Last week’s article discussed working with an architect who is dictating how a contractor should do business. If you haven’t read it yet, you’ll want to before reading this. Click here for “It’s Your Business“.

Believe it or not, we have friends who are architects, and one of them sent a thoughtful response. It’s a valuable perspective and we’re reprinting it here with his permission. By providing background, Michael Beck helps us understand how the relationship between architects and contractors has developed over the years.

All of this ties into how our business has been and is changing (and not in a good way either). Because my firm is involved in all these different aspects, I might be able to shed a little light from my several decades of experience.

With the advent of everything online, business as a whole has changed and is further changing. It changed for architects between the first and second world wars. Previous to WWII, the architect was the central figure. The client went to the architect to have a house or structure built. The architect was ‘the guy’ from the beginning to the end. The client had that central focus with one person. Architects were well paid and respected then. With WWII, building almost stopped, essentially the upper end was about all and materials were very difficult to obtain.

However, with the end of the war on the horizon and all the troops returning home with renewed family values and wishes, a plan was needed to be able to quickly produce the hundreds of thousands of affordable homes for the troops. The old, ‘one at a time’ handcrafted way would not work. Not enough architects to go around. Not enough time. The architects were asleep at the helm.

Business people came up with the concept of basic home designs that could easily have front elevation changes made but still the same house. ‘Builders’ would be instructed on how to construct these simplified homes. Land would be purchased, a ‘Developer’ would plan the sub-division, put in the road and the infrastructure and get ready to sell to the Builders. Real Estate agents would be the sales people who would facilitate the deal. This greatly simplified the process and assured thousands of homes available quickly for the families about to create the ‘baby boom’. Well, it all worked. Architectural design suffered but most people did not know the difference or even care. Ironically, those houses back then were even good quality compared to what happens today.

But, this short term, interim plan (if you will ), became the new standard. The old way of the architect being ‘the guy’ essentially was gone. They lost their ‘power’. Over the decades, they have been trying to reverse the process back to the previous.

However, with the internet everywhere and people becoming more of an educated consumer, also with the introduction of usable Automated CAD programs, artists became draftsman and the residential designer was born. Far more houses are designed and built by residential designers than licensed architects. And many of them are good.

Further, the price of everything is being driven down. It would seem their goal is to make everything a ‘commodity’. That way they can simply obtain bids on a given commodity and get the lowest price by shopping. This happened with appliances, automobiles, insurance, furniture, building materials, on and on. Now the architectural drawing has become a commodity, the construction trades are a commodity (faceless, nameless robots that perform the labor function), real estate is a commodity shopped on-line, HGTV and DIY (not to mention the Home Depot / Lowes free seminars), in theory, de-mystify it all. I am surprised WalMart and Target are not yet in building materials. They are in groceries now.

My firm is design /build. As an architect, I meet with the clients, develop the house they desire and then put together the architectural plans as well as the construction plans we build by. I am also a construction management team point person throughout the project (s). I analogize myself as the old time hardware store with everything for everything and the knowledgeable people to make sure the customer gets what they need (and what I sell is quality made, USA or European, not from China). How many of those are left? How many new Home Depot / Lowe’s do we have? Even paint has gotten dumbed down..

Of course, quality is always important, but so is design (to me). Good taste has become less important, particularly with all the transitional and contemporary designs now. People want the ‘good design’ but do not want to have to pay for that. What is ‘right or wrong’? Is beauty in the eye of the beholder?

Back to the architect who is suddenly taking on the role of becoming the project manager / construction manager. They believe that all products and labor are equal (ala CSI). The labor to install is a commodity and there is no need to pay a penny more than required, after all, it is all the same. This is pervasive throughout all aspects of the construction process. Buy the least expensive everything, save the buck. After all, they are supposed to be guiding the process so the owner is protected. This is an effort to provide a value added to the client (and also to regain their lost ground). It also allows them to help ‘choose’ the companies they are comfortable with (note, there is an opportunity to be had there over time if careful).

The really large part being missed here is that the architect of old was a master builder as well. He actually did know about all aspects of construction and design. None of that is taught in school these decades. The architects do not apprentice with a GC and many details they draw simply do not work in the field. They do not have this knowledge. They are however, becoming commodities brokers.

They watch what costs are and what houses go for and then parrot the cost per foot of building. They can not discern the best practices and the highest levels of quality. They are not on the job. Unfortunately, many builders are not on the job either as they should be to properly manage the project. Subs are left to complete the job at their discretion. We have seen a dumbing down of practice and quality has suffered.

Much of the workforce in the Atlanta area are not multi generation, decades skilled craftsman. They are willing to work cheap, likely come from a poor and depressed country and learned a trade in the states just a few years ago (usually not properly either). The work is at best barely passable. Houses are not built as well anymore. With the tough economy, the budget minded are even more aggressive. The only group that has prospered in this business model are the lawyers who promote litigation of all concerned.

For us ‘old school’ guys where we really care, do it right and simply want to be paid a fair price, we will have to find a way to still get work in this new business model. As your article mentioned, it is frustrating and it does mean choosing to not bid on or do certain projects to prevent someone else from establishing your firm’s margins and pricing. Unfortunately, I see this trend not only continuing but ramping up as well. We will need to plan a strategy and execute that strategy which allows consumers to make a choice (or at least consider such).

I think Michael hit the nail on the head with two comments:

  1. Architects (and too many others) view construction as a commodity. They believe that purchasing construction services is like buying a car, you’ll get the same thing no matter what dealer you visit, the only difference is the price. I discuss this fallacy in “Markup & Profit Revisited“, pages 104-106.
  2. Architects used to know about construction and design, based on actual experience. That’s not the case any longer.

As I mentioned in the comments last week, architects today would be wise to partner with contractors. Together, an architect/contractor team could design the project the home or building owner wants, within their budget. It would require a new mindset, especially on the part of the architect who might believe, based on their years of schooling, that their input is more valuable than the contractor.

I’d love to hear what you think.

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