It might seem as though the role of an Architect is pretty straightforward, but the role of the Architect is actually more complex than it might first appear, having changed throughout the ages into something quite different and removed from the initial job description. This blog post is going to look at these transitions, briefly explaining how the role of the Architect has changed throughout history, what these changes have meant for the construction industry and I will look at how today's Architect could be redefined in my opinion to provide an improved service for clients and the construction industry, and what it means to me to be an Architect. HOW THE ROLE OF THE ARCHITECT HAS CHANGED THROUGHOUT HISTORY
The etymology of Architect comes from mid-16th century - from the French architecte and from the Italian architetto, via the Latin from Greek arkhitektōn, from arkhi- meaning ‘chief’ + tektōn meaning ‘builder’. Therefore historically Architect has meant chief builder. However, the current dictionary definition of an Architect is 'a person who designs buildings and in many cases also supervises their construction.' There is huge difference between a chief builder and someone who only designs and oversees the construction.
The role of the Architect has changed over centuries and in the most recent centuries the role has been defined in writing by governing bodies with a set of rules that stipulate the exact roles of the Architect to which all Architects in the UK must abide by in order to call themselves an Architect legally. The term Architect is a legal definition and an Architect must be registered by the Architects Registration Board in order that he/she may be able to call themselves an Architect.
There is a constricted and enduring set of training and formal education in place which typically takes on average nine and a half years to complete to become a fully qualified Architect. Until the final Part III exam is sat a student of architecture is entitled to call themselves an Architectural Assistant. Typically a Part III student is working under an Architect or series of tutors, assisting and learning until they sit and pass their own set of exams, but more often than not at this stage they are doing the job of an Architect. Within an office environment the Architect they are working under would typically be responsible for their actions with the practices professional indemnity and public liability insurance covering them. The architectural education system and how it trains Architects is an entirely different subject and blog post in its own right, but for the purposes of this post it stands to show how a traditional and tightly bound set of educational criteria can limit the experiences, knowledge and growth of an architectural student.
In the past a chief or master builder might have been a sculptor, artist, engineer or carpenter. They had refined their set of skills and spent years mastering their craft. Architects were people of ‘broad learning and various talents’ according to Vitruvius in his Ten Books on Architecture. They might then be commissioned to build an entire building or structure and in producing this become the chief builder of that building. Over the course of more commissions they would adopt the title Architect and have a trainee learn from them. This was education and training for an apprentice. This was how you became an Architect.
“The contemporary Architect can be described as being an individual conceived from ideals of the 18th century, operating in a profession designed in the 19th century, within construction processes formulated in the 20th century attempting to meet the needs of the 21st century.” (Butcher, 2001.)
The Industrial Revolution caused a shift from agrarian to capitalism-based economies and the Architect began to be considered as a professional in his own right. The Royal Institute of British Architects was formed in the late nineteenth century, and Liverpool University offered the first course in formal architectural education. It was fairly common in the twentieth century for an architectural student to come from a wealthy background, as the number of years required to study and the formal on-the-job training required wasn't accessible to all. Architecture was a subject on par with Law, Accountancy and Medicine; an elitist subject available to those of academic excellence and those who could afford to study. The original ‘Architect’s Club’ was established in 1791 which was a “highly exclusive group, with membership restricted to Royal Academicians, holders of the Academy’s Gold Medal and members of distinguished foreign institutions” (Butcher, 2001.) Very few women studied architecture, in fact the first women to be admitted to the RIBA was in 1898. Architects were employed by the aristocracy and by the local establishment, monarchy and large companies to design ostentatious buildings that showed the world how wealthy, powerful or cultured they were.
Since the inception of the RIBA and the formalisation of the profession, the involvement of the role of the Architect in construction meant a shift in power. The days of the client hiring a builder were no longer how business was done but the position of the Architect was created to mediate between the two, so that the client was accurately represented and the builder was given direct instructions and paid for the work they had done. The Architect took the clients dreams and told the builder how to build them, using their drawings and discourse as power. Building is expensive and therefore risky so the Architect provided protection for both the client and the builder.
In the 1950’s and 60’s the capitalist fragmentation of these relationships began; the family builders turned their hand at managing and skills became more specialised, requiring several sub-contractors and suppliers to do the job that previous family builders would have provided for. Design knowledge was becoming increasingly more complex and the Architect spent more time on the design, and less focus on the build, but this is where the shift in power changed again with the introduction of the Quantity Surveyor. The Quantity Surveyor evolved to protect the client from the Architects fanciful designs and insistent luxuries that may not be desired by the client. The Quantity Surveyor became the position of power as they were in charge of the money.
