What is an architect? What exactly do they do? What services do architects offer? How do they work? Why would you use one? And who is entitled to call themselves an architect?
A good way to find the answers is to clear up some myths.
Myth One – Architects just care about how buildings look
Architects do care about appearances, as you’d expect. Many buildings are around for a long time, they all represent a significant investment and most of them are highly visible – why wouldn’t you want them to look good?
Architects know the buildings they design have a public presence, even if their purpose is private. The form and proportions of a building, its material composition, the way it sits on its site and addresses its street, how it relates to the buildings around it and to its wider context – architects are trained to produce successful and appealing solutions to these fundamental design challenges.
However, architects recognise that an even stronger imperative is that a building’s design fits its function. An architect’s primary concern is that a building works well for the people who use it – that it is a comfortable, healthy, enjoyable and inspiring place to be in, and that it will perform enduring service.
Myth Two – Architects cost too much
Architects’ services do come at a price, and cheaper rates may be offered by less qualified providers of architectural design services.
However, it pays to remember that architects are the best-trained design professionals in the country, they have specialist skills and considerable experience (or very experienced seniors), and must comply with the requirements of a rigorous registration regime.
It’s important to note too, that the architect’s fee is a small part of the cost of any construction project, although their contribution will be crucial to the project’s success. The money an architect costs is outweighed by the value they add.
Architects are very conscious of the costs involved in a building project, and are expected to be transparent about their share of those costs.
The client and the architect should talk frankly about money: the client must be clear about the brief and budget, and the architect must be clear about what is possible within that budget. The New Zealand Institute of Architects encourages clients and architects to use its standard contracts, which offer protection to both parties.
Myth Three – Architects aren’t practical
Architects might dream of ideal projects with unlimited budgets, but they spend their working lives in a real world of codes and contracts, documents and details, rules and regulations, and standards and specifications.
On their clients’ behalf, they interact with builders, engineers, product suppliers, urban designers, landscapers, heritage consultants, neighbours and council officials (interactions which can bring anyone back to earth).
Building projects need vision, but they also demand persistence. Any project can spring a surprise – changes in the client’s personal circumstances, unexpected geotechnical discoveries, material shortages.
In addition, the modern building environment is becoming more and more complex; guiding a project through to completion requires determination, knowledge and judgement.
An architect has to hold a great deal of things together, even on a modest project. The real professional challenge is not to be sufficiently practical, but to hold onto design intent and integrity while dealing with so many practical requirements. This is real world stuff: experience teaches all architects that architecture is the art of the possible.
Myth Four – Architects don’t listen
You go to an architect for professional expertise: an architect can turn your requirements into reality. For an architect, it all starts with the client’s brief.
A good architect will interrogate that brief with an editor’s honesty; sometimes clients need to know that they can’t get everything they want (for their budget, that is).
Listening is a key professional skill for an architect, a bit like it is for a GP. Architects who don’t listen to their clients will quickly run out of clients.
If you have approached an architect, and you don’t think you’ve been heard – for whatever reason – talk to another architect. It’s important to get the relationship right, right from the start.
Clients should be honest too and assertive. They should make sure that not only are they being listened to, but that what they are asking for is realistic. This isn’t to say that a client’s brief should be prescriptive – one reason to talk to an architect is to hear about solutions you haven’t imagined – but it is to acknowledge that a design dialogue needs two partners.
Myth Five – Architects are the same as architectural designers
No, they’re not. It’s easy to become confused: many designers offer ‘architectural services’ or use ‘architecture’ in the name of their company, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are architects.
By law, a person may call themselves an architect only if they have been registered by the New Zealand Registered Architects Board.
This statutory body sets and supervises professional standards and protects the interests of consumers. It determines whether graduates – and overseas-trained and registered architects – have the qualifications, knowledge and work experience to practice as architects, and ensures that, once registered, architects maintain and keep current their professional competency.
To gain registration, candidates must have a five-year architecture degree from an accredited institution and at least several years of supervised work experience, and pass a rigorous oral exam. Architectural designers are not required to do this.
You can find out whether or not a person is an architect by checking the register on the New Zealand Registered Architects Board’s website: www.nzrab.nz.
To find out more about New Zealand’s architects and architecture visit www.nzia.co.nz.
By John Walsh – communication manager at the NZIA.