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24 February 2012

What happened to the Master Builder?

It's time architects accepted reality: They no longer are master builders, and haven't been for a long time. It's nothing to get excited about (well, not too excited), and there is no reason to maintain the fiction that architects are what they were in the good old days. In fact, there is good reason to admit the truth and move on.

Building materials have evolved, fabrication and construction have evolved, and the tools of our profession have evolved, yet we continue to create and use construction documents the same way we have done for nearly two hundred years, simply because that's what we have done for nearly two hundred years. And, even though architects do less now than they did many years ago, we maintain the fiction that architects are master builders.

"Heretic!" "Blasphemer!" "How dare you!" "Vile person!"

OK, now that we have that out of the way, let's take a dispassionate look at what architects do, what they did in the past, and what people did before there were architects.

I have trouble answering the first question. Although architecture is a licensed profession in much of the world, and the use of the word "architect", or any of its derivative forms, by one who is not licensed, often is prohibited by law, it can be difficult to define what architects do. It may be easier to answer if we look at what architects don't do.

Good design should be more than an attractive building. As architects will tell you, good design is based on understanding the client's activities, the spaces those activities require, an understanding of spacial relationships and perception, and familiarity with a multitude of building materials and products. It is all of those things, but even that is not enough.

Good design must keep water and weather out, and control light, heat, and humidity; it must consider durability and upkeep of the products used, and the access needed to maintain building systems; it must include selection of the optimum structural, mechanical, and electrical systems; it cannot ignore permit fees, energy costs, utility costs, or taxes.

Good design is total design.

Unfortunately, architects gradually have given away, or had taken from them, just about everything not directly related to appearance. As we will see, there has been good reason for some of this, while other things have slipped away because they were seen as too difficult or uninteresting.

One of the big changes we have seen in the last decade has been a move away from the familiar design-bid-build delivery system, to design-build, different forms of construction management, and other delivery systems that de-emphasize the role of the architect. The result has been greater control by contractors, with correspondingly less need for what architects offer.

While some decry the growing importance of contractors, there is nothing inherently wrong with a process controlled by those who build the building. Put simply, if architects were doing what they claimed they could do, there would be no need to change.

Many owners, including public agencies, have embraced design-build. The attraction is obvious - "Why go through all the trouble of dealing with both an architect and a contractor, who will stand back and point fingers at each other when something goes wrong, when I can hire a single entity that is responsible for everything? If I can buy a multi-million dollar airplane, which is far more complex than a building, without the hassle of both design and construction contracts, why should I not do the same for my new building?"

In theory, the design and construction parts of a design-build firm have equal standing, but in practice, architects are especially vulnerable. You can't design structure without an engineer, you can't design site work without an engineer, you can't design mechanical or electrical systems without an engineer, and you can't build a building without a contractor - but it's hard to say why you need an architect.

Design-build firms often are led by contractors because they're the ones who know the most about construction. They know about costs and schedules, they know how to build, and they know how to hire and employ subcontractors. The only reason they employ design professionals is because states require their certification. Even without that requirement, any contractor interested in self-preservation would still employ engineers to make sure their buildings wouldn't fall down, but what's left that requires an architect?

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to make sure that doors have at least 32 inches clear opening and that there are enough fire extinguishers to go around. However, because certification is required, we still need an architect on the team. But what is the architect's role? It may now be relegated to drawing and specifying what the contractor wants to build. The architect may have little or no interaction with the owner, other than selecting a few finishes and creating impressive perspectives to sell the job. The real design work may be done by someone who knows nothing about architecture, engineering, or construction, other than relative costs.

Certification of construction documents typically consists of the architect signing a statement that says, "I hereby certify that this plan, specification, or report was prepared by me or under my direct supervision…" or something to that effect. Question: When the architect is not in charge of the design process, when the contractor drives the decisions, isn't the architect's certification of the drawings and specifications no more than "plan stamping"?

Links to other articles in this series:
What is a Master Builder?
What have architects given up?
What happened to the architect?
Are specifiers weak in faith?
How have the architect's responsibilities changed?
What lies ahead for architects? 

© 2012, Sheldon Wolfe, RA, FCSI, CCS, CCCA, CSC

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  1. Sheldon, Sheldon, Sheldon...

    I was with you on your contention that architects are no longer master builders. True enough.

    But I must protest your statement that: "You can't design structure without an engineer, you can't design site work without an engineer, you can't design mechanical or electrical systems without an engineer, and you can't build a building without a contractor - but it's hard to say why you need an architect."

    Hard to say why you need an architect? Hire a contractor or a construction manager or a design-builder or some other constructor type to DESIGN your next significant project and you'll soon see why you should have hired an architect instead.

    OK, the constructor types may be able to mimic the process of design that an architect goes through. They may even be able to hire a decent architect-of-record to meet the requirement for a licensed professional. They may be able to superficially meet the client's program. They may be able to produce drawings and specs that look like the real thing that an architect would do.

    So what CAN'T the constructor types do?

    They can't/won't/don't-know-how to put the client's interests first. They are so steeped in the typical contractor hard-driving Type A-personality, profit-at-all-costs modus operandi that they simply can't really assist the client in a professional sense in making decisions. In my experience, they're unable to make that leap from their constructor history to being an owner's agent.

    Also, contractor's/constructor's coordination skills have withered dangerously in the last couple of decades. They are now not much more than purchasing agents, self-performing less and less of the work, and accustomed to passing off as much of their contractual responsibilities as possible to subcontractors and designers. Although there are some good constructors out there, most of them simple don't have the professionalism or the skill or the intellectual depth or the attention span to do as good a job at building design as an architect.

