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Client Interactive Design

CSRF Newsletters

By Richard Buday, AIA

"The day of the prima donna approach to designing buildings has passed. The new way is by team. The idea of architecture by team has three underlying, secondary ideas: (1) the team is a genius, (2) the client/user is a member of the team, and (3) the team is an ever-expanding unit, not limited to the design profession."
- Bill Caudill

William W. Caudill, FAIA said: "Teamwork and architecture share a relationship that is decades old. Architects discovered almost 30 years ago that making clients part of the team offered a better way to program buildings than working alone. Though "problem seeking" as a group activity is well established, direct collaboration between architect and client during design is rare. Architects have traditionally been afraid to let clients get close to the design process".

It's been hard to imagine otherwise. Few clients have the luxury of spending countless weeks and months in an architect's office watching them draw. Few architects enjoy clients peering over their shoulders as they think. This difficulty unintentionally supports the myth that creative problem solving excludes client participation. Abstract design presentation meetings are the closest many clients ever get to actual design. Though client money is used to conceive and execute a project, most clients never see how their design dollars are spent. Most clients are only witnesses to the problem solving process.

There is another way. Architects using computer tools as design media are discovering that clients are useful for more than just funding projects. A design process that includes direct client participation is inherently more efficient than the prima donna approach. Customers of architectural services and users of buildings are uniquely suited to interpret their needs. Client presentation and concept approval meetings become unnecessary if a client was in the room the moment an idea was born. This kind of design technique, client interactive design, is fundamentally different from the way buildings have traditionally been conceived. It opens up the design process for broad exposure, shattering the "ivory tower" illusion. With computer graphics, clients become integral parts of architectural solutions, participants instead of bystanders. Computer imagery opens a "window" to a designer's mind.

For Example

The Cleburne Cafeteria, one of Houston's oldest dining establishments, was destroyed by fire on August 9, 1990. George Mickelis, the restaurant's owner, was eager to get back in business. The Cleburne Cafeteria was started by George's father in 1955. Some customers had been patrons for 38 years.

Four days after the fire, George met with our firm. Hearing that Archimage had a reputation for innovative computer use, George later told us that we seemed right for the job. "You guys are built for speed," he said after his first visit to the office. Work began immediately on designing a new and enlarged restaurant to replace The Cleburne's charred remains.

The pace was frantic. Design goals, space requirements and budget for a new 7,000 s.f. building were established in an all-day meeting in the office. Schematic design began in the Archimage "theater" the next morning. Our client interactive design process revolves around a series of visual brainstorming sessions. Architect, client, engineering consultants and computer work together in an energized round table environment to analyze forces shaping a project. Intense, organized yet spontaneous, client interactive design allows ideas and relationships that once took weeks to "see" to be viewed quickly. Using digital graphics, modeling and animation, Archimage virtually "built" the new Cleburne Cafeteria project before the client's eyes.

Archimage completed the building design in less than 10 days. Digital design documents were turned into construction documents. The project was submitted to The City of Houston for permit on September 5, 21 calendar days after the client walked in the door. We estimate that conventional design and production techniques would have cost the project an additional two months time.

Archimage produced a 15 minute promotion film documenting the project and the client interactive design process. "Cleburne Cafeteria: The Movie" was released in 1991 and is winner of two animation awards. Cleburne Cafeteria, the building, opened in December 1990.

Design Management

Client interactive design philosophy is based on the assumption that intense interaction with clients and their active involvement in the design process is a better way to design. With computer tools, interactive design techniques can visualize reality with such clarity that even novice clients are comfortable contributors to the design process. The design process is still a process, however. We've found that a systematic approach to choreographing client interactive design meetings is vital.

Our design theater is a multipurpose space organized around a conference table, high speed personal computer and large screen presentation monitor. The PC is attached to a 37" monitor capable of reproducing computer RGB or video signals. The space can accommodate up to eight, including an architect at "the helm." Wall space is used to pin up in-progress plots, site photos and other flat artwork.

