So What is a Building Architect?

by Paul Arthur Bodine, Principal and Global Business Architecture COE Service Leader

We sometimes describe a business architect by saying, “What a building architect is to a building, a business architect is to a business.” So what is a building architect?

The Building Architect

Architects design buildings. They design buildings that serve human needs while delighting the eye. At the core of the building architect’s education is the design studio, in which architecture students are tasked with designing the look and layout of buildings. The closest equivalent in business is the teaching of advanced business model development in MBA entrepreneurial courses.

Image: Vitruvian Man from Leonardo da Vinci's Codex Leicester owned by Bill Gates

Image: Vitruvian Man from Leonardo da Vinci's Codex Leicester owned by Bill Gates

Building architects are often referred to as Renaissance women/men. They are researchers who have built up a deep understanding of the many complex systems and building materials that make up a building, sifting through infinite possibilities to produce designs that bring them together to serve current and future needs in an efficient, attractive, and culturally sensitive way. This broad expertise affords them a level of respect.

They define and direct the work of others through their deliverables. Through the detail documents they produce describing their designs, dozens of subcontractor companies and hundreds of skilled workers are able to effectively, efficiently, and concurrently accomplish their work; each person knows exactly what they need to do. You could say that architects write the software that orchestrates this massively parallel processing effort among specially-skilled humans.

Architects do not possess decision rights. They make recommendations to the owner, often in the form of options, and add detail to the decisions the owner makes. They do not direct the workers on the jobsite; that is the purview of the general contractor. Architects only explain and clarify the work the owner has chosen to be done, and help to sort out conflicts. The architect not possessing decision rights is an important check-and-balance in the construction process, and is of particular importance relative to jobsite safety and liability.

Architects are protectors. They ensure the buildings you live and work in stand up during earthquakes, don’t have pieces falling to the sidewalk, have fresh air to breathe, water to drink, and an escape route in case of fire.  They do this through good design, quality engineering, and verifying compliance by all parties, which is often easier for the architect as a third party without political entanglements, than it is for an employee.

And, in a very real way, architects protect us all from ourselves and each other. Imagine the owner who wishes to place a hot tub on her high-rise balcony. Spectacular view, disastrous results; balconies are not designed to support this weight. By opting against taking the project and educating the owner, we are potentially saving the lives of those on the sidewalk as well as the owner in the tub.

Hearing “no” often surprises the owner; it is the difference between an arms-length consultant and a licensed professional.

Legal Definition

In the US, the architect’s authority is conferred by the state. The legal definition of the building architect is someone whose state-issued architectural license is up-to-date; it is illegal to call yourself an architect in the construction industry unless this qualification is met.

The states confer a legal responsibility onto the architect to protect the health, safety and welfare of the populace; the architect is required to warranty that their design is in compliance with all applicable laws, building codes and zoning ordinances, which the other parties to a construction project can rely upon in court. They are the first-level arbiter in disputes between the owner and contractor. Errors and omissions by architects can result in losing their license.

The Architect’s Process

The architect begins by listening to the owner describe their needs, wants, desires and budget. Together with the owner, the architect develops a Design Statement, or a “Pro Forma” for larger commercial projects.

Architects generally follow the same standardized process for everything from a dog house to the world’s tallest buildings: Pre-Design, Schematic Design, Design Development, Contract Documents, Bidding, General Contractor Selection, and Construction Administration. This process is designed not only to arrive at a consensus agreement on a single design from a world of possibilities, but also to ensure the building is safely built with all protections in place.

The Shift in Primary Responsibility

With a signed contract, the architect takes over primary responsibility for the project from the owner. The architect “verifies the substrate” (e.g., makes sure the owner owns the site and it is buildable), asks the questions, synthesizes the answers, produces the documents, and then hands primary responsibility over to the general contractor when that contract is awarded. The general Contractor verifies the substrate (e.g., makes sure the owner has the funds available), asks the questions, hires their subcontractors, directs the work, and turns primary responsibility back to the owner upon completion. A variation on this construct is Design-Build, in which a single firm acts as both architect and general contractor. For insurance and controls reasons, the owner’s employees rarely participate in building the building.

