Adapt or… What?

For years, it’s been said (mostly in whispers) that Architecture is a dying profession.

One of the reasons for this dismal outlook is that many of the building products and systems that we are incorporating into our buildings today are pretty complicated, and require quite a bit of project-specific design work by their manufacturers.

As Michael Chusid’s important blog post today said:

“Instead of building with raw or semi-finished materials, we assemble buildings from components that are shop fabricated and finished. Master builders with a personal knowledge of all building materials and methods are an endangered species; designers and builders must now rely on manufacturers’ product data sheets, shop drawings, installation instructions, field training and supervision, and off-site fabrication. Many building products require such specialized experience or knowledge that they can only be detailed or installed by the manufacturer. The building product industry today is more than just a material supplier; it plays an integral role in detailing, engineering, and constructing systems, sub-assemblies, and entire buildings.”

Some buildings end up with a large percentage of components that were designed by the product and system manufacturers, instead of the architect.  Entities who are part of the contractor team – subcontractors, vendors, manufacturers, and installers – sometimes do so much of the design for specific elements that some people wonder why the architect was engaged in the first place.  They may wonder if the architect’s function is just to produce a schematic design.  They may ask, “Well, couldn’t some hotshot fashion designer / interior designer / artist do that just as well?”  No.

The role of the architect has NEVER just been to produce a schematic design.  Aside from schematic design, what we architects have always done is to design how all the different components of a building go together.  What we do, what we need to do, what we are more qualified to do than anyone else, is design the transitions from one material to another.  We select the systems and the products, which are often detailed by the manufacturer.  But then WE, the architects, design the way these things go together.  This, we cannot delegate.  This, general contractors are not particularly well suited to do.  This is the work that architects will always need to do, no matter how much project-specific design manufacturers do.

Remember, our primary job as architects is to interpret the owner’s wishes for the building, and communicate those wishes to the contractor, to get the building built.  We are the people who need to communicate to the contractor how he is supposed to get the subcontractors to build the building.  The general contractor needs to coordinate all the different installers, but we, the architects, need to draw, and specify, how all the different manufacturers’ standard pieces go together to make a building.  Every building is different.  Every manufacturer has standard details and standard specifications for their products, and the architect is the person who needs to take those standard details and specifications, and, working with the manufacturer, properly adapt them to the specific project, and then produce those adaptations as part of the project drawings and specifications.  This is pretty much how it’s always been – it’s just more complicated today.

As those systems and products have gotten more complicated, so have the transitions between all those systems and products.  The transitions between different materials and products have always been the most vulnerable parts of buildings.  No one manufacturer, and no general contractor, and certainly no installer in the field, should be designing the transition from one manufacturer’s product to another manufacturer’s product.  (I’ve seen what happens when the installer solves an unaddressed transition issue in the field.  This is the LAST thing we want.  Fellow architects, design those transitions, please!)

We need to be familiar with the products and systems we are drawing and specifying, but we need to remember that the product reps and manufacturers will ALWAYS know more about their products than we will.  They know more about their products than architects, specifiers, contractors, and owners ever can.  Except when drawing and specifying simple, straightforward products, it’s always a good idea to talk to product reps about your project.  For systems (elements such as curtainwall, exterior metal panel rainscreens, or roofs) it’s even more important to talk to the reps for all the manufacturers that you are incorporating into the documents.

In this time of increasingly complicated building products and systems, architects need to be spending a little less time copying manufacturers’ standard details, and a LOT more time figuring out and detailing those pesky transitions between all these complicated products and systems!

The profession of Architecture should not be dying.  Architects need to continue to be the leaders in the design and construction process (great phrase – thanks, Michael Chusid).  Trained and licensed architects are important to the look, feel, safety, durability, and function of our built environment.  Architects are essential to ensuring that owners get a good value for their construction dollars; architects help keep contractors honest.  But, as Michael Chusid wrote:

“A better understanding of the organization, activities, and concerns of the building product industry would enable architects to design with and specify building materials more astutely and effectively, and would strengthen their ability to lead the design and construction process.”

This is today’s world of architecture and construction.  Architects must recognize the important role that product reps play in the construction process.  Architects must realize that the role of product reps does not threaten the role of architects, but complements it.  Together, we can improve our built environment.  Architects must step up and meet the challenge of more complicated products and systems.  Architects must adapt or… what?

This is the link to today’s important post from Michael Chusid, of Chusid Associates:

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