Challenge Assumptions

This is Step 6 on the pathway to Taking Control.

We are in the business of making assumptions

The act of design, even for a single project, involves the conscious or unconscious selection and ordering of thousands of elements, and assembling them into something we call a ‘design solution’.

We call the outcome a ‘solution’ because we see need for design as a response to a set of problems to be solved. Many of the components of this problem-solving process are fully logical answers to basic functional needs, such as protection from the elements.

Almost all architects see their craft as something much more than solving functional, objective needs – the prevailing view is that a non-professional draftsperson or a contractor can do that without professional intervention.

Once problem-solving moves away from “meat & potatoes” functional solutions, however, the issues addressed are more subjective, and begin to involve assumptions by the architect as to what the client’s subjective needs are. The architect begins to interpret the client’s brief, using his/her own values and beliefs to guide the solution process.

Many of the assumptions that underpin the practice of architecture have their roots in this self-guided interpretation of what’s best for the client.

Many of the rest of them are guided by self-preservation instincts.

What are the key assumptions?

Here’s my “top ten” list – yours might be different!

  1. Good design is self-evident. This assumption, usually wrong, is consciously or unconsciously held by a very large percentage of architects. It’s right only where there is a high degree of alignment between the values systems of both architect and client. For example, if the client is knowledgeable about energy saving design, she will recognize and respond positively toward the architect’s efforts to make the design environmentally sustainable. But if not, it won’t be, and will require explanation.
  2. Clients will appreciate “good design” and accept that it often costs more than pedestrian design. This – a corollary of the first – is mainly wishful thinking, unless the client has articulated the desire and acceptance of potential extra cost.
  3. Clients don’t understand the design process – so there’s no point to get into that. The first part is right – but that doesn’t mean they don’t want to learn, and participate in it. This assumption is a reflection of the fact that design “process” is largely unconscious for many designers; they know how to do it, but not diagram or articulate it. This is why the idea of “design management” was widely considered, until quite recently, to be an oxymoron.
  4. Clients keep cutting the fees they will pay. This is how it looks. But who’s cutting the fees – is it your clients, or your competitors? Clients want optimum value for money, and will take a lower price if they believe what they are buying is of similar value.
  5. Clients keep making changes, but don’t expect to pay extra for extra work. See Assumption 3: if a client doesn’t understand the design process, they can’t put a value on changes. The client generally doesn’t see a “change” the same way as the designer – they see it as providing further information about a total solution they have purchased. It doesn’t matter whether your client is the end user, or another player further up the chain of consultants, the rule holds.
  6. Graduates today don’t have loyalty. Yes, there are generational differences, and recent graduates of design schools will be highly mobile compared to those a generation ago. The question is not how to hang on to them, but how to ensure the good ones come back after their ‘walkabout’.
  7. Don’t take responsibility for what you can’t control. This assumption is driven purely by risk considerations. The problem with it is that clients want certainty, and therefore want somebody to take overall project responsibility – which by definition includes stuff outside the designer’s control.
  8. It’s up to every project team member firm to coordinate its own work with that of others. This thought is a consequence of the previous assumption. Lovely idea!. It’s like saying that every member of an orchestra needs to coordinate their playing with all of the others, and we don’t really need a conductor.
  9. Many contractors will seek to slow down construction in order to claim prolongation costs – and where remotely possible, will blame the architect or engineer. There is much truth in this assumption, but there are ways to prevent it being your problem.
  10. The competitive nature of construction requires contractors to save money. The main way contractors can save money is by substituting less expensive materials and systems, which increases research, review and approval costs for the design team. As with the previous assumption, there are ways to prevent it being your problem.

Challenging these assumptions

Accepting assumptions without challenging them, or rethinking how to deal with the issues these assumptions generate, locks you into the past.

Challenging them and rethinking them, won’t in itself change anything. But doing so will show you the road to the changes you need to make to survive and thrive in this rapidly evolving world.


Next: Step 7