NYC Renovation Chronicles

NYC Renovation Chronicles: The difference between a good client and a nightmare

By David Katz  | September 30, 2010 - 7:10AM
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Every architect I know has war stories about problem clients – people who demand constant changes, who always argue, who never trust anyone, or who just rub them the wrong way.

At the same time, there are those dream clients for whom we develop deep respect and affection – people who engage in the design process with courtesy and enthusiasm.

The client/architect dialogue can energize or sour a project. So beyond the obvious piece of advice not to work with someone you would avoid at a cocktail party, here are a few guidelines every client should be aware of:

  • A good client is someone who knows the difference between stating a concept and dictating a solution. It is one thing to say, “I would like the apartment renovated to contain a new kitchen, three bedrooms and a lot of light.” It is another thing entirely to hand your architect a layout with marching orders that it be carried out precisely as drawn. This is not to say you shouldn’t bring ideas to the table, but architects are passionate about coming up with good solutions. I have had clients hand me rabbit warren layouts with bathrooms too small, bedrooms with no windows and kitchens that wouldn’t fit a camping stove. No architect wants to execute a poorly thought out design – no matter how perfect a client believes it to be on paper. It only leads to regret on both sides.
  • Some nightmare clients do not know what they want to spend on a project. Together with the concept, a budget is an architect’s road map. It provides direction regarding the amount of work to be done, the level of finish, where design effort should be expended and where savings may be obtained. Without a clear budget, design meetings tend to go on forever and architects do not know what direction to move in – gut renovate the kitchen, or replace the cabinet doors; create a master bedroom suite or suggest new linens…
  • Worse than fuzzy-budget clients are those who dispute the cost of NYC construction based on their knowledge of costs in Claverack. Working upstate, a plumber will charge $600 a day. In NYC where there are DOB filings, inspections, neighbors and building boards, the price will easily double. Similarly, it is not true that a contractor will do a job for almost nothing in a bad economy. The law of supply and demand will dictate competition, which in turn will have an impact on cost, but if a contractor is willing to lose money on a job, look out. As soon as something better comes along, your job site will be as quiet as a library.
  • Clients who cut their architects out of the loop suffer their own nightmares. I had one client who dictated changes to the contractor during construction without notifying me. I spent the first few minutes of every site meeting noting the changes and the next several explaining the costly consequences. Removal of walls, relocation of plumbing fixtures, even lighting modifications – can negatively impact the building. For instance, in a case that made the news a few years back, an overzealous renovator removed a structural wall in her townhouse without consulting any professionals.  The structure began to lean on the adjacent building, necessitating its evacuation. The renovator was ultimately forced to purchase it.
  • Then there are the clients who paralyze the process by micromanaging. There is a difference between being involved in the design process/staying connected to the project and insisting on reviewing your architect’s emails before they go out.

Finally, it pretty much goes without saying that clients who fail to pay their architects are not beloved. A good client takes the time to review and negotiate a detailed contract and honor its terms.

Next up... Love at first site: Finding the perfect contractor


David Katz ( has been practicing architecture in New York City for the last 20 years. Detail oriented, nervous and a little neurotic, he specializes in co-op and condo renovations.

Disclaimer: Information provided herein is not to be construed as professional advice. Readers are urged to consult with a licensed architect regarding their specific circumstances prior to undertaking any renovation work. (We do not want any buildings falling down!)

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