The changing role of the architect

Is the title of “Master Builder” past its prime? Architect Leon Krüger, who has more than forty years’ experience in the industry, gives his view on the changing role of the architect, and considers whether Public Sector clients, in particular, contract appropriately for architectural services, and whether architects need to change the way in which they position themselves. This is the first in a series on the changing role of the architect, one of the primary role players in the property industry.

In late February 2009, paper manufacturer Arjowiggins closed its historic Dartford mill in the UK. However, the company was not merely another victim of the economic downturn. Arjowiggins had failed to react in time to changes in the market. The mill had produced carbonless paper, a 1950s invention that was replaced in the mid-1990s with electronic printing technologies. Changes in tools and technology are often the harbingers of changes in industry – and the roles of industry players. Architects, as much as the carbonless paper they used to draw on, are in danger of being overtaken by changes in the property industry and the business world.

The concept of the architect as the “master builder” has been growing in obsolescence since the 1960s, with clients demanding that architects offer services that are substantively different from their typical basics services.

Such profound redefinition of the fields raises disturbing questions. Clients might think that there is not much difference between designing a building and designing a business solution or a project-delivery process, and this point of view is problematic.

But more seriously, clients’ increasing desire for non-traditional services also suggests that they value less what design can offer and more the skills, tools and outlook of a management consultant or project manager.

Public Sector clients in particular are now putting out tenders for professional services work, and as a result architects are employed as contracted service providers, rather than the agents of the client or primarily as designers. This form of engagement is inappropriate since it is contrary to established project management methodology of the industry and the professional fee structure set by the South African Council for the Architectural Profession (SACAP). Furthermore, the focus on criteria such as affirmative procurement and supply chain efficiency, rather than quality, experience or design, places the architect, who carries ultimate responsibility for the design, at risk. This situation becomes particularly onerous when only partial or select services are required by the client, ostensibly to save on costs.

The architectural profession may have itself to blame for this exasperating situation. More than a decade ago it was observed that clients “…perceive architects as making too little effort to understand their needs. Architects appear arrogant, uninterested in client aspirations, or unskilled at the essential art of listening.” The changes in legislation and client requirements, and client demands that vary from the norm, are attempts to control members of the building industry and ensure performance to standard and value for money. However, as a result of an attitude of superiority and exclusivity in the profession, they also indicate clients’ lack of understanding of the true nature of the architectural profession.

A first step towards a solution would be for architects to have in-depth dialogues with their clients about the actual, fundamental attributes, behaviours, work methods and requirements of the profession. Communicating clearly and transparently about methodologies and professional fees would differentiate architects from other professionals in the property industry and justify their status as Master Builders, even today.



…written by Leon Krüger and published in The Real Thing, a property industry newsletter.

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