A Twitter/Blog friend of mine, Albert, has posted an interesting article simply entitled “Why” (followed by “Why – Part 1”, but we’ll get into that later) in which he wonders and tries to explain essentially why we as architects kinda suck these days. Read the whole article here. I’d like to offer my own comments on the questions he poses here because it would take too much room to comment on his site.
“Why are we everything…and yet we are nothing?”
In answer to this question Albert suggests that Architects are the end all be all of architectural existence. We are the sole arbiters of design and construction and yet no one is aware of this simple fact and treat us like something they just stepped in that smells rather unpleasant. He even says, quote “We, architects, are the single authority managing the entire project.” He goes on in much more detail on what is included in “the entire project”, but here is where I want to begin my rebuttal.
Architects, in today’s architectural/construction industry (speaking generally) are not the Masters as we once were. Some of you who have read some of my previous posts will think this a little redundant, but, as you can imagine, it’s a hot topic these days so lets move on. We are mere consultants in the greater scheme of the construction process. While we are still, for the most part, responsible for coordinating our drawings with the other trades (structural, mechanical, electrical and plumbing/fire protection) we are not the designers or specifiers of these systems, the appropriate consultant is. We merely rely on their expertise in calculation and design and affix the appropriate symbol on our drawings for clarification and design intent. Obviously well-seasoned architects will have a breadth of knowledge sufficient to spot errors or omissions in the consultants work, but this is not something that is taught in school, nor is it readily taught in the profession. It is simply experience gained over the course of myriad project challenges. Currently we are even at a state where the architectural education is getting more focused on design and modeling, less focused on construction and practice while the A.R.E. is getting more focused on construction, practice and the proper coordination of the trades. Today’s graduates (myself included) are ill equipped out of college to test and practice in our field. It’s no wonder that we are no longer Master Builders but lowly consultants like anyone else. Construction Managers and even some GCs have taken our rightful place atop the pyramid of design and construction. How we take it back is by arming ourselves with knowledge – the knowledge of building, of constructing and of making things once again.
Question #2 of “Why”:
“Why we make them wealthy… and yet we remain poor?”
Here we start out with: “Behind every successful man is a smart woman. Everybody knows it.” And I just have to add that, behind every smart woman is a guy checking out her ass. I really couldn’t help myself here. 🙂 Seriously though, right off the bat Albert is talking about the architect being responsible for making the developer money. Quote: “[the] architect is not only coordinating main financial strategies with the other issues, in fact [the] architect is the one who creates the very concept of “how-to-make-money” from the project.” This simply isn’t true, at least not in my experience (I’d love for this to be the case, believe me). The reality is, a client comes to you, with land already purchased hopefully, and says “I want to build X and I want you to design it for me”. In this typical instance, the client already knows what he wants to build, who his target market is, a rough idea of overall cost/sf and what his projected ROI will be for the entire project. The architect does not bring the client the “how to make money”, the architect creates the product that will be sold, at the clients direction, to make the money.
After this Albert goes on to say that we, the architect, create the product, the money, and the client simply sits back and reaps the rewards of our hard labors. Again, this isn’t true. We ARE in fact service providers, we are working in an ice cream cafe selling sweet treats to our clients. It sounds sad, but it is true. Even if were were still in the lofty and coveted position of Master Builder, we would still be a service provider. The service we provide is the design of buildings and, hopefully, the management of the construction of those buildings we’ve designed. This is not to say that this is all we are limited to. In fact, it’s my not so humble opinion that architects should be the developers. It is our natural place in our society to be the arbiters of good design and urban planning. Instead this task is left to bankers and bean counters and bureaucrats with little more than a high school diploma dictating how our cities are built/developed and what products (houses, condos, apartments, sheds, etc) are available to us in the market. Good design, it’s become the norm, is only for a select few architects lucky enough to get a client willing to take a risk. Instead, good design should be the norm across the board.
If architects, and those architecturally trained, were the developer (in effect our own clients) the world would be a much different place. Cities would not be limited to official red tape and road blocks for this or that other silly thing. Cities would rise up to the heavens in great gleaming glass and steel spires all interconnected via transportation and service veins – in short a Utopia, an Eden of monumental proportions. Perhaps this is just my naive and optimistic college self peaking out of the closet, but I believe that if architects are not the developers, than we have a responsibility to educate our clients, get them to see through our eyes and see past their calculators to something better than an extra 1% ROI after 6 months. It’s also our responsibility to educate the next generation of architects coming up through the ranks as well, not beat them into submission as so many firm owners out there seem to want to do.
Architecture was a proud profession once. We were at the top, we were kings and queens ruling over a great throng….ok, I’ve seen Lord of the Rings one too many times. But still, we were at the top and we have fallen far as a profession. Our sweet treats are not so sweet any longer. But we have an opportunity, by stepping up to the plate and taking a little larger bite out of the apple maybe at first for the same fee, but as our worth grows, so does our fee. We need to show clients, educate clients, guide clients to the best outcome for their projects. If we do this, our worth will grow and one day soon we’ll be back atop that pyramid.