The "Personal Architect"
by Jack D. McClellan, A.I.A.
There was a time when the typical practice of architecture involved an architect dealing with a client on a one-to-one personal level, whether it was for the design of a residence or a large multi-purpose building. The pressures of time and apparent complexity of modern corporate life changed all that. After all, it was presumptuous of an individual to speak directly to a "corporation"; and so architectural firms followed the lead of the business world at large and structured themselves to present a "corporate image".
The problem was that a whole generation of architects grew up thinking that the only way to operate was to present a "corporate front". This eventually developed into a "corporate mentality" understanding of the design process. Soon, even those given to personal project attention felt they were not living up to the expectations of clients without the veil of project teams, in-house specialists, and "structured communications".
Much of this was rationalized by larger firms for their own internal needs of control and, more obviously, marketing strategy. If clients actually were aware that in a 100 person office their
$ 15 million project was typically being handled by only three or four individuals, what was the marketing edge over the more numerous small offices, or even the individual practitioner?
The truth is that with application of today's document production technology, projects in the $ 1 to 20 million range can often be more professionally undertaken by the single practitioner than by the larger firm. This can be true even when the architect is relatively new to the type of work, but has the proper lead time to research and learn in depth the needs of the client.
Communication is the primary element in every design process. Simplification of communication between the client and the architect becomes the key to producing designs which really suite the needs of the client. No amount of organization or technical skill can replace the advantage gained by direct exchange of information, ideas, and expectations between the client and the architect.
A few years ago, JDM Associates was a growing firm of 15, producing projects ranging from medical office buildings and schools to whole product lines for major home builders. I began to realize that I was beginning to manage people, not practice architecture. Speaking with principals of firms of 40 to 60 people, they admitted in confidence that while they maintained an illusion of closeness to the projects for which they were responsible, their day to day work rarely consisted of more than 20% of their personal attention being given to the commissions underway. The majority of their time was invested in personnel management, promotion and marketing, and what they called client "soothing"; all while trying to maintain some standard of quality in the final product of the firm.
The search then began for a way to get back to architecture as a personal commitment to each project. It became apparent that most firms adopted computerization grudgingly, and only when pushed by the hype of the competition to do so. The failure rate for these investments was high, because the goals were not to free the architects to be architects and work with clients, but to cut personnel expenses, gain even more business, and produce a marketing "show" for current and future clients. It was, and still is not uncommon for architectural firms to "sell with computers and produce by hand". That is, the future client is given only as much computer aided design as he is willing to pay extra for or demand, but the bulk of production is done by hand. That is not universally true, but more common than most would like to admit. This is often a result of the limitations of the software chosen. The corporate mind will chose "safe", well known products before choosing the most productive ones. (The old "nobody ever got fired for choosing IBM" mentality.)
In 1984 I read a fascinating article about an architect in California who was regularly producing eight and ten story office buildings as a sole practitioner. His office consisted of a single room with computers and monitors and printers surrounding a central console. No secretary, no staff, no drafting desks, just personal service taken to a technically higher level. I thought that was a little extreme, but it caught my imagination. I decided then and there to try and be the "Personal Architect" my clients wanted with the use of state-of-the-art technology.
We experimented with various systems for several years. We went through the "Intergraph stage" and the "Autocad stage" and finally found the right system for our needs. We found that Arris was a system that we could use either daily or on a casual basis without constant reference to manuals. We found that in a week or two we could have a new employee producing work productively without taking a course and without learning a lot of jargon unrelated to the tasks at hand.
We have not produced a set of documents by hand for over nine years. I have more time for my family. I have more time to get to know my clients and their needs. I also have fewer nightmares over what so-and-so might have left out of a set of plans that will end in a court case. My clients know that I am the one controlling their work and they know I am available when they need to communicate information, or make changes, or just talk about what they really want from their house, their warehouse, or their next school.
I believe in the concept of the "Personal Architect". I believe the sole practitioner has a viable place in the world of "Design-Build", "Fast-Track", and "Value Engineering". I believe there are plenty of clients out there who want the services they can receive only from someone who has the skills, experience, and technology to give them attention as their "Personal Architect".
Copyright© 1998 JDM Associates Architects/Planners