Do You Need a Second Opinion?
Architects and clients can both benefit from an outsider’s perspective on design, budget, and communication issues
Summary: Noushin Ehsan, AIA, of New York-based 2nd Opinion Design, provides architects and clients with guidelines of second opinions by evaluating project issues that include design schematics, the budget, communication between architects and clients, construction concerns, and ways to create uplifting spaces. The firm is based on her background in architecture and her international lectures on “The Spirit of Space.” Ehsan launched 2nd Opinion Design formally in November 2007.
How do you … assist architects and their clients on issues that arise during the design process to ensure the feasibility and profitability of a project?
“We analyze the feasibility of client projects, whether by architects or the client,” says Ehsan, who has 35 years of experience as an international architect. As Ehsan was giving architects comments during her lectures about the better understanding of creating uplifting spaces, she thought she could turn her expertise into a consulting firm that provides a second opinion to architects and their clients. “A second opinion is common in other fields, but in architecture we never had that.”
“At the beginning, they thought this was not possible,” Ehsan recalls. “I knew someone who told me architects would be stubborn—but I said, ’try me.’ I told them I am not going to be their architect and have staff, but instead I can remain their consultant for in-house design. I’m not there to take over the mind or job of the client or architect. I’m not bringing elements that say ‘I’m better,’ but instead providing entreaties and points of my expertise on spaces. I’m not there to take the job. Since I’m not on anyone’s payroll, I bring a fresh eye to their design, construction, or budget problems, or any lack of understanding between the architect and client. I won’t jeopardize the wholeness of their concept.”
Gives architects and clients a better understanding of space
“Either side will hire me to provide a second opinion,” she notes. “I will comment on selecting a design in their budget or schedule and present architecture with features to uplift mind, body, or spirit. Issues are varied. For instance, when architects hire me, they have clients who can’t choose from the two or three different schemes the architects have given them. By consulting with me, the client will hear from an outsider, completely as a second opinion, as to which one is better and the advantages and disadvantages.”
Ehsan points out she will bring things to the attention of clients, who often, she maintains, don’t know how architects work. “Most of the problems that architects and clients have are related to the lack of client understanding. Our field is so complex and not many of us have done a good job of educating our clients. As a second opinion, I can interfere and show the client where things are, what can be changed to make it better, and if there is anything wrong.”
Her experience in lecturing about creating uplifting spaces is key to her advice. ”I follow up with the architect or client on designs that are uplifting to the users spirits. I say spirits because often designers won’t think of how space can influence our mind and body. But I don’t condemn any style. The main goal of our business is how to make the design outcome more uplifting. When a person first arrives in a space, that feeling they have is important.”
Architects benefit from an outside opinion
Ehsan says architects can benefit from her firm’s second opinion. “When architects work closely as a small or large team, they are so concentrated on their point of view that they miss a lot of opportunities, and often there is competition among themselves. The best way is for someone from the outside to give an opinion and tell the colleagues if it’s not going well. There’s no political issue. For example, I can show them which scheme would have a positive result and why and how it will be profitable. This is especially important for small firms.”
Mediating the architect, client
Besides design, a common concern that Ehsan is called upon to mediate is the project’s budget. “The perception of the client is that the architect is expensive. Often, the client has to pay for something and doesn’t know where it went. For example, I often tell developers that schematics are only 5-10 percent of what we do. What happens is that the design is attractive to the client, and that teases them, so they are willing to increase the budget. I present the design to them but instead of a cost of $1 million it becomes $1.5 million. The client gets excited and says they will find a way to pay it. Then in the next stage, design development, we give them another estimate, almost the same. Then it goes to the bidding by the contractor, which is a completely different estimate, and $1 million becomes $2 million. The client jumps and asks ‘Why? What?’ The architect says he or she is willing to take off some of the design to fit into their budget. But then the client will complain about paying for the additional time of the architect, and complain about the job being held back.
“I give them an overview of where things can be shifted and changed,” she continues, “to make it part of the creation to stay on budget and on time. That can be as difficult as the creation of the form. We help the client’s understanding before things get too complex and he or she decides to change the architect or have the contractor finish the project.”
Sometimes the client has asked Ehsan to help her build the program, hire the architect by providing two or three names, and be on their board as a consultant. She stresses it’s important to maintain confidentiality with all parties. “My objective is that architects and clients are unified, projects are in line with objectives, and profitability is maximized.”