In the mid 1970’s Management Fee Contracting was introduced, the Management Contractor looking after the lengthy paperwork and budgets that now came with the construction process, allowing the builders to focus on building quality and the Architect on designing. The Architect and Contractor were on the same team, shared the same vision and wanted to get the building finished on time and to budget without compromising on quality or design. Unfortunately this set up tended to leave the client in the dark about decisions. It did however introduce the idea that the Architect and main contractor would be on the same side working under the same roof.
In the 1990’s the introduction of the Project Manager and Private Finance Initiatives meant the Architect was further demoted to just another one of the many suppliers and sub-contractors involved. The term ‘value engineering’ was coined to justify the cutting out of any architectural or design features that wasn’t directly related to the function or end-use of the building and ultimately lead to the demise of public architecture. There were no longer public or city Architects and most of the council architecture departments were closed. The late 1980’s and 1990’s saw public opinion turn against Architects famously being backed by Prince Charles’ public slandering of the profession and the state of architecture in Britain.
The early 21st century years have brought huge changes to the architectural profession, and the world in general; huge technological advances, extreme periods of boom and bust as the global economies spiral out of control, increasing environmental concerns and shortage of manual labour and traditional skills. Quite a bleak outlook that has seen many practices close, thousands of jobs lost, and graduates unable to get work.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR THE CONSTRUCTION INDUSTRY?
The roles of the Architect in the last century have been slowly given away. Today in the 21st century a massive team is required in order that a building may be built, which is good for the major corporations but does little for the SME’s. An Architect isn't always in the position of power any longer as discussed above; they don't have an input in every aspect of the process, and many decisions are outwith their control leading to ghastly designs, badly constructed buildings with short lifespans and quite frankly a lack of fun and beauty for the public in the built environment.
By the time Architects finally finish their formal training they are usually in their mid to late twenties and have seen their peers graduate other degrees, enter into jobs with fairly generous starting salaries. After years of studying and hard graft there is an impatience to get started and prove their worth, to put all those years of training to good use, to finally design something and oversee it from inception to completion and to start earning. Typically at that stage if they had more to learn - structural loadings, mechanical and electrical systems, interior design, plumbing, landscaping etc they'd not earn the practice much money for it would take them time to learn these additional skills that were not taught during their Part I to Part III stages. It is quicker and cheaper to hire consultants who have specified in these subject areas and they are called in to help and combine efforts.
While I'm all for collaboration, I don't believe that having several consultants with several specialisms and not learning from one another is collaboration. The demise of the chief builder has been for the role of the architect to be sub divided into different specialisms and the education and training amplify this. There aren’t enough years in which you can bottle neck the vast amount of information required to become a chief builder.
At the most recent Architectural Students Network conference at the Manchester School of Art the reform of the current RIBA education system to cut three years off the formal training was the subject of debate. I listened to a group of current Part I and II students who couldn't imagine cutting their courses down from the time they already take. In fact they began to question why they weren't looking at specific areas of architecture in more detail; history, sustainability, project management. I was at pains to point out that you couldn't possibly fit all that there is to learn from architecture in five years, seven years or even ten years of formal education. That they should use their undergraduate and postgraduate studies as a platform to which they continue to explore areas they are interested in for years to come.
Architecture isn't a one shoe fits all solution and trying to pretend it can be taught in any number of years is beyond ridiculous. The chief builders spent a lifetime mastering their craft and the architectural system should promote similar ideals. It leads to questions about what kind of students does the education system produce and inevitably, does that influence the roles of the Architect that are being offered to the construction industry?
HOW TODAYS ARCHITECT CAN BE REDEFINED TO IMPROVE ARCHITECTURE AND THE CONSTRUCTION INDUSTRY
At the opening of the Empowerment exhibition by Orkidstudio at The Lighthouse in Glasgow, Chris Platt, the Head of the Mackintosh School of Architecture said that the "current generation of twenty something architects are more globally aware, digitally switched on and keen to employ their moral compasses to good and immediate effect. They wish to build. They want to make a tangible difference to people's lives, particularly those who they consider in the greatest need. And they want to see that difference before their very eyes."
He went on to state that "this generation also wishes to bypass much of the processes and procedures (that have emerged over the past few decades) and take action within timescales that they consider acceptable - taking command of a situation."
He discusses how this throws up all sorts of questions about what it means to be an architect, what is architecture, how an architect can help individuals and communities, and also how this can make a living?
