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Ready for some tough love, some bitter medicine? Looking back, we architects got our profession into some bad places with some serious mistakes. We were often so eager for fame and celebrity that we sometimes behaved irresponsibly. We did not use design in its best sense; we gave away our treasure. We were not always reliable regarding time and money. We handed over the leadership role in building to others who lacked the necessary skills and training, and who held no responsibility or liability. Left with less authority and control, architects instilled fear and distrust in our clients. We aided and abetted clients with unrealistic and unworthy ambitions. Specifically, when clients proposed projects where the scope, budget, and schedule didn’t fit together, we were so eager for the assignments that we did not blow the whistle, but jumped in feet first.
I can think of three fine institutions with worthy missions and stellar reputations that committed virtual suicide. Those institutions (almost) betrayed their missions by creating inappropriate, overpriced Silly Buildings. The architects and the leadership of those institutions were co-conspirators and bad stewards. Their actions in pursuit of fame and recognition did irreparable harm to their institutions.
We foolishly participated in competitions, an insulting process for selecting architects. What wise partnership was ever created by such a superficial beauty pageant? What smart client chooses an architect simply by how a building looks, without knowing what that architect is like to work with, or if they can execute the project well? What other profession gives its work product away for free? What bettor places a two dollar bet when the prize is two dollars? (And here often there is NO prize!) The field is littered with competition winners who end up losers: no built project, no fee, no valuable relationship. Competitions may have been a reasonable selection process in another time and place. They don’t work here and now. Competitions are abusive and counterproductive for everyone.
The lack of self-worth actually begins with poor professional habits. Hiring young professionals without pay, or calling them consultants rather than employees, is illegal and unethical. We are not properly compensated for our services: we provide unpaid speculative designs for clients to try to secure assignments. We are not being paid on a timely basis. (These are circumstances under which no client would expect their contractor to continue working, but we do. Are we richer or dumber than the contractors?) We compete for projects by simply offering to do them for the lowest fees. This practice is unsustainable: if we continue to undersell ourselves, the profession will become a commodity.
We allowed, even encouraged, the media to publicize projects whose main value is novelty and eccentricity, not quality. Maybe novelty is easier to spot and sell. While pandering to the public’s desire to stare ghoulishly at a highway accident, novelty hasn’t improved the work or the profession. Encouraging this bad behavior leads clients to ask for more silly buildings, which they (and society) often can’t afford.
As young professionals, we are often eager to get a fast start, to break out of the gate early. We start before we have fully mastered the complex task of making buildings. It takes time to learn how to deal constructively and fairly with parties who have other agendas or financial interests.
From these errors, we can learn what will lead us to a better future. First, let’s use design in its best, most holistic sense. Design is not simply about how the building looks on the outside (for that is simple). Design dictates how buildings are planned, and how they use resources (materials, energy, space, money, and time). Design informs efficiency, durability, and beauty.
Let’s get the design and construction of our projects done on time and on budget. Let’s return to being our clients’ trusted advisors and partners. Let’s be more creative, not just about designing what we are asked to design, but in making new building types for the present and the future, not just the past.
Let’s be inventive about the process of building, the largest segment of the American economy. The way we build now is antiquated and doesn’t work well, which leaves room for major improvements. Can you imagine a car produced the way we make buildings? You’d hire a designer, while another company puts together the components of body, engine, brakes, transmission, all made by other companies. You’d end up with a $3 million car that has never been prototyped or tested, and it wouldn’t run as well as a $20,000 Volkswagen. Yet this is how we make buildings!
Let’s demand the fees that it takes to do great design. It does cost more to study more alternatives to get the very best one. It takes money to create better, more thorough, and accurate documents to build our designs, and to provide strong services in the construction phase. The client benefits. Better services result in better buildings, lower construction costs and fewer extras. Clients will learn that paying for increased services will make the buildings they own more appropriate and more durable. When we received the fees we deserve, we run better offices, with better staff and equipment, and fewer worries about money.
Let’s sell these more relevant building types and these construction and fabrication processes not just to our clients, but to crowd-funding and to venture capitalists. Instead of working for a one-time fee, we would maintain ownership of our ideas and the income streams they produce.
Our professionalism should be recognized. Why are we intent on measuring the energy a building uses (not even the energy materials and the building process consume), rather than the professional practice that created the metric? Let’s start a professionalism rating system to gauge architects’ service: firms would be rated by the appropriateness and usefulness of their designs, the timeliness and cost-effectiveness of their process, and the reduced risk to their clients.
Let’s take back the leadership we once had in the building process, and again become our clients’ trusted, and compensated, partners.
Paul Segal, FAIA
Columbia University Adjunct Professor, author of Professional Practice: A Guide to Turning Designs into Buildings