Communication is the Key

  • 13 January, 2023

Communication is the Key

When I was an architecture school student, most students worked on their drawings and models up to almost the last minute before the class presentations were scheduled. That mad scramble was thought to be in keeping with the Ecole des Beaux-Arts tradition of the charette - the intensive work period before a studio deadline - named after the cart that was used by the class proctors to collect student works as the time of reckoning arrived. What happened next during the presentation of the projects was not typically a pretty sight. Sleep-deprived students, unsteady on their feet, would proceed to talk about their projects, employing as best they could, the jargon taught in school for the benefit of teachers providing more wide-awake but even more opaque commentary in return.

The Presentation Ritual

This presentation ritual is what passes for instruction in communications for architects. We are all taught early on in school that drawings are tools to communicate ideas. But what about words? Language that describes the ideas conveyed in the drawings to people - such as clients - who live outside the jargon bubble? You can pick that up on your own. What about clarity for contractors that are responsible to carry forward abstract ideas on paper into, if you will pardon the expression, something concrete? You will learn about that later. Or, what if there is a required presentation to a local planning or zoning review board? Architects, engineers, and design professionals need to explain somewhat complicated ideas to tradesmen as well as laypeople in ways that can be understood so that they take the right actions.

Using Words and Pictures

Words and pictures - including the labels that accompany the pictures - are how we as design professionals communicate our ideas to others. While we have been tasked with developing creative solutions to problems, it is not enough to come up with a design or a set of enticing images that are used to sell the design. We have to be able to write and speak about the ideas that are encapsulated in the design to help the client, the builder, and the local code official understand the intent and goals represented in drawings and renderings. Each group represents a different target audience and our communications strategy needs to be crafted accordingly.

Establishing What an Architect Does

A client likely has some knowledge of what an architect does since they chose to hire one in the first place, but their understanding about the range of what the architect does and what falls under the architect's control can vary significantly. There may be some dialogue required on process as well as on expectations. These kinds of discussions, tailored to the background and understanding of the client, help to set the table for future presentations on design. Nothing can be more important than a clear summary of the client's two greatest concerns, their program and the project budget, establishing the parameters for the building and measuring sticks for its success.

Clear Design Discussions

Design discussions with the client should be free from jargon and buzzwords, in both verbal and written communications. Think of the narrative describing the project's design as a story with a beginning, middle, and end. The logic of the design's location can be plainly explained as a description of how the constraints and opportunities of the site, program, and budget give shape to the form. The aesthetic approach should be discussed in a manner that demonstrates that its development is integral to the design and the owner's stated goals. While the story can be edited as the project becomes more refined, both the design and narrative should maintain the same common thread throughout the course of the design work.

Software and Simulations

There are many wonderful imaging software programs and animation simulations that make visiting the in-progress design something that was unimaginable a few years ago but are already considered to be invaluable, and increasingly, clients expect these tools to be used. The story of the design should not be overwhelmed by the technology, nor should the architect rely solely upon these tools to explain the design and the decision-making process. With more sophisticated tools and technology, it will still be as important to integrate the narrative component with the three-dimensional imagery to describe the design to the client.

Oral Presentations

Oral presentations, which can be polished with rehearsals and augmented by illustrations, seem to come easier to design professionals that have written reports or correspondence. I always remember what one principal often repeated, "if it's not written down, it's never been said." I would amend that slightly to, "if it's not written down clearly, it's not been said." While architects and engineers struggle to describe existing conditions, a proposed solution to a problem, or a response to a client question, the basics of good documentation must take hold. Consider the issues, outline the ideas to be presented, and keep them simple in format. Ask someone else unfamiliar with the project or matter at hand to read what you wrote to gauge their understanding. If they can grasp the intent of the narrative, assuming that the jargon has already been purged, the client will likely understand, as well.

Discussions of Budget

Talking about the budget with the client is almost always more difficult than design issues, and these discussions present their own set of challenges. Again, a clear description of the normal components of the budget, including the different kinds of contingencies, insurance, soft costs, and anticipated construction cost escalation are essential for the client's understanding of what the architect can control. Potential strategies for cost protection are dependent upon the client's goals, current economic conditions, and the bidding climate as well as the contracting strategy. It is best to have honest and open discussions about these parameters early in the project so that clients can participate more fully in the development of the design and documentation process.

