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Power of Architecture? Minus Building Knowledge, There’s a Serious Outage

TUESDAY, JULY 26, 2011

By Walter Scarborough

We’ve all heard the saying that “Knowledge is Power,” but have you ever thought about its significance and the magnitude of its importance?

Is it a universal, timeless truth, or is it just a cute saying we use to convince our children and grandchildren to stay in school and get a good education? Does it apply to us today as individuals? What would your answer be if I asked you to apply the saying to the architectural profession?

Defining the terminology

Let’s analyze the first word of the saying: Knowledge.

Knowledge is defined as the state or fact of knowing; familiarity; awareness; understanding gained through experience or study; specific information about something; or…my favorite… the sum or range of what has been perceived, discovered or learned.

As children, knowledge is forced upon us in the form of an educational process that is supposed to progressively expand our minds. As young adults’ knowledge takes on a different perspective, we may or may not be pressured by parents to continue with an education after the mandatory 12 years. As adults, knowledge requires a commitment of time and is a choice that we make to expand our interests, skills, jobs, or professions.

One of the great tragedies of human history is existence of the thousands upon thousands of people who falsely believe graduation from high school or college is all they need to function for the next one to seven additional decades. While this is a broad generalization, many tend to be focused on other “non-productive” endeavors rather than expanding their knowledge, which will increase their opportunities. Far too many are focused on pursuing pleasure, possessions and partying because of their increased disposable income and cognitive surplus.

Let’s take a look at the second word of the saying: is. Notwithstanding one prominent political figure’s embarrassing, public questioning of what the definition of “is” is, the implication of the word in the “Knowledge and Power” saying is that knowledge is equal to power. The two are inextricably bound to each other and cannot be separated; knowledge cannot exist without power and power cannot exist without knowledge. The two ideas are equated with each other, are complementary of each other, and the proportion of one is the proportion of the other within the context of the topic being evaluated. The more knowledge an individual or a profession possesses, the more power that individual or profession possesses.

Finally, let’s analyze the third word of the saying: Power. Power is defined as a specific capacity, faculty or aptitude; having great influence or control over others; the ability or capacity of exercise, control or authority; or…my favorite…the ability or capacity to perform or act effectively. The activities that we pursue inherently organize themselves behind those who lead—usually a small number of individuals—and those who follow, usually the majority. Those in the leadership position are leaders invariably by virtue of the knowledge they possess about the activity. The military cannot function without the power of a leadership structure.

‘Creating’ versus ‘building’

So you are asking yourself what does this has to do with architecture?

It has everything to do with the distinction between creating architecture and building buildings. While in architecture school, the majority of the student’s time is focused on how to create architecture (aesthetic design); very little time is focused on how to build buildings (technical design).  Because of an almost constant reference to, and study of, those whom the faculty considers “great” architects who design “great” architecture, an unintended consequence (or maybe it’s intentional) is that students come out of school believing they too will design “great” architecture.

As many of us who can now measure our respective careers in decades know, however, the vast majority of architects spend their entire career on the technical side of building buildings. Very few will ever actually design architecture, much less “great” architecture.

In their collective infinite wisdom, schools of architecture have unilaterally decided that an education about the anatomy of architecture is a waste of time. Since this deficiency of technical knowledge about building buildings has been evolving for several decades, the architectural profession is losing its standing as the leader in the project-delivery process. It’s much like the education of a surgeon that excludes the study of the anatomy of the human body. Architects are trained without the study of the anatomy of architecture; they are expected to “pick it up along the way.”    

Because of the diminishing state of a technical body of knowledge, architects are losing the aptitude to be the dominant participant in the project-delivery process. Because architects do not know how to build buildings, they are losing power due to a deficiency of technical knowledge and are consequently losing the ability or capacity to perform or act effectively. There is an attitude that contractors, construction managers, design-builders, and subcontractors know better how to build buildings. 

The most pronounced symptom of this deficiency is the mediocre quality of construction documents that are issued by many architects. If you don’t believe this, talk to a few subcontractors and ask their opinions. They are entitled to an opinion because they are the ones who use the construction documents to construct a building. Contrary to the name they are known by, general contractors do not actually “build” the building, they assemble and manage a team of subcontractors and suppliers who build the building.

Abdicating a position of power

Architects continue to give away their power by abdicating their knowledge of the technical aspects of architecture and building sciences to others that they believe “know how to do it better than we do.” There is an attitude that architects do not want to be bothered with understanding building construction. By giving away the power to determine technical design, architects do a disservice to clients by letting others determine the qualities of the aesthetic design.

There was a time when the profession of architecture was the repository of all matters associated with a building, but that is no longer true. Architects are losing their power over the technical aspects of their creative designs.  

Many architects are not continuing to educate themselves about building sciences and technological developments, and if it were not for mandatory continuing education, which is woefully inadequate, many would never expend the effort to become more powerful by increasing their knowledge of building sciences. Would you tolerate that from the medical profession?

