When Clients ask Naive Questions

Common knowledge says there are no stupid questions. This is true. What I have noticed is that stupid answers can have serious repercussions. Correctly interpreting the meaning of a stupid question can keep a project headed in the right direction.

Our job is to not only provide good advice to our clients, but to provide our clients with the tools to understand why our advice is, in fact, good.

Let me first change word choice and refer to naïve, not stupid, questions. My clients are exceptionally bright. They are well-versed and experienced in their fields. They are not versed in architecture, which is why they have made the smart decision to hire me. When we discuss a project, I ask them questions to understand their building needs. I know some of my questions are quite naïve, and some of this naiveté is intentional. “So, what do you need to do in the building?” is one of my favorites. It may sound like I am a fish out of water with this project, but it is better to start at square one and quickly move forward than to start at square 10 with a hole in my basic understanding. Chances are this project is not my first rodeo, and we can get to square 20 quickly.
I want my clients to ask naïve questions, too. I love explaining design and construction, and the more grounded my clients are in their basic understanding of the industry, the better.
I recently had a meeting with a client who is deciding between an addition project and a new construction project. The addition option has site development and accessibility issues, although it is psychologically the easier project to envision. The new construction option requires relocating to a new location and losing their established home. The new construction option is quite clean; the site development and accessibility issues go away.
My client asked, “Is it possible to do the addition project?”
The answer, of course, is yes, it is possible to do the addition project. We may be tempted to say, “Yes, sure, we can do the addition project.” The problem is, the addition project may be the wrong project. If executed, the client may save money, but more probably will not. If executed, the client will experience some benefit, but not as much as the new project offers.
This question is naïve, but offers a glimpse into the client’s underlying wishes. We risk being misleading by pretending to be unbiased in our advice when we choose to provide the answer we know the client wishes to hear.
Providing answers clients wish to hear when they are naïve to the the technical issues at hand does not serve our clients. Thus it is a truism that one of the most important roles a consultant plays is mentor. Our job is to not only provide good advice to our clients, but to provide our clients with the tools to understand why our advice is, in fact, good. Journalists may be professionally bound to provide dispassionate reporting on both sides of an issue, but architects are more like opinion editors: We are here to demonstrate why one choice is better than another.

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Principal at Sealander Architects, Ellsworth Maine. Revit guru. Married with 3 children. Avid gardener. Lived in San Francisco for nine years. Master in Architecture from Columbia University Bachelor of arts in religious studies, Wesleyan University. Graduated Staples High School, Westport CT. Hope to spend some time in Hokkaido before all is said and done.