Things are looking dismal in our profession. We have lots of bad buildings in the U.S. We have record numbers of unemployed architecture professionals, and many of the firms that do have work are getting lower fees for their services. Architects seem to be respected a little bit less every decade by owners and contractors.
And, every decade, a higher percentage of design and construction projects seem to be led by the contractor team.
Yes, there’s a connection. More contractor-led projects lead to more badly-designed buildings, lower fees for architects, less stability for architecture firms, and less respect for architects.
If we want better buildings to make up our built environment, if we want to be proud to be architects, and to be able to support our families on our salaries as architects, we need to change some things about how architects practice. Once we make those changes, we can get back to being the leaders in the design and construction process, and we will have better buildings in the U.S.
Forget about this horrible recession for a minute. I know it’s a big factor in our situation now, in February 2012, and it’s the reason for all the unemployment. But just think back to 2007 or so, when the economy was fine. Even then, we had a bunch of problems that we have now:
- We have intern architects clamoring for the right to call themselves “architects” without having to take those pesky Architect Registration Exams.1
- Architecture school costs students more money every decade, yet, every decade, teaches them less that will help them in their practices as architects.2
- We have architecture firms recommending Construction Manager as Constructor project delivery to owners.3 We have contractors leading most Design/Build projects, and architects who are happy to partner with them. 4 Essentially, we have more contractor-led design projects than we did a few decades ago, and architects have played a part in letting this happen, and as a result, we have more bad buildings.
- We have some architects who don’t understand owner-contractor agreements, and who don’t know what the project specifications say, administering the contract for construction on design-bid-build projects. They get led around by the nose by contractors, and are not providing to owners the services the owners expected and contracted for. The owners get less value than they should, and therefore the owners have less respect for architects.
- We have some architects who don’t know much about building codes, building technology, and construction detailing, yet who are producing documents that contractors are supposed to build from. So we get some building designs that are really poorly executed in construction, and look like junk in a few years.
- We have some guys who call themselves construction managers poorly managing the documentation part of bidding and negotiation with their subcontractors, and architects who don’t even recognize how poorly the owner is being served. The architect who doesn’t know much about procurement and contracting, and doesn’t know much about construction, serves very little purpose to the owner on a construction manager project, whether the CM is a good one, or just someone calling himself one.
The more we have design decisions made by contractors (who are driven by costs), the more badly-designed buildings we will get, and the less the public will think that design matters. The less good design people see, the less they think they need it in their world, and the less they’re willing to pay for it, and the more buildings will be built for the lowest price possible, and the more contractor-led projects we’ll have, and the more bad buildings we’ll have, and the fewer practicing architects we’ll have. This is bad for our built environment and bad for our profession.
The more students, emerging professionals, and licensed architects focus on design (the way the building is intended to look) to the exclusion of the technical stuff (the instructions to the contractor for achieving the design intent – the specifications and the construction details), the more we will back ourselves into the corner of having to rely on contractors to design the details. At that point, owners may be pretty easily persuaded by contractors that it’s just a short jump from designing all the details to designing the whole building.
The more architects focus on design, and the less they work on improving their knowledge of construction documentation, construction details, building technology, construction specifications, agreements, and construction contract administration, the more work (including design work, starting with the detailing) will have to be handed over to contractors, which will lead to more bad buildings in our world, lower fees and less respect for architects, and less value to building owners. It’s counterintuitive, but the more architecture schools and architecture firms focus on design (and ignore the technical stuff), the more bad design we’ll see in the world. The focus on design to the exclusion of the technical stuff is counterproductive; we’re “designing” ourselves right out of our traditional scope of work.
Architects need to take back the reins, and keep a firm grip on them. Here’s how:
- Architects need to understand that part of their job is to interpret the code and incorporate the code requirements into the project documents.
- Architects need to understand what they are drawing, and need to have a good feeling for how the building and their details will actually be constructed.
- Architects need to understand that the specifications are contract documents, too, and are complementary to the drawings.
- Architects need to understand that they are responsible, (according to the code, and according to their owner-architect agreements) for coordinating the work of all the design disciplines.
- Architects need to get better at construction contract administration – they need to understand construction contracts and Division 01 of the specifications as well as the technical sections.
