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Group 41 San Francisco Architects - Modern Architecture

Architect as Developer. Why so many fail.

I am routinely asked why I am able to stand so comfortably with one foot in each of two territories: “High Design Architect” and “Real Estate Developer”.  Many people view these two disciplines as mutually exclusive.  It amazes me that, even with my extensive schooling in what are considered “prestigious” architectural institutions, many of my architect colleagues think that real estate developers are the lowest form of pond scum, and the developers I frequently deal with have the strong feeling that architects cannot be trusted within ten miles of their projects.

This intrinsic disconnect is at the core of the failure of many architect/developer client relationships.  There is such a deeply rooted distrust and cynicism between the two that, even before they begin a relationship, they are doomed.  This extends all the way through the relationship, and the challenge of working together slides ever further downhill.  The architect’s defenses go up, the builder starts pointing fingers at the “substandard” set of drawings, the developer/owner thinks he is getting taken advantage of by both parties, and eventually everyone ends up furious at best, and suing each other at worst.

I believe the genesis of this problem is in the age-old nature of the constructs behind each of the practices of the builder and architect.  These paradigms, which date back as far as 600 to 1000 years, have become albatrosses around all our necks, and have resulted in only continuing to mire us in the old bad habits.  The traditional education of the architect, which dates to the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris around the 1860’s, but in fact has its roots in medieval stonemasonry teaching techniques, is based on the notion that the “Master Architect” is the one with all the knowledge, and it is his or her responsibility to “direct” the work of the builder.  As this has evolved, the American Institute of Architects has stepped in to mediate, beginning sometime in the 20th century’s litigious environment. Nowadays we simply have been unable to sustain that model, and architects have had to step outside of the process to become “third party observers” both legally and contractually.  If you read an architect’s contract today, he or she will not claim direct responsibility for the actual construction in any way whatsoever.

The builder, on the other hand, who comes out of a proud and centuries old tradition of craft, was typically not a highly **educated**, but rather a highly **skilled** tradesman, trained through years of journeyman and apprentice practice.  His pride came from the elegance of his craft and the beauty of his product.  He innately mistrusted the architect as an interloper who wanted to impose a different design sensibility than his own, onto his work.  That historic wariness has evolved into a built-in adversarial relationship between the architect and builder in our modern construction environment.  Even in the most gentlemanly versions of these arrangements, there is a deep and abiding lack of trust.

The only workable solution to this problem is to invent a brand new paradigm for this relationship.  Since both traditions are deeply rooted in history and steeped in tradition, it takes truly enlightened parties on both sides, as well as an unusual client to transform the nature of these connections.  In fact, it is the role of developer that most easily affords the opportunity for this freedom.  This is the very reason that I, personally, am able to be successful at both creating “High Design”, while still acting responsibly in a developer environment.  Of course dollars matter.  We operate in a free market economy where the cost is **the** primary driver.  But making high design and being a developer are not fundamentally mutually exclusive.  They can coexist happily, and particularly in a real estate climate like San Francisco’s where the unnaturally restricting forces of anti-development drive prices continually higher and housing stock continually tighter, it is possible to do both.

In a truly collaborative environment, much more of the design is allowed to flow to the builder’s side than typically would be even dreamed of by the architect.  Because of the litigiousness of our culture, the fear surrounding this option keeps most practicing architects from letting go of any of this responsibility.  In fact, this is a system that is currently in place, and has worked amazingly well in Japan for decades.  I lived and practiced this approach for five years, and was delighted and amazed to see it in actual working practice.  Designers are on the jobsite every day, working in partnership with the builders to devise solutions to the myriad of design challenges that simply cannot be addressed in drawings.  It’s an enormously efficient and cost-effective way to approach design.  Additionally, it allows much more flexibility and creativity along the way.

The essence of collaboration is not for everyone to say “We work collaboratively in our company” or some other such marketing buzz-talk.  Where the rubber hits the road is when both architect and builder really stretch and flex to each others’ needs, without even thinking about change orders, pointing fingers, finding fault, or looking for blame.  The change is organic, and at the absolutely most fundamental level.  It doesn’t work any other way.


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