Architects are their own worst enemies

From my own experience, the public’s opinion of architects in general is still a positive one, but the architect’s reputation within the construction industry and among those who inspect various building types is not complimentary. Why is that? Have architects created an unreasonably high opinion of themselves?

Few professions can be described in a single word (or two). Those that can often date back hundreds or thousands of years into history. Every profession that spans centuries is going to change and adapt to changes in culture, science, technology and the needs of society in general. The job of an Architect is no different.

So what is an Architect?

“architect: a person who designs buildings and advises in their construction”(1)

The preceding definition is a much more modern summary of an Architect’s role and responsibilities than the concept of a “Master Builder”; the predecessor to the Architect of today.

“Master Builder: a person notably proficient in the art of building; the ancient Egyptians were master builders; specifically:  one who has attained proficiency in one of the building crafts and is qualified or licensed to supervise building construction”(1)

Many Architects would like to think of themselves as following in the footsteps of the Master Builders of the Greek, Roman and Renaissance eras where the roles of designer, builder and craftsman were commonly embodied in only a select few. Early famous architects such as Vitruvius, Palladio, and later figures such as Thomas Jefferson gained notoriety and respect through experience, reading, apprenticeship and self-study. As the world population increased and people’s skills became more specialized, the role of the Architect moved away from the actual construction of the built environment to a focus more on design and took on an advisory role in construction. Considering the increase in size of projects and complexity of materials and systems used in construction today, this isn’t a surprising development. Many architects today however have become distanced from the realities of construction, with some college graduates unable to draw the most basic of details regarding framing or similar trades, and many architects never even stepping foot on a construction site until well into their careers.

In 1857, the American Institute of Architects (AIA), the primary professional organization for architects in the United States was founded to “promote the scientific and practical perfection of its members” and “elevate the standing of the profession”. (2)

Prior to the founding of the AIA, “anyone who wished to call him-or herself an architect could do so. This included masons, carpenters, bricklayers, and other members of the building trades. No schools of architecture or architectural licensing laws existed to shape the calling”.(2) The architectural profession evolved out of those individuals with the knowledge and experience to design and construct a building.

Prior to 1897, no legal definition of “architect”, nor any requirements for an architect’s education or licensing existed until Illinois became the first state to adopt architect licensing laws.(1) Today, all fifty states, through joint efforts with the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB) and the AIA use a mostly standardized system of certification and testing for the task of licensing architects. While the original goal of setting standards for what defined an “architect” was in the best interests of the general public, the modern definition of an architect and the profession was founded on the desire to promote for the improvement of those calling themselves architects and to elevate the profession itself. Please do not misinterpret this as a statement against the requirement of licensing architects. On the contrary; I fully believe that it has, and will continue to be, of the utmost importance.

Today, the objects of the AIA, “shall be to organize and unite in fellowship the members of the architectural profession of the United States of America; to promote the aesthetic, scientific and practical efficiency of the profession; to advance the science and art of planning and building by advancing the standards of architectural education, training and practice; to coordinate the building industry and the profession of architecture to insure the advancement of the living standards of people through their improved environment; and to make the profession of ever-increasing service to society.”(2)

While the architectural industry and society in general has greatly benefited from minimum standards of education and training for architects in the United States (in large part due to the efforts of the AIA and its members), the current role that architects play in society varies significantly. The realty of whether the architect of today is fully capable of protecting the health, safety and welfare of the general public is a topic of great debate depending on your point of view and role in the design and construction industry.

For better and for worse

From my own experience, the public’s opinion of architects in general is still a positive one, but the architect’s reputation within the construction industry and among those who inspect various building types is not complimentary. Why is that? Have architects created an unreasonably high opinion of themselves?

