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04.29.2014
Review> The Architect's Bible
Abby Suckle sifts through the new Handbook of Professional Practice.
Photo by Kelvin Dickinson; Montage by AN

The Architect's Handbook of Professional Practice, Fifteenth Edition
Various authors
Wiley, $250.00

With great fanfare, the AIA launched its Repositioning Initiative a year ago as a way of making the institute more valued and relevant to its members and to the public. Consultants have been retained; repositioning ambassadors have been appointed; reports have been written; committees have been convened; innovation grants have been doled out. And there is more to come. Everything is on the table and nothing is sacred from the macro-scale of the national board composition to the fine grain of chapter programming. There is no question that the massive soul searching and navel gazing extravaganza underway is long overdue.

As the profession’s bible, the 2014 AIA Handbook of Professional Practice, Fifteenth Edition should be scrutinized under the same magnifying glass. I welcomed the opportunity to reexamine or examine a tome I hadn’t carefully looked at in years. I took an informal survey and realized that I am not unique. Most of my peers proudly confided in me that they too hadn’t opened it since they got their licenses. What a mistake.

The book itself weighs in at over 1,000 pages and could only be described as a comprehensive. The list of contributors and editors alone fills the first two pages. Their ranks include many architects, supplemented by a bevy of lawyers, insurance brokers, educators, economists, and assorted specialists in marketing, in cad, in management. Many of them teach and lecture about their topics. Many of them consult. With this many authors, the prose varies ranging from informative to straightforward to thorough. It is a textbook and not a novel. It is definitely not lively.

Organized in four parts beginning with Practice and followed by Firm Management, Project Delivery, and Contracts, it is stuffed with useful information. Each author was given a topic supplemented by case studies and backgrounders.

The book itself exemplifies what is right and wrong with the AIA. The broad scope pretty much assures that nothing is dealt with in depth. In an effort to be inclusive, many of the articles became too basic and generic, assuming that the audience has no background or knowledge of the subject, which is impossible since they are actually practicing architects dealing with cad, social media, LEED, etc. on a daily basis. From this perspective, the first part, Practice, is the weakest. By the time the Handbook hits its stride and gets to the meatier topics of running firms and project delivery, the approach makes considerably more sense.

The amount and caliber of reference material goes beyond helpful. Since architects do not take any classes in business management in architectural school, here is B School lite. Similarly, what they learn of project management comes from how it was done in offices in which they worked, which is certainly not comprehensive. This will help. At a time when architects are struggling to master design build and BIM, discussions about the issues are relevant. It goes without saying that the section on when to use which contract and how to modify it is fundamental. There is so much stuff, that if one topic does not resonate with one architect at a moment in time, another will.

The book also sidesteps many thorny hot button issues, which are treated in a more cursory fashion than they really warrant. The IDP as it is currently designed puts a huge amount of pressure on practitioners (employers) to create an appropriate apprenticeship experience. Admonishing them in print probably does not help mitigate this. Extolling the virtues of mentoring is conventional wisdom. But the real issue is about the best way of training the next generation. At the other end of the career scale, the discussion of project credit is a very complex issue because it deals with how you can present yourself and get work. But it is not addressed with anywhere near the sympathy and nuance that is required.

Some of the advice is simplistic. Suggestions that you tell employees honestly what you are looking for when you hire them and people do not want to work overtime on a daily basis seem a bit flatfooted. As do paragraphs promoting keeping good project records. Case studies are oddly selected; there should have been a concerted effort to draw from projects that are more significant buildings architecturally and to do it in a more formalized manner.

The book itself looks dull; the layout is a very traditional, and very tired. We are a visual profession. In our own practices, we strive to make everything we touch beautiful to look at. We respond to good graphics. The Handbook is filled with charts, most of which look like they were lifted from PowerPoint presentations by management consultants. There are practically no photographs whatsoever, even in the section about architectural photography and how it helps win design awards. The handful of photos are black and white and very small.

It is, for the most part, business as usual. The sticker price alone hovers around $250 (including the downloadable sample contracts) with some discounts for online versions. That virtually guarantees the Handbook a place on the reference shelves of the firms who need it the least. Those are the offices most likely to have access to myriad consultants to help them navigate potential minefields. It virtually ensures that the tome is a deal breaker for the smaller, less financially stable practices who could benefit from its collective wisdom the most.

There is no question that much of the information contained in the Handbook belongs in every architectural practice and should be included with membership. Architects already complain bitterly about the high cost of joining the AIA. As part of the repositioning, the AIA should make the grand gesture of focusing on its core mission of member service and realize that they are sitting on a gold mine. The wealth of content is extraordinary. The advice is plentiful and by any metric useful.

This is an incredible resource that has been compiled. It should be delivered online, not in print, with each section supplemented by case studies showcasing the buildings and the firms that have won AIA Honor Awards. There should be more thorough discussions about critical issues that we face that are open ended: ethics, project credit, mentoring. There should be links to appropriate websites with supplemental material. The contracts should be annotated in a way that would make it easy for practitioners to choose the most appropriate. The graphics and photography should mirror the caliber of presentation material routinely generated by architects in a way that more accurately reflects who we are. Rather than educating your first time client, there should be sections you could point your client to about mutual expectations.

Providing the toolset to strongly support their members and position them to effectively serve their clients and communities will do far more to endear the AIA to the architectural community and, in turn, the larger public than any advertising campaign, no matter how well conceived. This is an extraordinary opportunity to achieve that.

Abby Suckle

Abby Suckle is the principal of Abby Suckle Architects.