The client perspective on design and what makes firms successful

As firms deal with shifts in the design and delivery process, challenging economic conditions and ever-changing client expectations, many seek to evolve and strengthen their positioning and value propositions. But what do clients truly value in design and the firms they hire?

David Crowell is the managing director and CEO of rmc international, a real estate and building industry management consultancy. He trained as an architect but has spent most of his career managing large and complex programs for owners and developers. During the past 35 years Mr. Crowell has successfully delivered more than 150 major projects for a total of nearly 100 million square feet. His work on recently completed buildings includes leading the design phase management for The Shard — an iconic tower by Renzo Piano that is the tallest building in Western Europe.

In his years as a client representative, Crowell has worked with many of the world’s top architecture and design firms, including SOM, Gensler, Renzo Piano Building Workshop, Tadao Ando, HOK, SCB, wHY Architecture, Hammond Beeby Rupert Ainge, Perkins+Will, John Ronan Architects, and Studio Gang to name a few.

Dave is an Illinois Institute of Technology Trustee, chair of IIT’s College of Architecture Board of Overseers, and an adjunct professor in Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science.

Speaking with DesignIntelligence, Crowell shares his views on what is meaningful to clients and how firms might best position themselves for success.


In what ways do you feel that architecture, engineering and design firms create the most value for owners and users?

Most people in the building industry assume what they do is about a building. But the building is only a physical tool to accomplish goals, implement change, or attract attention. They often don’t understand what the client is trying to accomplish with the building — what the client’s goals and objectives are.

A couple of examples. If the client is a corporation, they might be trying to attract and retain talent, improve speed to market, or a host of other things. A commercial building is focused on ROI (return on investment) but most architecture and design firms don’t understand what drives that return. Sometimes they don’t understand the difference between the (geographic) markets they work in. There are differences in size of market, overseas regions versus the U.S., and other differences that change economic returns which may affect design solutions. Institutions such as higher education might be trying to attract students, which is very different than if they are than trying to attract research dollars.

It’s important to understand the real objectives of the client.

What is best way to understand client goals?

It’s really quite simple: Ask. To get the right answers you have to ask the right questions. Seek to understand what an excellent outcome would be for the client.

When you’re developing a value proposition, understand that different users of buildings have a different way of calculating value. For example, take two mid- or high-rise multifamily residential property examples. If one is a rental property, the client will be trying to rent bedrooms; square footage should be minimized. In a condo building, the client wants to sell square feet. Each has a different focus. The developer’s downstream customers are looking at the value proposition differently. I see plenty of apartments I’d rent but would not buy. And I see condos I’d buy but would not rent because the rate would be much higher than I would be willing to pay. Recognizing the difference would make the resulting building a better solution for the developer.

Assuming a firm understands its client, how else can that firm create the most value?

A couple of ways. As the firm goes through design process, they can engage the client in incremental decision making by giving that client options so the client is actively involved in making choices about the end product that relates back to the goals and objectives. Giving the client a choice makes for better communication, better solutions, and a better relationship with clients.

There is greater opportunity for a client to shape a building to fit their needs earlier in the design process — especially during the concept and schematic phases. There is a certain level of choice in material and system selections during design development. During construction documentation the decisions are made and the design firm must simply adhere to them.

What are the most important factors that an owner should consider in choosing an architecture or design firm?

The client should consider how the design team will help them achieve their goals and the relationship they will have along the way. Best-of-class design firms position themselves by demonstrating how their work helped prior clients meet goals and objectives. This is something I rarely see but it makes a big difference. Often a client who does not build on a regular basis — like someone who is building a new corporate headquarters — is not an educated buyer and generally can’t put their finger on why one firm is more attractive than another. If a corporate client like this is the object of a pursuit, tell them how you helped other clients attract top talent, improve space utilization, or promote change. In other words, what were your client’s goals and objectives; and how did you help solve them?

How do you get these ideas across?

If you understand what the client is trying to achieve and demonstrate success in helping others achieve similar objectives, then you will have delivered a message that is stronger than most if not all of your competitors. Most importantly, you will have set up a dialogue and a relationship with the client that is very different than simply how beautiful your buildings are or how cost effective they are — and that is a more engaging type of conversation.

Why do you think it’s so rarely done that way?

I don’t think that architecture students are taught to think this way. There’s an object orientation in many schools. Maybe better understanding client goals and needs is something that one could learn in later stages of an architecture degree or in later study, perhaps as part of a business degree.

Understanding the real purpose of a building should be part of a design professional’s continued education and on-the-job learning process.

In what ways do clients value design?

There’s a broad variety. If the building is meant to attract attention, aesthetics and the building composition may be of higher importance.

In commercial buildings, the client’s idea of value might lean more toward a higher price point. For instance, in Chicago some higher profile buildings like Aqua or Trump Tower are striking enough to command higher revenue which increases profitability.

Some clients place low value on aesthetic design but higher on space utilization. If the space a client wants to build houses a process, sometimes the process is more important than the building.

Is it fair to say that different client and building types have different value propositions and firms must adjust how they present themselves accordingly?

Yes, absolutely.

What do you think is the ideal way a firm can position itself and present its value proposition?

Ideally, firms would operate within a range that would be part of their brand, which should be a reflection of business leaders and values of the firm.

There are design architects that have very conservative palette of work, or a modern aesthetic, and then there are those that range into the avant-garde. Those design palettes are going to resonate with different kinds of clients. At other end of spectrum, you have firms that pride themselves on technical implementation.

Be who you are.

What is the role of a firm’s portfolio in positioning itself?

