As an architect, do you ever feel underappreciated and misunderstood—not to mention undercompensated compared with other professionals, even in high rolling times? These feelings are particularly common among residential architects, whom the profession itself relegates to a separate—and not always exalted—category of architect. If other architects don't understand and respect what we do, how can we expect nonarchitects to have a clue?
I live in the Washington, D.C., metro area, where much important business is conducted in social settings. Fund-raisers, community functions, cultural events--all are venues for mixing and mingling with potential clients. To some degree, this happens everywhere in the country. You never know when a party will turn into a design job. The reality is, it often starts as a trial of your patience.
Many times I have been left speechless at a party by someone's ignorant comment on my profession. Balancing buffet plate, glass, and a free right hand for handshakes, the encounter usually begins like this:
Partygoer/potential client: And what do you do?
Me: I'm an architect.
Partygoer/potential client: Ohhhh, an architect. I always wanted to be an architect. What kind of architecture do you practice?
Me: I design houses.
Partygoer/potential client: How much fun it must be to design houses! And it must be so much easier than designing office buildings!
And so it goes, as the person runs through the usual stereotypes of architects. In years past, I haven't always known how best to disabuse the partygoer of his misconceptions without jeopardizing our potential client relationship, so I've sometimes just let the comments slide. These days, I have a new resolve to address and correct misimpressions. For the good of all of us, residential architects must dash their inferiority complexes and tackle the public's ignorance of our profession head-on.
My new response to the ignorati is this: "Yes, designing houses is loads of fun and, au contraire, houses are one of the most difficult buildings to design." It may sound like a boast to those outside the profession, but it's true. Our firm, O'Neil & Manion Architects, of Bethesda, Md., has a sideline in designing Biosafety Level 2 and 3 research laboratories and I believe designing houses and working with residential clients is even more demanding.
The problem is that most people (including architects who've never designed a house) assume they know and understand residential design because they live in a house. But they take so much for granted. And, frankly, maybe we do, too. Have you ever dissected the multiplicity of truly complex functions your design incorporates in a single structure? For example, there are rooms or spaces for sleeping, where occupants, unconscious for hours at a time, must be protected from environmental hazards. There are rooms for basic human hygiene—including relieving oneself, bathing, grooming—with potential minefields such as water temperature, surface materials, lighting, and climate control.
Similar issues arise in the kitchen, with the added complexity of facilitating the safe preparation, cooking, and storage of food. In public rooms, floor planning and circulation must guide visitors logically and safely through spaces, avoiding any missteps or litigation-inducing accidents. Many homes also dedicate areas for music or books, and now there are often highly wired spaces for personal entertainment, including sound, video, television, Internet connections, and computer games.
Home offices must accommodate an array of specialized equipment, such as multiline telephones, personal computers, printers, facsimile machines, photocopiers—not to mention the backup power supplies, operation manuals, and telephone books that accompany this machinery. Some elaborate home offices require separate entrances, waiting rooms, and security surveillance. And, of course, there are utility rooms, laundry rooms, exercise rooms, game rooms, mudrooms, and guest rooms or suites.
Some homes have mind-boggling requirements for storage, including spaces to handle the specific footwear, headgear, and other body-part protection common in modern-day sport. Even dealing with the incoming mail is an important issue in today's houses. And don't forget the huge garages, sometimes amounting to more square footage than homes of 20 years ago. Each of these spaces comprises hundreds of decisions related to function and the safety of its occupants.
And it's not enough that an architect design those spaces for safety's sake, she or he must also make them beautiful--not just in isolation but in unity. In short, the knowledge necessary to design houses encompasses the expertise required to design a hotel, a library, a restaurant, a Laundromat, a warehouse, a business office, a movie theater, a fitness center, a communications center, a post office, and a parking garage--all crammed into a single structure. Added to that challenge are the clients who want all of this and more, but rarely have the budget to pay for it.
Meanwhile, back at the cocktail party inquisition, our potential client drags out the other big misconception all residential architects have to contend with:
Partygoer/potential client: My friend had a house built, and it went months over schedule and thousands of dollars over budget.
Here, I explain how our firm works—how we address issues of budget and construction with our clients. First off, we assure them that everyone wants more than they can afford. Then we collaborate with them to get their budget and their expectations in line early in the design process. Furthermore, we stress the need for hiring the very best contractor available, someone who really understands how to work with an architect to estimate and build a one-of-a-kind house. We warn clients that every construction project involves three corners of a triangle—quality, speed, and low cost—and they must pick two, because attaining all three is impossible.
Wealthy clients are so accustomed to buying the best consumer products, they often don't realize that home construction is not like manufacturing. It's not the result of years of research, honing, and perfecting a single prototype. A custom home has no prototype. It's an original, and as such, it more closely resembles a work of art, with the flaws and imperfec-tions of crafts built by hand.
There really is no reason why we should feel inferior to our colleagues who design office buildings. We are the ultimate entrepreneurs, taking on clientele who rarely bring repeat business and who frequently have no idea what services an architect provides. This makes the residential architect a daring business person of the first order and an educator of infinite patience.
Sara O'Neil Manion,AIA,is a principal of O'Neil & Manion Architects, P.A., in Bethesda, Md.