How the Public Perceives the Architect

September 19, 2009

Note: This article appeared in the June 2009 edition of the Mid Atlantic Real Estate Journal and the August 2009 edition of the Mann Report.

By Jerome Leslie Eben, AIA, PP, CID, NFPA

When I am at a gathering and meeting people for the first time, it is inevitable that they will ask, “What do you do for a living?” When I say that I am an architect, their response goes something like, “I considered being an architect, but couldn’t deal with the math!” When I ask if they know any architects, they reply, “There are the two Franks, but I can’t remember their last names…and wasn’t George Constanza an architect?”

Well, the two Franks are Wright and Gehry, and no, George (a fictional character on the television sitcom “Seinfeld”) was not an architect, but often claimed to be when he wanted to make a good first impression.

“Americans don’t care much about architecture,” wrote Andrea Oppenheimer Dean, a frequent writer about architecture, in a 1999 article in Architectural Record. “They perceive it merely as a product, a form of shelter, or an indication of status, rather than as art or an expression of culture.” But in fact, Americans — as well as people from around the world — should care about architecture: architects shape the very existence of the environment, making it more functional, vibrant and livable.

Despite George Constanza’s grasping for status, the use of an architect is not merely a status symbol. In fact, the use of an architect on a building project is paramount because buildings do not exist in isolation. A building is more than the spaces you see. To make them smart, safe and sustainable, it takes the skill to coordinate all the systems that make a building work, including structural support, supply and drainage of water, heating, air conditioning and power.

Architecture has existed in one form or another since the beginning of time, but it has only been recognized as a profession in the United States since the mid-1800s. Not coincidentally, the importance of the architect rose with the onset of the Industrial Revolution, since rapid urban growth was followed by the requirement for safe buildings that protected the lives of their inhabitants and added to their quality of life, whether at home or at work.

When I taught architecture at Essex County College in Newark, N.J., my first lecture was always on an example of the risk of poor safety standards: the tragic 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in Lower Manhattan in which 148 garment workers, many of them female immigrants, perished because of an inadequate exits and other fire protection safeguards. The fire is considered the worst industrial disaster in the history of New York.

The architect of today has from five to eight years of formal education in the art and science of building design. Only architects are trained as generalists to combine practical, technical and artistic skills and to understand the entire building process. The architect’s education is followed by a three-year apprenticeship (internship) under the close supervision of a licensed architect. The aspiring architect must then pass a rigorous state licensing examination.

As licensed professionals, architects play a significant role in the construction of the built environment. In New Jersey, the membership of AIA-NJ, the professional organization for architects, is nearly 2,000 strong. AIA-NJ is a chapter and region of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), headquartered in Washington, D.C., which has a membership of 86,000. We are the go-to professionals who provide a vast range of services to clients on many different types of buildings nationwide.

There are many reasons why individuals and businesses choose to build or renovate. They may need more space, a new look to benefit their business, a facility overhaul to save on operational costs or an addition to revamp or renew their building. The need may also come from an institution — for example, a new research center that allows scientists to develop a medical breakthrough or a hospital or school that provides for the community’s needs.

But whatever the reason for building, retaining an architect is a necessity for any project, small or large. Architects bring true value in the form of unique problem-solving skills, as well as extensive knowledge and training. Architects help clients understand why certain designs are a benefit and other options may not work for them. They also help clients find a building solution that serves their objectives, needs and wants, and that is completed on time and within budget.

The architect is the client’s expert resource, as well as the intermediary between their dream and the eventual reality.

It is important to retain an architect prior to starting a project of any size. One reason for bringing in the architect early on is zoning, especially in New Jersey where there are more than 500 local zoning ordinances that require expert interpretation. What works in one community may not work in another. In addition to zoning expertise, the architect has the skills to analyze and study the site to determine if it’s right for what the client has in mind.

And these days, with “green” being the watchword, the architect can help the client achieve a greater level of sustainability through design choices. Responsible planning thus enhances human comfort, conserves energy and resources and respects the indigenous qualities of a place.

In conclusion, the public should recognize that there is no advantage to forgoing an architect’s expertise. The client brings challenges to the table, but unlike the fictional George, New Jersey’s AIA architects can handle them. Indeed, the architect will help homeowners and businesses avoid potentially expensive “do-it-yourself” pitfalls as well as develop creative solutions that will possibly allow them to do more with less money and in less time.

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