Contributed by Elias Saltz
There is some misunderstanding, both inside the profession and among the population at large, about what architecture is and what architects do. The misunderstanding begins with popular cultural depictions of architects, both fictional and real, as iconoclastic visionaries who wave their hands around, making beautiful buildings appear - buildings that will be immortalized in the glossy pages of magazines and hardcover coffee table books. This image of the architect is being reinforced by modern home improvement shows like "Fixer Upper" in which the designer and builder are the primary on-air personalities and it only takes one hour to buy, design and renovate an entire house. It's also being reinforced, unfortunately, in architecture schools, where professors are teaching aspiring architects to think of their designs as grand conceptual gestures and to equate architecture with culinary arts and fashion design, but not to anticipate what working as an architect will really be like.
Architects are taught in school that what they want to design matters, and little is discussed about client expectations, except that in the case of design studios, the clients are the professors. Architects learn to please other architects to ensure the best critique, grade and peer recognition. That peer recognition extends into professional life, where architects look to have their work published in journals juried by other architects.
This is obviously a wrong approach. Architecture is a professional service. Most architects come to understand this fact as they move up the ranks of practice. When you look in the offices of real architecture firms today, you don't see Joanna Gaines or Howard Roark (perish the thought!) or Bobby Flay. You see people who are working hard, using their knowledge and experience and skill to design projects on behalf of their clients. But habits of hand-wavy thinking remain, embedded through the architect-as-chef idea, where big ideas matter and where a silver cover is whipped off a plate, revealing the delectable and beautiful creation hidden within (or, similarly, posterboards on wheels that depict the "before" condition are pulled apart to reveal the hour-of-TV creation), and that is why architects sometimes think that their beliefs matter more than those of their clients.
The Duty of Professional Service
As a professional providing a service, an architect's first duty is to his or her client, with a supplementary duty to the public for safety and welfare. The client is the one paying for the architect's services, of course. But architects are responsible for far more than their own services. The construction cost of the facility will dwarf the architect's fees, and the long-term costs of operation, maintenance, and market-worthiness of the facility may again dwarf the construction cost. The client is assuming massive risk based on the architect's work, risk that extends far beyond the architect's period of engagement. The architect must help the client fully understand and manage that risk and all its long-term implications, including the risks that arise because the contract documents are inevitably imperfect. While seemingly daunting, there are a number of relatively straightforward things architects can do to ensure that they are providing proper professional service and meeting the duty they have to their clients.
1. Leave your beliefs and preferences at the door. The client shouldn't need to care how much an architect loves shiplap as an interior wall finish; perhaps he was hired because of the client's love of shiplap, in which case the client will ask for it. In the context of a professional service, what the architect likes and wants doesn't matter. Instead, listen to what the client wants, and provide a design that allows the facility to meet the client's needs and desires.
2. Know what you're talking about, and honor the limits of your knowledge. Many architects think of themselves as generalists, knowing something about everything. Generalists are useful, but there will be big knowledge gaps between what they know about a topic and what specialists know. Where a specialist's input is required, architects will need to first realize that they need it, then obtain that input. Additionally, they must make sure the client is aware when the architect has reached the limits of his or her knowledge and is either seeking or advising the client to seek outside help. There's no shame in this, doctors do it all the time!
3. Obtain the client's informed consent. The idea that a designer can send her clients away, renovate their entire house, and dramatically reveal it upon completion is patently absurd, even if it makes for good TV. In real life, clients are intimately involved with the project continuously. Architects must communicate with the clients about every decision that materially impact the clients' interests in the project, and owners must agree to those decisions. Those interests are certainly financial, but may also involve the appearance or function of the facility, depending on what the client thinks is important. As a follow-up to #2 above, consent without factual information doesn't count. When the architect knows what he's talking about and is communicating accurately, the client can properly decide whether or not to accept the architect's advice. When the architect substitutes his or her opinions for facts, informed consent goes away.
4. Prioritize the writing of correct specifications. Specifications that are begun early on in the process and developed along with the drawings have the best chance of aligning all the documents to the project requirements. They also allow the specifier the opportunity to use his or her more specialized knowledge to improve the overall quality of the technical aspects of the entire design. A good specifier will care more about getting things right than about the overall appearance of the facility and can flag things that could be overly costly or create unnecessary long-term risk for the client.
It's impossible to overstate this, because architects like to profess that they value "healthy and livable communities" or that they "honor the broader goals of society." Architecture is a professional service. Like the practice of law or medicine, architects must be problem solving only on behalf of their clients, not society, providing their best skill and knowledge as educated, experienced professionals to meet their clients' needs and minimize their risks.
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