An architect's job is a cross between a counselor and a tailor. To put us in the right frame of mind — to design for clients instead of ourselves — we need to get inside our clients' heads. We have to understand not only who they are, but how they live in their home and why things work or don't work for them. Then we need to help them “try on” new ideas.

One barrier to this process is visualization. We forget that translating two-dimensional drawings into a three-dimensional understanding is an acquired skill that most clients lack. More insidiously, we overrate our own ability to visualize. We've all had the experience of realizing during construction things we didn't “see” on paper. If we could only live in a space while designing it …

Actually, we can. Using 3-D computer modeling, architects and clients can virtually live in a space long before construction begins. Together, we can evaluate sculptural effects, review sizes and shapes of moldings and overhangs and such, and massage architectural relationships and materials. This is a powerful tool that enables a richer and more sophisticated design.

The process is amazingly fluid. The client gets the spatial experience of being in the room, while we evaluate the space from vantage points that we wouldn't see on paper or in cardboard models. We can change color and materials at will. We can even drop in site photos to simulate the view from the windows of a proposed space.

In short, we are able to fine-tune a design in ways that were not cost-effective in the past. More importantly, the client becomes a full partner in design.

Perhaps my office layout tells the whole story: I have two flat-screen monitors on my desk: one facing clients, one facing me. While I explore the vision, they visualize in high resolution and offer immediate feedback. If a picture is worth a thousand words, making a picture together must be worth a million!

Dean Brenneman is a principal of Brenneman & Pagenstacher–Residential Architects & Builders, an upscale remodeling company in Kensington, Md.