It was my first big commercial office renovation project.
It was at the time I started my architecture practice, which meant that I was willing to do anything and everything to build my business.
Mr. X (aka dream client) was introduced to me through one of the￼ professional contacts I kept in touch with over the years. My contact mentioned that Mr. X was planning to upgrade his office building and he was in the process of interviewing some architects, and I should expect a phone call in a few days.
A few days later, I received a call from Mr. X and asked me to visit his office building which was located in downtown Toronto. After scheduling the appointment, I decided to know everything about the building and be ready for whatever the questions/wish lists Mr. X was going to throw at me. Time to start googling!
My first impression of the building was positive; although the building looked dated and difficult to tell where the main entrance was, it was a solid and prominent building I noticed right away in the sea of many smaller and shorter buildings around.
I was super nervous to meet my first and possibly a very big client. I wanted to present myself as a capable architect who he can trust. In other word, I wanted him to like me.
After going through some small talk about our businesses as well as our mutual contact who introduced us, I got myself ready for the interview. I started speaking about my background, the architecture firm, and the type of projects I had completed in the past….both in New York City and Toronto.
It was my time to emphasize why I was the architect he had been trying to find for his project, and furthermore, why he should pick ME for the job.
Well….it didn’t quite work out that easy.
In the middle of describing the similar office renovation project I had done in the past, he just waved his hand and said;
“I know your background. What I want to know is what you can do for this particular building”.
I knew from my contact, Mr. X wanted to renovate the parts of the building. So, I started going into all kinds of different upgrades for the building; energy efficiency through mechanical work, different office spacing arrangement, various office renovation trends, etc.
For the second time, he waved his hand.
I was getting nervous…maybe I’m not getting this project, maybe my ideas are bad, or just maybe he doesn’t like me, maybe, maybe…
With his slow and kind of imposing /authoritarian way, he said;
“I want to know what the BIG ideas you have for this project”.
Wait, did he just say my ideas are SMALL!
I quickly realized that he was right.
His BIG ideas meant that I should present broad /comprehensive strategies, not just solutions to fix parts of the building.
At that moment, I knew I was not thinking like an architect but like the property manager who was documents things to fix in the building.
After taking a deep breath and also putting the “architect’s hat” on, I was more than ready. I started going through the BIG ideas he should consider not only for the present time but also deep into the future planning of the building, and also for him as well.
Make employees happy
I am not talking about ping pong table, high tech gym, or even the latest/ greatest cappuccino machine for your employees. Although, if you can provide those as a business owner, I can only say I hate you!
These days, we all talk about how the Millenials, Generation Z are different from us (yes, us older people). Affinity towards work/life balance, community service, purpose-driven career planning while munching on their avocado toasts would be the typical assessment we older generations make towards them.
One other cliches about the Millenials / Generation Zer is that they don’t stay too long at one job. I have experienced this job-hopping skills from my past / younger employees at my architecture firm. I am also hearing the same from my architect colleagues that whether the office is small or big, they are finding the younger employees tend to leave after a few years of work.
The emerging trend for any industry is that retaining/attracting the top talent would become a priority, certainly the case with the architecture industry. The magazine, ARCHITECT states;
“attracting and retaining talent would become the top priority for the form of the future: “architecture firms will face skills in the near future and they have two real challenges ahead of them: quantity and quality of people”
As I was describing the overall changes to improve the office setting for their employees to Mr. X, he was smiling again.
Make visitors/tenants happy
After noticing the positive response (smile), I decided to drive the REALLY BIG idea for him (or any clients): business development.
While hearing and asking some questions on how to improve the office set up for his employees, Mr. X was now inching towards the 2nd big idea; how my design ideas could help with his business, more precisely getting additional tenants for his building.
Mr. X owns and operates the property development/ management business; his clients were EVERYONE who wants to rent the office space from him. He
asked requested that I offer him an overall design strategy that can bring more businesses to him.
While wishing for for the same beneficial strategy for my architecture firm, I just blurted out that I can provide the ‘bring in more customers to your business” design solution.
I started with my first observations/impressions of the building – the main entrance. I shared with him that I had a difficulty finding the main entrance due to the size and underwhelming presence. I emphasized the importance of the “presence” on street level for the building, and how that can create a certain image to potential tenants who were looking for the office space.
I felt like i was a marketing genius….
At that moment, I also realized I still have not shown the portfolio illustrating the type of projects our office completed. When I decided to put on the “architect hat”, and said, if he would like to see the portfolio of our office projects, he just waved and said,
I already checked out the website. so I know what your office can do. Why don’t you tell me more about what you can do for our business.
He wanted me to keep going with my ideas….I love this client!
Plan for the future
Now on the future planning…his, his employees, and how he was going to retire somewhere warm after selling his building to make a huge profit (my assumption).
Although I made an assumptions about HIS retirement plan, I was pretty confident that all of us want to have some sort of plans in place for our older ages.
It turns out Mr. X likes winter and did not have a plan for retiring somewhere warm!
Now back to putting on architect hat, and started dig deep into how to think about his future plans for the BUILDING even if he does not have his own retirement plans.
I explained to him that increasing rent in an expensive city like Toronto, having many private office spaces within the building did not make sense in terms of how we work these days.
He reluctantly agreed with me on this point – he liked the “closed space” where he can concentrate, but he did notice his employees wishing for a bigger kitchen and more open/transparent workspace.
In 2017 stats on Globe and Mail article,
“the portion of the upgrades landlords are willing to commit to provide to entice tenants to sign a lease. These allowances (upgrades) rose by an average of 10 % in 2017 across North America as companies moved to better quality space’
I also added another final point about the FUTURE; what would happen if he decides to sell the building.
Not only the open-concept offices could be more attractive to potential tenants who have the freedom to update the space, but the initial reno expense would be much lower than creating many closed office spaces.
Mr. X was definitely smiling at this point.
After having me go through many design ideas/strategies for his building, Mr. X decided to take a few design ideas that can make a big impact on his building and his business – starting with the main entrance upgrade.
As I look back and evaluate the past as well the future of my architecture practice, I know that “the dream client” incidence does not happen often. However the lessons I received from that fateful day, I will never forget.
What I took away from the experience was that no matter the client types, it was in my control to think strategically to bring values to the client and that is not going happen with small/fix-it approaches to the project.
What about you? What is your experience like running your own business? Have you met your dream client? I would love to hear your story, comments….questions.