When an architect and a client sit down for the first time to discuss a project that likely will consume the majority of their waking hours for many months, it’s important for that kick-off meeting to accomplish specific tasks. For the client, this means already knowing the answers to critical questions about budgets and timelines.

You would be shocked by how many clients haven’t made some basic decisions by the time the design process begins with a team of architects. A client doesn’t need to know all the answers — otherwise, why bother hiring an architect, right? — but the more you know about the journey on which you’re embarking, the better. And if you’re stuck, that kick-off meeting can help determine what you’re missing. That way, in the end, everybody’s job is easier.

Here are five determinations to make internally before the first meeting with your architect:

1. Define your project budget

Seems like a no-brainer, doesn’t it? But I’m not talking simply about an overall budget; I’m talking about a specific breakdown. We often receive budgets featuring only a few line items: construction cost, professional fees, and furniture, fixtures and equipment (FF&E), for example. Rarely do we see a breakdown of what is assumed within these line items. Often, there are hidden costs in site development and utilities. If this is a renovation or expansion project, have costs for demolition, phasing and ongoing operations during construction work been considered? Are separate budgets available to pay for things like technology, A/V, moving and startup costs, software licenses and other expenses? If you don’t have all these answers, don’t fret, and if you don’t know what all to consider, the kick-off meeting is the perfect place to ask. It’s critical to know as many costs as possible early in the process — while you still have the ability to be nimble with budgeting and design.

2. Define your design program  

The word “program” means something different to recreation professionals than it does to an architect. To a rec professional, a program is a class, sport or activity you offer people to help improve their lives. To an architect, a program is a list of spaces with the requisite square footages and descriptions of functions in those spaces. All spaces, plus a “circulation factor,” equate to the overall building’s square footage. If you haven’t already commissioned a study defining an architectural program, expect to go through such an exercise with your architect to determine how to reconcile your needs and desires with your budget. The more you already know about those needs and desires, the less time this exercise will take, so you can move into the fun part — design.

3. Define your schedule

One of the first discussions to have with your architect should involve a 30,000-foot view of your schedule and its feasibility. This conversation could also include the consequences of or benefits to speeding it up or slowing it down, if applicable. Most times, the critical path involves a targeted opening day, such as the start of a semester or a season. Has such a target been established? Is it flexible? This is especially critical in renovation projects, where interruptions in operation lay in the path, or for projects where an interim milestone is critical to the overall schedule. A project comes to mind in which a long-tenured retiring mayor wanted a project to be his swan song; therefore, it had to be open before the next election. What drives your project schedule?

4. Identify your decision-makers

For most significant building projects, clients designate a project manager, who oversees a project committee. Many times, our clients have a facilities group, which runs projects on behalf of their users, such as a city parks and recreation department. Whatever the arrangement, it’s best to keep the number of committee members manageable, which helps avoid disagreements. Most designers prefer to take direction from an individual or a small group. More often, this group reports to boards, commissions, councils and other entities that may have influence over design. As best as you can, determine how often those bodies must be consulted and include their meeting schedules on a project calendar to which both client and architect have access.

5. Ask for cellphone numbers

It may sound like a pick-up line, and — in a way — it is. You’re entering a long-term relationship with someone, so it’s best for both sides to get used to being accessible. Asking for phone numbers, if you don’t already have them, also marks the perfect transition to a discussion about communication preferences. Cellphone, email or text? How often do both parties want updates from each other? Who should lead communication efforts on each team?

Taking the initiative by following these five steps before a kick-off meeting will help empower a client to steer a new project in the right direction from the very beginning — significantly reducing the likelihood of unforeseen snags later in the process.

Stephen Springs is a senior principal at Brinkley Sargent Wiginton Architects, a Texas-based firm specializing in public architecture with offices in Dallas, Waco and Austin. He is a former parks commissioner and has more than 20 years of experience in public recreation and aquatic design.