He questions why you would put yourself through the logistical and political headaches of stepping out of conventional western architectural practice, in being the authors of both the projects and the design of the projects 'when you could sit in a nice ergonomic chair in a warm office facing a computer screen' and he finished by stating "Make no mistake about it, this is a revolutionary act, hidden in the modest scale but huge in ambition… From the humblest of starts there is a redefinition taking place; a redefinition of what it is to be an architect in the 21st century; a redefinition of what professionalism means; and a redefinition of what the roles of the client, architect and builder are."
I was very proud to be standing there, an active part of this revolution, to be redefining the architect, architecture and - most importantly to me - to be redefining the role of the client, architect and builder. This is my biggest goal: to redefine the role of the architect, client and builder. I firmly believe that an architect should be the chief builder, both designer and builder. To be part of a collaborative team with different disciplines and transferable skills; where each member of the team has a passion for building and making; where each member of the team brings their own set of skills to teach, will learn new skills from their team mates and will collaborate to produce a beautiful hand crafted building to suit the clients wishes. How to do this is critical in how it can be a successful and sustainable business model.
There are numerous examples of architect led design practices in both the UK and the U.S.A, such as ARCHI.build in North West England. They adopt the 'Design and Build' practice model but rather than be run by developers who hire in-house architects they are architects and designers who hire in-house builders. They are all inclusive multi-disciplinary practices that are responsible for the entire building project. Not just hired to design the building which is then passed on to the contractor to build but manage the design and build of a project from inception to completion. The Construction Law Group at Schiff Hardin in the U.S have published webinars and presentations on Designer-Led Design-Build which instructs architects on how to create and establish a feasible, profitable, and personally rewarding business structure, reverting to the architect's traditional role of master builder and how to bifurcate design-build practices into separate design and construction companies that reduce overall liabilities to less than what architects presently incur in traditional practice. They advise on how to structure and organise an effective design-build team with contractors to market and sell their services more effectively. They recognise the benefits of Design and Build and promote this practice through journal articles, lectures and newsletters.
While this type of model may be advertised as a new innovative way of working, as mentioned previously this type of working model was the typical set up for most commissions’ right up until the 1990's. I think this Design and Build practice model is one step closer to regaining the power of the architect, and should be widely employed but I don't think it is the best solution for redefining the role of the Architect; it merely regains the role of the Architect from that which has been lost over the last few decades. There is still a clear distinction between the people behind the desks and the team on the construction site.
Other practices such as Moon Design & Build in Bristol, GLUCK+ in New York and CplusC in Sydney have adopted a model where they are the Architects and Builders. This is one step ahead of the Architect Led Design and Build approach as these Architects are also the on-site managers, swapping roles and positions within the company between desk positions and on site managers. With Moon, typically a new member of staff, an architect in training will start on site as a labourer before moving to the office to get a clear idea of how things are built and put together. This experience is invaluable to the design knowledge they will have and be able to exercise when behind the desk. At CplusC their Architects become Site Managers ensuring that the design and craftsmanship is upheld during the build and that any problem that arises can be worked out there on site instead of waiting for instruction.
In all three cases these are the best practices I have found for working as Architect and Builder on projects. Most members of the team have experience in both roles and are solely interested in producing architecture of a high quality and design for their clients in the most efficient, cost effective, sustainable and beautiful way possible. I admire these practices and those who work similarly, I believe they are working towards chief builder status in a way that no other current practice model is. They are one step closer to being both the architect, designer and builder. Due to the scale and success of these business models it is rather unlikely that any one team within the practice can be both the designer and builder. The roles are divided for each project and there are several projects on the go at the one time. It's a successful business model, but it leads me to question my own aspiration and whether it could work and still maintain a successful and sustainable business plan.
My ideal business model is that to become chief builder you must be both the designer and the builder; every member of the design team physically builds; every builder has an input at design stage - a cross pollination of skills and strengths. To me an architect must also physically produce what they have designed. The education and training never ends. On every project you must learn something new. The reason Moon and CplusC have led me to question this model is because using my model only one project would be able to be worked on a time. It would be small scale in terms of output - slow architecture. And as a business model it is questionable whether the figures would add up; Does the client benefit from the 'one stop shop' approach if a team of, say, six people require a decent wage? Will it work if the project costs have to include all annual overheads for the business depending on the timescale of the projects? Do the small team have to accept that they are working for the love of it and not to make any significant profit?
There are many questions still to be answered, the right team to be found, the willing clients to be sought and the right attitude to be struck. But if it worked out, I'd be happy with my redefinition of the Role of the Architect and what it means to be a chief builder - a team of designers and builders with the chief at the helm; guiding and directing an organised group to producing wonderful buildings.