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Architecture: Product or Service?


Before you engage an architect or designer for a new project, think about what you expect to get out hiring a design professional. Beyond understanding how to choose the right design professional, there needs to be clarity in what an architect or designer does. While it is easy to simplify their job into buzz words like ‘plans’ or ‘construction drawings’, design professionals are unique in that they blend art and science together to create a finished product. One of the biggest misconceptions and points of contention within a project is whether architects provide products or services. By understanding the process a designer goes through, you’ll have a better understanding of when to hire a designer and what to expect from your interactions.

Consumers often incorrectly assume that architects merely provide ‘blue prints’ or a set of finished drawings. The problem with this assumption is that it leads consumers to believe that all drawing sets can be completed quickly and easily. There is also an assumption that drawings can be mass produced and changes will be minor because it will only involve ‘simple tweaks’ of an existing drawing. Let’s take a look at how a set of construction drawings are made to understand why these misconceptions lead to arguments over fees, misunderstandings on scope of work, and more.

To create a set of construction drawings, an architect or designer must research, study, and analyze a myriad of contextual criteria. These criteria include everything from site constraints like building set back lines and soil studies to ensure a proper foundation, to building code compliance and historic preservation rules and regulations. These examples usually require the architect or designer to meet with other professionals across many disciplines, costing the designer time and effort just to ensure that your project is even feasible to start with. After the designer has concluded from their due diligence study that your proposed building and plot of land are compatible, they can then proceed to the schematic and design development stages of the process.

Schematic design requires the architect or designer to be regularly engaged with the client as they work out a list of goals, needs and desires. While it sounds easy enough to compile a ‘wish list’, the designer carries the burden of interpreting phrases such as “I like rustic” into a spatial response that not only embodies a particular aesthetic or style, but also takes into account practical considerations like budget and material durability. Each ‘wish list’ item must be translated from the client’s thoughts (however poor or articulate) into a practical and aesthetically pleasing design solution. This requires the designer to evaluate not only the client’s wish list, but also the site’s context, the client’s deeper values, and even his or her own design philosophy. Good design will appear easy and simple – as if anyone could replicate it – but it was only accomplished through complex and thorough thought processes. Adding to the complexity of the project is the wild card: creativity.

Creativity cannot be forced, and is a process. The creative process that will eventually lead to a design conclusion and a final product (i.e. a set of construction documents and eventually a finished building) may take any length of time. This uncertainty often sets consumers on edge because most people don’t like the unknown, especially when it relates to money. This is where good communication is essential, so that both client and designer are comfortable and have a mutual understanding of the project goals and how they will be accomplished. Establishing trust early on is vital to the success of the project, so that if there is a case where more time is needed to arrive at the best design solution, the client is willing to rely on the designer’s best judgement. In the end, that trust will allow the client to receive a beautiful product and will allow them both to enjoy the service that is being provided. The level of involvement on the designer’s part to ensure a quality product explains why good designers refuse to ‘draw a set of plans’ based on someone else’s preparations. A good designer understands that not only will their reputation be staked on the project, but also their liability. The best designers will only accept work which includes their service of overseeing a project to ensure the highest level of quality.

This leads to the second misconception about architects and designers: architects provide only a service. Assuming architects exist to cater to your every desire creates a conflict of interest. The architect was hired to create the best design possible, but they cannot do that if the client prevents them from exercising their expertise and talent. The architect or designer hired for a project is there to serve – as a consultant. Too often, clients assume that the design professional is just there to take orders or follow instructions. However, this under utilizes the designer, as their expertise is wasted. Because good design appears effortless and obvious, many clients assume that it is easy; this fallacy of logic leads some consumers to think they are able to design anything for themselves and only hire an architect to perform a ‘drafting service’ of their ideas. While many clients have great ideas that can be incorporated into the project, few are experts. For this reason, it is best to rely on the expert you’ve hired for your project: the design professional.

As an example, architects must earn accredited degrees, complete a minimum number of professional work hours in multiple project types and complete a series of rigorous exams before earning their license to practice as an architect. These credentials, along with aptitude for design and practical experience qualify an architect to make decisions for your project. Clients who undermine their architect because ‘they know better’ are losing value. Imagine it this way: would you hire a top notch lawyer to represent you in court, then tell him to step aside as you argued your own case? It seems like a waste, and a foolish decision. It is highly recommended that you take the time to carefully select the right design professional for your project so that when they rely on their expertise and credentials to make decisions, you can rely on them as a professional in charge of your project.

Another point of contention is that clients often demand unrealistic deadlines. This stems from a lack of understanding of how the post-conceptual process works. A seemingly simple change such as “move the light over three feet” has cascading effects which are unseen by the client. A change such as moving a light fixture involves revising not only the drawing that shows the light fixture, but also how that light fixture is controlled by switches, whether the change will affect other ceiling components like the structure or air ducts, and whether the change requires additional materials that may not be available in time for construction. Not only this, but every drawing which referenced the light fixture must be updated to reflect the change. While some programs can automatically adjust several drawings at once, not all firms use these types of software, nor does it preclude human error or coordination errors. Time must still be allotted to careful coordination to ensure that all changes are carried through all affected portions of the project. Don’t be shocked when a ‘simple’ change costs a lot more than you expected. A good designer will explain the ramifications of each design decision and walk you through expectations as part of the service they provide.

In the end, architects and designers provide both a product and a service. It is a balance that requires excellent communication, mutual understanding and a common goal: to ensure the project has value and integrity.



Leave a comment
  1. Enoch Sears (@BusinessofArch)
    December 21, 2011 at 12:51 am #

    Great thoughts on the product v.s. service polemic. What goes into an architecture project is difficult to put into words but you have done a good job. Thanks Brinn & Archability.

    • Brinn Miracle
      December 21, 2011 at 1:17 am #

      Thanks, Enoch. It is always a difficult concept to convey, especially when money is in the equation. Thanks for stopping by!

  2. Doug Burke
    December 24, 2011 at 2:07 pm #

    Nice observations Brinn. Very well articulated. Thanks!



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    […] cam across this question as a discussion of architecture on a blog, and it first it seemed kind of silly. I mean, this is a service industry, and design is a service. […]

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