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Are Architects “Experts”?

Are architects experts? No. But we are fantastic creative problem solvers and we eagerly learn from our mistakes. You might say, we are experts and recognizing the mistakes we’ve made in the past, and making a point of doing better. Here are five lessons we’ve learned to be an expert at avoiding.

October 1, 2018

No. But the best of us might be experts at learning from our mistakes!

When you hire an architect, you’re hiring an expert, right?

That’s the common assumption for what it means to hire someone in our field — you have a problem that needs a design professional, you do your research and hire the best there is in the field: an expert!

But, let me tell you a little secret: architects aren’t experts and you should be scared of the word itself.
Aside from the fact that every good lawyer out there will advise every architect to avoid the word, “expert” implies that there is no one better than that person and that they have the best answer to all of your problems. However, it simply isn’t possible, feasible, or realistic to expect any design professional to be an “expert” in the true sense of the word. We are problem solvers and are certainly very good at that, no matter the challenge, but not “experts.”

So, when I saw this month’s ArchiTalks topic was Learning from Mistakes, I chuckled and thought of the whole legal issue around using the word “expert” and the times I've thought about it throughout my career. (Short story, we shouldn’t and don’t use the term.)

What are some of these? Well, there are times when people assume we are experts (and we aren’t) and so expectations aren’t aligned, or there are times when we see things in hindsight and think, “Hey, I actually might be an expert in avoiding that issue again.”

So, in no particular order (or rationale, to be honest), here are five lessons that this “absolutely not an expert” has learned:

  • Retain the full services of your design team through construction. This is easily the biggest lesson learned. Every single time we convince ourselves that it is ok to not be involved during the construction of a project, something comes up that could have easily been solved if we had only been there to help. It is never worth the money saved not retaining design services during construction. It has become such a hot topic for our firm that we even waive our liability if we aren’t involved during construction, as we often have no idea what the end project will be!
  • Buy the original furniture and not the knock-offs. I'm very guilty of this. I know why it is important to respect the original design and pay more money for a higher quality original item. I know this with all of my soul. Yet when faced with a budget I have bought the knock-offs. It is always a mistake. The furniture is junk and I look like an idiot for trying to get something for a quarter of the price.
  • Put an electric towel warmer in your bathroom. Unless you wash your towels every day (and if you do, really, you do that?), your towels are going to get musty, gross, and will embarrass you. A nice electric towel warmer will solve those problems.
  • Know yourself and your actual ability to maintain something. Having a beautifully landscaped yard can take work, money, and time. In the end, though, it will be something that not only changes through the year but evolves over the years. It can completely change how you live. But keeping it that way requires a commitment to maintaining it. Know yourself. Do you really have time to do all that maintenance? If not, do you have the budget to hire someone? If the answer is “no” to either of those, think carefully about going for a lush landscaped environment as nothing is more depressing than spending a bunch of money on something that dies in a few years because you didn’t care for it. Just like you change the oil in your car, you need to maintain your landscape.
  • If you’re designing a mixed-use building, invest in your ground floor. The reason we see a lot of sad and lifeless storefront retail is because the lending banks and the financial pro formas dictate that you generate as much rentable square footage as possible while charging a high enough rent. A bank would often rather you keep a space empty while saying it would rent at a certain number per square foot than accepting a lower rent! Find a better bank (they exist) and be creative with the ground floor. A really wonderful ground floor space will attract great tenants who will enhance the neighborhood and attract tenants who want to live upstairs. It isn’t rocket science, but it is a leap of faith worth taking.

The reality is, while I was typing this I was laughing to myself and realizing I could keep going and make an almost endless list. Life isn’t about achieving a point where you know it all but about constantly acquiring more information and leveraging it. While no architect will ever be an expert in most things, I like to think that I can at least use the expert term in just one way: I'm certainly an expert at learning from my mistakes.

This post is part of the ArchiTalks series originally spearheaded by Bob Borson of Life of an Architect. Historically, he has selected a theme and a group of us (architects who also blog) all post on the same day and promote each other’s posts. This year, the themes have been selected by a variety of contributors. This month’s theme was selected by Steve Ramos of the Buildings Are Cool, and is: "Learning from Mistakes." To read how others interpreted the theme, please explore the links below.

Lee Calisti, AIA - Think Architect (@LeeCalisti)
some kind of mistake

Lora Teagarden - L² Design, LLC (@L2DesignLLC)
Learning from mistakes in architecture

Eric T. Faulkner - Rock Talk (@wishingrockhome)
Archi-scar - That Will Leave a Mark!

Michele Grace Hottel - Michele Grace Hottel, Architect (@mghottel)
"Learning from Mistakes..."

Brian Paletz - The Emerging Architect (@bpaletz)
Forgotten Mistakes

Keith Palma - Architect's Trace (@cogitatedesign)
Bad Grade

Jim Mehaffey - Yeoman Architect (@jamesmehaffey)
Learning from Mistakes

Mark Stephens - Mark Stephens Architects (@architectmark)
Learning from mistakes

Steve Mouzon - The Original Green Blog (@stevemouzon)
How Living Traditions Learn From Mistakes

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