Do I Need an Architect Or Not?: Some
Things You Should Know
by Mary Colette
Wallace, Associate A.I.A., President, Wallace Research
W. G. Clark of Clark and Menefee Architects, once
wrote about architects and design, saying, "It
is not only buildings that interest us: there is
something of greater importance which, through them,
we are trying to reach. It has to do with the joining
of structure and land, and how this can, and should,
result in a sureness of place that is all the stronger
for the union. The most important quality of architecture
is the way it relates to, signifies, and dignifies
a place on earth. … Architecture is
a disturbing art: It destroys places. Building sites
always have the scent of sacrifice, barely asked
by the hopeful and exciting smell of a new construction.
It is our job to assuage the sacrifice and make building
an act of understanding and adoration of the place."1
You may or may not have worked with an architect before.
If you have, it was likely on a single-family house
or on commercial projects such as a library, corporate
headquarters, government office building, hospital,
or multifamily residential building, to name a few
such types. It takes a lot of people to make buildings
happen — architects, builders, lenders, regulatory
agencies, clients. And there are certain points to
consider when hiring an architect. This article examines
general information about architects, design processes,
and what clients should know. Some aspects of the design
process and the importance of location and infrastructure
will be highlighted. Two interviews with architects
(see the sidebars on pages 51 and 52) provide insight
into the client-architect relationship for library
projects at Lake Forest College, the Perkins Library
at Duke University, and the Seattle Public Library.
Interior of Lake Forest College Library
From Master Builders to Master Team Builders
Architects were first known as master builders. Today,
architects are the master team builders. Imhotep, the
Egyptian architect or master builder of the "step
pyramid" designed and built ca. 2737–2717
B.C., for Pharaoh Djoser (also spelled Zoser) at Saqqara,
understood his client's immortal beliefs and values
concerning immortality and the after-life. Their collaboration
enabled a leap beyond existing forms of the time — the
mastaba — to design the first pyramid — a
monument that still reaches for the heavens. In this
single project, Imhotep may have been the first architect
to connect fully and successfully with his client,
his end user.
Say the word "architect" and heads turn.
It embodies mystique, rigorous education and training,
responsibility, intimate knowledge of clients' living
and working habits, and knowledge of design and structures
throughout time. "Architect" is a term of
reverence and prestige. Software companies and programmers
elevate their status by using the term "software
"Architect" is also a legal term usable
only by a registered, licensed architect. Architects
are "trained and experienced in the design of
buildings and the coordination and supervision of all
aspects of the construction of buildings. … A
designation reserved, usually by law, for a person … professionally
qualified and duly licensed to perform architectural
services, including analysis of project requirements,
creation and development of the project design, preparation
of drawings, specifications, and bidding requirements,
and general administration of the construction contract."2
Depending upon state law, the design of most buildings — schools,
hospitals, commercial buildings, manufacturing facilities,
courthouses, government offices, to name a few — requires
an architect. However, in most states, anyone can legally "design" a
house, with some restrictions of size or dollar value
as regulated by local laws, and sometimes, the results
show little knowledge of design. There is a small cottage
house in a town near me. It was probably built in the
early 1950s and has a large, two-story Dutch Colonial
addition which was added to the back in the 1990s,
badly mixing design styles and form. The Dutch Colonial
addition looms over the cottage, looking like it plans
to devour it. The owners probably tripled the size
of their home with the addition, but the design mix
is underscale and — poof! — no backyard.
Architects can provide many services beyond good design.
Good design requires integrating the work of consultants
such as acoustical, electrical, mechanical, structural,
soil, energy, and environmental engineers, plus interior
designers, landscape architects, security integrators,
and others, depending upon the complexity of the facility
or building being designed. Among their many building-related
services, architects partner with manufacturers to
create custom and specialized building materials, furniture,
and carpets for their clients.
Throughout the design process, architects think in
terms of facts, values, goals, performance requirements
and in conceptual terms of privacy, security, territoriality,
image, maintenance, physical comfort, audibility, visibility,
etc.3 Three major elements inhere to the design process:
analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.
