At university we are instructed to focus on one stage of the architectural process. After university it transpires that this is the stage where in theory, we still have some influence with clients, other professionals and stakeholders. However to focus on this stage in isolation, as many schools do, is not an accurate reflection of the building process or the role of the architect.
Why are we shielded from the full story at these early stages? A more pertinent question maybe, is why are we asked to design buildings that will never be built?
At this point in my career, I have not built all that much. But I have come to realise that the greatest challenge for an architect is having an idea, designing it, costing it, presenting it to the client, getting approval, detailing it, issuing information to the contractor, dealing with inevitable discussions and questions on site, managing supply chain issues and delays, all the while ensuring your own specifications and expectations are met.
Solving these issues one by one, but constantly being aware that each decision could create a knock-on effect elsewhere is exhilarating. It is also the way that architecture gets built. I realise the example I use below is 'just a staircase,' but in the context of this project it was a crucial element that gave us the opportunity to connect the existing building with a new living space and its generous garden.
The project was a full renovation of a Georgian semi-detached house in South London, and in the end, the newly designed elements were subtle, so as to connect sympathetically with the existing house. See more photos here.
The contractor was very experienced and we had a long standing relationship with him. Nonetheless our desire to do something different meant that we needed to add extra detail and explanation to our drawings, supplemented by sketches and site meetings. It transpired that some of the things I wanted to try were not going to work, and we had to find compromise.
For example, the width of the stairwell was restricted so we designed a recessed handrail to offset this. Due to the specification of a 225mm back-filled hollow block wall for the external wall foundations, the build up above consisted of a single skin of London stock tied to a dense block work. This in turn allowed for rigid insulation to be fitted within a timber stud work on the inner face of the wall. This 'softer' material on the inner face of the wall allowed us to incorporate the recessed handrail detail.
This was one of many small details which required negotiation and careful setting out on-site. And it highlights very well the number of stages as well as the number of people involved in solving one problem.
- The contractor needed to be confident he could built it.
- Building Control needed to see a regulation compliant stair design and correct insulation on the walls.
- The stair supplier needed to be confident that the staircase had appropriate structural support.
- And the role of the architect was to coordinate all these steps while ensuring the original design was reflected in the finished detail.
However, the most important thing to remember as a young architecture grad is that this is not your project any more. Decisions you may have made while studying were made while playing to a different rulebook. There are more stakeholders involved now, with more constraints than before. Money and jobs and livelihoods are on the line, and those risks change behaviours and incentives dramatically.
The ability to get your ideas built by others, is one of the greatest challenges in architecture.
This is a daunting prospect. Especially when you consider how the architect's role on construction sites and our ability to manage design quality is being ever more marginalised. An architect can only ever take so much ownership of a project, when they are working for a client or patron. Much of the greatest work has been done by those who acquired patrons, because they were given the freedom to explore their own vision. But I will cover that in the forthcomingpost 'Patronage in the 21st Century.'
All the great architects went through this process of adapting to the construction ecosystem, and it is mastering this skill that will get your ideas built. You can be a talented designer, but if you cannot bring people along for the journey, gain their trust and deliver to their expectations, your ideas are sadly worth little more than the paper they are printed on.