Best way to demonstrate what you can do for a prospective client is to show what you have done for others. Aesthetics are important to show and it’s important for the prospect to enjoy looking at the work. Your prior projects had certain goals or objectives of the client. Demonstrate the value you provided to the client in relevant prior work.

For instance, I worked with a corporation creating an innovation center. The client’s goals were to attract and retain talent, create a facility their industry would see as a commitment to excellence, and improve speed to market of new products. That’s how the building created value for the corporation. The project achieved these goals. Being able to cite these accomplishments is a compelling sales tool.

Is creating value measurable?

Yes, but time scale varies.

A short term measurement may be selling or leasing a new commercial building. If it sells or leases quickly at a premium to the market you can measure that success immediately.

You could design a new corporate office space where people enjoy working more and as a result productivity goes up and lost time goes down. Ultimately these things may be measurable over multiple years, but in the short term the value is intangible, like creating pride or a place that people want to be.

As a longer term or larger framework example, a university might want to create a new residence hall that matches lifestyle of those who will occupy it. So the firm needs to understand lifestyle of Millennials and how they’ll occupy the building. Will it help attract students? Yes. Help retain students? Perhaps. Is it measurable? Maybe not as directly because it is part of a larger ecosystem. But it still adds a type of value that is different than measuring the cost per square foot and efficiency of a commercial building.

What is the best way firms can communicate qualitative value?

The best way to do that is to demonstrate it through an in-person experience of the completed work — show them in person. Get them in the space when it is occupied. It’s the same for an office building, museum, university or public building. It will demonstrate in person what many try unsuccessfully to describe in words about the quality of space and the environment and how occupants are productive and enjoying the space.

Are clients aware of the impact of design?

Yes, they might not be able to articulate it, but they will be able to “feel” the difference. Many of my clients have gotten a lot more out of visiting a space than seeing images. When you go into a space you can answer questions that you can’t from simply looking at an image such as, do you like the light? Space? Materials? Can you see yourself in that space?

Seeing the building in person gives the client something tangible to react to. An in-person visit is most applicable when it’s the first time a firm and client are working together and more applicable when the client is doing something new or that they haven’t done in a long time. It gives them a way to articulate what they like, what they don’t, or what they would do differently. It allows the design firm to tell the story of how they went through options with the client because every building is a combination of the designer’s work and client’s input.

Where in the design and delivery process can firms add the most value?

First pre-design, then concept.

Why those stages? And how?

Pre-design and Concept are the formative stages of the building. Firms add the greatest value by getting goals and objectives right. What spatial qualities will best accomplish those objectives? How does the building look as I approach it and as I enter it? How does the traffic flow and pattern feel? These are all interactions and solutions that are best established during programming and concept.

What new or unique offerings have you seen from firms?

There are a few firms that are going outside the traditional bounds of designing buildings — such as to help institute change. Sometimes they are partnering with consultants — such as branding consultants. I don’t see too many firms working that way but when they do it right the value proposition increases dramatically.

Is it important for firms to pursue new types of services?

If they have the right staff to do it, it can be a good complement to architecture. There can be higher value and they may be better serving their clients.

When other services are bundled together both have to be the best solution for the client; otherwise the lesser of the two becomes the basis for selection. As a matter of fact, I recently separated programming from architecture for an RFP. We didn’t want to sacrifice either because of our process…we feel we got the best of both by hiring different firms for each service and coordinating their efforts.

What are some other big mistakes you have seen firms make?

There are two. The first is not understanding a client’s governance and how it makes decisions. Maybe the designer doesn’t get proper approvals because the firm isn’t presenting the right important information or they are presenting at the wrong level — usually too low in the chain of command.

The other mistake is they don’t provide the client with proper choices. Usually they don’t offer enough choices. Presenting one solution is not providing a valid choice.

What do you wish firms knew or did better in creating compelling value propositions?

That value is subjective and that the value is not their decision. The client is the final arbiter.

What can a firm do early in a client relationship to better position itself?

Project your personality. I’ve been to interviews where the client hadn’t had a lot of prior interface with the competitors. One of the competing firms was open, collaborative, humorous, and engaging of the audience. Some people liked that because that’s how they like to work. In that same series of interviews another firm had four or five people in the presentation but the lead principal did 90 percent of the speaking. Some of people in the selection committee felt it showed leadership and conviction. Even though the firms had vastly different styles, each was well received by certain constituencies. The opposite ends of the spectrum represented different ways people wanted to work with the architects. But be yourself.

I had to terminate a design firm about 10 years ago. What went wrong? The client didn’t understand the personality of firm, and the firm didn’t understand the value proposition and personalities of the client. As a result, the design firm couldn’t develop an effective relationship. That’s stuff to build early on.

At same time, you don’t want to be selected for something you’ll fail at. Selection is a two way street. Be honest with yourself about how the client aligns with your goals, personality, and values. The client’s goals for a building may not align with yours — you may offer deep expertise in green, high-performance buildings but the client may value quick turn and lower cost. If you do modern and the client wants avant-garde and you are selected, in both of these examples you’re going to have a pretty tough road ahead if you are selected.

Any other advice?

I would say the most important part of the design process and the satisfaction that clients get from that process has to do with relationship developed at multiple levels. You’re going to be more satisfied if you’ve enjoyed the process and had fun along the way. You should design the experience of working with clients. In the end you should be leading the client — especially one who doesn’t do it every day for a living — into a place to where together you can explore options and expand awareness of how the building you are creating will meet and exceed their expectations.

Interview conducted by Bob Fisher