User participation in the design of built environments has been seen as essential from functional, social, psychological and political perspectives, given the intricacy of human–environment relationships. These concerns are most important in residential environments to which people relate continuously and intimately. This paper explores client–user participation in the architectural design process for their houses. The design process in seven projects by five small architectural firms was analysed in detail to map existing patterns of user participation in India. Significant producers of these patterns include, inter alia, the architect's approach to the project and to client–user participation, the client's awareness of design aspects and expectations of professional services, and the arrangements for interactions and communication; how these modulate the variables is discussed. Finally, the institutional frameworks that configure these factors and the obstacles to change have been highlighted. Copyright © 2002 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.