The 21st Century Architect

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What is the architect's role in the 21st century, and how is it different from his or her role in the past? I ask myself this question every day as I take on new commissions and am charged with the design and construction oversight of new and renovated buildings. To speak of what an architect does today, one must look at the architect's role in the past and the definition of architecture.

"The word architecture goes back through Latin to the Greek for 'Master Builder.' The ancients not only invented the word, they gave it its clearest and most comprehensive definition. According to Vitruvius—the Roman writer whose Ten Books on Architecture is the only surviving ancient architectural treatise: 'Architecture is the union of firmness, commodity and delight; it is, in other words, at once a structural, practical, and visual art. Without solidity, it is dangerous; without usefulness, it is merely large-scale sculpture; and without beauty, it is not more than utilitarian construction.'" (Architecture from Pre-History to Postmodernism, Trachtenberg, 1986)

Vitruvius summed up what architecture is thousands of years ago, and the definition has not really changed over the years, but what does an architect do to create architecture? Historically, he or she designs and supervises the construction of buildings. Is it that simple?

I recently received a box of my college books from my parents when they cleaned out their basement, and while going through it, I came across what I thought at the time was a pun that I remembered many of my fellow students passing around and pinning up on bulletin boards. It read something like this:

"An architect is someone who starts out knowing nothing about everything and as time goes on learns less and less about more and more. An engineer is someone who starts out knowing everything about nothing and as time goes on learns more and more about less and less. A contractor is someone who starts out knowing everything about everything and as time goes on lands up knowing nothing about nothing due to his association with architects and engineers."

When I was in college, I thought it was funny, but now, as a fairly accomplished architect, I understand the meaning of the pun to be true.

An architect, in the traditional sense of the word, designs buildings. But he or she does not do it alone; rather, the architect manages the efforts of a collection of design professionals. Typically the players on a building design team will include the architect and an array of engineers including, but not limited to, civil, structural, mechanical, electrical, environmental, traffic, and soils engineers.

Historically, engineers are experts in one discipline; they design building systems rather than buildings as whole structures. For example, one rarely finds an electrical engineer who can also design a building's structural system. In other words, an engineer is someone who knows everything about his or her specific discipline—who knows "everything about nothing." It is the architect who needs to know a little bit about what each engineer does—or "nothing about everything"—in order to coordinate their work, translate it into a graphic form, and work with the contractor to interpret the design intent as the contractor constructs the building.

So the modern role of the practicing architect is to manage the design process by coordinating the work of other design professionals and assisting the contractor in translating design intent during construction. At least that has been the role of the architect over the past half century or so. But what about today and the future?

Remember the pun "As time goes on, the architect learns less and less about more and more?" Today's architect has to continue to learn less and less about more and more. Today's architects not only advise their clients throughout the design and construction process of building, but they also advise them on how legal, accounting, banking, and micro- and macroeconomics play roles in the building process. The design team they manage or work with expands beyond design professionals to include attorneys and accountants and others.

Architects have to know a little bit about several areas of the law. Obtaining entitlements to build or renovate a new building becomes more difficult every day. An architect needs to understand and speak intelligently about environmental and zoning laws to properly assist his or her client and other members of the development team, such as land-use attorneys, in strategizing site-plan applications. The construction of a building may include multiple contracts, such as land purchase, lease agreements, construction contracts, etc. So an architect needs to also understand and speak intelligently about real estate and construction contract law.

Architects also have to know a little bit about accounting. Today's tax laws provide many incentives to real estate owners, including tax credits, accelerated depreciation schedules, and pilot programs for real estate taxes. They work with their clients and their clients' accountants in analyzing and separating project costs to take advantage of these tax-saving opportunities through the use of cost-segregation studies.

The knowledge doesn't end there, as architects also have to know a little bit about banking and how the capital markets and interest rates affect the building process. Architects have to be familiar with the traditional sources for debt financing on construction projects. They have to be able to assist their clients in understanding how to value a property beyond the cost of land and construction and incorporate income into the equation so that a client can get maximum leverage on borrowing. They have to understand banking rules and regulations as they relate to construction draws to pay contractors and the financing of both soft and hard development costs. They also have to understand the differences and timelines associated with construction versus permanent financing. Finally, they need to be aware of not only debt sources for construction but also equity. They have to understand the difference between a REIT and a real estate opportunity fund and their overall goals.

Architects also have to know a little bit about economics on both a micro and macro level. The costs of labor and materials in a local region are vastly affected by regional and world events. An architect needs to understand the dynamics of these issues while being able to respond to them when designing a building. For example, China has been experiencing rapid growth and increased world demand on steel in unprecedented measures, causing the cost of steel to soar over the last several years.

An architect needs to evaluate the use of alternative structural materials, such as concrete or wood, to respond to worldwide steel supply and demand. On a national level, there is a shortage of roofing materials and plywood that is being rapidly consumed in the Gulf Coast region to respond to the rebuilding efforts required as a result of Hurricane Katrina. Locally, there has been a labor shortage for private projects due to the extensive amount of government infrastructure upgrade projects, such as the New Jersey School Construction Program.

To summarize, the 21st century architect designs buildings and oversees the construction process, but he or she also assists clients with the entire development process, including land entitlements, contracts, financing, and evaluating the effects of micro- and macroeconomic factors on development costs.

What will the future bring? An architect who continues to learn "less and less about more and more," of course.

About the Author:

Matthew B. Jarmel, AIA, MBA, is a registered architect in 11 states and is board certified by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards. He holds a Bachelor of Architectural degree from the New Jersey School of Architecture at NJIT and a Master of Business Administration degree with concentrations in real estate development and urban land use from Rutgers University. Jarmel's expertise as an architect extends beyond traditional design strengths to include knowledge of local zoning regulations, real estate contracts, and financing. He is a principal of Jarmel Kizel Architects and Engineers, Inc., located in Livingston, NJ. The firm is recognized as one of the regional leaders in the industry providing a full array of architectural, engineering, and interior design services for both public and private projects in the retail, industrial, corporate office, healthcare, and multifamily housing industries.
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