Match Making

 Bruce Butler


AIA Design Theory – July 2015

Edited by Rebecca Falzano | Photography by Sarah Beard Buckley

In MH+D’s continuing collaboration with AIA Maine, we present to you each month a design concept from an architect’s point of view.


Bruce Butler shares what makes a good relationship between architect and client.

Residential design has a theoretical side and a practical side. The practical side incorporates new technologies, building materials, and environmentally sustainable practices. It takes into account things like clients’ goals, budgets, and site constraints. The theoretical side incorporates a visual vocabulary that is universal to all well-designed homes. It includes basic elements such as a “sheltering roof,” the correct size and proportion of spaces, and rooms that capture natural light from two directions, to name a few. But the design process doesn’t work if the architect and homeowner are not on the same page. So what makes a good match between a residential architect and a client? MH+D asked architect Bruce Butler to tell us. 


Q. How do you find a good fit between client and architect?

A. I’ve never used a dating service, but I imagine it involves using certain parameters to find a good match. And since a successful relationship is a two- way street, there must be traits on both sides that contribute to its success. The working relationship between an architect and a client is no different. I imagine that a lot of prospective clients look at images first on the architect’s website to see whether or not there’s a compatible “aesthetic sensibility.” Does the architect design houses in a regional style that clients can picture themselves in, or is it a more modern style? Is it a transitional style that reinvents the typical New England home in an interesting way? Does the architect share the client’s concerns for a low carbon footprint? Or, in the case of a renovation/addition, does the architect show restraint where it’s appropriate and no restraint whatsoever where that’s appropriate, too?

Q. What kind of clients do you look for?

A. As a sole practitioner, I often reflect on why I really look forward to working with certain clients. In my experience, there are some common threads. First is flexibility. I find that the best clients will have a list of priorities. Sometimes the priorities are at odds with one another, such as a room with huge windows while, at the same time, there’s a desire to be as energy-efficient as possible. But as long as there is a scale of values to the list, then there is room for discussion and creative problem solving that involves both the client and myself.

Q. What level of client involvement strikes a good balance?

A. Architectural design is rarely a linear process from point A to point B. The client who participates in the process of weighing the pros and cons of making design decisions will end up with a great house design that’s been fully evaluated along the way and doesn’t appear from “out of left field.” Client involvement should extend to observing the house being built and gaining an understanding of the rationale of how the many parts fit together.

Q. How does budget play a role?

A. The most positive experiences occur when the client (and architect) understands there is only so much money to build the project. Project “creep” can happen easily as rooms morph to accommodate added program requirements. It’s not the client’s job to know what everything costs, but if there’s a budget established up front, then it makes everyone’s job easier. As an architect, I think that stressing quality of space over quantity of space is a good approach.

Q. This relationship requires an amount of trust, yes?

A. Trust needs to be earned. And it’s especially difficult when you’re talking about a building that exists in the architect’s mind and on paper (though computer-generated 3-D modeling now helps tremendously in conveying design ideas). But there are times when the client simply has to trust that the architect has their best interests in mind when deciding on things that aren’t obvious or that are simply hard to picture. If the architect is doing their job well, he or she balances what the client wants with what’s responsible for the context and the environment. I’ve found that all of these traits make the process more fun for everyone involved and create a real sense of client ownership. And while a dating service might get you a night out on the town and a free drink, the right architect/client relationship results in a house that’s a perfect match.

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