Above the Trees

The Softer Side of Service


When architect Christopher “Kit” Ratcliff talks about his holistic approach to design, it is tempting to write off the description as a Californiaism. And even though the firm he heads is in Emeryville, the heart of Northern California, his phrasing is anything but regional.

Interior designers and architects aren’t just about image anymore. Change is afoot, embraced by everyone from renovation TV personality Ty Pennington to industry professionals like Ratcliff. Designers are recognizing that much of their job involves counseling clients–and they’re adjusting their business models and price structures accordingly.

“Over the years, we have become more like counselors than designers, often acting as mediators between employers and employees, owners and contractors, and even lawyers and lawyers,” says Jack Michael Suben, one of the principals of Suben/Dougherty, a New York Citybased architecture and interior design firm. “We’ve also learned the value of diplomacy, a talent that cannot be learned in design school.”

His experience is far from unique: “I have always maintained that I should hang out a shingle as a therapist, marriage counselor [and] financial adviser,” quips Lori Margolis, a Summit, N.J., designer.

But the personal approach isn’t limited to individuals and their personal issues. It also involves working with representatives of entities and institutions to create designs that further specific business strategies.

The 85employee Ratcliff firm counsels hospitals, schools and other nonprofit institutions. The firm’s strategic plan requires designers to ask themselves, “Am I helping the client?” rather than just asking, “Am I creating an interesting design?”

Ratcliff agrees that merely creating a good design is no longer sufficient. “We are competing globally for jobs. If the architect thinks of himself as just drawing lines, he’ll be out of business. There is a guy across the water in India who is just as good at drawing and cheaper,” Ratcliff says. “We have to be less about implementation and bricklaying and more about helping people through group processes and making sure they are heard and understood.”

Ratcliff cites his work with a Catholic church as one of his most challenging projects. The priest was just one of many members of the congregation who had a voice in the design. When he noticed that some were inclined to defer to the priest, whether they agreed with him or not, he jumped in as a mediator to ensure true consensus.

The Price of Nice

Many design professionals say the handholding that is now part of their job should be figured into pricing. Some firms have found that a billable-hours approach is best. “Whether we need to discuss significant design issues or problems resurfacing from their childhood, all are handled comfortably within this framework,” says architect Evan Galen, who has a New York City-based firm.

Others feel it’s more effective to offer a set fee that includes the big-picture consulting that goes into a project.

“The greatest challenge in this approach,” Suben says, “lies in educating our clients as to the real value in approaching a solution on the basis of the exchange of meaningful information, rather than reducing our efforts to dollars per square foot–or as was previously the norm–a percentage of dollars spent on construction.”

Above the Trees looks at leaders and industries outside the law. It lets you draw analogies to how you run your business, how you deal with your clients and how you face your own challenges.

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