Architects Can Be Leaders

History is witness to the many ups and downs we go through in our lifetime. Wars, terrorism, natural disasters, accidents, etc. have always been part of the society. These devastating natural or human acts, although disastrous, bring the affected people together. The inevitability of rebuilding communities follows. That’s when architects are needed the most.

Not very far behind security and medical professionals, architects are the leaders that make a positive difference in the society through rebuilding or uniting efforts. Although architecture can at times be a cut-throat profession with architects competing to win the limited amount of paid work available, at the time of disasters these same architects can be seen working hand-in-hand in all parts of the world doing pro-bono work to serve the people. Those are the citizen architects that are truly fulfilling the oath they took when they first got their license, and those are the true stewards of the built environment.

Architecture can have a powerful impact in the aftermath of a tragedy. Whether in the form of a memorial, or a healthcare or security facility, or any public service building, architecture begins to serve those in mourning or rehabilitation. A single building can have the strength to drive the rebuilding of communities and cities around it. A single building can turn the economy around and bring work to a city. A single building can invite tourism into a city, and a single building can survive through the ages and live to tell its tale a century later. Multiply this impact with the number of architects living in a city and the number of buildings each architect is designing, and the value of architects begins to surface.

But does getting an architect’s license make one a leader? Simply because someone is an architect in a project team doesn’t make one a leader, especially in the collaborative team environment we live in today. Going to an 8-5 job and occasionally getting CE credits doesn’t make one a leader. Making a positive impact in the community through architectural or non-architectural service makes one a leader.

It is during the times of turmoil when we are reminded of what purpose we serve in the society as architects. Are we in this profession for winning awards for aesthetically pleasing projects? Are we in this profession to win accolades for our service to the profession? Or are we in this profession because we want to help people in a way that gives them the strength to face the challenges of daily life? If we could just remember the oath we all took as architects and make it second nature, all of us are not far from becoming citizen architects. Being an architect doesn’t automatically make one a leader, but architects can be leaders.

Residential Architecture

A kid’s drawing of his house

Regardless of the culture, country, vernacular, or time, a kid’s drawing of a house speaks a universal architectural language. The results of kids playing with Legos are also astoundingly similar due to the limitations of the building blocks. Some of these kids grow up to become architects and find their individuality. Some of them begin working on residential projects, whether custom homes, tract homes, or multi-family residential buildings. Yet how many architects live in a house designed by them? Only a few hold on to the dream of building their own home, and of them very few get the opportunity to do it. In the end the inevitable question of financing surfaces, which we so commonly lack even after lifetime of working in this profession. Unfortunately the lack of the dream is a bigger reason than the lack of finances for this sad reality.

The mention of residential architecture typically brings to mind the image of a custom single family home. This typology is extensively celebrated in our profession through design awards, publications, and focus groups. Makes sense, because a majority of architects work in this typology. It appears that the multi-family residential projects often get overlooked on the recognition platform. Possibly they are not being submitted, or lose the competition against higher budget commercial projects. The design discussion definitely needs to extend more to these projects. An outlook towards neighborhoods and communities in our thought process towards future development of the profession would be far more impactful than isolated cases of single family homes.

The AIA’s Architecture Billings Index shows the multi-family residential sector has the highest billing rate. The large cities are especially witnessing an upheaval of multi-family condominium or apartment buildings. California happens to be planning an entire new town next to the Salton Sea with construction slated to begin in the next three years. The developers claim that it will be one of the greenest developments with many job creation opportunities. Although the reviews are many-fold as to the absurdity of this project, it is neighborhood development nonetheless. A good or bad omen for architects? I’d let the environmental groups fight over that.

Another shameful trend is the absence of an architect in the design teams for residential projects. Due to lax laws in some States, many non-licensed professionals get away with doing major residential work and go unnoticed. Where the laws are lot more strictly abided, the law itself allows for small residential work to be done by non-licensed professionals. Some might say that this is all that is keeping some people afloat in the dire economic situation in which we find ourselves. But this trend is obviously affecting some licensed architects that have to compete with cheaper non-licensed inexperienced pseudo-architects. On top of it all, there are now a few software programs available to lay persons that let them design what they want and just hire a contractor to build it. People can now purchase home designs from a roadside stall. The need for an architect is vanishing. Is this technological advancement or ample availability of free design options for the good of our profession? What does the future hold?

As we look into how to adjust for the globalization, economic, technological, and legal trends questioning the role of an architect, we also need to dig deeper into that child within us that might have dreamt of designing his/her own home. Whether we are financially able to build our own home is a secondary issue. For the faintest of hearts and for all those suffering from the blues of economic challenges, I would suggest reading The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. An inspiring read about the challenges of master builders from the 12th century, it is an eye-opener for anyone who would think these are the tough times. Keep those childhood dreams alive for we might get to live in our dream homes someday.