When the subject is ice cream, nearly everyone can say what flavors he likes or why she prefers one flavor or brand over another -- it's more creamy, smooth, rich, chunky, flavorful, chocolaty, crunchy, fruity, minty, tart or whatever.

Ditto with clothes. If those boot-cut jeans don't fit right, you can say precisely what the problem is.

But when the subject is designing a house -- a subject that we would seem to know well because, after all, we live in houses -- most people are tongue-tied.

Welcome to the wonderful world of custom home design. People who seek out an architect to design a house want something more than what production builders offer. But most people have a hard time conveying what the "extra something" is that they're looking for, several architects said in recent interviews.

Their clients don't have trouble discussing their functional requirements and explaining why their current house is unsatisfactory -- that's about 90 percent of what the architect needs to know. But that last 10 percent -- the subtleties and nuances that make a space unique -- can be more elusive.

The clients can describe their preferences in broad terms: This space makes me feel "comfortable" or "relaxed." But the architect needs more specifics before he can design a room or a house.

Sunrise, Fla., architect Mathew Mitchell helps his clients dissect a space and identify its essentials by "flushing out adjectives." For example, Mitchell said, "The client shows you a picture and says, 'I thought this room was clean.' So you ask, 'Did you like it because the walls were white? Or was it the way that sunlight hit the white walls? Or the finish on the wall that was smooth? Or you liked the fact that the wall was a clean surface without a lot of visual clutter?' "

The clients quickly discover that taking an idea and turning it into a house is harder than it looks. This comes as a shock to many, especially smart, successful business executives who are used to making decisions, giving orders and controlling the pace from A to Z, said Boston architect Jeremiah Eck. "One such client admits that he can't read drawings, and he doesn't know how to say 'maybe I just don't like it.' He doesn't even know how to say 'move the doors and windows to the right or left' and then reflect on it."

While the clients are having a hard time expressing what they are looking for in a new house, they're still ready to jump into developing a floor plan. They don't understand why their architect is spending three or four weeks just discussing the possibilities.

The architects all said, however, that if they began to design the house right away, based on what their clients said at the first meeting, the clients would get something that they wouldn't be happy with. All that discussing and questioning is needed to get an accurate accounting of the clients' likes and dislikes. People don't always mean what they say or say what they mean.

As he starts probing, trying to figure out his clients' tastes, the answers can be surprising, Eck said, adding that years of experience have taught him never to take the clients at their word when expressing a stylistic preference.

They say they like a particular architectural style, but Eck often finds that what the clients like is certain elements, not the style as a whole and not the elements that one might expect. For example, one client said he really liked Tudor-styled houses, but what he liked was not the exposed timbers inside and out -- the hallmark of this style -- but the stucco, the rough-textured surface between the exposed timbers on the exterior of the house.

Mitchell said clients may rave about a particular house, which would seem to give a lot of aesthetic cues. But he has learned that he can't assume that's what they want and go from there. What they liked may not be the house at all, but something else.

In one instance, the clients loved a particular house in Italy, the Villa d'Este in Tivoli. But after a long discussion Mitchell realized that what they really liked was the stately approach to this famous landmark, down a long drive lined with tall column-like cypress trees that frame the view.

More often, when a client says he wants something specific, it is the ambience of that place that he's really after, Mitchell said. A couple from the Caribbean wanted their pool area to be just like a resort they loved. After several extended discussions and a fuller description of the resort, it became clear that what they loved was not the pool, but the relationship of their suite to the pool, the enormous mangrove trees to either side of the pool area, the light, the texture of the vegetation and the sound of the ocean nearby.

Washington architect Norman Smith said clients give clues to what they want not only by where they now live, but also by their body language. When he goes to a client's place the first time, he said, "I watch to see how they open the door. Do they stand aside and wave me in? That implies they're more relaxed and informal and more likely to be open to the idea of doing something unusual. Or, do they stand in the door and block my way? That implies that they're more reserved and formal and more likely to want a house that's traditional. As the initial discussion ensues, it's like trying to follow a dance partner that you've never danced with before and trying to anticipate their body movements. Architecture is both visual and visceral -- it's your body in space."

To help get things going, Smith usually comes up with several options early.

"When the clients begin to see the implications of what they said they wanted, it's often revealing. They see a big kitchen in a drawn form and things come out like 'how much time do you really spend in the kitchen?' 'Not as much time as we think. Maybe we don't want such a big kitchen, especially if it takes money from other rooms we know we will use.' "

As they discuss the trade-offs, say, making the kitchen smaller so the home office can be bigger, the clients begin to realize how much of the design process is about making choices, Smith said. This can be unnerving initially because they're not yet confident about their ability to make good decisions that they literally will have to live with.

Even more disconcerting, the most momentous decisions that affect the overall concept are made at the beginning when "most people can't see that decision A will chase through the project and hit them at P and it won't give them what they want."

Getting comfortable with the overall concept can be a real challenge and may take several weeks. Nearly everyone gets through it and goes on to develop the rest of the design. In 350 jobs, Smith said, only one of his clients was unable to get past the conceptual stage and eventually abandoned the project. He also added that the decision-making process gets easier as clients get more confident, and the decisions are easier because they concern details and finishes.

When the houses are finished and the clients have moved in, the architects said, some have confessed that they had thought that any simpleton could design a house, but now they know better.

Katherine Salant can be contacted at Salantques@aol.com

{copy} 2003, Katherine Salant

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