A good way to understand these relationships is by reading the set of contracts issued by the American Institute of Architects. They were prepared and are regularly updated by a joint task force of mostly volunteers comprised of owners, contractors and architects to ensure they cover the issues properly, assign the right work to the right party, and strike the right balance of rights and responsibilities. The other documents for the building industry are created in much the same way -- building codes, graphic standards, engineering tables for structural beams, columns, etc.

The Architect’s Deliverables

Architects produce different sets of deliverables at different stages of the project.

They begin with a Design Statement, which captures the things that the owner is looking for from their project. Next the architect produces Sketches that illustrate the basic look, layout and distinctive features of their design for the building; the architect usually creates several designs from which the owner can choose. These Sketches are turned into Presentation Drawings used to discuss the design with the owner. A design is agreed upon after a few iterations and a Schematic Design is fleshed out.

The Schematic Design shows all of the parts of the building in the right proportions drawn to scale – ex. ¼ inch = 1 foot. It includes all interior elements, furniture and equipment layouts, major systems, etc. It includes all of “the money in the job.” The Schematic Design is often sent to general contractors for preliminary pricing and walked through with the owner to ensure all of the Design Statement elements are accommodated. There are usually several iterations before the final design is settled upon.

The Contract Documents are now prepared describing the work expected of the general contractor in great detail. Contract Documents used to be created by draftspersons, and some still are, but most today are produced by junior architects who usually learn how to “detail a building” on the job. The Contract Documents are primarily comprised of Specifications (a listing of the materials to be used and description of how each is to be installed), Drawings (showing where the materials go), and bidding parameters. When properly coordinated and completed, every tradesperson on the job will know exactly what they must do, and how their work coordinates with that of the other trades.

Architects produce additional documents during construction – progress reports and photos, clarifications, payout and change order approvals, revisions to the contract documents, and the “punch list” of items the contractor must complete to qualify for final payout.

The Architect’s Team

An architectural firm is led by an architect. They are supported by junior architects, engineers, specification writers, and sometimes draftspersons. The lead architect designs the building, which junior architects flesh out, sometimes with the support of draftspersons. The specification writers write the Specifications that are included in the Contract Documents.

The engineers are subsystem-specific subject matter experts in the construction industry, licensed in structural engineering, electrical engineering, civil engineering, mechanical engineering, etc. The engineers help the architect to understand, choose, and incorporate the right options, creating documents for their section of the Contract Documents. They consult with peers, vendors, city building departments, trade school, subcontractors and unions to thoroughly understand their subject area.

Large engagements can be led by an Architect Manager, responsible for the business side of the engagement, supported by a Design Architect responsible for the design, and a Job Captain responsible for the production of the Contract Documents.

And, the Architect is Much More

  • Visionary: Architects design the image and layout of the building.

  • Advisor: Listens to the owner’s ideas and concerns, providing them with options and recommendations, helping them to make good decisions.

  • Advocate: Speaks up on behalf of customers, users, current stakeholders and future generations.

  • Communicator: Keeps everyone informed, drives conversation.

  • Cultural Interpreter & Translator: Speaks to each group in their own language.

  • Consensus Builder & Facilitator: Works to bring brainflows into alignment with strategic goals.

  • Lawyer: Writes the legal definition of “The Work” people are being contracted to produce.

  • Organizing Concept & Guideline Designer: Designs the architecture.

  • Coordinator of Subsystem Specialists: Integrates the work of subject matter experts. 

  • Analyst: Researches and analyzes new information.

  • Scribe: Captures, manages, and distributes information.

One can imagine these attributes applying equally as well to a business architect.

The construction industry has developed over thousands of years by trial-and-error. It currently yields a near 100% success rate – buildings are built quickly, and cost-effectively. They stand up, and serve their intended purpose. This can be contrasted with an oft-quoted 70% failure rate for business strategy. I hope this article will stimulate discussion within the business community about the benefits of studying the time-honed practices of the construction industry more closely.

Author: Paul Arthur Bodine is the business architecture center of excellence practice leader at ENKI LLC, adjunct professor of business architecture in DePaul University’s MBA program, and a building architect licensed in the state of Illinois.