Architects are often held in high esteem by new potential clients, who understand that professional design entails a high degree of skill in science, art and technology. Yet for many clients, that’s where the understanding ends. Without consistent attention to good communication during the design process, misunderstandings can creep in, leading to hard feelings and, potentially, a lawsuit.

Understanding the principles of good communication makes a career in architecture more fulfilling and significantly cuts down on the risk of miscommunications, lawsuits and insurance claims. Here’s what to know.

Researching Good Communication

The challenge of architect-client communication has long been studied by academic researchers. Communication is a key concern because it impacts architects and clients, as well as everyone who uses the built environment.

In particular, a survey of more than 20 years of available research was presented at the 2014 Global Conference on Business and Social Science by Nima Norouzi, Maryam Shabak, Mohamed Rashid Bin Embi and Tareef Hayat Khan. This international team of professors in architecture offer a number of takeaways on good communication that designers can still apply to their practice today.

Defining Communication

Communication is most easily understood as the transmission of information from one person to another. Yet in architecture, it may be helpful to consider one observation made by A.F. den Otter and M. Prins, who defined communication as the “process of exchange of information between the sender and receiver to equalize information on both sides.” This equalizing factor in good communication can be important for architects.

A more socially oriented approach to understanding client requirements lead to a more collaborative environment and may help facilitate decisions that have a higher chance of satisfying all of the parties involved. An equalization of information is also necessary for the architect and the client and other stakeholders to work together toward a common goal.

Another way to define communication is to focus on its function. G.C. Gabriel and M. Lou Maher even argue that “architecture is primarily about communication,” because the communication between the architect and the client is ultimately expressed in a built environment.

Getting to Better Communication

Some architects have defined communication itself as a process. This adds extra layers to the meaning of the term. Beyond obtaining information, communication as a process means that there is an evaluation of information for credibility, a necessity that it be understood by the right people and for some appropriate response to follow after the information is shared.

Architects also benefit from understanding the interfaces they use for communication. The tools for communication used to just be limited to speech and writing. But now architects have access to computer generated three-dimensional renderings, animations, simulations and more. The right use of these technologies can facilitate communication and enhance the design process.

Bridging the Communication Divide

When it comes to the relationship between the client and the architect during the design process, architects can benefit when they make efforts to bridge the divide between client and architect. The architect’s best tools here are education and professionalism.

While both the client and the architect are on the same journey through the same project, each is likely to come away with very different experiences. Architects should be aware that, for an inexperienced client early in the process, the client is likely to experience stress and confusion because the design process is foreign to them. Yet the architect during this same time will not experience any of these feelings because the process will already be familiar and comfortable.

As the design process unfolds, the client will have an opportunity to become more comfortable with the process, and their outlook will change and mirror that of the architect. The architect can help with this learning curve by communicating more about the design process itself. In particular, an inexperienced client may need help learning what information they need to communicate to the design team.

Courtesy, mutual respect and general professionalism can also help contribute to a more successful architect-client relationship. Most build projects will involve challenges, negotiations and compromises. Handling these situations in a professional manner can minimize the feelings of dissatisfaction that may otherwise lead to a lawsuit and claim.

Identifying Communication Difficulties

When architecture lawsuits and claims do happen, the researchers Yu, Shen and Chan found that there are a common list of causes:

  1. The client’s point of view wasn’t fully considered. The client is a crucial party to any build project. If the client believes that their input has been ignored, they are likely to become dissatisfied and a larger conflict may develop.
  2. There was not enough communication between stakeholders. Architectural projects involve many parties. Experience, perspectives and communication styles can vary. A lack of attention to this situation can lead to problems.
  3. Design requirements were not managed sufficiently. A project’s desired design requirements must be discussed together with the client. If the communication isn’t collaborative, important requirements can be missed.
  4. The needs expressed by a client are subject to change. Clients often change their mind, especially as they learn more about the design process. Misunderstandings can arise about desired changes and whether they can be made.
  5. There was a lack of feedback from the client. Feedback is key for a successful project. If a client doesn’t know when or how to give feedback, or an architect is inattentive to client feedback, dissatisfaction is sure to follow.

Finding Communication Solutions

There are many things architects can do to improve project communication and minimize their risk of a claim. Researchers found four strategies that can make the biggest impact:

  1. Make the client feel like their contributions are valued.
  2. Involve the stakeholders in the design process.
  3. Administer design requirement changes effectively.
  4. Employ visualization techniques to aid understanding.

Protecting Your Business

Good communication goes a long way toward reducing your risk. Yet even with the best communication practices, a lawsuit and claim may still arise. Proper insurance can help protect you if it does.

Professional Liability coverage from Lockton Affinity Architect + Engineer includes coverage for legal defense, settlements and judgements. Plus, policy benefits include free contact reviews, pre-claims assistance and access to risk management resources.

To find out what our coverage will look like for your firm, request your indication online and one of our insurance experts will reach out to discuss your needs.