What Do Architects NOT Do?

Sometimes I tell people I’m a Renaissance Man. (Since I am female, this statement often momentarily confuses people.1) I mean that I am interested in, am capable of, and dabble in, a wide variety of pursuits.

Many, many architects could have taken career paths other than architecture. Our brains work mathematically, scientifically, and artistically. I am an architect, but while I am doing some of the other things I enjoy (making a gorgeous cake, managing my family’s investments, repairing a threshold in my home, carving a jack-o-lantern), I’m not practicing architecture.

Some practicing architects are builders as well as architects. Some practicing architects are also developers. But while they’re doing general contracting or real estate development, they’re still architects, but they are not practicing architecture. Construction, development, and architecture all require different agreements with clients and different liability insurance policies, even within design-build firms.

A bit over a week ago, I read a blog post that I can’t stop thinking about: “Being a Professional Architect is about much more than just designing nice buildings.” This post is on the blog of Build, LLC, a Seattle company that offers architecture and construction services. It was written to outline “a common code of conduct that all professions should abide by.”

The post was inspired by a community news blog post account of a designer in Seattle who declared bankruptcy and “walked away from more than $10 million in debt…” Ten million dollars doesn’t sound like an amount of debt that a small architecture firm could easily rack up, right?

The community news blog post keeps referring to the “architect,” and mentions that the “architecture firm imploded.” But it appears as if it was a development company that failed, and the guy isn’t actually an architect. (Yes, he designs buildings, but he isn’t a licensed architect.)

I’ve written about protection of the title “Architect” before.2 And I’ve written about a news writer’s obligation to use appropriate titles to refer to different types of design professionals.3 This situation is a good example of why I think the title should be protected – some of the comments on both posts are about this guy giving all architects a bad name.

This shouldn’t be happening; this designer’s actions shouldn’t be giving architects a bad name, because what he was doing that caused problems wasn’t actually the practice of architecture, and he isn’t actually an architect.

Financing the construction of buildings is not part of practicing architecture. Practicing architecture does not include constructing buildings.4 Yes, people who practice architecture sometimes do these things, but they are not doing these things at the same time that they’re practicing architecture. Everyone should be ethical in his or her work, but in practicing different types of work, we have completely different obligations to our clients and to the public.

Some consumers actually have no idea what an architect does. Architects themselves should not muddy this issue further. Practicing architecture as a profession is all about designing buildings. An architect discusses a project’s needs with the client, and based on those criteria and other requirements such as building codes, the architect designs, and prepares construction documents for, the building. The architect observes the construction of the building to verify that the building is being constructed in general conformance with the construction documents.

Mixing up the roles of architect, contractor and developer misleads consumers, and might be giving all architects a bad name.

Architects love being architects. But let’s be clear with clients and with the public that when we’re not actually practicing architecture, we’re not working as architects.



  1. “Renaissance Woman” doesn’t conjure up images of someone engaged in artistic or intellectual or scientific pursuits…  I just think of peaceful women sitting or lying down, posing for paintings.
  2. Recent posts of mine about protection of the title “Architect”: “’Sunset Review’ of Licensure for Architects”:  and “Really?!? ‘Who Cares Who’s a Licensed Architect?’”
  3. Post of mine about obligation of a journalist to use the correct title:  “Perpetuating a Misconception”  Note: In February 2013, AIA Colorado sent personalized letters to more than 50 editors and other journalists throughout the state educating them about the title “architect.”  I am thrilled.  http://www.aiacolorado.org/advocacy/about-architect.aspx
  4. Colorado law specifically excludes the “performance of the construction of buildings” from the definition of the “practice of architecture.” I suspect that other states do the same.

19 thoughts on “What Do Architects NOT Do?

  1. But of course Liz, there are many things that architects like clients to think they can do, and politely demur from mentioning that they are not practicing architecture when they do those things. When an architect claims to know enough about the economics of real estate development to recommend preferred urban planning options; when the architect makes claims about the nature of “green” energy options; the health benefits of certain materials; increased productivity of workers; or simply claims about aesthetics, the architect doesn’t stop and say, “but now I’m not practicing architecture.” Few architects can say they are practicing a profession when they go on and on about some aesthetic preference. There is a very distinct difference between design as understood for protecting the health, welfare and safety of the public and “DESIGN” as trotted out to excuse or validate the preferences of personal or firm stylings. Frankly this is why the well known architects are happy to only be “designers” not licensed professionals.

