Monday, July 13, 2009

Half an architect is no architect at all

It would seem that my recent post on booger-headed designers struck a chord (or a nerve) with my readers. First off, I didn't even know I had eight readers that weren't my mom or sister, so many thanks for that, my people. Second of all, I feel as if I should expound on the designer/architect issue, which I've kvetched about a little even before this post.

You can, in many jurisdictions, design buildings without being a licensed architect. It's just that a licensed architect must eventually stamp the drawings, preferably having reviewed them first. The problem lies, as I mentioned the post on startchitects and their designer minions, in the project delivery process that has one firm known for amazing-looking designs doing the initial design and handing it off to another firm, who will see the design through to completion of construction. Now, I've been on the giving end and the receiving end of the design architect/architect of record process, as has Guy. Ultimately, it is the architect of record (Guy's firm, in the case from last week) who has the responsibility of making sure that the building complies with all codes and figures out all the details (how does the brick intersect with this glass wall, how do we frame this door into this 12"-thick wall, etc.). However, I don't see where this lets the design architect (Scooby Doo & Associates, in Guy's case) off the hook for giving a design that at least mostly works.

Up until the 1900s (give or take a few decades), architects were extremely intertwined with the contractor on their projects. They would spend a great deal of time at the job site to answer questions and solve problems. This, as I understand it, is half of why old sets of drawings are so thin--they didn't need to spend 30 pages drawing every single detail, because they'd be right there to tell you where to put what. (The other part of having thin sets of drawings is that labor was a little more highly-skilled, but that's a post for another time.) When building the Brooklyn Bridge, architect and engineer Washington Roebling was injured while on site, so he got an apartment that overlooked the construction site so he could still watch its progress. His wife continued his work, monitoring progress at ground zero and ferrying messages back and forth. Architects, up until the last 50-100 years, were craftsmen and scholars. We understood theory and practice. The fellows who designed medieval cathedrals would come up with a design and work it out on the fly, but they always had that overall vision in their heads while they worked, in the field, day after day until their death, when the job of designing and supervision would be passed on to someone else. And so it would go for a couple hundred years until it was finished.

While architects now rarely have as much structural knowledge as they did 100 years ago, we are still taught it some in school, and we are tested on it as part of our licensing exams. Though we are more specialized in what we do, and we don't spend near as much time as we used to in the field, we still have to know something about it. We also have to know about how the other systems affect what we build--if I'm putting lots of crazy equipment into my building, does the electrical engineer know that? If the building is required to be heavily pressurized through the mechanical system, will my front doors pop open a couple of inches every time the air kicks on? I mentioned that Emily Roebling was the go-between for Washington and the rest of his field engineers; she did this for 11 years. Throughout the course of her helping him, Washington taught her about math, structural design, and material capabilities. Emily learned about how a structure goes together by working under the guidance of a skilled professional and going to visit the site where what the pontificated on was being built. And that, my friends, is the crux of the issue. Being an architect is knowing how what you design gets built. There is no substitute for watching someone build what you drew and then reveling in or being embarassed by the outcome. And because some (or many) of these poor designer souls that work in the starchitect offices never get the benefit of that education, they remain half-architects to me.

I can hear the designers out there reading this or hearing it at a party: "Well, look pal, the world has enough strip malls and McMansions and bad design. Someone has to improve the aesthetics of the American landscape and push the envelope and introduce new concepts into the dialogue of our built world, and it might as well be me." Fair enough, Coolio. But time and again, high design takes a knock on the head because of poor detailing. Gehry's Stata Center at MIT cost $450/sf and can't keep water out. And yes, I'm knocking on Gehry again, but he's not alone--Liebskind's new Denver Art Museum addition was leaking and having roof issues within a year of completion. Those are two of many examples, I'm sure, of high design that can't keep water out or keep the building comfortable. When high design is hard or impossible to detail properly, it reinforces the very argument against high design: it can't be done. Look, people say, we paid a huge wad of cash for a building that looks cool but we can't control the humidity in it and protect the contents. The roof is leaking and we're about to have mold growing in it. Geez, that nice design was too expensive to build, and now it's too expensive to maintain. Why did we ever spend all that money?

