"Thoughts and Observations on Architecture and You"

Topics of importance for people about to build or renovate

Photography studio in Orinda, California

Experience Counts

One joy that comes with practicing a profession or trade with dedication for a long time is the mastery to do things with a level of confidence, efficiency, and finesse that is absent when beginning a craft. Coupled with this, however, is a growing humility from the constant encounters with new technical information and project management situations that serve as reminders of how much one does not know, despite years of experience! The importance of continuing study, observation, and practice to reduce the negative impact that insufficient knowledge and skill can have for a building project becomes very clear.

When speaking with potential clients, I encourage them to select their architect, engineering consultants, and builder based, in large part, on the amount of time they and their project will receive from the most experienced people in the various firms. While young architects and builders need work opportunities to develop their talent and project judgment, they can be impatient and opportunistic, often taking on projects or roles they are not yet prepared to handle well. Some clients suspect this but, enticed by the lower hourly rates of less experienced people and fearful about their project’s potential cost, they opt to go the apparently less expensive route and retain them, hoping for the best.

Experience in Architectural Design

The great 20th century architect, Louis Kahn, wrote: “I believe it takes a long time to become an architect; it takes a long time to be the architect of one’s aspirations. You can become an architect professionally overnight. But to feel the spirit of architecture from which one makes his offering takes much longer.”

Kahn was reminding us that just because someone has a license to practice architecture, and is legally permitted to call himself an “architect,” does not mean he has sufficient command of the knowledge and skill needed to do design work at the advanced level his clients and builders expect. It takes years of focused effort to master the art of architectural design and produce work that is refined and distinctive while stretching presumed limitations — and that remains grounded in financial and construction reality. The best architects have high artistic and construction standards because a typical building has considerable influence on its users’ lives and its neighborhood for a long time.

Younger engineers and builders gain valuable architectural design experience by (1) working closely with good architects during the creative process and (2) doing some basic architectural design themselves if they have their efforts critiqued using the functional and aesthetic standards architects use to assess their own work. Both types of experience give engineers and builders a firsthand understanding of the subtle design trade-offs an architect faces to develop and preserve the strength of a unique design while trying to ensure it serves its intended use properly. In my view, this understanding increases the ability of engineers and builders to effectively question and influence an architect’s design decisions in a way that can lead to more nuanced and successful project design.

Experience in Construction

Many of my builder friends are convinced that architects don’t learn a great deal in school that is useful when building real projects. (They feel somewhat better about the knowledge architects acquire after graduation, particularly from contractors!) I readily acknowledge my debt to builders for much of what I have learned over the years about construction techniques and project management. That knowledge has shaped how I approach architectural design in ways I could not embrace when younger.

But my experience also suggests that this knowledge can’t be allowed to prematurely derail imaginative design instincts if the finished building is to be given its best chance to be exceptional. “Pragmatic” and “optimal” approaches to design decision-making, while necessary to complete a project, rarely lead to exceptional building results without a creative imagination continually tipping the design balance one way or another to favor those attributes that give it the most character and distinction.

Early in their working life, young architects and engineers with little construction knowledge become acutely aware that the lines and abstract shapes they have placed on their drawings are not just marks that can be added, changed, or removed on a whim without consequences. These marks are representations of real building components with specific sizes, characteristics, and limitations that control how one builds with them. Grasping this notion intellectually is easy, but comprehending its full impact on the construction details and procedures needed to get a promising conceptual design idea built within a budget takes much longer.

Construction knowledge steadily increases after years of (1) researching technical literature and speaking with manufacturers and suppliers to learn about new building products, (2) careful observation of one’s own projects under construction, and (3) discussions with building crew members about the manner and difficulty of doing specific tasks, and with their bosses about project logistics and costs.

Architects and engineers who have had the opportunity to do construction work themselves or to spend a lot of time on building sites also gain a better sense of the amount of physical and mental energy that is expended doing construction work. This awareness enters their design decision-making as judgments are made about whether building certain parts of the work in a very refined or unusual way sufficiently contributes to the strength of the overall design to make the effort worth doing.

On the builder’s side, the amount, type, and quality of each crew member’s construction experience and knowledge will affect the success of a building project in some way, and none more so than that of the lead person on the job site. This is the individual on whom I, as an architect acting on behalf of an owner, depend most for the successful completion of the work as designed. Each member of the crew looks to the lead person for technical guidance, manpower assistance, subcontractor management, and problem resolution. The more knowledgeable and experienced the lead person is, the more likely the project will run smoothly and efficiently.

When unions were more influential in the construction industry, they promoted the training of new members in most aspects of their trade. The skill of individual tradespeople at different experience levels was more predictable than it is today. Builders often complain about the wide range of competence they find in potential field employees who claim the same skill level. Most of these individuals have not had any systematic training in their trade or worked under enough talented people who taught by example and demanded a very high standard for the work done by their crew.

It has never been easy for small construction companies to assume the cost of training every entry-level worker in the way the company’s owners prefer. This is especially the case in a weak economy when company profitability is squeezed. Because employment levels fluctuate in direct proportion to a company’s workload, entry-level employees with the shortest track record often have the least stable employment. It is likely that a number of them will be on your project and need to be assigned work tasks at which they are not yet fully proficient. The crew leader can’t be expected to watch their every step, correct each mistake, or improve every less-than-desirable effort. The first line of defense against future building problems always rests with the individual worker and his attitude and experience to properly perform each task he is given with precision and care.

Experience counts. Retain people for both design work and construction work with as much of it as possible. It is likely that they will quickly demonstrate why your decision to choose them was wise.

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