How to Talk with an Architect

These tricks will boost the odds of home design success.

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Communication is critical in home design projects. How well you and your architect communicate will affect how closely the design meets your needs and how much of your personality and tastes end up in the final project.

You don’t need a master’s degree in architecture to have meaningful conversations with your architect; here are six ways to make sure your message is getting through.

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One Step at a Time

Home design moves through several phases, each one more detailed and “concrete” than the previous. The earliest phases are conceptual and fuzzy on purpose; it serves as a view of the project from 100,000 feet up. Don’t get into details at this point, keep it “up in the air” as long as you can. Your architect should not start the next phase until you’re comfortable with everything you’ve seen. Study the relationships between spaces in the design before you let the architect move to detailed preliminary design drawings, ensuring that both of you are quite literally on the same page.

Thinking in Another Dimension

Architects find it easy to look at a 2D drawing and see it in 3D—you may not find this as simple. Architects sometimes forget that the rest of the world doesn’t “see” things as they do. If you only see 2D drawings, you may be in danger of not seeing the whole vision that the architect has. 3D drawings will help you get into the project and truly feel the character of the space, as well as get you and your architect closer to communicating on the same level. Make sure you know what’s on the table by asking for the 3D stuff. Don’t agree to a design until you’ve seen enough of it to be certain you understand exactly what it looks and feels like, inside and out.

No “Archi-Talk”

Just like you, your architect is struggling to find your common ground and similar to you, the architect may fall into familiar patterns when communications get strained. Stop your architect in his tracks when you don’t understand something. You’re not supposed to know what fenestration is or where to find the entablature, and you won’t offend your architect or embarrass yourself if you ask. Your architect needs to know what you’re thinking; the dialogue needs to be on your terms.

A few great books worth checking out to get you a primer on the architect language are Sarah Susanka’s classic “The Not So Big House,” and Marianne Cusato’s “Get Your House Right.” Anyone thinking about a home building or remodeling project of any size should read both. And for a better understanding of the whole process, try Gerald Lee Morosco’s “How To Work With An Architect.” Just to reiterate—it’s your house.

A Picture May be Worth a Thousand Words, but a Thousand Pictures are Even Better

Of course you expect your architect to show you lots of cool drawings, but it helps if you show the architect some drawings too—or even, better photos. This is the easiest way to help the architect understand what you like and don’t like, and will help send the project in the right direction. Most bookstores have racks of home design magazines. Grab a pile and begin cutting out or copying images of homes that appeal to you. Make a folder for each room and add photos as you continue through the design process.

If you’re more web savvy, set up an account on where you can create an idea book online. You’ll find a nearly endless portfolio of ideas for your file there that you and your architect can both contribute to and comment on. On paper or online, sharing some visuals with your architect is a great way to make a connection.

Set in Stone

Every conversation you have with your architect should be reduced to notes. A lot of information will get passed back and forth and it’s easy to lose track of decisions you’ve made or ideas you want to explore further. Having meeting notes also gives you both the chance to see where you may have misunderstood each other make corrections. Typically, I type up meeting notes within a few days of a meeting and email those to my client; they’ll add, delete, and change as they see fit and email the notes back. I’ll admit I’ve been surprised at times by how differently my client and I interpreted something; writing everything down is a great equalizer.

[In Pictures: 10 Smart Ways to Improve Your Budget.]

“He Said, She Said” Reprise

A quick client story: at the first official meeting with a new client, the wife was overflowing with ideas about their new house. Positively bursting at the seams with everything she’d been thinking about for years. We were hitting it off but the hubby kept quiet, kept checking his watch, taking calls and seeming disinterested. Finally he got up from the conference table and put on his coat. His wife looked up at him, almost as if she’d expected this. “Just make her happy” the husband said, “I’ve got a tee time.”

Richard Taylor is a residential architect based in Dublin, Ohio and a contributor to Zillow Blog, a resource for real estate and mortgage news. Twitter: @zillow.