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The Blurring of the Once-Sacred Line Between Design and Construction

MONDAY, APRIL 11, 2011

By Walter Scarborough

My name is Walter, and I am architect.

And let me establish from the very beginning that I love being an architect to the depths of my soul—it is who I am. And I love to think critically about things and hold myself and the architectural profession to a high standard (maybe too high). 

So, all my comments here and in the future should be taken as the experiences and critical thinking of one architect’s journey through the profession. I want the profession to continue to be noble and make a contribution to our culture; however, I am troubled by the path the profession seems to be taking. So I offer the following for consideration.

A ‘romanticized’ notion of the profession

Maybe I am naïve, but it seems to me that there was a time in which the line between architecture and construction was very clear. I could very well be romanticizing about an architectural past that began long before my time but that I entered a mere 35 years ago. Then again, I could be thinking what I want to think and believing what I want to believe. 

Just like we are personally part of a continuum of our family as it progresses through time and we really don’t know what happened before our time, I am part of a profession in which I really don’t know what it was like before I became fully conscious of my participation and place. 

My perception is that the rich heritage of the practice of architecture, at least up until 20 years or so ago, we architects held the trust of an owner, designed architecture as opposed to buildings, produced the information necessary for it to become a reality, and then administered its construction with knowledge, skill, and command of the process.

I know this because my portal into the profession, architecture school, emphasized design above all else and that architects were in control. I was led to believe that the world would get out of my way as I designed my way to fame and fortune, and that my design contributions would change peoples’ lives and make the world a better place.

Will the architectural profession become “compartmentalized” as the specialty of exterior design?

Thus ended my architectural educational experience.

Youthful ideals, meet actual realities

When I entered the practice of architecture, I discovered that design was only a very small part of the professional effort to produce architecture in spite of an underlying belief that design still ruled and was above all else. Only those who were exceptional designers, or owned the business, were the keepers of the creativity and aesthetics, while a very large proportion of those with architecture degrees and licenses populated the remainder of the “architectural design process” that is necessary to manage and produce the creations of the designer - the legions of those that “draw.”

Thus ended my first professional decade.

By the beginning of my second decade, I was firmly entrenched in the technical side of architecture and I began to build a substantial body of architectural knowledge. I was drinking water from a fire hose and fell in love with learning. I soaked up every drop of technical information I could about building architecture and as the decade progressed I began to see that there was another side to architecture…a vast technical side. I realized technical wizardry was essential to transforming a creative design into an actual building.

Walter Scarborough

But while there were many of us immersed in the technical details of architecture that seemed endless, the idea of design rules still prevailed and technical capability was only as good as the economy. I became disillusioned with the prospect that I was only a cog in the machine and that technical was the underbelly of the profession and consequentially expendable.

Thus ended my second professional decade.

My third decade began with me reaching a pinnacle in my architectural career as the director of specifications for one of the largest architectural firms in the world. By this point, I also learned I was an anomaly among my colleagues—I possessed a considerable amount of technical knowledge about buildings. I had reached the position of being one of the go-to architects that could answer any technical question. In spite of the “design rules” mantra, I started realizing that the mantra was only sacred to the architectural profession and was not shared by owners, contractors and society, who wanted architecture to not only exist, but to perform, to function, to endure according to their expectations.

Thus ended my third professional decade.

Awakening from the ‘Design Rules’ illusion

I am now several years into my fourth decade and am no longer naïve or disillusioned. I understand now. Having participated in the publication of several books, written articles, given presentations, found my public voice, and have become an elder in the profession, I believe I have earned the right to proclaim my beliefs about a profession that I dearly love. I became a victim of the economy and my technical wizardry was no longer needed at one place. I have embarked on a new adventure of being an independent technical wizard. But I now have the freedom to speak my mind without endangering my servitude to others.

Walter Scarborough
Parts of the architectural profession seem to be floating away,
leaving the whole no longer certain.

While the architectural profession continues to worship at the altar of design, it is my belief that only architects belong to that religion and the remainder of the world wants buildings to house their activities. and that those who want new or renovated buildings are going around a profession that has not adapted to the changes that are happening. While there are exceptions, my comments about the architectural profession are generalizations. There are still some architects that believe there are two inextricably linked realms of architecture: aesthetic design and technical design.

