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In this profession, I often run across a common misconception, that of an architect's primary job consisting of designing houses. Unfortunately, I have to disabuse people of that notion, and explain that typically, houses (at least in the U.S.) are designed and built by contractors.

For instance, in the State of Tennessee, an Architect is not required to be involved in the design of a house unless it is over 5,000 square feet in area, greater than two stories (a basement typically does not count as a story), or is to house more than two families.

What this means, is that the majority of the housing stock in the U.S. has had little to no input from an architect. Instead, they are typically stock plans, of the types you find in the checkout stand in Lowes or Home Depot, that the builders have figured out how to build as cheaply and as quickly as possible.

They are laid out in subdivisions that are optimized to squeeze the most number of houses into the least amount of land regardless of the orientation of the land or natural features, and they take no consideration of how the house is sited on the lot. They feel that the best way to build is to bulldoze everything into a moonscape, especially when the lot is tree covered, claiming that it is too hard to construct a house when there are trees around. Then they plant spindly sticks that will start actually providing shade in 10 years or so, if they survive.

The houses are not placed on the site with any respect to where the sun is, nor do the builders care. If they use a more expensive heating and air unit to compensate, then that just means that the overall cost rises, and ultimately, their profit.

Now, the above is not to say that all builders are like this, but when you look at the corporations that build the largest number of new housing in the U.S., and then you look at their product, you realize that the design decisions were made by the bean-counters trying to lower the cost of the "product" and good design has no bearing.

What is it that an architect brings to the table that is missing from this equation?

First and foremost, an architect is hired to act in the homeowner's best interest.

They are supposed to meet with the homeowner and help them determine what they need, what they want, explain what needs and wants combined do to costs, and then turn these elements into a functional, aesthetically pleasing design, that will not only meet building codes but often times exceed them, and be economical to build. They will work with the owner to take the initial design and adjust it to be the perfect blend of wants and needs, then once the design is set, proceed into creating the construction documents which will allow the concept to be built as designed. These include not only the nuts and bolts of how things go together, but also include written specifications of all the disparate elements that make up the design, from stone, brick or wood, to showers, tubs, faucets, counter tops, and light fixtures. The architect is required by law to keep abreast of the latest technology and techniques in the construction industry, which means that he can ensure that the design utilizes the best solutions for the homeowner.

Once the construction documents are complete, the architect should perform construction administrative services. This is where they visit the site and work with the contractor to ensure that the house is built according to the construction documents. When on the building site, the architect is there acting on the homeowner's behalf, using his knowledge of construction to ensure this happens.

Of course, the few paragraphs above do not even begin to convey all that an architect can do for a client. There also will be MANY people that will claim that an Architect is a waste of money. They will claim that an architect doesn't know how a house goes together, and that they produce shoddy drawings, leaving the contractor to fix the mistakes. They will claim that the architect is wrong with his design, because it is not "the way we have always done it."

I will admit that these can be issues. However, I ask you, would you go to an eye doctor for a hernia operation? Architecture is as varied a profession as the medical field, and has just as many specialists.

All of the above potential drawbacks can be avoided simply by selecting a competent residential architect, and remember that you get what you pay for. If you chose your architect based on who has the lowest fee, you are setting yourself up for sub-par performance of their duties, as they will either not have the experience or need to cut corners to avoid their loosing money on the job, or they are so desperate for work that they will work for peanuts just to pay the bills for one more month (even though the job will take much longer than that to complete.)

Also, although a good commercial architect is capable of designing your house, the conscientious ones will often recommend a colleague in their firm or the local community that specializes in residential work, unless they want to take it on as a favor to you. Trust me, they are most likely NOT making a profit on you, but are working to keep a valued customer happy.

For those who's contractor tries to persuade you not to use an architect, just remember this; a typical contractor wants to get the job done quickly and cheaply, then move on to the next job. A competent architect will ensure that your house is built correctly, and according to the plans.

I know I'll get some heat from the building trades for this, but I stand by my assertions: If you want the house of your dreams built correctly, hire a competent, residential architect to turn your wishes into reality and oversee the construction. The money will be well spent.

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tnrkitect - Musings of an Unconventional Mind

June 2011

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