The theater's PC is networked to the studio's other eight computers. Though most of the work in an interactive design session is created on the theater's computer, studio computers are used to provide off-line support; a designer may take a small part of the project back to their desk for development while the meeting continues. The network also allows the theater computer access to the office's file library, printers, plotters, faxes and web connection.

Client interactive design meetings usually last all day. The goal of the session is to schematically design the project. Small interior projects can often be completed in less than a day. Medium or large scale commissions take multiple sessions spanning one or more weeks. Pre-design work is done before a meeting starts, usually involving the creation of background information such as property lines, topography, streets or existing structures. Ideas from previous days' meetings are also refined and placed online before a meeting begins. We tell our clients that, while they may think they're spending more time in architect meetings, their total involvement will be the same as any other project. Instead of spreading time over many meetings and months, the client's time is condensed into a string of contiguous meetings at the beginning.

Tools used in the meeting span the entire range of software design products available. Spreadsheets and space programming software are used to translate problem seeking information into block and stack diagrams. 3-D design programs are used for conceptual mass models and form studies. Plan information is refined with CAD and rendering software is used for material studies. Animation tools are used to give meeting participants a clear understanding of the design, how it feels in 4-D (height, length, width and time). Sound effects are often added to animated video segments to place the viewer as realistically as possible inside the building.

Creativity on Command

Most designers are uncomfortable when asked to be creative on demand. The fear of having clients look over their shoulder as they interpret ideas, comments and suggestions during a meeting can be lessened in two ways: Including a senior designer to direct or "orchestrate" the meeting separates the architect at the computer from the task of also controlling the meeting. Strong familiarity with computer tools, both hardware and software, keeps the meeting from losing momentum as ideas start to churn.

In some ways, interactive design meetings are performance art. Spontaneity and freshness are balanced with control and familiarity. Not every designer, and not every client, will find interactive design techniques agreeable. Computer interactive design forces architects to do their best work on center stage, instead of alone at their boards. Computer-phobic participants are at a particular disadvantage. The process also forces clients to commit a block of time to the initial phases of their project.

We're often asked if the use of computer tools increases of decreases the cost of services. There are compelling arguments on both sides. Ideally, shaving weeks off a project schedule should amount to a reduction in professional fees. On the other hand, the cost of investment and retraining coupled with an increased value of services suggest client interactive design should be priced higher than traditional methods. Our experience has taught us that neither is true. Intangible factors are at work in pricing professional services, things like market conditions, competition and the firm's reputation. Fortunately or unfortunately, design fees are the same whether one uses computer, yellow trace paper or hot knife.

The Future

We envision the design office of the future as more closely resembling a film studio than a traditional architect's office. As we upgrade our theater with new capabilities, we're closely following advances made in computer based stereoscopic visualization and artificial reality.

The benefits of a team approach to problem solving are significant. Computer technology drives client interactive design, but new ways of seeing affect more than how we work and think. Like the discovery of perspective during the Renaissance, new media will become inseparable from the creative process. As perceptions expand, so will limits. Not only how we design, but our aesthetic will change. Video, multimedia, computer graphics, animation, engineering simulation, virtual reality and the study of fractals are already proving to be elements of a new architecture. The industrial revolution fathered modernism. Our new tools may produce its' own movement, one corresponding to the information age we live in.


About the author: Richard Buday, AIA, is an architect and President of Archimage, Inc. - Houston, Texas. He taught at the University of Houston College of Architecture and writes frequently on the use of computers in architecture. He served on the AIA Task Force for CAD Layer Guidelines. Buday can be reached at

The CSRF newsletter is published for SPECTEXT® subscribers and others involved in design and construction. To obtain your copy of Creating a Common Language®, please contact the CSRF Support Center by telephone at 1-877- SPECTXT or 410-838-7561 or you may e-mail us at

©  Copyright 2007, The Construction Sciences Research Foundation, Inc.  Updated January 12, 2007.

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