Why Architects Need To Get Back Onto The Construction Site

Until the 1800s there was no clear distinction between the project manager, architect, builder, or engineer. Today, architects affect less than 5% of building development that occurs globally. The role of architecture in building is diminishing, and as a result architects are expanding into broader areas of history, theory, and hypothesis.

Architects tend to imagine through drawing but step back when it comes to making their design. As a result, architects continue to be pushed further away from what is happening on site. Critics and architects continue to debate the value of departing from the production of building. But what if architects were to reconnect with the process of making? How would this help architecture to develop?

For some indication we can look to Samuel Mockbee, the late founder of the Rural Design Studio who died in 2001. Mockbee encouraged architects to re-connect to the technical and social outcomes of their making. He co-founded Rural Design Studio with his friend D.K. Ruth in order to create a forum for students to design, and he built homes in rural communities while instigating community-action, collaboration, and sustainability.


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Mockbee said that architects must not decrease the nobility of a project based on its materials and construction methods, nor on the budget or location of the client. His studio allowed students the opportunity to understand and implement material technologies and construction in combination with their architecture education. He sought to create beautiful spaces with materials and objects that otherwise be discarded.

Drew Heath, founder of Drew Heath Architects, is an architect and builder currently located in Sydney. Heath advocates the need for architecture to take up less space, to be less permanent, and to admire and participate in the surrounding natural environment. His projects are site specific.


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Take his Zig Zag Cabin, a low-impact, 9 square meter building located on a 2 acre allotment. Using whatBrett Boardman describes as “an empirical process” Heath constructed the Zig Zag Cabin piece by piece. Heath was able to continually alter the design during construction, which is near impossible when the process of design and making are divided into separate trades.

Both Mockbee and Heath have allowed the building process to shape their designs, and as a result their work is highly responsive and site sensitive. Working on the ground allows them to see the impact of their design decisions in a tactile way and to change them as necessary by the hand of their own discovery.

Clinton Cole, founder of CplusC, attributes his early start in building as a child searching for scraps and having had lots of space. “This is what being an architect and a builder is about,” says the Sydney-based architect, “experimenting with materials and tools to make beautiful things for others to enjoy.” Cole is fascinated with dissecting and reimagining how things are put together.

Building brings additional responsibilities, too. “As an architect you can walk away from a project upon completion with hopefully some great photographs and a happy client,” explains Cole. But “as both architect and builder you have to resolve any warranty issues six to seven years after it is handed over to the client—and this includes any subsequent owner of the property. This obligation gives invaluable insight into how my buildings age, leak, crack, move and wear. It’s like a very long and sometimes very costly Post Occupancy Evaluation.” Cole’s experimentation and understanding of building components and materials informs and evolves his design processes over time.


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Cole also identifies issues in the communication between the small architectural circle and the greater world outside and how this affects the perception and value of what architects do. Like Mockbee he describes the need for architects and builders to become valuable members of the broader community. The architecture industry doesn’t necessarily facilitate this, forcing many architects to engage in unpaid work to do just that, and to do it in a “hands-on way.” Cole also recognizes greater advantages offered by combining architecture with building, including overall project control, budget and quality control, cash flow, and speed.

Fellow Sydney architect and builder Oliver Steele, founder of Steele Associates, shares Cole’s experiences and opinions. Steele primarily builds for other architects. Both Cole and Steele comment on interesting opinions about their duel-title. Architects tend to associate them as builders, while builders associate them as architects. Steele explains, “It is odd to me that it is considered unusual to do both. I’ve learned a lot about building from designing, and a lot about designing from building.”


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And is that so surprising? Participating in the building process is about understanding and exploring the innate connection between architecture and its imminent construction, materials, processes, and techniques. By engaging in this process, architect can look outside the small inner-circle of a single industry and re-consider the holistic meaning for their practice. Through experimentation and involvement in making architects just might be able to expand the possibilities of architecture by rethinking material applications and construction capabilities.

Id love to hear your thoughts in the comment section below. Do you think architects should be more involved in the process of making? 


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