Articles by Eden Greig Muir, Architect

A creative collaboration begins

Eden Muir

The previous two articles in this series presented strategies for drawing up and then narrowing down a "short list" of architects. We saw that a lot could be learned from a web site and a telephone interview. This week we'll consider a visit to the architect's studio, and offer some tips for starting your creative collaboration on the right foot.

Visiting the architect’s studio -- a creative collaboration begins.

If you can glean information about an architect from a web site and a phone call, imagine the insight that can be provided by a visit to the architect’s studio, the creative heart of the enterprise. Whether it is a downtown loft, a suburban office space, a converted barn or the wing of a country residence, look for the signs of a careful, caring designer.

Has the designer created a comfortable and effective environment for architectural production? Look around at the control of natural light and glare, and the careful use of artificial lighting. Notice the office layout and circulation, the general décor, the use of color, the furniture and space that each employee is given. Note the air quality, the use of plants, window views and the relationship to the outdoors. If there are junior designers and CAD operators, ask to tour the studio before settling in at a conference table. It's a very good sign if the staff looks comfortable, happy and productive. Is there a positive ambiance, a fun and creative atmosphere? If not, you have to ask yourself if this architect is the one that you want, to paraphrase Churchill, to shape your home and your life.

3D computer-aided design (CAD) software can be an important visualization tool.

Architecture is a three-dimensional art; the architect's studio can reflect that fact in different ways. Look for evidence of 3D output. You should see 3D diagrams, perspective sketches, and scale models constructed in cardboard, foam core or basswood. Or you may be shown printouts or screen views of models created with 3D computer-aided design (CAD) software such as AutoCAD, Microstation, Rhino or form•Z.

Ask the architect to show you how the firm deals with 3D design and presentation. Ideally it is an integral part of their design process and they can produce 3D views, or even "real-time" 3D animation on demand. This will become important to you if you have trouble visualizing the house from two-dimensional plans and elevations when you need to understand the complex intersections of sloping roofs, or the size of an addition relative to the existing house. In some cases, local authorities will require 3D views of your project.

Scale models, made of cardboard, wood, or foam core, are a traditional 3D design aid.

You (or your zoning board!) may be particularly concerned with the appearance of the building from a certain angle. If your architect uses 3D software it is easy to set up precise views from a number of designated locations. For example, you could ask for accurate eye-level perspective views of the proposed building from a point exactly 150 feet to the southwest. In fact, most CAD software will also allow you to display the precise shadows that your house will cast at that latitude, on that date and at that exact time of day. Colors and materials can be represented photo-realistically as well.

Finally, you are ready to make your selection. You have researched a number of architects whose work you find interesting, you have eliminated candidates based on phone conversations and visits to their studios. Hopefully, you have had good initial conversations with a few architects who strike you as highly qualified, experienced, talented and available within your time frame. You probably have an idea about which architect would be easiest to work with. If there is more than one obvious choice, try to rank them based on your interview notes. And now, finally, it’s time to call your leading candidate and utter the two words that architects most love to hear: "You’re hired!"

Working effectively with your architect

Whether it's a matter of a small house or a vast museum, every successful architectural project needs more than just a good architect--it must have a good client. To get the very best work out of an architect, the owner must be involved every step of the way, asking questions, critiquing the architect's proposals and helping to shape the design solution. Clients who stands back, removed from the design process will not only miss all the fun, they may not get the kind of personalized magic that can be achieved in a truly collaborative partnership with the architect.

A small, one-gable farmhouse receives a two-gable addition in the same style.

Here are some ways to give your architect the information he or she needs and to accelerate the design process.

Know your site intimately

If your site has any complexity in its topography or vegetation, have it mapped by a surveyor. Ask to have the contour lines plotted and large trees located so that you can discuss slopes, views, driveway routes, and so on. If you are building on a new lot, take some folding chairs and spend some significant time on the land looking at the views in each direction, listening for sources of noise, studying the trees and vegetation, checking the orientation of the sun and the prevailing winds. See if you can find the "sweet spot" that would be the most perfect location for the house. Later, see if the architect chooses the same spot.

A small wood-frame house is carefully sited on a wooded lot.

If possible, put up a tent and spend a night at the site so that you can experience the sunrise and the night sounds. I know a person who bought a charming property by a waterfall only to discover that the roar of the water, amplified by the calm of the night, kept her from sleeping.

Your new job description: architectural researcher

Do all the obvious things: Collect magazine images of spaces and houses that you like. Use post-it notes to mark pages in your favorite architecture books. Attend local home shows. Watch home improvement shows on TV and visit their web sites. Photograph and list the dimensions of the essential pieces of furniture that you must find places for in your new house. Make a list of the rooms that you think you need, indicating their approximate sizes.

A guest house takes its design cues from the original farmhouse next door.

Perhaps most important: Get a pocket-size digital camera with a zoom lens that you can carry with you at all times, especially while driving around your area. Snap photos of buildings and details that you like: a wrap-around porch, a shingled gable, a stone farmhouse, a pleasing roofline, a handsome landscaping job. If something intrigues you enough to make you stop your car and take a photo, it's something that your architect should see.

You're now ready to start creating architecture. Tell the architect to come over on the next sunny day. Spend an hour reviewing your lists, magazine clippings and photos. Then grab those folding chairs and head for your site, and let the magic begin!



Architect Eden Muir, AIA, has been licensed in New York State since 1991. He taught for 17 years at Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture and is the author of 3 books on topics related to 3D design and digital technology, all available at He can be reached via his web site or by email:




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