"Thoughts and Observations on Architecture and You"

Topics of importance for people about to build or renovate

Stairway in a San Francisco residence

Working with Your Architect

With the exception of those individuals involved in constructing buildings for a living, most of you have infrequent contact with architects. This situation sharply contrasts with the more common relationships you have with members of other larger professional groups like accountants, lawyers, dentists, and doctors.

Limited contact with architects leads to a degree of public unfamiliarity with the specific services they provide, as well as with the generally prevalent attitudes and values they hold while performing professional work on your behalf. A greater knowledge about these services and the feelings that impact how an architect provides them can be helpful when building a working relationship that is as positive, challenging, satisfying, and financially fair as it should be.

I would like to share some basic information with you about the practice of architecture and the type of training that strongly influences architects’ attitudes about their work, and then list a few of those attitudes that may affect your working relationship.

First, an important distinction must be made between the architectural profession and the professional groups mentioned previously. Generally, these other groups are pure service professions. Their members offer us technical services in subject areas about which our own knowledge is fairly limited. We tend to judge the performance of these individuals mainly on the quality and quantity of the services rendered.

The practice of architecture involves both a professional service and an artistic act — a duality that has importance for you, the client. The main service rendered, of course, is the design of buildings and spaces, followed by the production of construction drawings and specifications by which they can be built. As with other professional services, we tend to judge the architect on how well he performed his services for us at that point in time.

However, it is as an artistic act that Architecture has historically captured the public’s interest and support, and received its societal importance. It is this aspect of the profession that initially attracted, and continues to hold, most of its members. As a creative endeavor, architectural design remains a very personal process for each practitioner, and one in which his client normally has important, but limited, direct involvement.

The extent of resources that owners are willing to provide to construct their buildings has an impact on the larger neighborhood environment. In exchange for the privilege of building in urban and suburban locations, it is expected that owners will maintain a neighborhood perspective when making judgments about what and how to build. The public is dependent upon individual property owners to support the higher quality level of design and construction decisions that is appropriate for the long-term nature of buildings and their continuing impact on the cityscape for generations of dwellers beyond our own.

As can be surmised, these two aspects of the profession — the professional service and the artistic act — present a continuing conflict for an architect because of their often contradictory requirements. For example, satisfying functional needs and maintaining aesthetic preferences frequently clash. Early in his educational training, now commonly six to seven years long, an architectural student is exposed to the influence of colliding building goals in his design studio classes. One-half of a student’s school time is spent synthesizing the many disparate aspects of a building problem into a unified architectural design.

Design problems are approached simultaneously from the larger scale issues down to the smaller details, and vice versa. The impact of a design decision in one area on other areas of the work is carefully studied so that the interrelationship of decisions becomes clear. A final building design is truly a delicately balanced choreography of all the forces that have come to bear on any particular project.

From this lengthy period of schooling, and the subsequent three year apprenticeship period, a number of general attitudes and perceptions begin to emerge that many architects share and use as a working basis in their practices. These include:

  • Buildings and works of Architecture are two different things and, historically, the latter have meant more to us. A work of Architecture is worth fighting for and every project, no matter how small, has the potential to become one.

  • The visual and experiential richness of any urban setting directly depends on the variety of its building forms. No two sites are alike, nor are any two clients. Building designs should reflect these differences.

  • People tend to prefer the status quo and resist change and the unusual in their environments. Yet, more often than not, history shows us that many of the most controversial designs, when built, become the most celebrated and endeared over time.

  • Buildings last many years. It is preferable to make design changes at the last possible moment, and cause some inconvenience for the parties involved, than to fail to act and have an undesirable decision “in concrete” for years to come.

  • While there is only one fee-paying client on a project, an architect has an obligation to consider the interests of the project’s other “clients” — the building’s future owners and users, and the members of the public of whose neighborhood the building is a part.

  • Design quality takes care, care takes time, and time takes money. This relationship is simple, direct, accurate, and for things as important as our shared environment, vital. Care knows few shortcuts!

John McLean AIA
San Francisco
(415) 777-9767