Whom to Hire
The process of selecting an architect or architectural
firm differs vastly for a single-family residence than
for commercial projects (such as libraries). Referrals,
word-of-mouth, local American Institute of Architects
(AIA) chapters, design awards, magazine articles — even
the yellow pages —
all supply good ways and resources. Look for creativity
outside of a firms' usual architectural work: Ellerbe
Beckets' healthcare research and education programs
focused on evidence-based design; Skidmore, Owings & Merrills'
teaming up with Milliken Carpet to create a modular
carpet collection "Way"; Smith Groups' invention
of a linear underfloor air system that uses one continuous
bar grille in the raised floor along outside walls;
HOK's $500,000 donation for a solar-powered tuberculosis
diagnostic and treatment center in rural Kenya.4
A client's search for an architect or architectural
firm for a commercial project usually involves more
complex selection processes, such as fee-based selection,
design competitions, or through qualification-based
selection, which requires architects to submit RFQs
(Requests for Qualifications) and respond to RFPs (Requests
for Proposals). RFPs are issued by clients (particularly
public or governmental entities) for architectural,
engineering, and other services; private companies
or nonprofit corporations may also issue RFPs.
So, how does a client gauge which architect or architecture
firm to hire? Single-family residential clients need
to look for an architect whose values match theirs,
but who also may challenge their assumptions while
forming an intimate working relationship. Commercial
clients also need to select an architect or architectural
firm with whom they can form a good working relationship,
but one which is based upon much more complexity. Look
for common philosophies and values. Are you interested
in hiring an architect like Santiago Calatrava, who
has a strong philosophy of designing from a basis of
research and development and whose built designs become
tourist destinations — improving the image of
cities and towns? Or are you interested in a firm that
specializes in designing specific types of facilities,
e.g., major healthcare centers or airports? Or do you
want a leading firm from your own city?
Preparing to Work with Your Architect
Everyone expects architects to provide design services,
but they also provide pre- and post-design services.
For example, an architect can provide you with:
• Pre-Design: Needs assessment, feasibility studies,
master and long-range planning, site analysis, community
planning, programming, space planning
• Design: Design development, sustainable building
design, construction documents, value engineering
• Post-Design: Building commissioning, post
occupancy evaluations, construction administration
Creatively speaking, a client's "problems" or
barriers can become parameters from which designs originate.
For example, clients need to be specific.
"I need you to design me a building" is not
Instead, try, "We need a new public library for
a downtown location amongst tall buildings, so we want
to capitalize on available nature light. We serve the
public, including the homeless, and want to provide
a safe, welcoming place for all our readers and staff.
We have a collection of over half a million books and
three small special collections, but need to add about
90 computers for online access. In time, we see library
services changing, so we need a facility that can accommodate
the future of library services as well as our growing
community. We also want our library to be a landmark
building for our culturally diverse community."
Each one of those statements is a design parameter,
which defines loosely what the client wants and needs.
While clients talk, images spring to architects' minds;
many sketch out their thoughts right there. Architects
tend to think in terms of geometries
— of planes and volumes. Planes are extended
lines that have shape, surface, orientation, position,
length, and width. Volumes are extended planes with
depth, orientation, form, and space added. Planes translate
in buildings as walls and volumes as rooms. For instance,
architects think in those geometries combined with
circulation, adjacencies of rooms, access, means of
egress and accessibility, of insulation or transmission
of heat and cold, structural requirements, construction
types and materials, and many other parameters; and
yes, all these can be represented in a sketch.
Look at the library included in the Civic Place for
Wiloughby City Council in Australia [http://www.civicplace.com.au/page.asp?z=8&c=252&p=762].
Notice how the sketches (and the architectural information
in each sketch) change from A to D; each time, the
architects are incorporating greater awareness and
knowledge of the complexities of the project.
Now, go to http://www.civicplace.com.au/page.asp?z=8&c=253&p=981 and click on the PDFs of Level 2 and Level 3, where
you will see how the sketch has been fleshed out with
greater detail in plan (which means looking at the
building as if it were cut horizontally about 48 inches
above the floor) and yet these are only preliminary
designs. You can also view vertical cuts through the
building design (called sections). Each plan view (Level
1, 2, etc.) refers to where the sections (a, b, c,
d) are cut through. Look for the heavy red lines that
point from outside to inside the plan. If you
look at a plan and one of the sections side-by-side,
you will have a better understanding of the information
provided graphically as you refer back and forth from
room to room.
