About the Author
Karin Payson is a LEED-accredited architect, licensed in California and New York, with over 25 years experience in planning, design and project management.
Just how valuable is an expert?
I was shocked when another architect recently told me of his firm’s latest commission – to design a brand new building to replace another brand new building. Yes, you read that right. What amazed me was the client’s name, a world-class institution with a huge campus. Hoping to avoid architectural fees, the trustees had hired a design-build contractor instead of an architect; and they were very unhappy with the result. “Spending a fortune to save money” happens frequently enough in the residential world, but I had never heard of a presumably sophisticated organization making such a blunder.
My fellow architects all think we’re the least-valued members of the team. Something akin to a dispensable luxury. At best a necessary evil. Always a cost to be minimized. And our clients all seem to believe that if only they had the time, they could “design it” themselves, maybe hiring a draftsman to handle those pesky permit drawings. Truth is, architects have all been through years of extremely specialized training, capped off by a long internship and a 30-hour licensing exam. Our specialty is to compose three-dimensional spaces and invoke the latest building technologies while layering in truly ephemeral ideas, like light and shadow, indigenous materials and the needs of social interaction. We bring these fuzzy ideas to life, following a project from its infancy through construction. As functional and artful as our work may be, I guess we have done a poor job of describing our value to the public.
A good architect, like a professional writer, disappears in the wonder of the experience.
But maybe we shouldn’t be surprised when our best work seems effortless. Anyone can write, but a great writer crafts not just the story but a new experience. You believe it. It’s real. Like a writer, the architect is telling the client’s story through the design of the building. It starts with divining the owner’s objectives. For a private residence it might be personal comfort and taste. A developer will look for profit. An institution may be concerned about locating people and their activities. Whatever the objective, an architect has to deliver it within the realities of budget, topography, soil conditions, local codes, the laws of gravity and yes, politics. Ultimately, the building, like your favorite book, leaves a lasting impression. In our best projects our clients find exactly what they have asked for in a form they had never imagined. And they live happily ever after.
Set in Stone
Figuring out the best use of a building site is a game of three-dimensional chess. The winner finds the best solution for mediating a dizzying array of constraints – and possibilities. Even if a property is in the right neighborhood profile, has good zoning and is endowed with public transit, one should consider all its other qualities. What a shame it would be to miss opportunities like access to the outdoors or great indoor light. Yet it happens all the time!
Unfortunately, poor site placement is a rather permanent problem. Most of our clients come to us with buildings they’ve recently acquired, ready to begin a significant project, thinking we can do magic with their diamond-in-the-rough. I often wish they had called sooner. The fact is, if a building is poorly sited in the first place, the fix may be too expensive.
Even rooms have to get along with each other.
An excellent floor plan can be as elegant as the most beautiful object. It’s all about establishing priorities, mapping out every (cubic) inch in advance, and allowing for the unknown. Adjacencies matter. Initial design studies focus on establishing all elements of an owner’s program, and placing them in space, in relation to each other. As specialists in spatial thinking, architects can visualize an area in three dimensions and anticipate the impact of the myriad conditions of a project on form, space, circulation, and light.
In our residential practice we have often made major floor plan changes to existing houses that were designed and built without architects. Those houses have typically had plenty of eye candy but suffered from relationship problems—the rooms weren’t getting along at all. I have seen huge kitchens with no place to work, tortured but massive master baths, and long, dark corridors. Fixing these problems is expensive. Even if we ultimately expand such houses we also make them bigger from within by giving rooms more rational form, improving proximity where it is needed, and allowing natural light to reach deep inside.
Hire an expert!
The architect is the only professional specially trained to design the places in which people live and work, and to coordinate all aspects of a project from design through construction. That unique ability to assimilate so many programmatic, technical and regulatory factors with vision actually saves money, and produces a building that really delivers.
Bottom line: An architect may see possibilities and pitfalls that an owner does not. So, it’s wise to ask one to help evaluate a property before the purchase contract’s inspection period has expired.