Just recently, I was doing some research on the change in the architectural profession from the time of ancient Egypt to today’s practice in the United States for an upcoming practice management course I teach at Taliesin West. Even without this research, it is obvious to me (and probably others in the industry) that the modern day architect is nothing like the architect of ancient Egypt, Greece, or Rome, or like the master builder of the Middle Ages. With little surprise, but some dismay, I note that the architect of the 19th Century also varies quite significantly from that of today’s architect. The interesting thing about these changes is that they do not reflect positively on the profession—the architect of the 21st Century is but a shadow of its past self and appears to be on course to a position of irrelevancy, as other players in the construction industry assume the charges that have historically been the architect’s.
The observation is not a new one. Following the recession of the early 1990’s, John Seiler, an Adjunct Professor of Architecture and Urban Design at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, stated in an article:
As worldwide economic ill health and dilatory recovery continue to preoccupy many architects as they consider the state of their profession, this hopefully temporary condition tends to overshadow a more fundamental concern: Architects’ diminishing influence over design and construction decisions. The struggle for power between architects and other construction industry role players is an increasingly menacing problem.1
In an effort to protect its members, and the profession in general, from undue risk, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) inadvertently reduced the influence of the architect by minimizing the liability to which the architect may be subject. This shirked risk was quickly snatched up by other members of the construction industry—namely by contractors and members of the growing construction management profession.
Now the AIA cannot be blamed entirely for the architect’s shrinking dominance in the construction industry. I believe some of the downfall is due to the natural progression of building science—buildings are getting more and more complex. In the beginning, the architect was in full control of the construction process: design, engineering, and construction. Material selection was limited to a small palette with which the architect was quite familiar, and building engineering was uncomplicated, to say the least. Then, as buildings became more complex, there was a need to bring specialists onto the design team. This is a reality that gradually became evident throughout the history of the architectural profession.
Over the next couple of millennia, portions of the architect’s role were divvied out to a multitude of specialized professions, such as engineering (structural, civil, mechanical, electrical, fire protection), contracting, and a slew of other specialties like kitchen design, acoustics, accessibility, theater, etc. However, just in the past century, building complexity has experienced exponential growth and the architectural profession adjusted to it by shedding more responsibility to others.
In response to the explosive growth in building science, the architectural profession could have retained its dominance by becoming the maestro of the construction industry—the conductor and coordinator of all things related to building. However, the architectural profession seems ready and willing to let others take control of the construction process as long as the architect reigns supreme in the art of building design—technical matters are for others to be concerned with. In place of technical proficiency, the architectural profession appears to have substituted on a grand scale social engineering—specifically, sustainability.
I support sustainable construction, but is reroofing a building because it leaked a sustainable solution? How about ripping out walls because of mold growth, or taking up damaged flooring because water vapor transmission wasn’t addressed…are these sustainable design approaches? To prove my point of misguided emphasis in the architectural profession, you need not look further than the course listing for continuing education at the 2011 AIA Convention. Just by reading the titles, of the 157 offerings, 24 (15%) contained the words “sustainable” or “sustainability.” Another eight courses (5%) used the word “green” and three (2%) had “LEED” in their titles. This is a total of approximately 22%, nearly a quarter of the courses offered. But wait, there’s more.
Since some courses did not use catchy “green wash” terms in their titles, you need to analyze the number of “Sustainable Design” (SD) learning units offered (which is only one of the 28 acceptable topics within the health, safety, and welfare, or HSW, category2, 3) to see the real impact that this new direction has made on the profession. Out of the 302 total learning units available, 128.25 learning units (42.5%) had the SD designation. Compare that to only 23.25 learning units (7.7%) available for all other HSW topics—many of which had little to no building technology indicated in the brief course description provided.
My friend and colleague, Walter Scarborough, AIA, CSI, CCS, CCCA, SCIP, supports this theory in his blog:
Weak construction documents, the proliferation of consultants that are replacing the services of architects, the expanding role of the contractor, declining technical competency, and a profession that is focused elsewhere are converging to a point in which the architectural profession may not recover.4
If architects want to retain whatever edge they tenably hold in the area of building construction, they need to expand their knowledge of building technology and construction documents; architects must also take a leadership role in the design and construction process. Otherwise, the architect will be relegated to just a design role and nothing more, which begs the question: If an architect is one who does architecture—the art and science of building design and construction—what do we call a person who only does the art?
1 Seiler, John. “Debate about the Architect’s Role—Future and Present.” The President and Fellows of Harvard, 1993.
2 The list of acceptable topics, according to the American Institute of Architects Continuing Education Systems’ (AIA/CES) 2011 Provider Manual, includes: 1) accessibility, 2) acoustics, 3) building design, 4) code of ethics, 5) construction administration, 6) construction contract laws, legal aspects, 7) construction documents, services, construction functions materials, methods, and systems, 8) energy efficiency, 9) environmental: asbestos, lead-based paint, toxic emissions, 10) environmental analysis and issues of building materials and systems, 11) fire: building fire codes—flame spread, smoke contribution, explosives, 12) fire safety systems: detection and alarm standards, 13) insurance to protect the owners of property and injured parties, 14) interior design, 15) laws and regulations governing the practice of architecture, 16) life safety codes, 17) materials and systems: roofing/waterproofing, wall systems, etc., 18) material use, function, and features, 19) mechanical, plumbing, electrical: system concepts, materials, and methods, 20) natural hazards (earthquake, hurricane, flood) related to building design, 21) preservation, renovation, restoration, and adaptive reuse, 22) security of buildings, design, 23) site and soil analysis, 24) site design, 25) specification writing, 26) structural issues, 27) evaluation methods, techniques, and 28) sustainable design.
3 Of the 18 required learning units (LUs) that an AIA member must earn during the membership year, 8 are required to be within the health, safety, and welfare (HSW) category. At the beginning of 2009, the AIA required that 4 of the 8 required HSW LUs include topics relating to sustainable design.
4 Scarborough, Walter. "Specifying Mediocrity? Without a Technical Foundation, Design Is on Shaky Ground." Web log post. Durability and Design. The Journal of Architectural Coatings, 30 Sept. 2011. Web. 16 Oct. 2011. <http://www.durabilityanddesign.com/blog/?fuseaction=view&blogID=57>.