Are Architects Still Worth It?

(Photo: REVIVALthedigest)

A reader named Marc Krawitz writes in with a question. Does anyone have an answer for him?

I’m a recent architecture school graduate, and just wondering:

Given laws in America that don’t specifically require an architect to stamp drawings (as opposed to Europe), are architects economically valuable to a housing and building market/culture that strives for bottom dollar and cheap/fast returns?  Assuming that hiring an architect has a positive impact on a project, is the time and financial investment on the part of the client worth it in the long run?

Related: Michael Graves writes about the death of drawing in architecture.

 


Stephanie

The question of whether its worth it will be answered by your client based on their own values. There will always be people who appreciate good design and fine craftsmanship. The architect is in the service profession, not the mass manufacturing profession.

James

This of course assumes that the architect is willing & able to produce good design. Even a glancing acquaintance with the field is enough to provide numerous examples of quite-famous architects who've created unlivable housing.

Joe

Why would a law requiring an architects stamp make the architect valuable to the client?

Roger

Residential construction is probably the area that least needs architectural input. While higher end custom homes will use architects either for custom designs or modifications of standard plans, a lot of homes are built to standardized plans without enough change to require an architect.

I can testify to the value-add provided by a good architect. Years ago, I had an office/warehouse building built. Various design-build contractors proposed site plans, floor plans, etc. that were generally poor use of the space and not responsive to our needs. We hired an architect to do a site plan, floor plan, and elevation concepts. He had the professionalism to study our work flow, our expansion plans, etc. We went back to the contractors, found one that could translate that work into a reasonably-priced building, and built it. Money well-spent.

Mat

Yep. I'm working with an architect for a large remodel project now. There are going to be people that don't see the value, but overall, most contractors aren't going to be able to deal with complex structural calculations, and how to tie things together in an aesthetically pleasing way. Not to mention the details that most people don't even think about (heat loss calculations, ventilation, etc).

I should also point out that your assertion that the housing market is based on cheapest return is incorrect. I am specifically paying extra during my remodel to make sure it's done 'right', where 'right' is both structurally correct, and that the design is something I will be happy living with long term.

In the end, even if it's not actually worth it, my architect will still get paid :)

Mat

Paul

In my few years on the design side of the construction industry, I've learned that the primary value of architects & engineers is in risk mitigation & the fact that professionals carry errors & omissions insurance. Anyone can slap together a floor plan. Not anyone can pay for it if halfway through the construction process the builder realizes that the walls won't hold the roof up.

Tobias Gilk

A difficult question to answer because the services an architect provides are confounded...

There are the 'pragmatic' services: code-compliance, building permits, zoning hearings, blueprints, etc...

Then there are the 'functional' services: useful design, cost-effective design, and, yes, the artistic element.

The value of the 'pragmatic' elements of architectural services can fairly be determined with some hourly rate and the amount of time these tasks will take. Their utility is that they're checked-off in the process of getting the building built. My next door neighbor could come over to my house and tell me that my front porch isn't in compliance with the set-back requirements in the latest update to the municipal zoning ordinance... but so what? What was important was that it obtained the approvals that were in force at the time. Due to 'grandfathering' of buildings for code and zoning, there is zero lingering value to me, as a homeowner, of the pragmatic elements of an architect's service.

Now, for the functional elements, this is a different story. There is a lifelong benefit to me, for as long as I occupy my house, to how well it allows me to live the life I want to, if it reduces my utility bills, if it warms the cockles of my heart to see it as I pull into the driveway.

I think that if we're talking about the value of architectural services, it needs to include both the somewhat easy to calculate 'pragmatic' value, coupled with the more subjective and life-long benefits of the 'functional' portion of the professional services.

I doubt that anyone has hired Eric Owen Moss, or Frank Gehry, or Zaha Hadid, because they had a project that was in desperate need of a building permit. An architect distinguishes themselves from their peers in how well they provide (or market) the 'functional' services.

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Scott

I have no idea why Europe requires a stamp for architectural drawings, here it only needs the structural engineer's. Perhaps in Europe architects are also certified engineers? Doubt it, they are two very different skill sets and having been married to an SE for years, I can attest they are strictly numbers kinda people. If you have a project, think of the architect as a head coach. They hire the structural engineers and work with contractors and can act as a liaison with the building owners. There is great value in that.

Jeff

I'm not sure I have an answer, but I do have two thoughts.

The first thought is that this seems like something the writer really, *really* should have considered BEFORE architecture school, no?

The second is that even though I'm not sure whether architects are affirmatively valuable, I can say anecdotally (based on my in-laws' experience) that a bad architect can absolutely destroy what otherwise could have been a relatively simple project. In light of that, my inclination if I were to build a house would probably not be to hire an architect for a custom job.

Logan Reed

Buildings over a certain size still need the stamp of an architect. Architects have to prove what their value added is in most situations. With the combination of Revit, energy modeling, etc. this is increasingly quantifiable.

I also recently graduated with a degree in architecture (grad school, undergrad was econ). The field in general and competition are both brutal. Architects seem to wear many hats though. Most do something in addition to architecture: furniture design, interiors, teaching, art, websites, etc. More so than other degrees people seem to be comfortable with architects getting involved in things outside their field (ie. urban farming).

ap21

@Scott This depends on where you are in Europe, as the study and training of architects can vary greatly. In Germany for example, architects have to know about structure and stuff like that and study, whereas in the Netherlands they don't and practically anyone can call themselves an architect if they want.