To put it in coarse but plain language, when you design something you can't detail properly, you fuck it up for all of us. No one wants to pay a little extra for some really cool metal wall panel because they've heard about the Denver Art Museum, and isn't that metal panel too? It's titanium, we respond, and it's a different system. This is Dri-Design, and it's a rainscreen. It works great. No, they say. It's metal panel, and I don't want my building to leak. Use stucco--mm, that looks nice. And then we sigh because they're paying the bills, and we design stucco on the outside of the building, go home, and uncork a bottle of cheap merlot.

Designers without construction knowledge, you are one reason why architects drink.


paul mitchell said...

Looks like someone read The Great Bridge.

And there are a bunch more people that read your blog that do not comment. And they laugh at everything that you relay about the profession. We usually just suffer silently.

faded said...

YES YES YES. You are absolutely correct. You have described the situation in the Architecture business just beautifully.

I went thru architecture school and was taught how to design. I was not taught how to build buildings. By the time I graduated from college I realized that my education was complete and utter bullshit. I also learned that I was not a particularly good designer.

The first architecture firm I went to work for asked me to draw head, jamb and sill details for doors. I WAS NEVER TAUGHT HOW TO DO THIS IN SCHOOL. Fortunately I was a bright guy and studied the supplier catalogs and figured out how to do it. The vendors and suppliers taught me how to put a building together.

The architect I was working for did not notice that I was using/swiping details from vendor catalogs. That is is when I realized that architects did not know how to detail a building. They were swiping all the details from vendor catalogs as well.

That's when I decided the architecture business was a joke.

As a foot note (and shameless plug) my daughter will graduate from the American College of Building Arts next year with a B.A. in stone carving. She learned more about putting a building together in her first 6 months of school than I learned in 4 years. She is doing the thing that I wanted to do when I went to school. She already has three job offers waiting for her. Two in Britian and one in the United States

If you want top quality people to build your buildings contact the American College of Building Arts in Charleston S.C. They started 4 years ago because there were no people in the United States who could restore the historic houses in Charleston S.C.

They are teaching traditional building processes and teaching building restoration. They are a new school and can use the support of the architecture community. Check them out at

Small Town said...

I am reminded when I was an intern and drove every Saturday to Philly for ARE review sessions and got to converse with my brethren from the large Philly firms. They could tell you who designed every building of significance ever built and the great theories behind them, but most never did more than door and window details in their five years in the profession since school. Beyond the door and window details (which were more than likely copied CAD files from a previous job), most were completely at a loss as to how a building actually went together. Even more sadly, most aspired to be the next great designer at their firm, not the ho-hum project manager who oversaw the completion of the drawings.

St. Blogwen said...

This makes me sad and frustrated in so many ways. Early in my career I worked for one firm for seven or eight years where I learned how to detail out all the zoomy design we did and make it work. When I went on interviews looking for my next job after that, firm principals would hear where I had worked and say, "Oh, you worked for Eric Baumann*. We don't do work like that. Goodbye."

It was bad enough back then when everybody was still drawing by hand. I know how it goes now with copied CAD files. Saves time, sure, but does anyone get to know what is and isn't effective at keeping the damn water out?

Ruth said...

I love this entry, just came across it. I feel the same way after working for 18 years in the profession. The people I learned the most from were the older architects who did all their detailing by hand. When I started working, I spent a lot of time just inputting their drawings into the computer. I am now so glad I did as I at least learned something about detailing and how buildings work while doing this, as I discussed it with them during the process. I meet people now (younger AND same age) who never did this and therefore are useless at designing a building that works.

Kyle said...

I love the double entendre in the line, "Emily learned about how a structure goes together by ... going to visit the site where what the pontificated on was being built." The Latin roots of to pontificate literally mean to build a bridge.