Why Professionals Matter

Volume 46, Issue 4

“Ecce Homo” fresco of Jesus crowned with thorns, in Santuario de la Misericordia, a Roman Catholic church in Borja, Spain

“Ecce Homo” fresco of Jesus crowned with thorns, in Santuario de la Misericordia, a Roman Catholic church in Borja, Spain

A recent article in the New York Times ascribes the following statement to owners of a newly constructed home: “Next time [we] will forego general contractors, architects, and real estate agents, which added another $18,000 at the outset.”

Embedded in that statement is a basic question that remains unanswered: Did costs associated with these traditional players in the construction industry represent nothing of value? Or could it be that the value associated with those services – cost savings, quality, smooth progression of work, beauty – went unnoticed?

Dwell magazine undertook a study relating to design influences on affluent people, which revealed some curious and disturbing results. While art and architecture have gained importance in the mainstream, turning to architects for ideas, programming, or related pre-design and development services came in at just 9 percent. Internet and glossy magazines took the lead, by nearly 10-fold.

In an age of explosive access to information, it often seems as though clients believe they are at least as informed as professionals. But information does not equal knowledge – or experience – and we do ourselves a disservice by not making this point abundantly and universally clear.

The Value of Vision and Experience

Vision is critical, and it plays out in important ways, not necessarily as ego, but rather as a more durable, humanistic, and holistic form of expression. Vision helps us achieve multiple design ideas that address singular goals; right-size projects; enmesh elements of environment, energy, performance and codes; and establish an appropriate team of contractors, technicians, and artisans. There are myriad building-related issues of concern, such as weather events (floods, hurricanes, tidal surges, earthquake), environmental (energy use, vibration, radon, asbestos, lead, mercury, noise, oil contamination, electromagnetic fields), indoor air quality (molds, bacteria, off-gassing) and pests (vermin, termites, pigeons). Tools of the trade used in the identification, analysis, and eradication/correction of issues such as these have been developed for professionals trained in their proper use and interpretation.

Knockoff gizmos and gadgets, now widely available to the general public, are often misused or misunderstood, leading to inaccurate information and conclusions that can induce fear and lead to hasty, impulsive, or rash choices. This easy access can instill a false sense of knowledge that becomes an impediment to a more reasoned approach recommended by professionals who are able to put gathered information into its proper context. Professionals matter by separating symptoms from causes, focusing resources on real issues, and developing appropriate solutions.

Similarly, building plan software and apps, while beneficial as tools for engaging in pre-design discussions, have become confused with the role of the architect in the design and development of a real estate project. Without training, experience, and the insights that come with it, planning proceeds but misses the target relative to local codes, zoning, environmental impact, orientation, daylighting and shading, volume, scale, form, circulation, accessibility, materials, systems, and maintenance – all things that contribute to good design. Add to that constructability and the economic benefits of a well-developed program, and it’s clear that an architect’s involvement truly matters well beyond simply stamping drawings and filing permits.

Value Engineering, Vested Interests, and Volunteerism

Recent studies also suggest that owners are increasingly turning to contractors rather than to architects to scope or “value engineer” a project, inadvertently leaving the door open to supersize projects with scopes that are based more on what is stored in a contractor’s warehouse than what is in the best interest of the owner or project. Value engineering, once a team effort that sought to find the most economic solutions without compromising quality, now has the taint of a pejorative, where durable materials and systems are swapped for cheap (and unequal) counterparts. These choices often represent low performance, high maintenance, and an endless cycle of replacement.

Finally, while volunteerism at religious sites has a long tradition, and is essential and greatly appreciated, it is not a substitute for professional involvement. One example – now gone viral – is the botched fresco restoration by an untrained volunteer in the Spanish town of Borja (photo below). It illustrates just how wrong things can go. The key lies in knowing when and how to engage volunteers or lay people, but not seek to circumvent the cost of a professional where it truly matters.

Walter Sedovic and Jill Gotthelf are principals of Walter Sedovic Architects, an award-winning firm specializing in sustainable preservation. They can be reached at: [email protected]