Architects do not hold the confidence of owners as they once did, technical skills are diminishing, control of the process has been given away, a leadership is not being realized, and, most disturbing of all, society is leaving the architectural profession in the proverbial dust of history. 

Lo and behold, society does not subscribe to the “design rules” theology. It is the view of this almost-old curmudgeon that the project-delivery process, once holding a vast potential for architects, is being commanded by an endless variety of consultants. Also, contractors have discovered that with time and money they can absorb the design firms. While the architectural profession continues to believe we are in control of the destiny of the built environment and its influence on culture, the reality is that architects are the only ones who share in that belief.

It is also my belief that, by the year 2025, the architectural profession will be compartmentalized as exterior designers and will make very little contribution to the project-delivery process. There is a deafening silence within the profession about what is really happening and where it is going. Yet design still rules, in the view of those who would deny the reality of this evolution of the profession.

We can agree to disagree, or not

Many may not agree with the observations voiced here and in future entries in this corner of what is nowadays often called the Blogosphere. Indeed, it would be a surprise and, yes, even a disappointment if we don’t hear views that challenge, contradict or at least call into question what we have to say in this space.

Of course, we also won’t object if you happen to agree with our views, or can add further insights or illumination on the issues we will look to explore.

About the author

Walter R. Scarborough, CSI, SCIP, AIA, is Dallas regional manager of Charlotte, NC based HALL Building Information Group LLC, and offers specifications consulting, manufacturing consulting, and peer reviews. He is a contributing editor of Durability + Design, and is a registered architect and specifier with more than 30 years of technical experience with many building types. He was director of specifications for 10 of his 22 years with one of the largest architecture firms in the world.

Scarborough is revision author for CSI Project Delivery Practice Guide; co-author of the college textbook Building Construction, Principles, Materials and Systems; has written articles for periodicals; has taught college courses; has given presentations at local, state, regional, and national conferences; is active in the Construction Specifications Institute at national and chapter levels; is a past president of the Dallas CSI chapter; is a member of the Institute Education Committee; has CDT, CCS, and CCCA certifications from CSI; received CSI’s J. Norman Hunter Memorial Award in 2008; and is an ARCOM MasterSpec Architectural Review Committee member.


Walter Scarborough

OK, so I'm not really in the Corner Office, per se. But with more than 30 years in the architecture profession and as someone who's made the technical side of architecture (specifications and construction administration) his lifelong mission and passion, I submit that I have at least earned the right to occasionally play the part of curmudgeon and pontificate about the architectural profession. In any case, the editors of Durability + Design have deigned to provide this platform, although they're not admitting responsibility or liability for the content herein.



Tagged categories: Color + Design; Architects; Architecture; Design

Comment from Paul Graham, (4/12/2011, 8:27 AM)

Hey Walter- Great article. Glad you are doing well, and look forward to working together again.

Comment from marc chavez, (4/12/2011, 11:07 AM)

Right on Walter. I could not have said it better

Comment from Laura LeBon, (4/12/2011, 12:04 PM)

I've often wondered how certain the future of our profession has been. I've also noticed that owners more frequently consider me to be an obstacle to their goal rather than an asset to help them achieve it. I hope that those in the architectural profession can work together to counter this movement, but first we'd have to all agree that there is a problem, which is unlikely to happen.

Comment from Bruce Monighan, (4/13/2011, 11:01 AM)

Walter, what an outstanding commentary. I agree 120% with your analysis and I too am especially concerned about the lack of "voice" from the architectural community. We seem to spend so much time "inside the fort" defending the walls that we loose the freedom to venture out and find nwe opportunity or relevance. I will share your ideas with the AIA Small Firms Roundtable and with my AIA Chapter in California, AIA Central Valley

Comment from Tom Heineman, (4/19/2011, 9:50 AM)

You obviously transmit from the corner office where design, durability and dollars collide. Radiate more! Perhaps your emamations will penetrate the thick walls encasing academia and corporate America. Why should celebrity, cruddy and cheap rule when the 3D way could come back to life?

Comment from Tom Heineman, (4/19/2011, 9:51 AM)

You obviously transmit from the corner office where design, durability and dollars collide. Radiate more! Perhaps your emamations will penetrate the thick walls encasing academia and corporate America. Why should celebrity, cruddy and cheap rule when the 3D way could come back to life?

