What do architects do?
Architecture is an indispensable profession, but hiring an architect is often viewed as either an onerous means to an end in the commercial world (“getting a permit” or “making something look good”), or, in the residential world, a luxury for only the well-heeled. Why is this? As with most things, the answer is complicated. But I think it’s fair to say architects themselves are primarily responsible for such a limited view, because they’ve done a terrible job of explaining what they do. So, this blog is my penance. My attempt to answer the question—what do architects really do?
Let’s start here: What exactly makes architecture indispensable? Well…we care what we build, where and how we build—right? Building is very expensive, it requires a huge investment of resources, not just in its initial construction but in maintaining what we build for decades to come—it takes much money, natural resources, manufacturing, shipping, energy. So, it almost goes without saying that the decisions that go into building are critical. And how do you work through those decisions in a way that makes the most of your investment? That is the process of design. Architects are heavily trained at the process of design—working through the natural process, the collaborative and patient exercise of discussing ideas and goals and translating it into built form. And what is “heavily trained”? It is a minimum five-year architectural degree (took me six), minimum three years of internship and another year to prepare and take what used to be a nine-part test. Only after passing the test, it took me another six years before I gained enough of a comfort level to practice on my own—that’s 16 years. Is design really that important? Well, how important is it to you that the resources you invest be handled as well as possible?
By its very nature, design involves a dialogue—a healthy back and forth exercise between the architect and the client. By its very nature, the dialogue takes time and a thorough investigation into the possibilities. The most successful projects are going to result only through an intentional, creative and patient design process. When it comes to the most important decisions in the design process, those decisions that will be most consequential to the cost and success of the project, without question it is the decisions made earliest in the design process—you would be well served to make those decisions with the input of a licensed architect.
While I must admit my bias, the greatest value for every dollar you spend in the act of building will be what you spend during design--where the decisions are made on what you will be doing and the materials and systems chosen to execute the project. Designing and building well is expensive, but not nearly as costly as doing it poorly. Hire an architect.
Not all architects are created equal of course---and if you've made the wise decision to hire an architect, that decision too should be done carefully. Depending on your project, some architects are certainly more experienced or specialized in what you plan to build. Like anyone else, architects have personalities that may be a good fit for you, or not. You should definitely talk to several before hiring, and ask for references. In general, getting a "bid" for architectural services is not how you want to go about hiring for such an important role, though asking how an architect charges for their services is an important question to ask. Architects are available to perform a very wide range of services; from site selection and design to construction observation and condition assessment surveys. So, if you are comparing the fees of one architect versus another, be sure you're comparing fees for the same services. Generally speaking, architects are accustomed to managing a team of professionals including consulting engineers, interior designers, landscape architects and other specialized consultants that will be involved to various degrees throughout the entire project--so it is important they're good communicators and willing to speak to you frankly.
Besides the importance of design stressed here, architects are responsible for generating drawings and specifications that become the basis of your written agreement with a general contractor to build whatever has been designed. Those drawings and specifications are exactly what protect you and your investment by stating clearly what is expected. The best architects are those that are known for producing quality drawings that are accurate and well coordinated. No one is perfect of course, neither are architects--so it is imperative you review the documents the architect generates often and ask questions.
Architects offer far more services than have been described here, but we have described the most basic and valuable. If you have questions or would like to talk to us about what we do, we'd be happy to hear from you.