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Understanding your Architect’s delicate balancing act

An old adage states that the customer is the king. What this adage does to many a supplier/client relationship is that it inadvertently paints the supplier as a villain. It makes it nearly impossible for the client to bother to see things from the point of view of the supplier. This becomes even more complicated when the supplier is “supplying” an intangible like a consultancy service. The “product” of a consultancy assignment is often a pile of papers in a report or, coming closer to home, to the architectural profession, a set of drawings.

It is probably time that clients got a peek into the lengths and depths architects go to in order to deliver on a client brief. This piece is an attempt to allow the client to walk a mile in the shoes of the architect so the “King”, the client, may understand what real value his “subject”, the architect, brings to the table for the fee he levies. Now, you see, the architect’s minimum fees are determined by legal statute, Cap 525 of the laws of Kenya. That sort of makes the financial discussion easier since there are no hidden numbers and, being board registered professions, clients do have recourse should any architect choose to write her own rules.

Looking into an Opaque Crystal Ball: To make what is a complicated journey easier to understand, let us start at the beginning. The start of a relationship between client and architect is usually a brief. The architect pretty much exists to satisfy the need of a client to retain a professional to design a building of some sort, be it residential or commercial in all the several categories buildings fall into – churches, schools, houses, shops, malls, offices, hotels, etc. At this stage, the architect pretty much acts as a seer, a psychologist, a therapist, needing to understand the mind state and dreams of the client beyond just the spaces in the building development requires. The architect may even need to go to the extreme of objectively advising the client against the development should the brief not match the realities of what is possible. Client building needs are complicated, and possibilities are pretty much as many as imaginations out there. Narrowing this focus is often nothing less than trying to look into an opaque crystal ball.

Weaver of Dreams: The client’s dreams have to be visualized by the architect and turned into drawings that can be understood while still reflecting the client’s dreams. It is often casually said that the work of an architect is to “draw floor plans”. Nothing is further from the truth. Floor plans, which are by definition “scale drawing of a horizontal section through a building at a given level” have never been sufficient to bring out the complex dreams our clients wish to be manifested. In effect, we are charged with the immense task of weaving complex dreams. We are charged with translating these dreams into a series of drawings, and even physical models that can sufficiently translate the client’s complex and often not quite resolved dreams. That resolution is part of our job as your architects.

A Jack of all trades, a Master of all: There is a good reason why the architect you commission has close to a decade of training under her belt; about six at a university and at least another two years working under an experienced board licensed architect, before seating board examinations that take close to a year between one applying to sit the examinations, preparing, seating the said examinations, passing and finally getting that much sought after board registration certificate. There is a good reason why Kenya still has less than one thousand registered architect in good standing. All this is for good reason as one needs extensive knowledge of human motivations, how spaces work, how materials work, how to build, and how other professions in the built environment work to be able to lead complex projects. The list goes on and on. For your architect to function and deliver optimally, he has to be a jack of all trades as well as a master of all. He does not have the luxury of hiding his mistakes and he has to always ensure that the saying “as safe as houses” remains true.

From Drawings to Buildings and Back Again: As said earlier, nothing could be further from the truth than saying that “architects draw floor plans”. I believe this myth has been effectively busted above, so let us move forward to ensure it is not even imagined again. Architectural drawings, no matter how beautiful, innovative or detailed, are of little use to you as the client, if they are not turned into the built form you dreamt of. That places another huge burden on the architect’s shoulders, already wary from hours of bending over the drawing board. Ensuring delivery of the final product, not just drawings, means supervising the other consultants. These consultants may include: the quantity surveyor who is the de facto project accountant and cost manager, the structural engineer who ensures the structure is sound and won’t collapse, services engineers who ensure water, electricity and sewage are all in working order, and other specialists who handle areas as vast as audiovisuals, information communication technology (ICT) solutions, heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC), smart building solutions, among several others.

All this is a case of the architect designing and expressing the same in the form of drawings, turning these drawings into buildings and being able to circle back again. Luckily computer aided design (CAD) and building information modeling (BIM) have advanced to the level where the BIM is now said to be the “twin” of the actual building.

All this complexity is guided by drawings that are the binding legal promise of the architect to the client. So, as much as it is the contractor who does the actual building construction, the client goes back to the drawings submitted by the architect to judge the efficacy of the venture. The client ultimately looks to the architect to deliver on promises to manifest her dreams.

Architecture is both art and science, two imperfect disciplines, somehow in perfect balance, to deliver a singular solution to an imperfect master in an imperfect world. A little latitude and empathy for the architect, the professional tasked with taking charge of this process, goes a long way in ensuring a better solution for all concerned.

The writer, Arch Tom Sitati, is a Registered Architect and MCIM Chartered Marketer. Email: sitati@lexicondesigns.co.ke