In the Pacific Northwest, where I live, locals go
out of their way for a ray of sun during the foggy,
rainy winters. I saw a house under construction that
epitomized a poor choice for anyone designing a building — its
placement or location on the lot ignored the natural
environment. In a neighborhood of million-dollar homes,
this unfortunate two-story house has no windows facing
to an east filled with mountain views and can receive
no morning sun. The house is also situated sideways
on its lot, with front and back windows looking into
the sides of neighbors' houses and yards. Whether custom-built
or built on
"speculation," it is a terrible waste of
the promise of a connection with the environment and
a good view, not to mention materials, time, man-hours,
and natural resources.
No self-respecting architect would design a building
without analyzing the building site or location and
its particular strengths and weaknesses. When building
locations within the environment are not thoughtfully
included in the decision-making processes of design
development and construction, our homes and buildings
and lives or livelihoods become victims of natural
events such as repeated hurricanes, river flooding,
forest fires, and unstable soil conditions resulting
in landslides. These events should remind us that we
inhabit a living planet and, even though local, county,
state or even federal laws continue to allow developments
and building in high-risk areas, there are no guarantees.
One way to protect yourself and to confirm your decision
to build is to hire an architect to perform a feasibility
study before you purchase any property. A feasibility
study would cover, review, and compare proposed sites,
their infrastructure, and, among other considerations,
examine environmental issues, local weather, climate
patterns, zoning, and nearby commercial operations
that might negatively or positively affect property
values and your investment.
Emergency response times, zoning, hospital access,
storm drainage, road maintenance, sidewalks, access
to and maintenance of utilities, schools, police and
fire response — all are infrastructural concerns
that need weighing. You also need someone to stay on
top of changing conditions. For example, a sudden change
in a zoning moratorium can turn an idyllic farmland
into a sprawling development or allow a used car lot
to spring up next door. In rural areas experiencing
growth, new home owners tend not to like the odors
of the local dairy farms, the lack of ferry service
past 6 p.m. during the week, or the fact that farm
implements delay traffic on those quaint narrow roads.
They begin wanting to change regulations, to keep those
tranquil black-and-white cows in the distance, out
of smelling range. Some states are creatively addressing
new residents' lack of research regarding their possible
new home purchase. Minnesota, for example, in order
to control attempts at altering needed farmland and
pastures and to "educate" future residents
to the realities of such idyllic scenes, developed
a cowpie scratch and sniff brochure.5
Recently, zoning in downtowns across the U.S. has
created more mixed-use commercial opportunities and
increased the density of the population. As density
increases, building codes become more important for
protection of life and safety, maintaining desirable
qualities and keeping property values high. The legal
setbacks for in-city lots, air rights, maximum building
heights, roadway easements — even many of the
covenants, codes, rules and regulations that many residential
developments operate under — spring forth from
health, safety, and welfare concerns, as well as from
a desire to maintain property values and a beautiful
city or town.
For commercial design, building codes in Europe and
most of Asia, but not in the U.S., require firefighter
elevators for skyscrapers. These elevators are water
resistant, specially pressurized to keep out smoke,
located near stairs, and have mechanical and electrical
systems that will function in wet conditions, enabling
rescue workers to quickly reach upper floors. If New
York City or model building codes had required such
firefighter elevators for skyscrapers, then, on that
tragic September 11, rescue workers would have been
better able to help the 40 to 60 disabled people unable
to use the stairs from the 12th floor. The new Freedom
Tower designed by SOM — Skidmore Owings Merrill — will
have a firefighter elevator.6
Architects are best equipped to guide clients through
the complexities of building in the increasingly fast-changing
world in which we live. "A good building depends
so much on a good client. How much the client and the
architect resonate, determines how successful the project," says
Rena Klein, of Rena Klein Consulting and past president
of the AIA Seattle Chapter. Clients must tell the architect
what they need to do their work, as the architect relies
upon the accuracy and completeness of the information
that the client shares. In the final analysis, the
threads of communication and trust must weave together
to make a strong relationship that can lead to a better
"Quality is never an accident; it is always
the result of intelligent effort." –John
To Hire an Architect
Or Not to Hire an Architect
If you want a job done right, a facility
you can live and grow with, hire an architect.
