Can Being a Client Allow You to Be a Better Architect?

Ros James
Ros James
Jun 19, 2020 · 6 min read

Most architects have fantasised about building their own home since long before they were qualified, some since before they even started school, but is being your own client the dream-like experience that was envisaged all those years ago? Three of our senior team members are currently acting as architects on their own homes, all are at different stages; one just beginning, one about to start the building stage and one nearly finished. Here they describe how being the client has made them see this perspective completely differently…

Phil Hurrell is embarking on a complete refurbishment of a house which hasn’t been touched for decades. It’s back boiler, layers of wallpaper and unsuitable layout are all to be altered and adapted as greenly as possible to create a sustainable home and garden for him, his wife and hopes of a growing family to enjoy with the near and far future very much in mind. Hurrell expresses how his endpoint is very similar to many clients so has that common ground. What he wasn’t expecting was the emotional toll of the process even before any construction started.

As an architect, the design stage is very much his territory, it’s a familiar and well-trodden path. However, feeling for himself the constant tug between ensuring the spaces he creates will stand the test of time as their lifestyle alters versus their ecological and sustainability commitments as well as being mindful of their budget constraints, clarified for him the enormity of the quandary a building project puts clients in. This dilemma was an abstract predicament to Hurrell prior to experiencing it for himself and has, he admits, undoubtedly given him invaluable insight into the client’s perspective.

Neil Broadbent is converting and extending a secluded barn into a forever family home for which he has planning permission and is looking to start on site in the next few weeks. He has found the experience of being his own client liberating and enjoyed a sense of freedom during the design stage. He found himself creating a number of outlandish sketches, something he doesn’t indulge in when working for clients. Admittedly he has pared it back in order to have the practicalities of a home and to gain planning permission but it meant he developed ideas that led to creating designs for clients. Being a client has allowed him to realise the pressure they endure and how they are utterly at the mercy of the architect and specialists. Clients have to completely hand over not simply their money but more importantly their trust in their team of experts. This exposes people to feel vulnerable and uncomfortable and during a time they are developing new relationships with the very people they are entrusting with building them a home which encompasses all their dreams and money. Broadbent’s awareness of this situation from the client’s side enables him to understand their questions and queries at this stage much more deeply.

A second Phil (Reid) is close to finishing his home; a bungalow, having transformed its size and height to create a four bedroomed family space. It’s been a year since they were able to move back in following a winter in a caravan on the drive. There’s still no flooring or staircase and the plans for the master suite won’t materialise for a while yet, but they have a home and spaces which suit their lifestyle now.

Phil Reid’s new spaces transform the former bungalow

Reid said he became acutely aware of the cost, time, quality triangle, the tensions which exist between these opposing forces and how different those are from the perspective of the client as they are from the architect. “When it’s someone else’s dream and money, it’s easy to lose sight of what takes precedence. Running my own project has clarified for me that the three points of the triangle are constantly wrangling for the top spot and that they change as the build progresses. Most clients are unaccustomed to dealing with that struggle so I’ve found my experience as both an architect and a client really helps me empathise with clients and I’m much better positioned to guide them through weighing up the risks, analysing what’s at stake and how to proceed in a way that is best for them”

Phil Hurrell is clear about what he wants to achieve but is also very conscious of how he wants to achieve it, not only ecologically but also collaboratively. He aspires to ensure the resulting house is a collective effort of all those involved and everyone who is contributing. Whether that contribution is from a contractor, a specialist adviser, or a helpful relative, all are considered to be a crucial resource on the project, who’s input, whether physical or theoretical is valued.

Phil Hurrell renovating his dilapidated home

He’s enjoying how running his own project as both architect and client allow him to set the tone of all the tasks and activities involved. This realisation has influenced how he now runs projects as an architect.

Neil Broadbent expressed — with slight guilt — that he hadn’t realised just how many decisions there are to be made as a client. As an architect, he is accustomed to providing solutions and a variety of options, it’s an enviable position. Clients on the other hand have the burden of making a final choice on absolutely everything. And each choice impacts on the final product, the current budget and the future value of the building. All the decisions on everything from which type of foundations are possible to which trim could be installed between flooring types in the doorways have repercussions on something and there are thousands to be made. Decision making of this scale is nerve-wracking and exhausting. Reducing the level of risks posed at each stage of the project and for each crucial decision to the client is part of the role of the architect. Being aware of how these risks feel as a client has been a turning point for Reid who believes in the necessity to ensure the client feels they have all the requisite information and is aware of any time constraints because quite simply, making all these decisions is all-consuming so help with this process will be invaluable for the client.

Drawing the brief out of clients and drilling down to exactly what they want is often something which architects, to the surprise of the clients, find difficult. Hurrell says his time as a client is leading him to approach his clients differently. He says that by devising a list of rooms and a standard of finish will enable him to create a house but it won’t provide insight into the client’s dream home. He’s realised on a practical level that by knowing the clients’ preferences is much more useful to him. What foods they like, where they like to holiday and which cities they are drawn to. Which natural elements they like as well as practical discoveries too: will there be lots of children and dogs and muddy walks or just a couple who prefer to browse antique or food markets and read books in a sunny spot? Through conversations not about plans and contractors allows for a deeper more trust-based relationship with clients which results in a better building for their needs.

Neil Broadbent’s barn conversion

Building meaningful relationships with clients is an important factor for successful projects. Hurrell sees how his user experience of products can provide real insight for clients. He can, as a user, be an advocate as well as inform of any drawbacks or failings of products too. Neil Broadbent found the importance of involving his neighbours in the process by keeping them informed at each stage really helpful especially when it came to submitting his planning application. Reid carries with him the very real struggles of building a home while raising a family and living through a snowy winter in a cold, damp caravan and seeing slow progress on the shell of a building which was due to be completed months ago. These client experiences demonstrate to clients the architects’ full understanding of their situation and architects who have lived these realities, surely make more empathetic and therefore better-equipped architects.

Millar + Howard Workshop

An award-winning architect practice based in the Cotswolds. We work closely and collaboratively with clients to understand their requirements and then meet these in exciting, beautiful and imaginative ways.

Ros James

Written by

Ros James

Writes and thinks for Millar + Howard Workshop. Connecting visuals and words.

Millar + Howard Workshop

An award-winning architect practice based in the Cotswolds. We work closely and collaboratively with clients to understand their requirements and then meet these in exciting, beautiful and imaginative ways.