Peanut Gallery

This just feels outdated to me. Where's the headlines for architects that design differently from the ground up, buildings that are thoughtfully made to let in more light and allow for better energy efficiency? When will architectural schools advance in their ideology accross the board to change the face of our coommunities and cities future forward? By what percent could they allieviate percentages of electrical requirements? That's what seems awry to me, as far as if architects are worth it in the long run. An overlooked power for change. An untapped creative field. Make a Stamp for That.

cattaca

In this very shallow market segment, not as much as others. But trust me, you still most definitely need a knowledgeable professional to get you through the code review and permitting process even if the architect has little to no design input.

Terence

In some situations, architects with a commitment to BIM tech and the right predesign approach can even become the expediters of the process. The right architect can be relied on to verify compliance with fire, accessibility, zoning, etc, while turning out drawings and info in an affordable timeframe with BIM, AND can be trusted to employ an educated vision for the end aesthetic (choose architect wisely). With the right correspondence between every party involved, the architect will be advising the balance between bottom-dollar and highest-quality.

In many cases where bottom-dollar and rapid turnaround is key, the architects of a high-output firm will be less dedicated to memorable designs, but will still have a crucial place in the industry. With BIM in the mix, builders and clients can take advantage of the architect in new practical ways, where the project is finished and analyzed in the computer before any ground is broken.

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Tedatron

I think the question you are asking is whether architecture school is worth it. Any building or construction project has somebody (even computerized?) somewhere acting in a role at some point as an architect. This person is making decisions about what goes where, how empty space is used, etc.

The difference is, of course, their level of training and formal credentials. Asking whether an architect is worth it is like asking whether legal representation is worth it. Having someone credentialed do the job is a great privilege (if they're any good) but its also expense.

Reminds me of a line from Freakonomics: a prostitute is less likely to hire an architect than the other way around. Probably true with lawyers, CEOs, electricians and any other credentialed occupation. How well do you need the job done and how much are you willing to pay? Funny how with prostitution that question always ends up answering itself...

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DK

As an Architect, I can testify that our professison is filled with blowhards when it comes to the aesthetic and cultural issues. If they're wearing all black, walk away, they're so wrapped up in the "image" of what an architect is that they don't have time to actually do their job well. That job is about more than Vision, its about getting vision constructed. BUT for a good Architect, in addition to the non-quantifiable and subjective elements of "good planning", aesthetics, etc. and all the quantifiable compliance of design issues (code compliance, energy efficiency, structural feasibility), the biggest element Architects bring to the table is contractual during the building process. The Architect prepares a set of documents which are the basis for the contract between the contractor and the owner. The quality and thoroughness of those documents (both drawings and specs) is JUST like a legal document drafted by a good lawyer. It covers as many eventualities as possible and leaves as little wiggle room for the contractor as possible. And if you hire your Architect to provide construction administration services, they oversee that contract and make sure the contractor provides a product which is in compliance with the contract documents. I'm working on a project now where the client opted to hire an "owner's representative" to do that role and we're seeing a situation where the owner's rep has more loyalty to the contractor they hired than to the owner. Bad deal, as they keep allowing the owner to get ripped off by the contractor. You very much want your Architect and your contractor to have a good working relationship but contractually be "at odds", both working for you with different goals as a check and balance to one another.

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Jason Cole

My first question is - if you don't already know the answer to this, how in the world did you manage to graduate from a real architectural school?

Second, assuming you're simply trolling for attention, then yes. Thats like asking if small CSA and local farm efforts are still viable in a culture thats shown that it will merrily chomp down on subsidized chemical corn farming byproducts, or if books are still a viable medium in a world that has an internet and e-readers.

Architecture isn't merely a trade occupation. Architecture is a way of thinking, a way of solving problems that affect people from a level of single family housing all the way into modern urban planning and city development. If you're asking if you're going to get filthy rich as an architect, then I'd say you've definitely made a bad career choice. You're not going to have it easy, and you're going to have to make some hard decisions and some harder sales pitches to people that might not understand that you provide a valuable SERVICE. But then again, I guess we don't really need nice resturants in a world where there's a McDonalds on every corner...

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DK

JCole! Hey. If only Howard were here to moderate this... I think the original question Marc raised is that outside of visionary planning, creative problem solving, are Architects economically valuable to a market which simply does not value these things? The "market" does not value long term term solutions or creativity or even sustainability. It values the bottom line and the capital improvement budget and minimal outlay costs, which ultimately affect the CEO's take home pay. Architects can bemoan this loss in our culture, and we do, and try to educate the public about the long term benefits of creative problem solving and the like. But in order to stay viable, Architects must EXCEL in the things the market does find valuable, namely project management which has historically been part of the profession. In order to protect our relevance, we MUST be better at project management than the folks to whom that responsibility is being outsourced. We can say that we're valuable all we want, but value is subjective. If we're not being hired, we may be "valuable" in the history books, but not to the market which dictates "value" in this moment.

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Jason Cole

I agree to an extent, but my point is that the definition of "value" is negotiable. I personally think that, for the most part, the projects that architects are engaged in have more social and cultural value than projects that do not have architects involved. I agree wholeheartedly that architects should be placing ourselves in the drivers seats more often (is this what you're saying when you mean "better at project management than the folks to whom that responsibility is being outsourced?).

I personally fault a profession that has sat idle for decades, expecting people to come to us with projects, then gleefully shoving off everything after initial design to someone else while we wait on the next great design project. I still think that our services are valuable. We just suck at communicating that value to those who can use them.

Dominic Z.

U.S. law may not require a licensed architect to stamp drawings, but if you're planning to build any sizable project and use bank financing, the bank will require a stamp.....