• Architects turn design problems into
advantages, limitations into design parameters.
• Architects think in three-dimensions.
If you ask, "Can we move this wall to
over there?," an architect will usually
respond with an answer that will also state
the ramifications to the roof, the foundation,
and adjacent walls as well as systems.
• Architects are educated, trained, and
licensed to design.
• Architects begin the design of any
building or remodel of a building by examining
the site or location and its environment.
• Architects have intimate knowledge
of building systems, materials, and how these
components can work together, conflict, or
clash to express different design styles.
• Architects help clients determine their
true needs and prioritize their wants.
• Architects act on the owners' behalf,
rejecting defective work, bringing into the
design process any and all necessary or desired
• Architects coordinate consultants and
• Architects have professional liability
for their work.
Examples of occasions when you may not need
to hire an architect:
• Changing the color scheme in your office
or home? You may prefer to hire an interior
• Concerned that the heavy shelving in
your law library may exceed the limit for your
new office building? You may want to seek out
the professional services of a structural engineer.
• Wanting to upgrade the wiring throughout
your home? You may want to hire an electrician.
• Roof leaking? You may want to hire
a general contractor.
Examples of occasions when librarians need
to insist on speaking with the architect somebody
• When you are the head librarian of
a company or corporation having a new headquarters
• When your company is remodeling spaces
including the library's and you haven't met
with the architect yet.
• When your library outgrows its space
and the company wants to expand into adjacent
rooms and reconfigure the space.
I talked with architect Sam Miller of LMN Architects
in Seattle, a local architect group that partnered
with Rem Koolhaas of OMA on the Seattle Public
What would you say is most important for
clients to know about architects before working
First, the architects' experience in that project
type, and second, clients need to find an architect
that marries up with their values. Successful
design is a collaborative effort of a group,
a relationship built on a common goal.
For the Seattle Public Library, how did your
client find similar values in your architecture
Well, the interview process vetted our capabilities
and revealed a certain chemistry, which is hard
to find in just an hour-long interview. So, for
the library project, there was an extensive process
with a team problem-solving activity used to
see how we work together.
How do you resolve difficulties with clients — particularly
[within] a large group?
On larger projects, a big challenge is working
with clients that have many heads; one strategy
is to find the key decision makers and stakeholders
and we work with them to identify who can make
decisions day-to-day. You still need to involve
everyone — so that you hear, but are able
to say no. Deborah Jacobs was a terrific leader,
for example, making sure that we were not overloaded
by concerns from people already addressed. A
strong client making decisions and leading is
a great asset to the project. The building is
stronger due to this collaborative design process
with strong over-arching ideas as well as the
How do you help people get past the impact,
the change that a new building will have on
their lives — not just in the adjacencies
and access and square footage?
By ensuring that they are a part of the process.
And also, as in the case of the library, making
sure that the larger client group feels their
needs are being heard and acted upon. Some of
the staff had a hard time visualizing what the
library would look like. So, when the building
was under construction, Deborah Jacobs took library
workers on tours through the building, so they
could see what was coming, and some were moved
For you, what is the best part of working
Two pieces — I like working with people.
Another is learning —
one thing I love about my job is that I'm constantly
learning. Every client is different. I love learning
about clients — learning what they do and
how they do their work.
I interviewed architect Geoffrey Freeman of
Shepley, Bulfinch, Richardson & Abbott of
Boston, Mass., about designing libraries for
Duke University, Rice University, and Lake Forest
What is different about university libraries?
Library as learning commons — a kind of
microcosm of the campus. As you come into the
a cyber-cafe on the left side, the information
service point and reference collection on the
right side, and pathways leading to teaching
spaces. Institutions want their libraries to
be so familiar and comfortable as to get students
into the scholars' mentality, to see the library
as a place to foster dialogue, where more questions
are raised than are answered.
Students want access to information regardless
of where it is held and to use it in their library.
Their questions are: "How do I use this
in my PowerPoint?," "How do I incorporate
this?," "Where do I go to collaborate?"
Many of these are technology questions,
so the IT people are not located in the second
building on the left as you leave the library,
but rather they are right there in the library,
answering students' questions as they are formulated.
Sometimes they occupy the same space as the media
specialists or the subject experts. The idea
is to integrate services, to make them seamless,
and to create one-stop shopping.