In order to get the chance to produce good designs, architects have to get back to understanding, and properly drawing, the construction details, the way architects used to (before they started handing this architectural work over to contractors). In order to get to work on building designs that are executed well in construction, architects must get back to the basics of understanding building technology, thorough product research, specifications writing, good construction contract administration practices, and good agreements that include fair compensation and appropriate allocation of risk.
Architects need to think about their work in a different way.
Of course, there are good architects whose firms are doing everything they should be. And there are good construction management firms who are true assets to projects. With good architects and good contractors, good working relationships between architects and contractors are possible, and are happening right now. And the owners are often getting a good value. But architects don’t have to have contracts with contractors, or give away work to them, or go along with them to the detriment of the owner, in order to get along with contractors. Good contract documents (clear, concise, correct and complete drawings and specifications) and an understanding of roles and responsibilities during construction are the appropriate foundation for good working relationships between architects and contractors.
The Construction Specification Institute can help architects improve their practices. CSI’s certification programs can help architects develop a better understanding of the construction process, better construction contract administration skills, better construction documentation abilities, and better means of communication with the contractor on projects.
If we don’t change the way many firms are practicing architecture right now, I see a future with fewer practicing architects, even lower fees, more poorly-designed buildings, more poorly-constructed buildings, and less respect for architects. If architects don’t get more technical, but keep focusing on design instead, we’ll actually end up with less good design in the world.
- Check out “Architect” magazine’s article “The 50-Year-Old Intern.”
Remember, “Architect” is “The Magazine of the American Institute of Architects.” The article actually asks, “Does Licensure Matter?” Also check out this article by John Cary published in the online magazine “Good”:
. Even though they work in architecture firms, many emerging professionals don’t know what it means to be an architect. This dilutes the respect that the public has for architects. The International Building Code requires documents to be submitted for permit by a “registered design professional in responsible charge”, who is “a registered design professional engaged by the owner to review and coordinate certain aspects of the project, as determined by the building official, for compatibility with the design of the building or structure, including submittal documents prepared by others.” I can’t imagine this requirement changing anytime soon. This person can be an engineer or an architect. It’s best, for our built environment, to have this person be an architect. It’s best if this architect is directly hired by the owner, instead of by a contractor who is part of an alternative project delivery team. On most buildings, design professionals can’t submit for permit if they aren’t licensed. You can’t lead if you’re not licensed. Students and interns need to understand this, and the public needs to understand this.
- One thing I learned really, really well from my 2 summer internships and my 5 years in college (the whole first half of the 1990’s) was that I didn’t know much, and that I had a lot that I needed to learn after graduation, during my internship. This is a concept that many of today’s emerging professionals seem to be unable to grasp. I suspect that they are not being taught this in school, and I think this has something to do with the lack of experienced professionals who are teaching in architecture schools. The National Architectural Accrediting Board 2010 Report on Accreditation tells us, “Of the total number of assistant, associate, and full professors, 934 (29.4%) are registered to practice in a U.S. jurisdiction.” Less than a third of faculty in accredited architecture schools are licensed! Only 25.9%, about a quarter, of full professors are actually licensed. This report can be found at
- When you don’t know much about construction or the technical parts of architecture, doing construction management project delivery method takes some of the pressure to figure out how to meet the owner’s budget off the architect. Having the Contractor’s input during preconstruction seems to take some of the risk out of the project for the architect. I know how it feels. When I was a project manager in an architecture firm, I knew that there was a lot I didn’t know. I was so relieved to find out that a large project that I was managing was going to be a Construction Manager as Constructor project. That project wrapped up in 2000. (I haven’t been happy with a CM as Constructor project since 1999. You do the math.) The fact is that if you don’t really know what you’re doing, and the CM gives you no preconstruction input, but you were counting on it, you’re in bad shape. And the truth is that your actual liability as an architect doesn’t change if the contractor is a CM as Constructor. Take back the scope of architecture work that should be yours – do design-bid-build project delivery and hire a good estimator as your consultant to help advise you on designing to the owner’s budget.
- When the contractor is the entity who has the agreement with the owner, well, the contractor is your client. Wouldn’t you rather work for the owner, whom you may be able to convince to implement good design, rather than work for the contractor, who is almost always going to make design decisions driven by the dollars? When architects don’t have a direct relationship with owners, and serve only as the contractor’s consultant in order to produce a permit set for the contractor, respect and fees for architects get chipped away at, and get progressively lower.