When do you say no?

No one is a fiercer critic of the architectural profession than myself, but it irritates me to hear people talking as though architects are free agents.  Why don't they just lower the heights of those new buildings, people ask? 

My colleagues don't like me saying so, but the simple fact is that architects are servants (the second oldest profession someone said) and like all good servants they can sometimes persuade and change what their clients initially want, but basically they are at the command of their client.  Architects are fond of saying that, 'they aim to give the client what they need, not what they want,' and although this may sound arrogant the intention is well meaning but with little power, although sometimes the architect is smart enough to include unasked for good things in his design and not make an issue of them.

Let me walk you through the process.  The first thing architects do when they get a new commission is to settle the scope of their services and the fees they will be paid for them.  Once this necessary business is settled the architect seeks a Brief of Requirements from the client; what do they expect from their proposed new building?

If the client is a couple wanting a holiday house the brief would be largely teased out in discussion as they have chosen this architect because they like her work.  If it's a university wanting a new laboratory building they will have prepared a detailed brief and the people to explain exactly what they were hoping to get.  Both these clients augur well for a creative partnership

But if the client were a professional developer who wants to build an apartment building and sell the units, he will in all probability have already calculated that for this particular site a twelve storey building with two - 2 bedroom and four 1- bedroom apartments on each floor is the optimum split of accommodation for the current market.

What does the architect do if the client proposes to make an ambit claim for a bigger building than the Council planning code specifies?   Developers often do this to leave room for manoeuvre in case citizen objectors persuade the Council to reduce the height.  By asking for more he would be hoping that, even if the height does end up being reduced, he might still end up with an extra floor of flats for sale to improve his bottom line. Should the architect go along with this?

And the architects would be pleased as a larger building would justify increased fees as there would be considerably more work in trying to justify this ambit claim 

On the other hand some architects might feel that from an urban design point of view in that particular suburban location, eight storeys would be a much more appropriate height and that it would be possible to fit a floor plate of nine flats per floor on that site.  The architects would argue that the number of flats would be the same and if anything the total cost might be a bit lower and the flats would be ready for sale more quickly which would lower the developer's finance costs. On the other hand the developer might argue that the market liked taller buildings and that the higher flats sell for higher prices.  In the end the Golden Rule prevails, 'He who has the gold makes the rules'.

It doesn't often work out as such a neat choice of course, and it might well be that a floor plate of six flats is the maximum given the size and shape of the site, so lowering the height of the building would result in an over 30% reduction in the potential number of flats.

You don't need much imagination to envisage the architects repeating that old architectural placebo to themselves: 'If we don't do it someone else will, and we could make a twelve storey design more acceptable, and in any case we really need the work'. 

The height of the building is not a moral issue of course, but an aesthetic judgement, an opinion.  If they feel strongly enough about it they are of course free to refuse the commission, and while this might make them feel good for five minutes it would alter nothing!  This dilemma rarely arises because the developer normally selects an architect he knows will fall in with his most profitable option.

Another dilemma for an architect would be if the developer makes it clear that this is a lowest cost project and he only wants to do the absolutely legal minimum in terms of environmental sustainability.  A valid case can be made for incorporating more sustainable measures because in the long run they reduce energy and running costs.  The problem from the developer's point of view is that they add to the building cost which increases the sale prices of the units. Developers would argue this makes them harder to sell and all the future savings would, of course, accrue to the purchasers of the units, not to the developer! 

One might argue that there this is an opportunity to appeal to a smart market but the long term answer of course is to make more of the desirable sustainable things mandatory through the Building Code of Australia so everyone would be in the same boat.  But changing the BCA is difficult and slow moving, all the States have to agree, never easy, and the representatives of the building industry are reluctant to agree to anything that increases building costs

Some architects see these issues as ethical ones, that one has a moral duty to help save the planet by becoming more sustainable and are including a 'Statement of Philosophy' on their web site to define where they stand in relation to some of these dilemmas.  Some architects make it clear that they want to design sustainable buildings and are not prepared to be involved in base cost buildings that cut all the corners.  Others won't work for the Department of Defence for other reasons, and I suspect not many would want to be involved in designing refugee camps like the one in Nauru.  But someone did the drawings for death camps like Auschwitz and one wonders whether the designers understood the full enormity of what they were designing, or simply shut their eyes and didn't ask any questions, that they needed the work!

When people ask me what sorts of buildings I've designed, I usually reply that I've designed most building types during my career except big hospitals and prisons.  The issue has never arisen as I've never been asked to design a so-called correctional facility, but however necessary they may be, and no matter how much better I think I might design it, I'd be reluctant to spend a few years of my life designing one; it's a personal choice.

These questions were raised recently when my erstwhile younger partner reminded me of two cases that I'd forgotten but which he said had always impressed him.  The first was my rejection of a commission from a large firm of engineers to help them design a large industrial plant because I thought it was the wrong thing in the wrong place and would increase pollution.  I had a strong feelings against it and didn't want my friends and grandchildren to think I had anything to do with it.  Simple, and we had enough work at the time to be able to afford to say no.  I'm honest enough to say that  don't know what I would have done if we had been in the second situation he remembered below.

It was a business problem; we were an office of eighteen people all up and had almost run out of work, our cash flow was such that we would really be seriously broke soon if nothing were done. We decide that there was no option but to let ten people go and to try and manage to retain the others on half pay.  The architect-ural culture being what it is, the recent graduates started looking around without being told, they were used to moving in line with the flow of work.  But there were four older architects with families, good people who shared our values, talented people we liked and appreciated and were reluctant to lose, but who we could simply no longer afford to pay.  Reluctantly, they had to go, but it was October-November and the suggestion was made that sacking these colleagues should be postponed until after the Xmas holidays. 

I apparently took the hard line that nothing would rescue us over Xmas, that we couldn't afford to wait that long, and my partner had been impressed that I was prepared to over ride my personal feelings and make such a tough business decision.  But it saved the day and we limped along for three or four months after Xmas until we were commissioned to design the World Bank funded schools in the Solomon Islands that I wrote about recently.

Next time you hear people slinging off at architects, ask them to look past the unfortunate holier-than-thou, know-all self-image of many architects and their delusion that they have some moral power in the situation.  Have a thought for the financial difficulties of running an architectural practice and the ethical problems that have to be faced in trying to serve God as well as Mammon.  It's the politicians and the planners that make the rules who bear the ultimate responsibility for our urban environment, not the poor architects.

Don Gazzard LFAIA
Mid October 2015