“If we built every building the same, then we wouldn’t need architects.”
Believe it or not, I have had that expression said to me more than once in my eight years of going to school for and practicing architecture. Each time it is phrased a little differently, but ultimately the person saying it is trying to express a certain pointlessness to the profession of architecture. While a part of me gets quite annoyed by these statements, another part of me can understand where they are coming from.
Only a small percentage of buildings built around the world can be considered architecture, with most buildings falling under the category of general construction. Technically, at the risk of sounding snooty, a building must undergo a multifaceted design process to be deemed architecture. This design process aims to optimize everything about the building, including its shape, energy efficiency, relation to its context, etc. Not all architectural works are designed by architects, and not all architects’ work should be considered architecture. And so, these naysayers have a point. Buildings get built all the time without architectural design, so what is the point of architects?
For the most part, the public does not understand what an architect does or their role in society. An analogy I often use when explaining our role in society is to compare an architect to a lawyer, as the public seems to have a better idea of what a lawyer does (most likely due to the overabundance of television shows in the Law-and-Order genre). You technically don’t need a lawyer to represent you in court. However, a lawyer will represent you for a fee and facilitate the process significantly better than the average person ever could. An architect plays a very similar role in the building industry. An architect is an educated professional that facilitates the building process.
While that analogy might be oversimplified, it helps reinforce the profession of architecture as a service-based industry meant to solve problems. People build buildings to solve a problem; A family needs a new home, a developer needs to renovate a building, a district needs a new school. Whether an architect is working with a homeowner, a developer, or a local government, every client has a problem that needs solving. Just like a lawyer, an architect provides a service meant to help solve someone’s problem.
Unfortunately, also like lawyers, the profession of architecture can get a bad reputation. Architects can sometimes be characterized as egotistical elitists who spend too much of their clients’ money on unnecessary things. While that stereotype may be true in some cases, it is the minority. Most architects simply want to help their clients traverse the building process while providing good design.
Regardless of scale, the building is an incredibly complex endeavor. Wading through hundreds of design options, navigating building codes, coordinating with engineers, and working with contractors are just a handful of the many complicated aspects of getting something built. A competent architect serves as a guide through this intricate process and acts as a repository of building knowledge to inform the client of opportunities they would otherwise be unaware of.
The value of good design by an architect can have many positive impacts on any building project. Most people who undertake a building project care about two things: time and money. Architects can help save both. Architects possess the knowledge to choose materials and equipment with long life cycles, utilize passive and active systems to facilitate efficient energy use, and the experience to plan the project accordingly to avoid costly mistakes. An architect practicing good design knows that a building in a cold northern climate should look different from a building in a hot southern climate.
No matter the project type or the location, architects benefit society by creating safe and accessible buildings. Quite literally, an architect’s job is to protect the public’s health, safety, and welfare. This means making sure the projects they work on meet the building code, are accessible to all people and are healthy places to occupy.
And, for my final and perhaps most important point, do I really need to explain why we shouldn’t design every building the same? Can you imagine what a boring dystopia our society would be if every home looked the same, every office building looked the same, every restaurant looked the same, so on?