The architect has historically been looked up to as an expert in a field of specialized knowledge. Architects are required however to be generalists; knowing a little bit about every trade and discipline they oversee, but not directly in control of the construction or engineering of a project. The architect is looked upon to provide direction and advice to those constructing a building, as well as organizing the various engineering disciplines that are needed. The role of an Architect has often become that of a manager; settling disputes between the owner, contractor and other entities. While architects will always play a key role in the design and production of construction documents; other than in a small percentage of high profile and high priced projects, the owners and contractors are the large guiding force in the design process. The architect often takes a backseat role in the decision-making process during construction (and even earlier on). Is this appropriate? Yes and no. Unless an architect has a partial ownership in the project, it’s not their money. Many architects may say that good design is the most important part of their job, but a gorgeous building that leaks or is a danger to its occupants is a failure (Refer to my previous post on the Grenfell Towers in London).  Their responsibility at a core level is to protect the health, safety and welfare of those persons that will use, occupy and are affected by the project. Would you rather occupy a building that is pretty and dangerous to your safety or a so-so building that protects you? Of course, we’d like the best of both, but that would require architects to step up and recognize that their technical expertise in building codes and fire safety is just as, if not more important, than their design talents. Meeting their clients budget and design goals is absolutely critical, but never at the expense of a person’s health or safety.

You might ask, “Don’t architects have to know all the codes and don’t they learn that in school? Isn’t the ability to protect us the most important part of their job?

The real answer is scarier than you think.

I’m going to quote another architect, who blogs under the name of Sheldon. I do not know him on a personal or professional level, and I will not make any statement about his qualifications, knowledge or character. I only want to address the statements he made, as I don’t not think he is alone in his opinion and he brings up assumptions that I think are the reason that others view of architects has degraded:

The labyrinthine regulations of the federal government reminded me of regulations we in construction deal with every day. They are similarly complex and obscure, differing only in extent. I was not surprised that I didn’t understand the subjects of the senate hearing, but on further thought, I realized I really don’t know much about the countless codes and regulations that govern construction. Nor, I’m sure, does anyone else.

The picture that accompanies this article shows just a few of the code books we use at my office. In the picture are a few versions of the IBC, a couple of Wisconsin code binders, several books of Minnesota codes, a few versions of NFPA 101, an elevator code book, and a few books that explain what’s in the codes. This collection is nowhere near complete; we have many additional code books for Minnesota and Wisconsin, plus others for North Dakota, South Dakota, and Iowa, as well as for a couple of other states. I can only imagine what national and international firms have in their libraries.

Presumably, when someone certifies documents, that certification implies that the responsible person (or someone under that person’s direct supervision) understands everything in every statute, code, rule, and regulation governing the work of the project, and that the project complies with all of them. What does that tell us?

First, I think it’s safe to say that most of most regulations simply codify what was already common practice, much of which was based on empirical evidence. We build walls of 2 x 4s at 16 inches on center because it’s been done that way a long time and it seems to work. Later additions were added after due consideration; someone probably tested walls with framing at 24 inches on center and that worked, too.

Many requirements were added in response to building failures. Even then, I suspect much of what’s in the code is based on intuition, rather than on basic research beginning with the question, “What is required?” Though useful for comparative evaluations, code requirements often are not based on real-world applications. (See “Faith-based specifications.”)

I also think it’s safe to say it’s unlikely that any building complies with all regulations. Regardless of the source or value of those requirements, it’s clear that there are too many for any one person, or even several people, to understand. Making things more difficult is the fact that some information is restated in different codes, often in slightly different fashion, and some codes are more restrictive than others.

The International Code Council (ICC) publishes a dozen or so building and fire codes, which reference hundreds of standards published by ASHRAE, ASCE, and various other organizations, including about 50 of the 375 published by NFPA. These secondary codes also cite other standards, and so on, and so on, and so on. States then modify the basic codes, as do local jurisdictions. Some variations are required by local seismic and weather conditions, but many make little sense. All of these form the basic reference library for everyone involved in construction. Codes are continually being updated, usually on a three-year cycle. But not everyone is on the same cycle; some states update to follow the major codes more quickly than others, and different states will use different versions of the same codes.

My firm does mostly medical work, which must comply not only with the IBC and state codes, but also with NFPA 101, dictates of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and the Joint Commission, as well as requirements of individual clients. I’m sure we’re not alone, and that other types of construction have similar additional requirements.

Is all of this really necessary? I concede that there are special situations that require special treatment, but it’s hard to believe there are enough special circumstances to justify the mountain of code books we must deal with. While it is somewhat understandable that we have codes for specific conditions, there is no excuse for conflicts between different codes. (4)

As a licensed architect who currently works in the healthcare design industry, a former inspector / surveyor for the State of Texas, and therefore also a federal surveyor working on behalf of the Center for Medicaid and Medicare Services (CMS); I am appalled that any architect would admit that, “I realized I really don’t know much about the countless codes and regulations that govern construction. Nor, I’m sure, does anyone else.”.