About the author

Walter R. Scarborough, CSI, SCIP, AIA, is Dallas regional manager of Charlotte, N.C.-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 Robert Pfaffmann, (7/27/2011, 8:40 AM)

As with many things in life the truth is somewhere in between. Yes, we are sometimes our own worst enemy as architects...but I can say that I see a similar ignorance in the trades and crafts of construction. Painting being a perfect example...I cant tell you the number of times I have had to become an expert on painting for a day in order to fight off an incompetent painting job. The truth is of course, the process in which we design and build is a function of economic pressures, a poor education system all around and most important businesses of all kinds that have been forced to make bad choices to meet economic expediency. It used to be that you could gain a good handle on the construction of a building with a limited set of choices (masonry, wood etc). Today we are bombarded with millions of systems and material alternatives that require a different set of skills to evaluate and apply. Yes Architecture schools need to do more but so does the industry as a whole. The surgeons are having their issues too.

Comment from Thomas Tyler, (7/28/2011, 4:57 PM)

So Walter: In those 10 of 22 years how many times did you visit a job site where there were no specifications to be found? How many times have we seen the detail shown but it built this way...because that is how WE do it. How many times has the commissioning found it was not built correctly? Yes the contractors have done a very good job in deed of spreading the message that (some and a few) architects do not know how to manage the process of Architectural documents. And to think the contractor...who used to be a builder now must have everything detailed so he can figure it out...We used to call that shop drawings. And it has been awhile since I have seen a good set. Yes the whole constuction process has become the practice of D-- delivery...If I demand better the contractor tells the owner...there are simpler and cheaper ways to do this. My low bidder used this instead. And the owner directs the substitution of/to...we have used this before and gotten away with it. And many times the Architect knowledge of how to build with quality is overcome with a study in how to put up the least cost legal building possible. When you study the acceptance of codes every 3 or 6 or 9 years you can see most building are illegal and out dated on the day complete. Thank the ones of us who may fight for Value and Quality as we are not driven to the lowest price. Today we loose a lot of work because of that. I am sure the contractors are thanking you for your help with their message that driven by price and with the elimination of the tools and processes of the profession it is easy for a contractor to set the architect up for failure. After all we realy do not need construction administration? Let just save another 15%.

Comment from marc chavez, (8/1/2011, 11:53 AM)

In a piece as short as this an author can never cover all the bases, and I’m sure that Walter would be happy to expand on the topic of contractor knowledge as well, given a larger word count. I see Walter’s point and applaud him for making it. Architects must take responsibility for their documents and then count on the team to take them the next step towards a finished facility. GCs and Subs must encourage their members to take responsibility for their work as well. I must, however, defend colleges and universities and yes even that “architectural abdication” just a little. I'm a spec writer and technical architect and I often make ‘soto voce’ comments about the lack of understanding of technical issues on the part of some of my younger (and older) colleagues. However, in defense of collegiate education; if there is ever a time to dance around thinking grand thoughts it’s in college. If you want strictly technical education go to a trade school; if you want some mandatory liberal arts and hopefully some concept about how the world works on a macro level, go to a university. I don’t want to see architecture relegated to a technical school. I’ll beat (gently) technical knowledge into young architects when they join the firm. Let them dream of impossible materials and skyhooks at university. The professors should gently shake their heads at the skyhooks and question the student’s impossible materials, AND give them the skills to learn from experience later. Those skills are an inquiring mind and the ability to think critically. The Architect’s abdication of power began in earnest with the industrial revolution and the ever increasing complexity of construction. See books by Alberto Perez Gomez, Jonathan Sawday, and others for some deep thinking on the development of technology and architecture from the renaissance forward. I would argue that the day when I can know or at least control all (or a majority) of the technical aspects of a building are waning. Have any of you worked on a “living building” yet – plumbing systems that include plants and bacteria, HVAC systems that take into account yearly wind patterns, the list goes on. I have not, but I’m preparing to. We also have to work together. The mason; master builder of the great cathedrals became the architect of the late 1600s (Christopher Wren’s first “draftsman” was one of his master masons.) The architect has now given way to a team of highly skilled individuals. The “Team” now consists of engineers, planners, and yes, painters and masons. The world of construction continues to evolve. All of us from architects to painters have to evolve with it. New materials, processes, energy concerns, carbon footprints…all of these push all of us to keep reading, keep learning and never quit.

Comment from Larry Stephans, (8/9/2011, 9:01 AM)

I have worked as a designer, spec writer, construction manager, materials supplier, inspector, and subcontractor in industrial and commercial construction for a lot of years. In general the quality of work put out by A&E's has been deteriorating over the years. I contribute it to the lack of practical experience by university staffs coupled with professorial arrogance followed by the pursuit of the dollar by A&E's with little regard for good workmanship and pride in their output. All to frequently I see a statement in project specifications that, essentially, the engineer places all responsibility for the success of the structure, equipment or process on the contractor. It's "here are the plans and specs, but its not my problem if you can't make it work". I agree that the range of building materials and technologies is rapidly expanding and I agree with the team approach to construction projects. The smoothest running and successful projects I have worked on have been those that involved an involved owner, an A&E, independent general contractor who developed a realistic design, an accurate budget and hired skilled subcontractors that bid realistic numbers not relying on "job adds" to make themselves whole after they were awarded the job. There is a line, one contributor said, but I don't think it is a line defined by technical knowledge. It is a line defined by conscience, dedication, common sense and pride in your work. If those involved in a project are quality people, they can obtain the knowledge themselves or through other's skills to complete a quality job.

Comment from Joe Chesterfield, (11/25/2013, 4:19 AM)

Very good article Walter, I can relate first hand to the lack of detail and practicality on architectural drawings. I have heard another contractor aptly refer to an architectural drawing as “The Comic”

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