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Magazines > Searcher > October 2005
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Vol. 13 No. 9 — October 2005
Do I Need an Architect Or Not?: Some Things You Should Know
by Mary Colette Wallace, Associate A.I.A., President, Wallace Research Group

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."  

"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 enough.

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 []. 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 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 built design.

"Quality is never an accident; it is always the result of intelligent effort." –John Ruskin     

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. Why? Because: 

• 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 consultants.

• Architects coordinate consultants and their work.

• 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 designer.

• 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 else hired: 

• When you are the head librarian of a company or corporation having a new headquarters building designed.

• 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.

Library Design Architect: Sam Miller

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 Library.

What would you say is most important for clients to know about architects before working with one?

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 firm?

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 details.

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 to tears. 

For you, what is the best part of working with clients?

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.

Library Design Architect: Geoffrey Freeman

I interviewed architect Geoffrey Freeman of Shepley, Bulfinch, Richardson & Abbott of Boston, Mass., about designing libraries for Duke University, Rice University, and Lake Forest College

What is different about university libraries?

Library as learning commons — a kind of microcosm of the campus. As you come into the building, there's
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 to design?

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 asset.

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]

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 task.

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 Firm Directory

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

Architects USA

Index and directory of over 20,000 architectural firms

Architects, Designers, Planners for Social Responsibility

Architecture for Humanity

Architecture Week

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. 104.

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.


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