is what it is

Why be an architect – ‘it is what it is’…

Dec 12, 2019
  • Article by Kate Harbison

When I try to question the architectural world, the response I usually get from mentors is ‘it is what it is’…

Earlier this year, I sat for registration. In my interview I was asked why a client should hire an architect, in place of a building designer or the like. I replied a prescribed and studied statement, but in actuality, I honestly do not know. 

As a young architect I frequently ponder my relevance. What is my value in the changing landscape of the built environment? And ultimately is this career worth it if I can do everything within my power as an architect but circumstances prevail, and I am still found liable within a failing system. 

The title of ‘architect’ projects romantic connotations of authority and artistry, but for a creative field the architectural process is particularly monotonous. We put our faith in design innovation and are neglecting change in the delivery of our projects. 

As such there is a growing tendency towards alternative designers who are evolving service models architects are unable or unwilling to provide. It would appear the legislation surrounding the architectural profession is so preoccupied with who can or can’t be named ‘architect’ that we are missing this divergence. 

To a growing number our design degrees are inconsequential, especially when someone with a social media following and a connection in construction can start a design company and deliver a similar service as an architect. 

Perhaps this is confined to the residential and fitout market for the moment, but the threat is made no less plausible when it is considered that in New South Wales an architect is only legally required in the planning and design of multi-residential buildings. In reality Kim Kardashian could design our next Opera House. 

That said, I don’t believe new laws and increased regulations are the answer. Restricting these alternative services doesn’t address the issue that some people just don’t want to use an architect, and as a profession we need to reflect on why. 

It is not only in small projects that the industry is moving away from architects and to neglect this change is not only naïve, but dangerous. 

While we are taught to memorise traditional ABICs (Australian Building Industry Contracts) they are rarely used in place of Design and Constructs, which predominantly favour the builder and restrict ongoing architectural engagement with end users and clients. This prevalence of these agreements is a direct threat to the relevance of architects. 

Decisions made under duress

When the Lacrosse building fire ruling found the architect proportionally liable in February of this year, I was nose deep in the acumen notes on risk, insurance and contracts and, from my studies, could not fathom how this decision was reached. 

The architect was apportioned 25 percent in damages for the incident as they ultimately approved an alternative product put forth by the builder. In my young career I have frequently come across these requests: to change a specification for something more affordable, with a better lead-time and often with little regard to quality or design integrity. These decisions are demanded under duress and the pretext of avoiding delays and very rarely is the design team afforded the time to enact due diligence. 

In this moment the architect and consultants became scapegoats. It reignited the burning question, is architecture really worth it? If our ability to claim the title of architect rests on our capacity to administer contracts, doesn’t the existence of contract agreements like Design and Construct negate that right? 

When we hold no power to oversee the design integrity we spend years studying for, how different are we to alternative designers, and are we destined to become an insurance policy for builders and developers to pass blame? 

In this era, why be an architect? 

Kate Harbison was one of the first architects to sign up to attend the inaugural Business of Architecture and Design conference (BoAD19). Please continue the conversation by posting your thoughts below.

This opinion piece first appeared in AR162.

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