The dozens of building and fire codes, standards and other regulations under which the healthcare industry operates are all critically important to the safety of those residents and patients that reside in any facility. Codes and standards are NOT based on “intuition”, they are based on actual building failures and tragedies such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire(5), the MGM Grand Fire(6), and the Station nightclub fire(7). Building codes and all their referenced standards and testing procedures exist for the sole purpose of protecting the lives of people that cannot protect themselves (as is the case for healthcare occupancies), or allowing those who are capable the time to reach safety in the event of a fire or other emergency. All codes and standards have their limitations and fallacies, after all they are written by human beings with biases and their own agendas; Therefore, codes and standards are written by groups of people, with the hopeful intent of avoiding personal preferences. This process also allows for codes to change over time when new information is available or lessons have been learned. Understanding the complexities of the codes and standards is not easy, but that’s why the task is delegated to individuals with the skill set and desire to understand them. Its our job.

Many architects have lost (if ever had) their connection to the real-world requirements of constructing a building, and most do not understand the most important part of their profession, and that is the protection of those that occupy the buildings they design. If those professionals (architects) that are tasked with the responsibility to ensure buildings are made safe are not capable of doing so, how on earth can they expect owners, contractors or anyone else to take up that charge?

I am not implying that all architects are guilty of ignoring their responsibilities, nor am I suggesting that I, in any way, am guilt-free. I want to bring attention to the fact that the architectural industry (including the educational side) has put a huge emphasis on the artistic and design aspects or architecture and have grossly ignored the importance of safety and code compliance. This has led to the common opinion of many contractors and owners that architects are egotistical and know nothing of the real world.

I could write an entire post about the fact that my own Alma-mater’s curriculum included only a single one-semester class (one hour, twice a week) on building and life safety codes over the course of a five-year professional bachelor’s degree program, and  then more than half of my class that year failed the course. That’s not unfortunate; its shameful.

So why are architects their own worst enemies? Many of the architects I have met and worked with are incapable of checking their egos long enough to learn the realities of the construction industry and embrace the critical importance of building safety and the codes that facilitate that goal. They instead have taken a combative stance against the codes and those jurisdictions that adopt and enforce them. I tell people constantly that if they don’t agree with the code; get involved and change it. Complaining about the codes only shows one’s ignorance of their role and importance.

Architects must embrace the incredible responsibility they bear on behalf of society. The task of keeping others safe should be a humbling one, not a reason to, “elevate the standing of the profession”. That should be a result, not a goal.

Action; not words

There are of course many more facets of the architectural profession that I did not address such as environmental responsibility, efficiency and preservation that are discussions unto themselves.

I am a licensed architect and I am proud to call myself one. I make a lot of mistakes, and I often let my ego get in the way of what’s right, but I recognize that, and I’m always working to improve.

I put the challenge to every architect (or those working with architects and/or towards the same goals); treat this profession with the respect it deserves by fulfilling the expectations society puts on you. Learn everything you possibly can about the codes, regulations and standards you are charged with upholding. Think of the people your designs protect and shelter first; your own ego and gratification should be the lowest of priorities.

Footnotes:

(1) Definitions:

www.Merriam-Webster.com

(2) History of The American Institute of Architects

Archived/www.aia.org/about_history at web.archive.org

(3) American Institute of Architects Bylaws, Revised April 2017

http://aiad8.prod.acquia-sites.com/sites/default/files/2017-05/AIA-Bylaws-April2017.pdf

(4) Constructive Thoughts, Observations and musings about architecture and the construction industry.

http://swconstructivethoughts.blogspot.com/2017/02/tower-of-babel.html#more

(5) The 1911 Triangle Factory Fire

http://trianglefire.ilr.cornell.edu/story/introduction.html

(6) MGM Grand Fire

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MGM_Grand_fire

(7) The Station nightclub fire

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Station_nightclub_fire

Featured Image from: http://www.wikihow.com/Become-an-Architect