Everyone knows architects design buildings—but the blueprints or construction drawings they deliver represent just a small fraction of what they do to bring a project to completion. Because architects are intimately familiar with what it takes to make a building successful (and often know things other people don’t even know they don’t know), their contribution to a project typically begins before any major decisions have been made, and lasts well after the building is occupied.
Understanding the context
Every architectural project starts with the major decisions that will determine everything else that follows. An architect makes sure those decisions are the right ones. This could even mean consulting an architect during site selection. “You want someone knowledgeable in design and construction there right at the beginning,” says Nick Fudge, Principal of Halifax’s Nicholas Fudge Architects, which specializes in modern houses and multi-unit apartments. “What are the client’s needs? What’s their lifestyle?All this information we gather at the beginning has a profound impact on the final product, so it’s key to get in early.”
Chris Crawford, Director of Architecture at Ekistics Planning & Design in Dartmouth, a multidisciplinary firm that has designed everything from kiosks to entire city centres, echoes these sentiments. “Architects can come to a project even before the pre-design stage,” he says, “when you’re determining the framework for where the building will be, what the scale and typology will be—that’s really critical.”
Especially on sites of great cultural importance, the factors an architect weighs will range far beyond merely practical concerns, and require research into local history. “For us, the richest projects are not only looking at things like creating space,” Crawford says. “We ask questions like, Who is this building for? What’s the history and culture in the place that we’re building?These are the greatest things we look to for design influence.”
Knowing the limitations
While site and context influence a building’s essential character, there are countless other factors an architect also has to consider: before knowing what to do, you first need to know what options are on the table, based on things like local bylaws, building codes, sightlines, sunlight and shadows, and even wind direction.
According to Troy Scott, Principal of T.A. Scott Architecture + Design—a Dartmouth firm that has built a host of recreational, institutional and commercial buildings—these factors will dictate many of the decisions that shape a building, and it takes a licensed architect to navigate them. “Bylaws determine the heights and setbacks within which we can work; they control the amount of habitable space, or density, that can be built on a site. From there, we move into what the building code allows: safety issues and exits, occupant loads and washrooms, barrier-free issues and space planning—these are all items that the average designer or architecture graduate wouldn’t understand until they became a fully licensed member.”
“And then,” Scott continues, “at the very end of it, there gets to be some design. But those other items come first, and control where you start with a project. That’s why it’s important to work with an architect early: we have an understanding of those parameters, so you start off on the right foot.”
Far from being minor-but-important details, these factors have an enormous impact on the final product. “There’s always an expectation for the usable space in a building,” Scott says. “If we’re not on board at the beginning, those expectations can be incorrect.” So while you may estimate a certain amount of usable space, given the size of a building’s footprint, that interior space has to be shared with mechanical and electrical requirements, safety measures, bathrooms—even hallways need certain accommodations to qualify as barrier-free.
“If you don’t account for those, your expectations for usable space will be off,” Scott says. “Then, all of a sudden, the building’s not large enough to meet your programmatic needs.” People who work with an architect, on the other hand, can be sure their needs are clearly defined and prioritized, and that the final product will meet them.
Conceiving the design
Given these contextual factors and restrictions, architects excel at creatively maximizing a building’s beauty and function, which in turn maximizes its overall value.
“People care about design more than ever,” Fudge says, “and the code’s evolving; building technology is evolving. If you weren’t working as an architect, it would be pretty hard to stay on top of these changes. So hiring an architect makes the difference between a typical project and an exceptional one. And ‘exceptional’ doesn’t necessarily mean expensive; it’s the function and the feel of the space, the quality of the space. In terms of budget, you can still have an exceptional space without spending a fortune.”
Ultimately, the architect’s job is to design within whatever parameters they’re given to deliver the best possible results. As Crawford puts is, “We’re a service industry, and our service is to create something that’s special and amazing for you. When you come to a firm that looks at things from a broader context—like how the building meets the site, the landscaping, the views, even sustainability—there’s an endless list of benefits that comes with hiring a professional that’s passionate about all these things.”
Visualizing the concept
An intelligent design solution only makes an impact when it’s communicated to others. Hand in hand with an architect’s concept for a design is an ability to convey it to others—taking the idea from a vague abstraction to something real and concrete enough to enable the major decisions that move a project forward. There’s a feedback loop between the design phase and the visualization phase, where each one influences the other over as many iterations as it takes to get it right.
“What things will look like, what that space will feel like—those are things that, for most people, are pretty hard to understand without drawings, models and renderings,” Crawford says. “We really communicate through imagery. That’s a critical part of our profession, and something that’s evolving very quickly with technology. People expect much more realism in representation. It’s about bringing that vision to life, so people can understand what they’re getting at the end of the day.”
Expert visualizations do more than simply reassure people about what they’re getting, though. There are always different options available, and visualizations help people understand and weigh these options before making a decision—especially where there are differences of opinion. “We always have a recommendation, but showing a client their choices is a critical part of the process,” Crawford explains. “When you can see the implications of those different choices, it can really help distil things—but first, you need something to review and talk about.”
Overseeing the results
An architect’s job doesn’t end the day construction drawings are delivered—far from it. “I think that’s one of the biggest misconceptions about architects,” Crawford says. “For most larger projects, the design itself can be quite miniscule compared to the rest of the services we provide.”
These services includes everything a construction project manager oversees: coordination, quality control, solving problems as they arise, and making sure your wishes are executed faithfully, with nothing lost in translation.
“We represent the client,” says Fudge. “We have a contract with them, and they have contracts with other parties—builders and so on—but really, we’re there to look out for the client throughout the whole process, and to deal with any issues that come up during construction. We wantto deal with them. By the time we approach a builder, the design is resolved, we understand how much things are going to cost, and we’re now trying to solve problems beforethey happen.”
“Building is one of the biggest investments you’ll ever make,” agrees Scott. “Having an architect involved gives you the assurance that you have a trained professional protecting your interests on that investment every step of the way.”