Architecturally, a clear circulation path helps.
At Rice University, they conceived of it as an "immersion
concourse," which turned out to be an excellent
approach. Having always seen the library as an
intellectual marketplace, this worked well in
trying to develop a plan where the students are
drawn to proceed to the center of activity at
the intellectual heart of the campus.
Are you seeing a reduction in staff and librarians
in response to increased digital access?
No, just the contrary. Demand upon professionals
is increasing although staffs are not expanding.
There is a real push for consolidation of expertise
and services, which must come from the library — to
plan independently of the boundaries of the past
and focus instead on the connections between.
Boundaries are being broken down. Librarians
are taking a more entrepreneurial approach and
professional expertise is being utilized in a
more interesting way.
What are the problems that you have seen
emerge as common to all libraries when it comes
People working in libraries are not aware of
how differently space can affect their function
because they are so caught up in what they are
doing. In order for them to create and articulate
their vision, they need to be taken out of what
they do every day and allowed to think outside
the box. Otherwise, the architect will be just
patching up or perpetuating what was done in
the past, a big mistake at this point in time.
It's also crucial for us to meet with everyone — from
provost to student, from staff member to librarian,
from trustee to alumnus/alumna
— in order to hear what the true needs
and wants are for the library. We need to know
what role the library plays in the culture and
aspiration of their institution.
What do librarians need to know before and
when working with an architect?
Architects are so dependent upon the vision
and the clear articulation of that vision by
their clients. Librarians who will be building
need to visit other libraries and get outside
of their own patterns to understand what possibilities
exist. The architect's design is only as good
as the information provided him or her. Architects
want to understand, to gather information/concepts,
and transform them into design ideas. The most
abstract but important part of design is getting
that information. What can the library be? What
makes it effective? How does it interact with
the institution? This strategic information is
what makes a library a unique and truly valuable
Does your firm do the library programming
for projects, and if so, are there some significant
changes that you can speak to? [For a definition
of what the term "programming" means
to architects, see http://www.archpedia.com/Architecture-Dictionary.html.]
Yes, we program the libraries. Programming the
intangible is most valuable when you can have
the most input. The owner's vision is where the
value is. Programming consultants can sometimes
make it more difficult for architects who specialize
in library design because their programming tends
to be more confining and prescriptive. One problem
that often occurs is when an institution has
developed a program for a library, and as a result
of the ever-surprising world of funding, may
have to wait several years before it is turned
over to an architect for actual planning and
design. As a result of that time lag, the program
really is outdated, and expectations and budgets
have to be significantly revised in order to
design something that fits — a very difficult
On the other hand, if an architect hasn't designed
a library before, an outside consultants' program
is very helpful. For architects who specialize
in library design, the resulting data will often
be challenged and substantially revised as they
try to get back the generating ideas behind the
program in order to design a library that fits
the institution, the students, the staff, the
librarians, and the alumni.
Resources for Finding Architects
ProFile — Architects and Architecture
Searchable by city, state, type of facility
(e.g., library, court house, etc.), firm name,
and so on.
The American Institute of Architects
Union Internationale des Architectes or the
International Union of Architects
92 Member Sections
Society of Registered American Architects
Index and directory of over 20,000 architectural
Architects, Designers, Planners for Social
Architecture for Humanity
Search on "awards" or "news" or "people".
1 Clark, W.G., in Burdett, Richard and Wilfried
Wang, eds., 9H On Rigor, MIT Press. 1989. p.
2 Harris, Cyril M., ed., Dictionary of Architecture
and Construction, McGraw-Hill, 1975.
3 Duerk, Donna P., Architectural Programming — Information
Management for Design, John Wiley & Sons,
1993, p. 90.
4 "Innovations from the Giants 300," Building
Design & Construction, vol. 46, no. 7, July
2005, p. 60.
5 Knudsen, Mark from
"Brochure Gives City Folks the Poop on Country
Life; Transplants Warned About Farm Fumes," by
Robert Franklin, Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune,
published in Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Jan.
17, 2004, p. A.12.
6 Frangos, Alex, "Panel May Recommend Firefighter
Elevator," The Wall Street Journal (Eastern
edition), April 20, 2005, p. B.6.