"Thoughts and Observations on Architecture and You"

Topics of importance for people about to build or renovate

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Design is not an option. It is the foundation.

As an architect, I look at the project portfolios of a number of builders and “designers” (a general industry term covering people with a wide range of design training and skill level). I also regularly peruse the building work in publications like Fine Homebuilding.

I see many unimaginative or poorly designed projects on which well-intentioned owners have spent large amounts of money for construction. Their builders have often demonstrated fine workmanship and savvy management, but no amount of money or construction skill seems able to raise a project’s design quality beyond that given it at the start of the project.

Design quality is often lower than construction quality in much single-family residential work (new homes and renovations) when:

  • Owners do not demand and are hesitant to pay for first-rate design because they do not grasp its importance in obtaining accurate cost estimates, having a smooth construction process, and achieving a building result that addresses needs clarified by a designer’s questions.

  • Owners are reticent to defer to the design judgment of their consultants on building choices that appear to be only a matter of personal taste or preference, but are usually more complex.

  • Design assistance is provided by individuals with training and skills in other areas of design and / or construction that do not translate into equal capability in architectural design.

  • Owners do not critically review the design background of potential service providers because they do not feel qualified to make judgments about their design competence.

Demanding and Paying for Complete Design Services

If you have high expectations for your project work, it is wise to remember that quality takes care, care takes time, and time takes money. By retaining professionals with extensive training and experience, allowing them to work in the manner they have found yields the best results, and being willing to pay the fees needed to produce such work, you should receive excellent design work and very good service.

Using prudent budgeting, clients can expect to spend one of every four-to-five project dollars for thorough design work on residential renovations and additions, and one of every five-to-six dollars for other small project types. Lower fee levels rarely allow architects to spend enough time to resolve most critical design issues and develop key construction details. The burden to do so then falls on the building crew. In turn, this leads to higher construction costs and, usually, a less cohesive project design result.

Deferring to Your Consultants’ Design Judgment

Deferring to consultants’ judgment does not mean saying “yes” to everything that the members of your design team recommend. While most of their suggestions are professionally prudent, they may not be as appropriate for your personal needs, circumstances, and preferences as is desirable. When you have concerns about their recommendations, it is important that you share them with your consultants without hesitation. They can then incorporate these concerns in their work and advice to you.

It is important to remind yourself that your own design knowledge, experience, and skill are (presumably) less than that of the professionals you have retained. Design issues are usually more complex than they first appear to be. A minimal level of trust in your consultants’ ability and judgment needs to be extended initially and, hopefully, built up as time goes on.

Architectural Design Knowledge and Understanding

Occasionally I am asked how architects differ in their design approach from others offering architectural design services. What is usually meant is how do architects seem to achieve more distinctive architectural results in their work on a fairly consistent basis.

In the early stages of a project, imaginative architects tend to think abstractly about possible building solutions to a design problem. Actual floor, wall, and roof assemblies are thought of as planes and volumes, and windows and doors as voids in them. A conscious attempt is made to combine and shape these building “elements” with a poetic, sculptural end in mind, using patterns of light and shadow to give the design a type of visual and experiential rhythm inside and out. Solving your pragmatic space needs (evidenced, for example, by developing a logical floor plan) is only the starting point in achieving distinctive architectural work. Unless artistic vision guides the design effort, a building result may be functional but will lack the character and refinement that give us pleasure.

An individual’s competence in product design, graphic design, interior decoration, or construction does not mean that she or he has sufficient architectural design knowledge, skill, and talent to design buildings and building spaces with distinction and refinement.

Evaluating Architectural Design Backgrounds

Ask for a professional resume outlining your design candidate’s background. The resume should include architectural education and work experience information, and a list of projects that the individual has designed himself. Look at project pictures and, if possible, visit a building or two. Resist the tendency to look for work whose style you like, as if you were buying a commodity. It is better to look for work that you sense was a creative, carefully crafted solution to an owner’s particular building problem.

Architectural education is a fairly rigorous, “weeding out” process that usually leads to a professional degree in architecture for graduating students (in a minimum 5–year program). This education provides only a basic set of skills for practice. While there are other paths one might take to become a licensed architect, the quality of the preparation to do architectural design can vary considerably.

Work experience after graduation should include adequate time with established architectural design firms. Construction experience, or that acquired doing other types of design, can be advantageous, but it is not a substitute for the exposure gained working with experienced architects.

The design projects that you see in pictures or in person can be informative if your own design sense is well developed. It is important to remember that many outside influences have shaped the building results you see: client design preferences and budget, engineering demands, building code requirements, and the building crew’s onsite decisions, some of which have been made without the project designer’s input. However, you should be able to detect a distinct design approach, spirit, and level of care that is present in each of a good designer’s projects. This design sense will become the foundation for your building work. The main decision you face is how good you want this foundation to be.

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