how would they do so and why? The Romans built in massive stone not so it could be recut and repurposed, but so it would last thousands of years.
  • Economy. Perraudin used stone for his Logements Sociaux Collectifs (Cornebarrieu, 2011), a social housing project, but this economy appears to be the exception not the rule in his work. Typically, his projects are expensive and exclusive. The client for his Chai Viticole in Lebanon (halted indefinitely due to the war in Syria) was so particular about the stone to be used, he bought the whole quarry.
  • Adaptation. The stone could be cut to accommodate new openings and services, but would it ever be? Each column and wall is load bearing: cutting new openings would require new concrete footings, steel columns and lintels.

Perraudin might like to think his projects are recyclable, economical and adaptable, but these are all qualities far more aligned with his earliest work in lightweight construction, or in the ongoing oeuvre of Rogers, who continues to explore this ideology with real success. It would be more apt for him to discuss the idea of sustainability through durability: an idea discussed recently by Gregg Pasquarelli, where sustainability is achieved by building architecture that people love, “the don’t get torn down every 10 – 20 years.”

Is Perraudin’s work interesting or is the very nature of his past-modernism merely a process of reprising the forms, spatial relationships and techniques of past eras? There appears to be no theoretical overlay to his work, just performance and craft, so it is hard to argue that the work acts as a commentary on wastefulness. The buildings are expensive and exclusive, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but it seems he is working hard to contradict his own agenda. In using such heavy materials, in such ancient patterns, his work is in denial of the modern condition. Our lasting impression of Perraudin’s work is not that they are timeless but out of their time.

romania context

romania landscapeChai Viticole (Romania, due 2014)

Image sources:

  1. Chai Viticole, Vauvert, Perraudin Architects. Copyright Perraudin Architects.
  2. Cave des Aurelles, Nizas, Perraudin Architects. Copyright Perraudin Architects.
  3. Maison et Galerie d’Art, Lyon, Perraudin Architects. Copyright Perraudin Architects.
  4. Chai Viticole, Romania, Perraudin Architects. Copyright Perraudin Architects.
  5. Chai Viticole, Romania, Perraudin Architects. Copyright Perraudin Architects.