We often brag about the fulfillment and fun of being an architect; I agree with that sentiment and I wouldn’t want to do anything else. I even state on my website that I “love being an architect,” nevertheless if every cloud has a silver lining then every good situation has its challenges – even in the practice of architecture.
Most days are fantastic and I enjoy what I do, but there are those moments that cause architects grief and often catch me by surprise because this career is typically quite fulfilling. For the sake of being transparent and honest let me share a few things that have been on my mind lately that sparked today’s post.
If you happen to be a student or someone considering this as a profession, I think it’s very important to realize that no matter what firm you end up at in your future or whether you own your own firm, at some point it is almost certain that underwhelming work will come your way. Face it, at times it will fall short of the awe-inspiring projects we see in magazines. I daresay, the things that people often ask us to do are not because they are looking for “Architecture” or to allow us to get awards, but simply to solve a problem. I have found that every so often people just want a space to perform their business – the “better” we pursue is dismissed for the good ‘nuf. Imagine that. This sparks debate about value and the real need for architects, but suffice it to say that one should accept that projects will come that won’t be of interest and those in charge will decide whether the firm accepts the commission. I still believe that regardless of the type of project, our involvement brings value, which in turn will eventually lead to greater work.
In my world, every project has some type of budget and money influences and affects the design – often against my preferences. Lately, this aspect has hit me the hardest as clients simply cannot spend anymore than what they stated, so we do the best we can. In other cases, clients will arbitrarily set a predetermined amount that they’re willing to spend, yet it is disconnected from the program or the project needs. Therefore, it is important to reconcile those two early in the process. In other words, waiting until final bids come in is a poor way of meeting your clients’ needs, but I find it quite difficult to personally provide accurate cost estimates for the type of work that I do. The dirty term in the A/E/C business is value engineering and we often joke that it is neither. It is merely cheapening the project or reducing the scope to get it within an arbitrary budget rather than work at it in a smart way. What oftentimes happens, and what concerns me most is stripping the project out or reducing the project down to hit a dollar value, but then eliminating so much that the client ends up overpaying for a lesser building. Think on that concept for a moment.
Most of the time when I’m asked what I least like about the profession, I say ingratitude. Isn’t it part of our nature to be appreciated? Most times it can be identified during an initial interview where it becomes evident that the client is looking for a product and less concerned about our expertise, value or our creative ways of solving problems. It can also appear during the process or later where events are mistakenly blamed to the architect rather than to the responsible party. Relationships break down and a true lack of appreciation becomes evident. Unfortunately, contractors and engineering consultants can be guilty as they are blind to our vision or reduce us to silly idealists and discount the bigger picture. Appreciation goes both ways or in all directions. I try to make it a point to show appreciation to everyone I encounter, especially with those whom I do business or perform some type of service for me. It is a good human quality to have and a decency that needs to occur between people.
I love this debate, it is a lively conversation. Some architects may not care if their designs are built; they are content with the paper or digital manifestation of ideas and in representing them within their marketing materials and websites. Great debates occur over whether architecture must be built for it to be considered such; however, those of us who have been around long enough and have built enough things know that there is a different level of thought and skill given during the construction process. There is so much at stake financially and physically to construct anything that we are often at our best as architects while something is being constructed. Our work can most often be judged fairly by visiting it in person. Every day spent on the project is a day closer to seeing it realized – the idea can be touched, inhabited and experienced. This is why unbuilt work is disheartening.
Don’t get me wrong, very little discourages me, especially long-term. Ultimately time passes and the sun comes out and my corner of the profession returns to normal. Nevertheless, if you’re curious to see behind the curtain and understand how we think as architects, these are the things that are real and occasionally disheartening.
Keep your head up; I believe the words of Tod Williams and Billy Tsien, “we see architecture as an act of profound optimism.”
Photo 1 Credit: Ron Lutz II