The Interview

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How do you see the architect's role during construction?

The short answer is that an architect's main role is observe the work, report where the work is found not in conformance with the requirement of the Contract Documents, and where necessary render impartial interpretations of the requirements of the Contract Documents, but there are many other facets to the role.

That doesn't seem like such a short answer.  And why would the Owner and Contractor need assistance in understanding whether things are being properly done?

I agree with you that there is no need to make things complicated if we don't have to.  But what are we to do if things are in fact not as simple as we think?  Are there risks if we treat complicated matters as if they were simple?

Yes of course.  Treating complicated matters as if they were simple is acting on a misunderstanding, so success of the result is unpredictable.  But why is it a complicated matter to know whether something is being constructed properly?

Good question.  It leads to the question of what needs to be known, and who knows it, doesn't it?  How about if we consider first what needs to be known?  What needs to be known is more than just the "big idea."  It is also the particulars of how to realize the big idea.  There are truly simple projects with simple particulars.  What I am suggesting, is that in our time and place most projects, residential or commercial, do not have simple particulars.

Ok, what makes the particulars not simple?

Three things come immediately to mind.  First, before plans for construction are prepared, there is an effort by the architect and owner, sometimes with the contractor, to: establish project goals; to develop and consider options to achieve those goals; and, to establish a direction for the project.  The resulting description of what is to be built does not say why things are to be built in a particular way---only that they are to be built in a particular way.  The "why" part is important because construction projects always have unexpected situations and without knowledge of the "why", the resolution of problems presented by the unexpected situations may compromise those goals.  Many detailed wishes of the owner may be of the essence of the "why."  They are one of the matters which must be known.

The second issue is the impact or burden of government regulations.  It is vastly larger than when I was an architecture student and it has grown too intricate for most laymen to navigate.  In 1970 a building code was about the size of a nightstand bible in a Motel 6.  Now it is two volumes of 3 ring binders, about 900 pages each.  There is also now a residential code, a similar sized binder.  There is also a Green Building Code and an Energy Code.  Many cities now also have their own green building code.  There are also binders for plumbing, fire, mechanical and electrical codes.  Most cities have a zoning ordinance with substantial detail.  A commercial project may sometimes fall under the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, or the Air Resources Board, or OSHA.  Sorry, a complete list would exhaust me.  But the take away is this:  just as the owner's project goals are not explicitly expressed in the drawings, often the various regulatory requirements are expressed only as a requirement to do something, not which agency is requiring it or which regulation requires it. Thus, little improvisations or oversights can put the contractor and the owner into non-compliance with government regulations.  Normally everyone is made to heel.  So the regulatory imperatives, though not explicitly stated, are not simple and must be known.

The third issue is construction technology.  It's not what it used to be.  A lot of the construction industry is building what used to be.  Litigation has transformed product and material requirements.  The evolution of building codes has changed how things must be done, often making tried and true methods no longer acceptable.  Trades people have traditionally practiced what they originally learned.  Recent transformations may upend old habits and traditional methods.  We have repaired many installations which failed, but which represented someone's idea of the right way to do things, someone experienced and not out of the mainstream.  So the drawings often contain instructions that run counter to some trades people's conventional wisdom.  Why things are required to be done in a particular way, from a technical standpoint, is not very simple and must be known.

Are you suggesting that the owner and contractor might not have all the knowledge to evaluate what is being built?  And what if they are not overly particular about the result?  And if they are not overly particular about the results, wouldn't an architect who is, be making a simple matter complicated?

All good questions, but why hire an architect if you do not care about the result?  If people do not care about the result I have little to add.  In fact the architect, owner, and builder all have valuable and relevant knowledge.  But would you not imagine that the owner might have a less than detailed knowledge of code requirements and construction technology?  And would you not imagine that the builder, though perhaps one with a fine designer's eye, might have a less than fully detailed knowledge of implicit project goals and the minutia of building codes?  If you were to see things that way, wouldn't you also conclude that between the two of them there might be blind spots in what they need to know?

You seem to be suggesting that the architect is in some way a superior creature.

Not in the slightest.  It just happens that the areas of knowledge we have been discussing are areas in which an architect is expected to be knowledgable.  They are a part of the knowledge and skill set the architect brings to the jobsite.

I see.  And these things, being more than just the areas of knowledge we discuss, include other things, what you referred to originally as "other facets" of his role.  What are these other facets?

Good friend your questions are welcome but never seem to end and our olives are gone and our glasses empty. Let's say farewell for now, and let's meet again.

Then goodnight, until the next time.

You do both residential and commercial work. Which do you enjoy more?

Despite the obvious dissimilarity, there are important similarities which lead to many rewards.  From a business standpoint they are different markets and the are not always hot at the same time.  I fell fortunate to be able to do both---in a sense being able to do one makes it possible to do the other.

A key similarity, is that our residential and commercial projects are unique projects.  We do not do cookie cutter stores or housing developments or we haven't and I think it is unlikely we will.  New challenges are inviting and they keep us fresh.

In terms of finished product, not all of our work is gratifying to us as architecture.  Sometimes our client's need is for function, not excitement.  In these situations we derive our gratification in helping our clients reach their goals, and in the technical challenges those goals present.

The technical challenges keep us sharp and capable.  Why do renowned musicians practice scales?  It gives them a strong foundation on which to construct beautiful things.

Another similarity is that, while there may be some differences in which materials are used and how they are used, expertise in the use of materials is a core skill in both.  And since expertise in our profession is built upon, layer by layer, over time, focusing for a time on residential or commercial, in the end gives us additional expertise applicable to both.

There is no denying, however, that a well designed residential project has special rewards.  Such projects reward continually.  They can be joyful in the way strictly utilitarian projects will not be.  But the creation of beautiful residential projects is not all sweet dreams.  There lies beneath the surface a sea of technical challenges, solutions and descriptions.

In the end, we need them both.  For balance.

How did you get drawn to architecture?

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In the 6th grade we studied the land and cultures of Mexico and Central America.  I was bitten by Mayan architecture and soon was doing library time.  From there, in the 7th grade, where they did there best to get kids like me to write a readable report, I did a report on Frank Lloyd Wright.  I'm sure it was not at all readable, but I was gobsmacked by the Imperial Hotel, which also seemed full of similarly primitive pre-Columbian elements.  I used to stare for long periods at the photos.  These were magical palaces for the cross-eyed only child that I was.  I went on to do many other youthfully obsessive things, like ask for a drafting table for Christmas in the 7th grade.

Now reflecting on it all, I realize that while for me architecture was foreground, for most people it is background.  Done nicely though, it will grab people unexpectedly and blow in their ear, like a morning wake up call that brings in a new day.  It can be a doorway into a world of charm and grace.  It's always there when people are ready to open the door.

© More Than Construction, Inc., 2014