    The problem for architects is that they really enjoy many of the things the public mistakenly thinks they can do. The number of architects with any real training in the sciences or knowledge of economics or many other things is marginal at best. Yet this doesn’t stop the AIA and architects in general from talking about things like the future of cities or schools, technology, dreamy social betterment mumbo jumbo, sustainability, innovation, etc., etc., etc. Somehow architects find themselves propagating a myth about themselves as capable of solving problems in all fields, especially to themselves. There are very few neurosurgeons who think that they know what the future of cities is going to be or how to make schools healthier. Yet I would put it to you that I would much rather a neurosurgeon attack these problems with his significantly more developed sense of how difficult things can be to solve and how to apply appropriate principles of methodology and data analysis to make the answers tractable to meaningful outcomes. The odd thing is that architects blithely think they can solve these big problems with little understanding of the sciences or serious analytical skills. God knows you wouldn’t want architects involved if you were trying to solve a real and difficult problem. There are exceptional architects who might be trusted with really difficult tasks, but generally speaking, architects are ill-equipped as a profession by there schooling and professional experience to deal with the tough stuff.

    You are right of course to say that sometimes the image of the architect that the public gets from “media” is misguided, but then again much of the stuff in the media about architects that lauds architects for things that are not the practice of architecture should also be addressed. NPR recently interviewed a representative from the USGBC to discuss the future of schools in the US! I am sympathetic to your view, but I’m sure many would say that you can’t have your cake and eat it too.

    To be a renaissance man or woman is not to know many things badly, but to know how to address many difficult things in many different disciplines. If I meet yet another architect that tells me he knows about the classical world because he did a year study (vacation) abroad in Rome or understands the reality of our time because he studied with some crackpot theory professor, I think I will be ill.

    Architects are in a bad way, as is the profession not because the public is confused by unsophisticated press coverage. Rather the causes of the decay are much more obvious and plain though rarely discussed inside the profession. Gresham’s Law has wreacked havoc on the field and I’m not sure I can see a way out. The profession has become controlled and run by ardent believers, not doers or thinkers. Believers who are constantly looking to other people’s money to live out their fantasies. Combine this with the fatal lack of business/economics knowledge and it is not hard to see why few really capable people stay in the field.

    Architecture as it is currently practiced with a big “D” design is more like Freudianism or seventeenth century medicine. All depended on the anecdotal and the occasional placebo outcome to validate its activity often combined with the cult of the personality.

    Architecture with a capital “A” is worth reclaiming, but not while architecture as design with a capital “D” reigns supreme.

    • Thanks for your comment. There are lots of good things in it to consider. (It is, after all, as long as my post.)

      I had to look up Gresham’s Law. I think you’re right, but I’m not giving up yet. Capital “A” architecture is worth it to experienced owners.

      “Ardent believers” is a good phrase for the makeup of AIA leadership these days. Instead of encouraging its membership to drill down and become expert at what architects are supposed to be doing (“supposed to” according to our contracts and our licensing laws – REALLY, really, supposed to be doing), it’s encouraging other tangential activities.

      Rather than encouraging architects to shoot for the absence of negatives, leaders in the profession of architecture seem to be encouraging architects to add stuff to our plates, to branch out. It’s like encouraging us to go to the playground before cleaning our rooms; go to a movie before we’ve done the dishes; go skiing even though we know we need to work on preparation of our income tax return instead. (Hey – it’s like the struggles at my house.)

      Years ago, I had an uncomfortable conversation at a party with a group including an engineer who worked as a construction company project engineer/project manager. Someone else asked if I designed houses, did interiors, did commercial architecture, picked colors, what buildings had I designed, etc. I told them that I didn’t do residential, and I wasn’t really good at interiors and colors, had worked on lots of school buildings that they might not have ever seen, etc.

      There was a series of questions that I answered to no one’s satisfaction. The construction guy then said, kind of exasperated, “Well, what ARE you good at?” I explained that I was really good at making sure that what was on the drawings matched what was in other parts of the drawings and matched what was in the specs. He seemed pleased – because he rarely encountered well-coordinated sets of construction documents. Conversation got much more comfortable after that, and we changed topics.

      Making sure a set of construction documents is well-coordinated is NOT sexy. But it IS essential to the work of architecture. It’s a very important absence of a negative, it’s a basic, a prerequisite. Once we master that, then we can go on to other things. Without mastery of the essentials, we shouldn’t be doing the other stuff.

