Winning Architecture

Winning Architecture

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Nunzio DeSantis
Contributed by:
Nunzio DeSantis

Talk About It

About 9 years ago: Brian B.

Great insight. Reminds me of the elements described in Dale Carnegie's book, "How to win friends and influence people."

About 9 years ago: Mahbuba Nahid K.

Wow, this is very relevant for Architects like myself who are trying to grow the revenue of their small firms. Every morning is a morning for job search, have my marketing hat on all time...but there are times when I need to pace myself and not lose sight of the ultimate goal, most importantly not to kill myself or ruin family life by taking too much on my plate....reminder to myself.

Winning Architecture

Every architect longs to enter a building that he or she has labored over: It is the culmination of what that architect conceived, created, crafted, developed, documented, and realized. It is what we, as architects, gauge our value upon. We enjoy seeing a client and the public engaging in our built environment. We appreciate seeing a building reinforce, support, and enhance the purpose of the human engagement for which it is specifically designed. From this, we find great personal satisfaction.

However, long before you have the privilege to design, create, develop and realize a project, someone has to be responsible for finding a client that is considering a project; someone must find a way to meet that client, gain their trust and confidence – and of all the great architects in the world – convince the client and his team that your firm is the one. It is only then that you can have the privilege to exercise and showcase your craft and talent.... only after you have won the project. 

Winning work is hard. Being good at winning work is even harder. 

Without winning there is no work... no project... no staff... no fee. 

I have had the privilege of traveling the world in pursuit of work. The one truth that is common whether you are in Beijing, New Delhi, Fiji, Dubai, Morocco, Egypt, London, São Paolo, or Dallas, Texas is that you are dealing with people. We are in the business of “people serving people.” Clients want service. They want someone they can rely on and trust. They need someone who is looking out for their best interest. They want a relationship built on total confidence and commitment. 

I have enjoyed great success in winning work over my 31 years as an architect. How I pursued work 25 years ago was based on the same principals I use today. Sure, technology has impacted how we work and presentations are more elaborate. However, let me assure you that the Power Point visually represents our craft, but clients and projects are won after all the lights come back on and once all the PowerPoints are over – that is when you win. It is when you and a client connect on a human level – a personal level. 

Here are “10 Winning Principles” that have worked for me throughout my career and can help you win, too. 

1. Know yourself

Know what you stand for and be comfortable in your own skin. A client wants an architect who is confident, knowledgeable, smart, and purposeful. Be comfortable knowing what you are really good at.  Equally important, you must know what you may not be suited to do. Don't try to be all things to all people. Never find yourself projecting to know about a building type, systems, or technologies that are foreign to you. That is a recipe for disaster and will ultimately lose work for you. Be a mature leader by expressing the depth of your knowledge – your greatest asset and strength. Be true to who you are, what you know, and what you are passionate about.

2. Be a seeker

You will not win work if you don't know how to find an opportunity. Finding opportunities means creating a web of relationships between architects, consultants, contractors, brokers, and others to keep you aware of active projects and clients. It takes commitment and discipline to be an effective seeker. Begin by making a list of 50 of your most loyal and knowledgeable relationships and build a solid network. The first 15 minutes of each working day should be committed to making two calls within your network. By the end of the month you should have called all 50. Add to this network and build a group of connectors that help you stay informed. Remember that a high level of trust and being discreet with shared information within these groups is paramount. 

3. Keep your eye on the ball

Stay focused. Once you have identified a client with a project that is right for you and that you are passionate about, stay focused. This should become your single and most important target. Learn all you can about the parameters and program of the upcoming project: size, amenities, challenges, schedule, budget, development history, etc. Dig deep about the site and location, local zoning, utilities, anything that can make you smarter. Get to know your client and start developing a relationship. Ask about their background, college, family, interests and hobbies, cars, etc. Remember, this business is about people serving people, and making a personal connection.

Be determined about becoming knowledgeable and relevant. Be specific. Be focused so when the opportunity is afforded to you, you will be ready to engage in a meaningful and direct manner.

4. Listen and engage

When you do meet the client don't speak about architecture or his/her project. If it is a casual meeting, don't conduct any business. WAIT. WAIT. WAIT. Wait for the client to ask what you do or if he is aware of what you do – wait for him/her to open up the discussion about the project. Relax and focus on interesting and engaging conversation. Because you have already done your homework, you will be prepared to have a meaningful conversation about things that interest your potential client. 

When you have the opportunity to interact with a potential owner or client, let the client speak about their project. Do all you can to keep him/her talking. Soak up all you can about the personality of the project by knowing its visionary. Ask questions, be agreeable, laugh and engage. Lead the client to discuss aspects of the project that you may already know about. This helps you better understand nuances and critical issues that are meaningful to this owner.