Comment from Laura Kushner, (4/20/2011, 3:12 PM)

Sorry to say that I do not see the point of this article, nor do I understand what it has to do with architectural coatings.

Comment from Nicole Adler, (7/23/2011, 11:15 PM)

I'm in the process of becoming a registered architect, and I've worked at the same small firm for the past 6 years - I can't agree more with your concerns. We have an incredibly creative & prolific design principal, and without any advertisement we have clients constantly coming to us for his designs. But for the most part, they don't understand why they need an expert direction & we seem like more of a necessary evil. I can definitely see 15 years down the line where most construction firms have a semi-competent designer on staff & contract a licensed architect to stamp their plans. I only hope I'm not in that picture.

Comment from David Reynolds, (7/26/2011, 11:01 AM)

Certain exteriors, interiors, landscapes, and sites overall can be abundantly satisfying to look on or be within, while others are not. If not design, what? Barracks for everyone, or more commercial and institutional buildings where the owner value engineered features with the contractor and created something that works much better after sunset? Somebody needs to look after style and proportion initially, and to finishes, fittings, and furniture finally. Construction firms can be good homes for technical and engineering expertise, economy, quality control, compliance, and even commissioning. Their owners and staff may favor aesthetics, include artisans, and be willful about quality, but their product also makes a statement in terms of look and feel, an area easy to get wrong, expensively, and for a long time. Architecture has developed and holds a substantial body of principles and knowledge along these lines. Of course, all of us involved with buildings (facility manager here) overlap in knowledge, but with different depths. If architects become extinct, someone else will have to (I hope!) learn the same things. Perhaps there will just be fewer architects? But we're all facing the like in this these economic times. I'm not suggesting that architects mandate style, as perhaps an attending physician decides about inpatient treatment, but that reputation (something owners can be sensitive about) in part derives from appearance. Gotten wrong (and there are endless opportunities for that) a building, or even a subsequent renovation, refinishing, or tenant build out can't help a reputation much. A possible approach would be a university program in facilities, with a basic body of knowledge and specialties: design, construction, engineering... the current professional societies and certifications would go on, but owners would have a more uniform milieu to work within. Graduates would share a handful of core courses. Accrediting bodies would have to figure it out. Sadly, we seem to be going the other way. Sustainability, internal air quality, and other areas are accumulating bodies of knowledge and entering the picture. Imagine being a diner in a restaurant where you had to apportion the efforts and expertise of chefs, cooks, wait staff, the bar, etc.? That's what an owner can face in a building project, instead of an integrated enterprise that produces an excellent product. Among the professions, boundary disputes, antagonism, ducking and dodging might be reduced, especially in the eyes of the owner/client. What owner would not want to have a better looking - even distinctive - and more comfortable, convenient facility with a lower life cycle cost and better market value? Architecture holds and perpetuates essential pieces of the answer. Perhaps we'll all work for fully integrated construction and service firms eventually, but if architecture as a vocation goes away, someone will invent it again soon.

Comment from Martin Rose, (8/21/2013, 7:35 AM)

Thank you. You expressed much better than I (one of those architects who can not see technology divorced from design) some of the exact concerns I have had for the profession. The AIA seems oblivious with their "new direction" still totally "Design" focused. If the actual direction of the profession does not change I see little reason for architects to be licensed.

Comment from David Zuk, (8/21/2013, 12:00 PM)

Walter - As a Structural Engineer, I am about your age and have been practicing for 34 years. I too had an idealistic view of my profession which has changed drastically during my career. I believe the way we are viewed by the Architectural community has me concerned. I believe the majority of Architects view us as a necessary evil and make decisions on consultants based entirely on who has the lowest fee. Engineer B may be $5,000 cheaper than Engineer A, but the design provided by Engineer B may cost $200,000 more to build. More and more our fees barely leave us enough money to design the project once and certainly we end up in a losing mode if the designers creativity forces us to redesign the structure multiple times. My perfect world would provide a reasonable fee that I could make a reasonable profit from. In addition, I would like to believe I was hired because of my creativity and competance to provide an economical building instead of how low my fee was.

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