What does an architect do? Really?
I once read a funny story, about a woman and her professional friends. Her doctor friends can diagnose her and treat her illnesses. Her dentist friend can look at her teeth. Her hairdresser friend can do her hair. Her accountant friend does her taxes. But her architect friend? He can't do anything for her. Can he redo her bathroom? Can he build her a house? Can he recommend real estate property for her? He cannot do anything practical; heck, even her painter friend can make portraits of her. This architect friend can't even draw properly.
I came across this story in college, and I was saddened. The woman in the story was right; I can't do any of those things. I am not a contractor; I cannot build a house or renovate a bathroom. I am not a real estate broker; I cannot find a good apartment for my friends. Even now, as I work as an entry level designer at an office, I realize I still cannot do those things; architects don't actually build, contractors do; architects don't actually develop land; real estate developers do; architects don't actually make structural calculations, engineers do. The only thing, according to the AIA Documents, that architects have full control of, is "aesthetic effect". But what does that really mean? How do I define that? Are we just scamming people for money?
Looking at the field, one year after graduation, I am not so much jaded about the profession as much as I am saddened by how little the public actually knows about the reality of the work. Architects draw buildings, and they make money by drawing buildings for people who can pay for them. Architects organize teams of consultants, engineers, contractors, and stakeholders to make buildings actually happen. Architects are salesman selling the world's hardest, most expensive thing to sell - buildings, which costs millions and takes years to be delivered. Architecture is 99% business and 1% design, or 99% execution and 1% design concept. Architects usually have very little say in financial or construction matters, yet we have to hold most of the liability. Architecture is a professional service that mostly coordinates and manages while making buildings 'look' a certain way. This is the little piece - aesthetics - that we supposedly control, but only under the guidance of a client and a willing and able contractor.
No wonder we don't get compensated very well, even after studying so much. We are part-time managers (coordination), lawyers (codes), engineers (basic structural understanding), salesman (business development), and artists (designers), and there's no real way to see if we did our job well, because there's so much that could go wrong, and there's so much risk involved, that there's no real way to learn from any part of it that could have been done better. We seem so far removed from the process, that I am not sure what we can take credit for.
How do we measure if we have done a good job? Client satisfaction? Return client? Design awards? How well the building is loved?
How do we know if we have done a bad job? Does the building age well? Do people hate it? Is it not generating enough value for our clients?
It seems to me that the only thing that architects are good at doing is telling stories. We tell stories to our clients to get projects. We tell stories to our contractors with our drawings, on how to build our designs. We tell stories to the planning board to get our building approved. We tell stories to the public to get attention and to get projects. We are constantly telling stories, about our clients, about our ideas, and about our work, because besides the THING we are selling - the building design - is never completed when the client pays us; the client has to trust us that we will do a good job and complete the job, and we have to convince people, with our words and images, that our idea is not just good, but the only solution (for any problem).
We HAVE to be really good salespeople, and that means making convincing drawings, convincing pitches, and convincing buildings. There is so much convincing to do, and there is so much risk, and there is so little time.
We don't get paid a lot because we are risky, and the value is uncertain, and we are far removed from the final product. We cannot guarantee, besides our word, that the design is great, that everything will work, that we have looked at every alternative, and this is the best possible product given the time, budget, and considerations. Our profession relies on trust, because architects sell visions, and clients - and the public - have to come on a risky journey to see the vision through.