    I also disagree vehemently with your statement "Unfortunately, architects gradually have given away, or had taken from them, just about everything not directly related to appearance." If anything, the architect's responsibility for all the details of planning and design of buildings has become exponentially MORE complex during the course of my career. And architects take that responsibility very seriously.

    1. John: You and I, and architects in general, know the value a good (note: good) architect can bring to a project. However, it seems the perceived value has diminished. As to the other points, stay with me. Thanks for your comments!

  2. Sheldon, I think this is a great post. Architects should be creating elegant designs that address a wide range of functional, structural, environmental, and aesthetic considerations. They should know their craft well enough to be able to ensure that engineers, builders, and other specialists work within that vision.

    Many of today's architects seem to be nothing more that designers of walk-in sculptures. It's no wonder that so many clients will have nothing to do with them.

    1. Architects are their own worst enemy. I believe an overwhelming majority of architects do a good job and provide good service to their clients. Unfortunately, a few of the starchitects, who get a disproportionate amount of publicity, give the public a false impression of what most architects are like, and what they do. Thanks for posting!

  3. T Montero, FCSI, CDT, AIA, NCARB22 March, 2012 21:08

    Sheldon, I have found in my almost 40 years as a registered architect, that there are 3 types of architects; the "blue sky" design type, the "assembly" drafting type, and the "construction knowledgeable" administration type. Their being able to communicate with each other, appreciate each other’s skill and expertise is the challenge.
    It seems the "blue sky" architects really don't care about the difficulties of the construction process; how a building really goes together in the construction process; one block on top of the other. When a construction challenge comes up, it's not unusual for the "designer" to reply, "that's a field problem; work it out in the field."
    The assembly architect, if in fact an architect, is required to know CADD, Revit, and all the other electronic drafting programs, but isn't, as with the “designer”, very aware of "how a building really goes together." If the programs didn't have the "symbol" for a CMU in it's library, most of those now "assembling" the drawings couldn't tell you its size. They pull “standard details” off manufacturer's web sites and insert them into the documents but really don't coordinate to make sure they work as a system; with the building envelope.
    The seasoned "construction knowledgeable" administrator HAS to be an architect. It's his/her responsibility to assist the contractor in the proper interpretation of the documents; the drawings AND the Project Manual. He/she has to understand the design and the document assembly process. But, he/she is seldom consulted during either of those phases. The construction knowledgeable architect, the person who IS the MASTER BUILDER, lives with the project longer than the other two combined. All the time it takes to put the program together, translate it into the "blue sky" design and then "draw" it, is at least doubled during the construction of the project. That is when “the honeymoon” is over and the real marriage begins. That is where the MASTER BUILDER comes into existence. That is when the Owner comes to grips with the “value” of the architect.
    The strange part of the process is that the “blue sky” design architect seems to get most, if not all, of the credit for the success of the project. But, guess which member of the team is the MASTER BUILDER? Hopefully, he/she has been certified by CSI as a Certified Construction Contract Administrator.

    1. This is very well said. And from a young up-and-comer, I truly appreciate this level of experience and analysis. I tend to view architecture and what we do from a business perspective, but I'm carry the same line of sentiment as Potter Stewart, opinion in Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964): [I can't define what is pornography.] "But I know it when I see it."

      I can't currently precisely define why we are such poor businessmen, but I know bad business when I see it. However, you and Sheldon are helping to clarify the reasons, and what I'm really up against in an attempt to change those bad business practices.

  4. We share some disappointment with type 1 and 2. A problem type 3 is those learned few become specialists, not unlike the other two. Unfortunately the adeptness they have at their specialty has their time allocated from one field assignment to another and they rarely come back to the office to contribute to the efforts of what you call the assembly architect. The unknowledgable assembly architect ends up little more than a highly skilled computer operator. They are billable and sought after despite the real lack skill in architecture. Your "seasoned" professional rarely seems the best mentor. They exist as one man teams.

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    1. Amelia: The series is finished, but this article was just the first of several about the Master Builder. If you read the rest, please come back and comment again. Thanks for the kind words!

  6. I found your articles re the Master Builder name quite interesting Sheldon. I am researching the appropriate usage of the term. A web definition designates the term as 1. a building contractor 2. a person skilled in the art of building.
    Would you say it is appropriate for a building contractor of very high-end custom homes and commercial buildings to use the term Master Builder or Builders in his company name in light of your understanding (ie that architects and MB's are not necessarily synonymous today) and the above definition? I assume there are no required designation or certifications necessary to use the term (we are in Texas). Thanks! Van M

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  9. I agree with John O'Neil. Sheldon, you don't don't know what your talking about. You must specialize in some simple kind of construction like residential construction. I have worked for architects for 24 years, and I can tell you an architect is needed on anything more complicated than a residential building. It is a very complex undertaking to design a 24 million dollar school building from programming (learning the nuts and bolts of what the owner wants) through design development (getting all the designers, engineers and owners on the same page and get then started drawing plans and developing specifications). Then there is the construction documents and specifications stages and permitting, bidding and vetting contractors. There are contractors around with the sensibilities to put everything into the building as it is needed, but it isn't their basic instinct. Someone needs to know the design intent during construction, not just as an abstract principle, but as a real ongoing activity, sometimes ongoing for two or three years. That takes an architect. It's silly to say you don't need architects.