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Five Questions to Ask Your Architect Before Building Begins

John Noble

Embarking on a new building project is exciting, but large projects can be overwhelming as well. Detailed plans and finances need to be secured followed by an architect, site and builder.

Bringing an architect onto the project early in the planning stage offers many benefits, including helping vet and select a location and construction partner. A qualified architect will be proficient and familiar with regulation, certification and zoning requirements, and other complicated procedures related to public buildings. Being involved early in the process allows the architect to be efficient with his or her time, and in turn, the client’s money.

So, what should you expect from your architect and how do you go about choosing a really good architect opposed to a merely competent one? Outlined below are five questions everyone should ask when selecting an architect for a learning environment.

What do you do to stay informed as to the current thought trends in design?

Any skilled architect brings a solid grounding in the principles and methods of design but there is a great deal of subtlety to the ways in which a learning environment can help or hinder the pedagogical aims of the educators. While ideas and trends in education, learning and development continue to evolve and change, there is important and meaningful research underpinning those developments and an awareness and understanding of that context helps architects make smart choices as to where to advocate for something truly innovative and where to resist something that seems novel for novelty’s sake.

When was the last time you were in a learning environment (with students or employees present), what were you doing, and how did it inform the way you do your work?

Teaching is an active pursuit and nothing helps one understand it like doing it. If your architect is familiar with both sides of the equation – teaching AND learning – they will bring a level of insight that might be missing from someone who hasn’t seen the inside of a classroom or engaged with a student since they themselves were in school.

Could you describe your roles and responsibilities with respect to helping shape the vision for our project?

It is critical that you and your architect share the same expectations of what they will actually be doing.

Nothing is more frustrating than feeling like your time is being wasted or like you are not being listened to. The best way to avoid that feeling is to be clear about expectations up front regarding processes and deliverables and to check-in regularly with all involved to ensure that the project is still on track. It is a great idea to set the tone from the get-go by asking for a description of what the architect’s assumptions are and then working from there to align them with yours.

In what ways do you feel YOU are a stakeholder in our project?

There are many ways in which an architect is personally and professionally invested in a project. They devote an enormous amount of their time and personal creative energy to their work and to their efforts to hear your needs and translate them into physical solutions. It can be helpful to hear from them how that shapes their vision of their roles and responsibilities.

How do you see your role in terms of defining/expanding the scope of our conversation with respect to new or different educational ideas and strategies?

While the primary responsibility of the design team is to create a project that meets your needs and addresses your concerns, they also bring a wealth of experience to the table. They probably shouldn’t advocate for a new or different pedagogical strategy from the one you employ, but they can expand the conversation by suggesting alternative or complementary strategies that you may not be aware of or have not seen in the particular context of your work. It is useful to understand the extent to which your architect will be able to enrich the conversation and expand the boundaries of a design, particularly given that most projects are both rare and expensive, with enormous consequences as well as enormous opportunities for wonder and satisfaction.

It’s important to pick an architect you trust. You should feel confident that he or she understands your goals and aspirations—they need to get you. Once you’ve selected an architect, your team can begin the design process.

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