The profession of architecture has changed significantly, but the perception of what an architect does has remained much the same. So what's the big deal? As is often said, perception is reality, and therein lies the problem. What architects do now no longer agrees with what the public, and even architects themselves think they do.
Most people don't really understand what today's architects do. They think architects know about planning and design, and how to create buildings that are responsive to owners' needs. In that, they are correct; architects by training learn how to do these things, and they do them well. Unfortunately, most people also believe the architect is still the Master Builder, who knows everything about construction materials and methods, actively manages the work, and tells the contractor exactly what to do. And in that, they are sadly mistaken.
One of AIA's first goals was to elevate and protect the profession of architecture. They eventually succeeded; today, the practice of architecture, and the word itself, are protected throughout the United States. This protection is based on the idea that only an architect knows about all aspects of construction. While that was true at one time, today's architects, who may be master planners and master designers, don't know much about construction materials or methods. And there is nothing wrong with that - we need master planners and designers.
It is clear, however, that the countless products and the special knowledge they require make it impossible for a design firm to understand the construction part of architecture. Architecture schools do not teach much about building materials, structure, or systems, and they largely ignore construction methods, scheduling, and costs. Many have decried this lack of attention to the nuts-and-bolts part of architecture, but perhaps it now is simply impossible to teach all the things an architect would need to know to perform in the same way they did a hundred years ago, even with the intern development program.
Contractors, on the other hand, do know about construction, and that's what they're paid to know. Once merely workers hired to follow the direction of architects, contractors no longer rely on the architect to explain what has to be done. Instead, they now are expected to interpret the architect's documents and to determine for themselves what must be done to construct the building. They may know little about planning or design, but once construction begins, their practical experience, as opposed to the theoretical experience of the architect, becomes more valuable to the owner, and they are seen by owners as more realistic, more knowledgeable, even more important than the architect.
Architects often complain about contractors making them look bad by telling the owner they can do the same thing for less money, or worse, that the architect is an idiot. Architects find it hard to respond, because they don't know what things cost, and they find it impossible to defend their design decisions with hard numbers. It's a lot easier for the owner to understand saving time or money, than to understand why it's important to resolve the tension between the earth elements and the sky elements.
The evidence suggests the role of the architect will continue to decline. Architects can have a strong role in design-bid-build, but contractors are becoming more important even there. Design-build entities, the modern equivalent of the master builder, typically are led by contractors, rather than architects, which seems to demonstrate the lesser value of Big D design. Not that design-build necessarily means bad design; no project delivery method guarantees either good design or good construction.
Many architects claim they should be the leaders of the IPD (integrated project delivery) team, but given the direction we're heading, that's a tough sell. More than a hundred years ago, architects decided an arts education was more important than hands-on experience, and they have since expressed little interest in how things go together or what they cost. For the past fifty years, they have been trying to minimize their responsibility for construction. With that history, how can they justify again assuming control of the entire project?
If architects are not unwilling or unable to reverse those trends, they must find ways to clarify what they do, and transfer liability to those who are taking on more of what architects once did. They should start by admitting they are not master builders, and should not be considered as such. Instead, they should emphasize the value of good planning and design, and be able to prove to owners that the long term value of good design is more important than first cost.
Despite AIA's efforts to reduce the architect's liability through changes in the general conditions, architects continue to be found liable for things that clearly are excluded from their responsibilities. I believe the main reason is that the public still thinks architects are in control of the entire project. Actively changing the public's perception could help juries understand what architects really control, and result in decisions that more closely reflect the commensurate responsibilities.
Design-build continues to grow, and unless architects are willing to take the lead, many will find themselves working for a contractor. Contractors will continue to see cost and schedule as their main concerns, but many also are sensitive to visual design, and are willing to work with architects who offer superior design and planning services. To maintain their position in design-bid-build, architects should establish relationships with those contractors to better serve owners who still favor design-bid-build.
The bottom line is this: Those who are willing to accept greater risk will see greater rewards, and they will be the leaders.
Links to previous articles in this series:
"What happened to the master builder?"
"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?"
© 2012, Sheldon Wolfe, RA, FCSI, CCS, CCCA, CSC