  2. Very good and insightful comments. Ohio, too, controls the use of
    the title “architect” and has an investigator on staff who enforces
    that provision in many instances including in the computer field;
    some fines, some mere “cease and desist” agreements.

    Here again a weak point with the professional which really does
    not seem to care..

    I signed on for Element B; hope that doesn’t offend or bother you.

    Ralph W. Liebing, RA, CSI, CDT
    Senior Architect- Specifications

    • Thanks for reading, Ralph!

      Colorado doesn’t have an investigator, but does look into complaints. I am pretty sure the State Board of Licensure for Architects ignores the software/hardware “architects.”

      Looking forward to working with you on Element B!

  3. Liz,
    Like another comment stated, “Amen!”.
    Too often the title “Architect” is and has been diluted and nullified by the “others”…frustrating, to say the least; not sure what the answer is, or if there is one. Thanks for writing this.

  4. Your article raises an interesting question. What do you think about IDP requirements and the role they play in defining what it means to “practice architecture”? As you are well aware, one generally has to complete IDP in order to become a licensed architect. Some of the IDP requirements lend themselves to the roles of some of what you stated architects do not do.

    • BJ, is it the Practice Management category that you’re referring to? (Business Operations and Leadership/Service)

      All the other current IDP requirements look to me EXACTLY like what architects do.

      • Thanks for responding and promoting dialogue about the matter.

        I was more-so referring to a term like “construction administration”. IMO, while architects engage in CA, some contractors are just as qualified and technically able to do the same (and many of them do during projects). I state this to say that perhaps this presents another source of the misinterpretation that you described in your post.

        On another note, perhaps design-build components of architecture programs help create the image of practicing architecture being not just designing, but also building (sidenote: I support design-build initiatives because I think they can help with the understanding of building technology that you mentioned in a previous post).

        However, I mention all of the above simply as other aspects to consider in the discussion of how architect is defined among those in the field, journalists, and consumers.

      • Hi, BJ,

        It’s odd that NCARB refers to “Construction Administration,” because the services that architects provide during construction constitute “Construction Contract Administration.”

        AIA A201-2007 General Conditions of the Contract for Construction, refers to these services as “Administration of the Contract.”

        “Construction Administration” is something I’d expect a contractor to do, but the Tasks described by NCARB under this category are unquestionably part of an architect’s job when a construction contract includes AIA A201.

  5. Hi Liz:
    Thank you for clarifying this. The example you give is a good one and so true often the media does not devote the energy to establishing the differing roles and responsibilities in bankruptcy and other situations.
    Most importantly,its refreshing to observe professionals like yourself take the initiative to elevate public confidence in your field. I believe professionals have a duty to create an awareness and educate the public concerning their role in society. Yes professional governing bodies are active in this regard, however, blogs and posts like yours have a much more profound effect. Communications from people at the delivery level is personal and meaningful as opposed to messages via corporate communications.
    Thanks and I look forward to your futre posts.

  6. This is a very good post, and I wanted to thank you for your comment on mine. I agree, we should fight for the title Architect. And we should make it very clear what an Architect does, and doesn’t do. I was on site and the construction manager kept referring to me as “the Architect” when I was an Intern, so I corrected her in front of the trades. She wasn’t pleased until I explained why I had to correct her, then I think she understood that I took my job seriously.

    I think because we are renaissance people, we do think we can do more than practice architecture, but as you’ve stated, we need to make it very clear to clients what falls under the architectural contract. Some of our clients have us help with branding. These don’t fall directly under architectural services, but they do when it involves the building itself as part of that brand (sign tower, canopy, etc.).

  7. “Mixing up the roles of architect, contractor and developer misleads consumers, and might be giving all architects a bad name.”

    If fewer architects held onto this outdated idea, the profession would not be in crisis. Firms could hire more of the talented young people that graduate every year instead of pushing them away with embarrassingly low salaries and a very long climb to the top.

    Architecture firms need to diversity their offerings and become contractors and developers simultaneously so that they can control the entire process of building: from land purchase, to financing, to design, to execution. No more complaining about wealthy clients with had taste. No more complaining about contractors who can’t read the plans or don’t care enough to build things correctly.

    In large urban areas like Denver, firms that diversify in this way could easily do millions of dollars in revenue each year instead of ceding virtually all control over a project to sleazy developers and sloppy contractors. But no, architects just want to be designers. That’s not responsibility, it’s complacency, and this unwillingness to blur the lines and take control of the entire process is killing the profession.

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