January 17, 2014 | Michael Fox | Architecture

The Value of Discovery – Dialogue before Drawing

When asked – “what do architects do”, the most common answer is, “they design / draw plans for buildings”. However, that answer diminishes the more complete and impactful role of architecture. Well before any drawing, sketching or concepting takes place, creating the opportunity to ask fundamental questions, exchange information and listen always pays significant dividends. If drawings are the first communications that a client sees, there is no going back to recapture this critical information.

Whenever possible (and it always isn’t) we aggressively encourage clients to invest a small portion of the overall project schedule in the Discovery Phase. Initially some clients balk at this request. In most cases, they haven’t worked with an architectural firm that offered this level of support. After some limited opposition, we are often asked – “why are you doing this?” In one word – Connection! To identify issues that an organization is facing beyond the need for physical changes. To ask questions that can inform the design phases that follow. In short, to provide connective thinking beyond the metrics of operational requirements and aesthetic of physical appearance will provide significant value. And, the value is not project specific. Healthcare, corporate or retail projects can all profit uniformly form the Discovery process.

For a hypothetical client, here are some typical Fox Architects Discovery questions –

1. Describe your organizations unique characteristics and competitive differentiators.

2. How will you measure the success of this project?

3. What physical messages should the new facility communicate to employees and visitors?

4. Have you visited a facility that is similar to your expectations for this facility?

5. Provide five adjectives that best describe your organization.

Notice that we have not asked about how many people, how much storage, what are the conferencing requirements and working adjacency. Not yet. It is critical and necessary information but it is a bit out of sequence. During the Programming phase all of that information will be captured and presented.

Discovery inquiries identify topics that provide unique information about an organization’s “DNA”. And, in most cases one answer comfortably leads to additional conversation that can be of equal value. As an example – asking a select group to respond to question #5 always produces great dialogue, exchanges of opinions and high value messaging (brand) direction.  For instance, those adjectives might be “passionate, flexible, focused, visionary and disciplined“. These five are powerful and impressive descriptive adjectives. Given that answer, more organizationally revealing questions will surface. For example, do you see these characteristics represented in your current work environment?

To be honest, in most cases there is very little if any connection between these characteristics and the client’s existing environment. If we do our job properly, we can use the wealth of self- described to begin to inform the design programming and design phases that follow.

As the design activity progresses with information gained from our Discovery Phase the real value of architecture is apparent. And, it is a logically extension of this information to develop criteria that can create the foundation for evidence based design.  The end product – a more relevant, connected and measurable environment directly linked to our client’s performance and brand identity.

The Discovery Phase just might be the most valuable phase of every project. Try it out, I guarantee a positive outcome!


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