Which comes first, the chicken or the egg? In my 35-year career as an architect, an analogous question has pervaded the residential design and construction industry. Who should the consumer hire first; the architect or the builder?
With the advent and popularity of the design/build project delivery trend in the past 20 years, construction companies in the commercial and institutional realm have established the lead in being hired first while the architectural firms are hired second. The same has been true even longer in the residential design and construction arena in this country, where it’s the homebuilder that most often gets approached first, regardless of price range.
To subjectively consider the basic question, let’s take a look at what defines an architect and what defines a builder. The majority of the public might think of an architect as a skilled professional who possesses the education and ability to produce a competent set of drawings and specifications for a custom home. They would be right, to a point. I would define the skilled professional who produces a competent set of construction documents as a technician. These individuals are an important part of the architectural practice and many are licensed architects and some have their own firms, but they don’t define what an architect is.
An architect is not a technician but rather an extremely creative person who can visualize and organize function and spaces. A good residential architect can harmonize relationships between spaces and activities within a given site, optimize good circulation that flows gracefully from one space to another, and delight, inspire and give enjoyment to its occupants and users through the use of three-dimensional volumes and artistic applications of colors and textures to enhance overall aesthetics.
A builder is an individual who has acquired knowledge of construction, materials and systems, and can sequence construction phases with proper chronology to implement a set of plans and specifications with quality, within budget and in a timely manner. A builder typically is much more technically inclined than he is a visionary.
There’s certainly much more to being an architect or a homebuilder. Each profession requires a reasonable level of business acumen to successfully run a business or practice, including marketing, working with clients and managing others. Striking, however, is that the skill set required for a builder is largely attainable at random by individuals who apply tenacity and dedication to the trade, whereas the creative architect most often displays an innate talent for design and a predisposition born of right-brain dominance. Mechanics of architecture can be learned but the command of creative expression is foundational for the successful architect.
The reality is that the number of naturally creative and talented residential architects in our professional pool is relatively small, and consequently their services are expensive and can be afforded only by the elite 2 percent of consumers. However, with the pervasive impact of websites like Houzz and Pinterest, and programming rich in design content like HGTV, Bravo and the like, a vast audience is being reached as design becomes commoditized. The small creative pool is finding a much expanded market among consumers as their exceptional work shines light on the high value of quality design.
Chicken or egg?
These talented architects are the future leaders of the design/build residential industry. So here’s my answer to the paradoxical question; The egg comes first. To borrow an analogy from previous articles and presentations I’ve given on design/build, the architect is the golden goose that lays the golden eggs. Many successful homebuilders have recognized this and sought to form an association with one or more talented design architects or hired one or more to create great design/build firms. The same collaboration is now beginning to happen within the commercial and institutional design/build industry as construction companies take the lead.
It has been the construction/homebuilding industry dominating the market over the past several decades, but I see light at the end of the tunnel for residential architects. It might not happen in my generation, but I can see it coming to fruition for the talented minority within the next few decades, especially if organizations like the American Institute of Architects continue to support this talented group of creatives who embrace the residential path.