Talking in Code

by Becca Cavell

Sometimes professionals seem to go out of their way to talk in code – and architects are no exception. During presentations to lay-people we’ll often sprinkle our discussions with words like “fenestration” and “masonry cladding” when simpler terms such as “window” and “brick wall” will do just fine. It’s not intellectual superiority that causes this speech defect….it’s simply that sometimes we know an awful lot about certain subjects and forget that not everyone is privy to the same jargon. Sometimes we just need to get the right perspective on the context of a conversation – taking time to do this can profoundly influence the outcome of any given meeting and it’s well worth the effort. I’m going to use a few examples to illustrate ways we can simplify our language and better engage our clients:

Setting Clear Goals

Architects often march into the first design meeting expecting the client to immediately identify their goals for the project. Sometimes this happens as a round-the-table discussion, sometimes as a brainstorming session with flipcharts and markers. And after several weeks of word-smithing, the mixed bags of hopes, aspirations and specific requests are gradually compressed into a contorted and ungrammatical set of “goals” that are often then set aside with a sigh of relief and never referred to again. Isn’t there a more effective way to articulate the client’s goals, and wouldn’t it be great if those goals actually helped shape a positive outcome of the project?

An Example

The University of Oregon (UO)’s Campus Plan establishes an alternative method based on Christopher Alexander’s classic text, “A Pattern Language.” A series of patterns are developed by the User Group (aka the Building Committee) prior to the selection of a design team; per the plan, these are “statements that describe and analyze design issues and suggest ways in which those issues might be resolved.” The User Group reviews UO’s established patterns and selects pertinent patterns for its project, writing additional patterns if necessary to communicate key concepts. The patterns use non-technical language that is accessible to all involved.

Quality of Light

UO COE_Courtyard_people seated

THA’s UO College of Education: The window design and shading systems respond to specific orientation and were developed through extensive modeling and testing for optimum performance.

A typical project might have dozens of patterns and at first this approach struck me as a little bit unmanageable for the design team to keep track of. But having worked with UO on two significant projects I am happy to announce myself a convert to this approach. Our approach was simple: embrace the patterns as a clearly articulated set of client-driven goals, and use them as touch stones at key points in the project’s development to make sure that the design remained on track. And it proved to be a highly effective approach that engaged everyone in the conversation and helped clarify and resolve design debates whenever they arose.

The Simplest Things…..

The majority of THA’s work is public and much of it is for repeat clients.  We sometimes fall into the trap of assuming that everyone understands the language of design. Recently we’ve tried to take a step back from our assumptions and take a moment in the early client meetings to explain some of the words and phrases the team will be using. We also take a little time to explain the process of design itself. We probably all develop graphically appealing, simplified schedules to talk about how the project will unfold. Now we talk about each phase, its anticipated duration, and most importantly what the client group should expect in terms of visual presentations. “Schematic Design” as a phrase means little to a non-architect. So we explain the phases (and their acronyms) and show the development of a completed project from initial sketches to photographs of the final project. We can then return to these images at subsequent meetings to reaffirm the context of the conversation and to help frame the decisions that we are asking our clients to make.

MC sketch

Mercy Corps Global Headquarters early project sketch


Mercy Corps Exterior FPO

Mercy Corps Global Headquarters finished project

Why do this?

There is no reason to limit our clients’ ability talk to us candidly about their aspirations and requirements for their projects. Language is an unconscious barrier. Be mindful of your words, and learn to monitor and curb your use of jargon. Think twice before you use charette, curtainwall or storefront, double-loaded corridors, fenestration, and juxtaposition, and please think thrice before using a TLA*.

*three letter acronym

Top image: Morse Code Forever by Ward Cunningham

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