The focus of this blog is construction-related topics. The purpose is discussion, so please feel free to comment! See Specific thoughts for thoughts from the daily life of a specifier.

29 April 2012

What have architects given up?

When architects were Master Builders, they were responsible for an entire project, from beginning to end. Over the years, as buildings became more complex, the architect became the leader of a team of professionals, a Master Builder by committee. However, along the way, a number of things fell aside, leaving others to take on essential functions that apparently were no longer important to the team. The first of these was extensive knowledge of building materials and construction, encouraged by the separation of architecture into separate fields of design and construction.

Since then, architects seem to have less interest in - or less time to address - other things, such as complete design, site services, and estimating. Yes, many architects provide some of those services, and some do better than others, but some have simply allowed others to take them on. And some project delivery systems have reduced the architect's role whether they liked it or not.

Why are architects not fighting to keep these lost services, and allowing others to take more control? Perhaps they are not willing or able to accept the associated risk.

Complete Design

Architects should know in advance that the completed building and its systems will satisfy all of the owner's needs. Architects spend a great deal of time working on space planning and circulation, but the physical space of a building is only part of the total design. The building also must provide a suitable environment for its occupants; systems should be easily operated and maintained; finishes should be durable, easily maintained, and easily replaceable; and the energy consumption should be within limits established acceptable to the owner.

The architect who concentrates only on spatial and aesthetic qualities, paying little attention to building systems, is not doing the job. The new buildings may look nice, and they may win awards for the architect, but often they don't work as expected. The building envelope leaks, operating costs are too high, mechanical systems are noisy and hard to balance, lights are needlessly bright in some areas but inadequate in others. It's easy to blame the consultants, but the architect is ultimately responsible.

The consequences of the lack of complete design are evident in the demand for commissioning. A separate professional is now called on to analyze building systems, project operating costs, and verify correct operation of those building systems before the owner accepts the building as complete. All of these could be done by the architect's team.

Site Services

Architects are not responsible for many of the problems encountered in construction. Owners want the most bang for their buck, and they sometimes make poor decisions, sacrificing long-term considerations for lower initial cost. They often encourage architects to cut fees and services in a bidding war, resulting in less time for design, reduced quality control, and less time at the site. A lot can go wrong in a few days, and many problems are concealed by following work. Poor connections, lack of concealed supports, improper materials, and a host of other defective work may go unnoticed for years.

Saving the cost of site observation by the architect is false economy, and architects should fight to keep this unique opportunity to make sure that their own interests, as well as those of the owner, are protected. It's odd that many owners now hire independent representatives and testing agencies to oversee their projects. As architects have given up this basic service, others have moved in to fill the void.


One of the owner's most important concerns is the budget, and the owner relies on the architect to come up with a design that can be built with the available funds. Shouldn't an architect know enough about costs to design a building that is within the owner's budget? Unfortunately, many design professionals have little knowledge of construction costs, and owners find that bids vary substantially from estimates. Independent estimating firms now offer their services to owners and architects alike. Some owners require the architect to provide estimates, which then are verified by other estimators. To me, that suggests lack of faith in the architect, at least in this area.

Construction Management

Architects aren't the only ones who have given up some of their traditional duties. Construction managers have done an excellent job of carving out their own niche, taking over the juicy parts of the architect and the contractor, while leaving the architect and contractor responsible for whatever goes wrong.

There is nothing inherently wrong with construction management. With it, owners can benefit from early involvement of someone with knowledge of construction processes, costs of systems and products, and current market conditions - that someone, in most cases, not being the architect.

These are some of the things architects choose not to do. Next month, we'll look at changes that have reduced the architect's responsibilities, at the same time increasing the importance of the contractor.

p.s. It seems a few readers were a bit put off by the first article in this series, What happened to the Master Builder? Some of my questions may be uncomfortable, but they must be asked. While architects remain leaders of the design team, much of what they did in the past is now done by others, and their importance will continue to decrease unless architects do something to reverse the trend.

Certainly, a well-trained, experienced architect is able bring much to any type of construction project. Architects are generalists, trained to seek optimum relationships and dimensions of spaces to meet the requirements of the owner's program, at the same instilling beauty, from the overall form to the smallest detail. And that, I will argue, is one heck of a job description; it presents a challenge that is virtually impossible to meet. Practical requirements often force the architect to make decisions based on incomplete information, and make it impossible to work out every detail.

Links to other articles in this series:
What happened to the master builder?
What is a Master Builder?
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. I agree with you, Sheldon, but my optimism fuels my hope that things will come around for us. We are pushing PPDs which we think will bring architects back into some of these roles. My first experience on a big project was in the field and I always recommend doing that to young and just-graduated architects. The learning experience of working on the site of a big project is an invaluable one. I also think more could be taught in schools in this regard. At CCNY, there was an emphasis on practice versus design, so I considered myself well prepared when I finished school, and I worked for architects before I graduated, which rounded out my education in the business of architecture.

  2. Clifford: Mandatory field experience in school would be a good start. The casual site tours some - not all - students and interns get aren't enough. Maybe every architect's first job at a firm should be a year in construction administration.

  3. Sheldon,

    I think if design firms would pay more attention to communicating the elements of the design process to the client, they would get a handle on keeping control of some of the services they are giving up to others. Too many times, the design process is foreshortened or parts of the process neglected completely until finally covered at the end of CD's. The result is that important design development decisions about choice of materials and wall construction are either given short shrift or neglected entirely. If designs were developed in a more step-by-step manner, the value brought to the design process by the architect would be evident. Hopefully, this evidence would translate into recapture of the design and construction services architects have ceded to others.

    Robert Loftin, AIA, CSI, CDT