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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