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Want maximum value? Hire an architect.

Published:Monday | May 7, 2012 | 12:00 AM

Dr Rohan Bailey, Contributor

Constructing a new building, extending or refurbishing an existing one or simply exploring the viability of such a project is probably the biggest decision or most expensive investment that anyone can make. Finding the right person who can make this a satisfactory reality is usually a daunting task. Apart from architects, there are a multitude of other persons who claim to offer architectural and design services. Then there is always a friend who knows someone who can 'draw a plan'.

Architecture and Architects

With such choices available, what distinguishes architects from the pretenders? Architecture is simultaneously an art, a technology and a business. Architecture, which includes buildings, rooms, parks, streets and towns, in short - the built environment, is a functional art used by people in their everyday lives. As a social and cultural act, it reflects how society perceives itself while affecting the way society develops by defining new ways of living, working and playing.

An architect is the professional charged with designing or ordering significant parts of the built environment. The training of an architect (longer than many other professionals), occurs within a tertiary institution and includes intense courses in history, theory, computing, technology, management and design.

Using creative and technical skills learnt in school, the architect advises people on the design and construction of new buildings, conservation and reuse of existing buildings, development of the spaces within (interiors) buildings and the spaces which surround buildings (towns, cities, parks, squares).

In late 2004, the Parliament of Jamaica amended and passed the Architects' Registration Act, which makes it illegal for an individual or organisation to call him/herself an 'architect' unless he/she is registered as such by the Architects' Registration Board of Jamaica. An architect is responsible for not only the well-being and safety of his/her client but also that of all users of the built environment.

A very high standard is, therefore, expected of people who possess the necessary level of knowledge, technical competence, responsibility and integrity, to practise as a member of the profession. Registration is granted only when a person meets the following requirements: academic qualification (a professional degree from a recognised tertiary institution), considerable practical experience (minimum two-three years working with/under a registered architect), and passing a (soon to be implemented) rigorous examination. For a potential client (especially in Jamaica), however, an assurance of professionalism or legality is not enough.

Value of an architect

An architect brings to every project five to six years of extensive tertiary training and any additional day-to-day experience of the complicated building process obtained through practice. As a result, the chief benefits an architect has to offer a client are the qualities of design skills such as vision and creativity, and professional expertise - knowledge, practice, support from the profession.

Knowledge

Vision, creativity and design skill are balanced and supported by the architect's extensive knowledge base. In the building industry, the architect is the professional who perceives the building as a whole end product. While design may be rightly regarded as their core skill, architects are trained to take an overview of the entire building process, from pre-design through to project management and post-construction. This insight locates the architect (from the beginning of the profession) in the best position to coordinate and integrate the contribution of other building professionals (engineers, quantity surveyors, building contractors, etc) into the building process. Being a major part of the architect's contribution to the process, this role requires that the architect possess a broad knowledge base across a range of diverse disciplines.

Apart from technical knowledge, the architect must also be aware of and understand the legal and economic implications of any project. By thoroughly understanding the building and operational codes and regulations under which his or her design must conform, the architect is not prone to omitting any necessary requirements, or producing improper or illegal structures.

Practice

One widely held myth is that architects are far too expensive for the services they offer. The truth is, the client who decides to use an architect will not necessarily pay more for their building than he or she would otherwise if someone else was hired. Contrary to the client who hires a person to 'draw a plan', the client who hires an architect pays fees for the architect's involvement in the whole process - conception to the delivery of the project, not just the production of a 'plan'.

At the very outset of the project, an architect can assess and help frame your needs, evaluate possible sites, suggest a range of design options to be explored and provide an opinion on costs. The same qualities of vision and professional expertise, which the architect exercises in the design phase, continue throughout the execution and completion of the project. After design, the architect's services include submitting documents for and seeking the relevant approvals, finding the right contractor, arbitrating any disputes, and ensuring that the building is built to specifications (without the cutting of corners) within budget.

The practice of architecture focuses on the tangible results of the commission and not how many designs can be produced and 'sold'. In this respect, it is highly likely that any end result from committed practice will represent substantially greater value for money.

Dr Rohan Bailey is a registered architect and senior lecturer at the Caribbean School of Architecture.