5. Differentiate yourself

You are unique in the world of architects. Each of us has enjoyed a plethora of experiences, projects, clients, and memories that bring a direct orientation or perspective to a project. Talk about why other projects fail as much as why certain projects succeed. Talk about location and completion in the area. Be relevant to the location related to construction cost, contractors, materials, sustainability, and culture. This establishes you as a valued partner. 

Clients want to hire architects who can create a project that is well-conceived, relevant, and beautiful. I have found that drawing in front of clients is a key to winning. This is one way I differentiate myself. By allowing a client to be a part of the process and offering the opportunity to see architecture come to life before his or her eyes is a powerful and meaningful way to make a difference. Don't be timid – this is your time. 

6. DON'T sell

It is more powerful not to sell. Clients want to be captivated – not sold. Be honest. Be clear and be genuine. 

Ultimately, it will be important to showcase your work, your design prowess, your staff, your technological excellence, your process, your range, and most importantly your passion. However, try not to sell – just connect. We all have experienced someone who is trying to sell you. Often it is not done well, or it is threatening and not genuine. It is often distasteful and a turn-off for a client who has something that he/she cherishes and wants to protect. Be subtle and genuine. Find a way to ease into a discussion regarding the project. Ask questions that lead the conversation to the project. Show interest, but don't sell. Enjoy the conversation. At some moment during the discussion there will be an opportunity to reveal that you are an architect. By then, the client has likely become comfortable with you and will appreciate your discretion. This is a very powerful approach. 

7. Experience

We all know potential clients are interested in the variety of projects and building types that you or your firm has been involved with. However, give the client just a small taste of your broader portfolio, but concentrate your time together on relevant, similar projects or locations. Clients want to be comfortable selecting an architect with a focused collection of well-designed and delivered projects. This gives a client comfort. Don't get lost. Stay on point and don't wander. 

Architecture is a team sport. Introduce your proposed team who, if selected, will work on the project. Identify the roles and responsibilities, and individual experience. Showcase your team as a collection of uniquely talented professionals who together provide depth, experience, and talent. Take the time to bring your team up to speed so each of them can seem laser-focused and relevant to the client. This is a requirement.

And don't forget to showcase your BEST work, design awards, or other clients’ recognition. This shows value and value is always in demand. 

8. Reality and managing expectations 

Be prepared to discuss potential pitfalls and challenges of the project or the location. Discuss the schedule and budget. Be comfortable offering your thoughts on both. If the client suggests a schedule that is unrealistic then say so! However, offer different ways to meet his schedule. Work with the client but do not accept unrealistic goals. Also, let the owner know that he/she must be able to provide clear, decisive, and timely decisions so you can meet established goals. Discuss budget and the realities of building in the location, or in a specific genre. Set the goals and expectations for both the owner and you. Remember … a commission is like a marriage. Talk over common interests, and in the long run both sides win. Respect is gained early in discussions and will be an important step toward a healthy relationship between you and the owner. 

9. Tell a story

There is nothing like a good story that settles a group and makes you approachable, real, and likeable. 

So often, the client who is interviewing you is more uncomfortable than you are. I like slowing the pace of an interview by reflecting on a past situation that is a direct experience, one which the client can relate to and is relevant or anecdotal. A story can be a success story or a failure story. I like reflecting on situations that start with a failure to show that architects are vulnerable and human. Then I switch the focus of the story to the manner in which we resolved, fixed, or adapted the issues to make things right and which ultimately created a success story for all. A client likes someone who is committed, truthful, and doesn't mind saying that there will be mistakes or moments that fall short. However, the storytelling method allows you to represent how you or your firm commits to, refocuses, and resolves a problem or challenge...this is strong. This communicates that you are there when times get tough! This shows honesty and integrity. Storytelling allows you to break down barriers that separate you from a client and it connects you... ultimately connecting is what winning is all about. 

10. Make it personal and ASK – DESIRE

It is okay to let the client know that you are personally committed to the success of the project. All clients want someone on their team, and especially the architect, to be committed to excellence, delivery, service, and be a trusted partner that has their best interest in mind. Clearly communicate that this is an important project to your company and more importantly to you personally, and that you will ensure that it is a success. 


There comes a time when it is important to let the client know directly that you want his/her project. By this point, you have represented why you are an outstanding candidate to serve the client. You have demonstrated a character that is fair, honest, and compelling. You have presented your experience, references, awards, team, and past projects. Now is the time. Go ahead and do it. Ask for the project. Simply stand up and say, "We want your project. We will not let you down. Give us the privilege to serve and work with you. We will succeed together."

The client needs to know that you want his/her work and that this project is important to you and your firm. Make sure to deliver this message genuinely and professionally. It makes a difference. Never, never, ever leave an interview or decision-based meeting without letting the owner know just how important the project is to you and your company and that you want to be their architect. 

So, if you consider these 10 principles you will see great results. Each and every person is different and unique. Take these principles and craft them to suit your personality and your authentic self. At the end of the day I believe clients hire people, not firms. You are important and you can make a difference. 


Nunzio DeSantis, FAIA is an executive vice president with HKS.