Compiling Construction Documents

In putting together a set of construction documents for a small project, our mechanical engineer tried an approach to describe a bid alternate that I found confusing. When it was mentioned to him that this documentation strategy would likely not be understood well by bidders, not making it easy for the potential contractor, the mechanical engineer's response was to pose a question in return: "Why should I make it easy for the contractor?" This engineer understood his particular discipline well, but he was far from comprehending the role drawings play in communicating our design and how important it is to ensure other critical parties understand that design based upon the content in the drawings.

Building Mutual Respect

I always tell contractors in the field that I respect what they do, and I truly do, always amazed at how all of the parts come together starting on a muddy site with chaotic activity. As an architect, I am dependent upon contractors to make the design real and responsible to them to make a product, never built before, reflect well upon the firm and the profession, at large. In teaching students and mentoring interns in the office, I remind them that the construction drawings are contract documents. These drawings must be more precise than the construction terms and conditions drafted by the lawyers. Ambiguity is not the desired approach for design and construction. Conveying ideas to contractors requires accurate, consistent - and concise - language. Contractors are usually well-skilled in their trade, but there are many individuals that contribute to the construction of a building. Their education and backgrounds can be varied, but generally, they prefer to work fast and ask as few questions as possible. Knowing that audience and wanting to achieve the best result, I use this anecdote to impress an approach to students and interns in thinking about construction documents. At home, we had an old trash can that we wanted the sanitation department to take away, along with the trash. My wife wrote a nice note explaining that we no longer wanted this trash can and requested its removal. The only problem was that this note ran on to make a rather dense paragraph. The trash crew, like building contractors, was not interested in reading a story as they went about their job. At the end of the day, we discovered the trash removed but the can remained. I tried a different tact the next time trash day rolled around. My note consisted of two words, "Take Can." The job was satisfactorily done because the crew could quickly understand the direction. Students and interns need to ask themselves as they apply notes - and dimensions - to drawings, does it convey the intent clearly and can it be understood by the people that build under the great pressure of time? Does it pass the 'Take Can' test?

Communicating to the Public

Making presentations to planning boards and the general public require careful planning and thought. While the client and the contractor will be fully engaged with the project, the reviewers and the community are not, and there is typically little time to bring them up to speed in a public setting. The presentation should be organized to create a brief, clear, and logical overview of the project, capturing the elements that are the subject of the review and excluding those that are not to keep the focus where it belongs. Work with the review agency staff in advance to help shape the presentation and to anticipate questions. Always have a few slides in reserve to answer questions that may arise, but the best presentations incorporate anticipated responses to board and public inquiries as part of the slides, potentially disarming any potential opposition. One particularly memorable presentation I made required me to enlist the aid of my civil engineer and traffic engineer with video and photographic documentation used to prove the critical points. The presentation was structured to address the burning issues head on and the words and pictures made a compelling case. In fact, the public in the room started to applaud at the end of the presentation, further convincing the planning board that they would not require an expensive parking garage to be built for a suburban high school. My client was thrilled - and my team was relieved - proving that a good communications strategy is every bit as valuable as an excellent design.


Communications is more than just words and pictures. It is the strategic use of information to advance the needs of the client, the project, and the firm. Knowledge of the audience and the context for what types of information are required and how best to convey them are critical to a successful practice with longstanding relationships with clients. The right communications strategy, thoughtfully applied, will build trust with owners, code officials, and contractors. The architect does not work in a vacuum. We depend upon so many other partners in design and construction where a poorly phrased question or direction could upend a design and turn into costly mistakes. Misunderstanding is expensive; communications is the key.

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About the Author: Scott Kalner

Scott was born in Brooklyn, NY and has a Bachelor of City Planning degree from the University of Virginia and a Master of Architecture degree from the University of Pennsylvania. He is a licensed architect, LEED-accredited professional and Project Management Professional. He enjoys travel, photography and biking.

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