When did clients become scared of saying what they want?

Tarek Merlin is getting a little tired of prevarication, procrastination – and endless competitions

I was at the launch of a public realm design competition recently. It was all very exciting and inspiring, but as the question and answer session was drawing to a close I realised that the closest anyone had got to asking about the client’s desires and dreams for the project was a question about the operating hours of the resident’s parking bays (between 8.30am and 5.30pm from Monday to Friday, if you were wondering) and someone helpfully pointing out that the site plan on the competition website did not show any trees. Nobody had asked the important questions, nobody had found out what they actually wanted to do.

So when I finally asked “what do you want for the money you’ve got?”, I got some talk about how the “big idea” could be “scaled down” to accommodate different “resource levels”. This almost prompted a bout of projectile vitriol to spew from the depths of my already bruised soul. The idea that you can take an excellent idea, make it cheap and still keep it excellent, has always sat uncomfortably with me. There are ways to do magical things within a tight budget, but why not just spell out the real situation from the start?

There’s no reason why what the client wants should be shrouded in mystery. If people are worried that they are in danger of stifling our creativity, then think again. We will always come up with our own ideas, and with the roomful of architects they had attracted for this project, those ideas will undoubtedly be varied and exciting. But by being specific to start with, the client is saving everyone involved a lot of heartache and lot of wasted time and resources otherwise spent exploring avenues that the client has no interest in.

Sometimes the lengths to which one has to go simply to get through the initial stage of competition pre-qualification procedures are completely disproportionate to the activity at hand. They can cut you out of the running without even glancing at your work if you do not meet their financial threshold for businesses (without telling you what that is, of course). I understand the need to cover one’s proverbial as a client, especially a publicly funded one, but I think it’s fair to say that there is room for improvement, not only to hurry the process along, but also so as not to exclude the smaller, less protocol-based practices among us.

Furthermore, is it just me or have some client/architect relationships suddenly got overly complicated? I understand that the credit crunch has brought with it a desire to look at alternative options, but no one seems to know what they want anymore. Contrary to the popular belief that paints us architects as floating around, creating wonderful ideas all on our own, actually we have to have clear and concise instruction from a client in order to proceed with the work. But there seems to be a miasma of hesitation dominating client decisions at the moment, one that seems to mask any clarity in the decision-making process. Is it a fear of responsibility or just good old plain financial uncertainty?

There seems to be a miasma of hesitation dominating client decisions at the moment, masking any clarity in the decision-making process

Either way, I have developed a new-found affinity with the direct approach: just tell us what you want, when you want it by and how much you want to spend, and we’ll do you proud.

We have recently been commissioned on two jobs through direct appointments. What happened to those? No competition, no speculative work, just agreeing a fee and getting on with it.

Don’t get me wrong, competitions can be a fantastic way to generate interest in a project and a chance to present the client with something they didn’t know they wanted, but bearing in mind the thin financial ice upon which we tread, it would be helpful if we could all just say what we wanted, and mean what we say. Life might be a little easier and things might just happen a little quicker.