"Thoughts and Observations on Architecture and You"

Topics of importance for people about to build or renovate

Hallidie Plaza lobby renovation in San Francisco

Design Assistance — Appropriate Choices

As a new building or renovation client, you face a sometime confusing array of individuals and firms to whom you can turn for design assistance for your project work. This role has traditionally been filled by the architect, and continues to be so for most commercial and institutional projects, “high-end” residential work, and increasing numbers of new middle class housing and home renovations.

Because of the rigor and broad scope of his education (5–7 years) and subsequent mandated apprenticeship working with licensed architects (3 years), the architect is given legal responsibility by individual states to provide design services for building work using a professional practice license similar to that granted to other professionals whose work has an impact on the public’s health, safety, and welfare.

In California, an individual may use the title “architect” only if he or she has received an architectural license. The letters “AIA” that we often see after an architect’s name indicate membership in the American Institute of Architects. The use of this credential also alerts you that the individual is a licensed architect. However, not all licensed architects are members of the AIA and do not use those letters after their name.

Also offering various types and levels of building-related design services are engineers, interior decorators, space planners, interior designers, kitchen and bath designers, furniture systems specialists, and building contractors. Each of these individuals has a different amount of formal design education and work experience, and each may be affiliated with a national organization of his or her peers that promotes certain standards of performance for its members. Except for engineers, none of these individuals is required to be licensed by our state to perform design services for you. This may be important should your project require a building permit, as most do. In this case, local building officials may request that the project plans and specifications be reviewed and signed by a licensed architect, or by a licensed structural or civil engineer if the work is largely structural in nature.

Generally, the design services offered by the aforementioned “non-architect” groups are for specific systems or areas of a building, rather than for the overall building design. As is the case for anyone who specializes in one area, the value and effectiveness of the services offered increase in direct proportion to the specificity of your design needs, i.e., how narrowly they can be defined and how well the reasons for design problems can be restricted to one or two aspects of the building that are contributing to a problem.

While an architect’s training permits him or her to draw from a broader range of design knowledge than that of individuals in more specialized design groups, an architect may not be your best choice for design assistance. For example, interior decorators have greater familiarity with current textile and furniture choices. Should your design be limited to furniture layouts or furnishings selection, a decorator may be able to give you the advice you seek. If your design problem is confined to the placement of office workstations to efficiently utilize a large open floor area, a space planner or a furniture systems specialist may be the best source of help. Should your needs be limited to upgrading foundation walls or structural support systems in secondary building areas, a structural engineer can assist you effectively.

In most cases, design problems and needs are broader and more complex. For existing buildings, a review of the overall building design, or that of building spaces adjacent to the one on which you are focused, is often needed to develop the best design strategy to correct a problem. Because a building’s interior volumes, exterior wall configurations, and technical systems are interconnected, a change in one location will usually have an impact on several other areas of the building. To cohesively address design issues, an architect’s broad knowledge in a variety of building topics is valuable. When in-depth expertise is needed for the design of a specific building system, the architect will retain a specialist to do the work while making sure his design fits within the framework of the overall building design that you and your architect favor.

Having worked with people in the aforementioned design groups and having had the opportunity to teach students in several of the fields, I have observed a difference in the manner in which architects approach their work from that used by individuals with a narrower design focus. Architectural design has always had both functional and artistic demands that good architects try to satisfy equally well. In addition to the pragmatic standards typically used by specialized design service providers to judge the quality of their work for you, architects measure their work against fairly high artistic and intellectual expectations.

Society has traditionally given architects the responsibility of carrying on part of its cultural legacy through the design of its buildings. It is a responsibility most take seriously. As they have throughout history, good architects seek to provide you with more than a competent, workable solution for your design needs. By means of your building’s design, they also hope to engage your senses and spirit in a way that continually delights and satisfies you as you occupy your building throughout the years. It is a goal you may wish to embrace as you choose the type of design service provider you think best fits you and your work.

John McLean, Architect
San Francisco
(415) 777-9767