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23 July 2012

What happened to the architect?

We started this series of articles with a question - What happened to the master builder? - and went on to talk about how the architect no longer is the master builder of old, for a couple of reasons. First, the continual increase in construction products, methods, and computer technology makes it virtually impossible for any one person to know all there is to know about construction, or even a significant part of it, and, more important, there was a conscious effort to divorce architects from hands-on experience and technical knowledge. Finally, as we will see, architects themselves have, through contract documents, reduced their importance, at the same time increasing the importance of the contractor.

Today, no one expects a single person to know all about construction today, but a semblance of a master builder can be found in the collective knowledge of an architectural firm and its consultants. However, because of the lasting impact of the design-bid-build process, there remains a schism between the design and construction activities of architecture.

Which, of course, means that an architect, in the original meaning of the word, no longer exists, or at least is rare.
In case you forgot from the earlier article, the word comes from the Greek arkhitekton, meaning "master builder, director of works," from arkhi- "chief" plus tekton "builder, carpenter". Notice that design is not part of the definition, though it can be inferred from the meaning. In that context, it's easier to see the architect-master builder being a contractor who knows how to design, than a designer who knows how to build. Despite the derivation of the word, we now think of an architect as one who designs buildings, but is not directly involved in construction. In fact, by today's standards, an architect is expected to know only about design.

It's been that way for a long time, so what's the big deal? If you don’t care who is in charge, it doesn't make much difference, but architects seem to care. Let's look at some of the ways buildings get built, and the role of the architect in each.

The simplest case is an owner with its own in-house design and construction departments. The owner decides what is needed, designs it, and builds it. The designers and builders work for the owner, and while there may be some interdepartmental differences of opinion, they do what they're told. End of story. The designers and the builders are approximately equal in status, though the owner - as is always the case - may care more about cost than aesthetics, and the functional design is usually of paramount importance.

The design-build process, a rough equivalent of how things were done by the Master Builder of old, is similar. The owner hires a single entity, which provides both design and construction services, and answers to the owner for everything. Again, design and construction work together toward a common goal. Again, at least in theory, design and construction have similar status. In practice, the leading entity - usually a contractor - has more clout.

With design-bid-build, the owner hires one or more firms to design the building, and one or more contractors to build it. The owner is still the boss, but historically relies on the architect to more or less run the project. Many owners have no choice, as they don't have knowledgeable staff capable of managing the entire process. Because of this relationship, the design professional appears to be the most important entity, and the owner expects the contractor to build what's in the documents. At least, that's the way it has worked until recently; contractors now often have much greater influence than in the past. In many cases, contractors drive decisions, and the architect makes changes to accommodate the contractor's recommendations to the owner.

One of the strange things about design-bid-build is that we accept it as normal, as the way things should be done. In fact, it is a recent innovation, supplanting hundreds or thousands of years of construction led by the Master Builder. Some will argue it is superior to other delivery methods, and at one time, I agreed. I now believe that objections to design-build - most of which are based on the assumption that the design team knows more about what's going on than the contractor, and that the design team is more concerned about the owner - can be addressed in the same way owners like to choose architects and contractors, i.e., by careful selection, based on past performance. Choosing a design-builder by low bid makes no more sense than selecting either an architect or a contractor solely on the basis of cost.

For whatever reason, design-bid-build is the way we've been doing things in the US for a long time, and it seems most architects believe things are just fine the way they are, with an architect-led design team firmly in charge, and the construction team faithfully doing what they're told. However, unless you've been sleeping, you may have noticed that the contractor's role and importance have been increasing. I've been seeing more negotiated contracts, more construction management projects, and more design-build projects with our private sector clients; it seems only government agencies are holding fast to design-bid-build, and even they are looking at other options.

How did we get to this point? Next time, we'll look at important changes in contract documents that have affected the relative importance of architect and contractor.

Links to other articles in this series:
What happened to the master builder?
What is a Master Builder?
What have architects given up?
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. Such a nice post. This situation is very confusing to others but for me the owner is the really the master although he/she doesn't have any idea about constructing and design the bottom line is there should be a communication between them.

  2. Once again Sheldon has nailed our situation. We as (for me still un-registered) architects have not only given our leadership role away, we have run screaming from the risk and responsibilities of leadership.

    Regardless of DBB, DB, CM or other delivery method, remain the leader. Remain in charge. Not only in thought, word and deed, but by your contact.

    Architect Led Design Build is one solution. If you are a MN architect let's talk. I work for one of these ALDB firms....the architect makes the decisions. The client likes the process because their GOALS not just their BUDGET are met.

    Architects.....step up. If you see an architect relenting is disappointing. You don 't think the clients see that? Be bold, be confident but primarily be right and serve your client.

    Oh.....and if you are arrogant and carry a big ego. Everyone knows you are just feeling insecure. Go fill the knowledge gaps you have, and come back confident and humble.

    Then you can lead.

  3. Architect is a person who designs structure of our dream home. Architect should have great knowledge of designing architect through software and hand also. Thanks!

    1. Sorry I missed your comment, David. Yes, there is more to architecture than drawing!

  4. This blog is awesome. Thanks for sharing the useful information about the architect. The design build process was explained in this blog.
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    Architecture Colleges in Chennai

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Rosypeter S!