I observed these words on a church message board in Belmont, MA. It made me think about expectations in general.

Over the years, I have found that my expectations for some things are quite high, while my expectations for most things (behavior of others) have dropped, perhaps to avoid being disappointed constantly. In our professional life, we have found that setting realistic expectations for our clients makes for happier clients and more successful project outcomes. We try not to promise that which is almost impossible to achieve, while trying to achieve the impossible (think schedule, budget).

I’ve been fascinated by the New Yorker article (February 26, 2018 issue) by Ian Parker, “Stairmaster,” about the artist Thomas Heatherwick’s stair sculpture or “folly” at the new Hudson Yards Development for the RE Developer Stephen Ross, of The Related Group. The Vessel, as it is called, now exceeds a cost of $150 million. As a .6% proportion of the $25 billion project, perhaps not completely crazy, if it succeeds in making the development a destination for tourists and tenants. But…it seems like an almost impossible expectation for 154 stairs to nowhere to achieve. It reminds me of the musical “A Fiddler on the Roof,” where Tevya imagines what it would be like to be a wealthy man. “I’d build a big tall house with rooms by the dozen right in the center of the town…there would be one long staircase just going up, and one even longer coming down, and one more leading nowhere, just for show.” (I guess there are no new ideas).

Apparently Heatherwick believes that one should make one’s efforts evident. He is king of the opposite of most architects, who value and honor simple solutions. Most Architects expect that good design should “feel” effortless.” Bjarke Ingels, who has collaborated with Heatherwick on several projects, said of Heatherwick, “sometimes things are done for the sake of showing that you’re putting more effort into it…making the effort evident sometimes makes him stumble onto things that are really quite brilliant.” Heatherwick creates a kind of Rube Goldberg machine that is wonderful, over-thought, and super cool. Perhaps Heatherwick’s approach ends up more complicated, but more serendipitous than the efficient and perhaps more obvious approach of most of us. In any case, nothing about the design process is really obvious to the novice. Whether the design process is simplified (see our 1, 2, 3 approach here) or overcomplicated, like Heatherwick’s, the important part of setting expectations is to explain the process that the client will actually experience.

Recently, I wrote a very detailed description of what we expected the client to do. It was amazingly well received. It turns out that expectations go in both directions – what do clients expect their designers/architects to do for them (and what is realistic to expect)? What do designers/architects expect their clients to do (besides pay their bills)?

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