7 Myths About Professional Architects

- Common assumptions around appointing a professional architect for your next project.

By Marlette Krige | Roelof Rabe Architects
7 Myths About Professional Architects

'So, what is it you do for a living?'

It's a balmy Saturday afternoon, and we are visiting new friends for a braai. I take a small sip of my Chenin and answer the man with the goatee.

'I'm a professional architect.'

This is not my first rodeo. I've attended enough braais to know that the conversation usually goes one of two ways from here. Goatee man reaches across the hummus to get a slice of cheese for his cracker.

'Ah, yes,' he says, 'my cousin is also an architect. Well,' he quickly corrects himself, 'he's a draughtsperson - so, he does what you guys do but without charging an arm and a leg' He wiggles his eyebrows conspiratorially as he grins around his mouthful of cracker. Just then, the lady with the messy bun and flowery gypsy pants leans in.

'You know, I've just had the worst experience with an architect. I wanted to close off my stoep for studio space, but the architect said 'no'. Too much glass, apparently,' she snorted. 'Maybe you can give me a second opinion?'

I smile at her, take a gulp from my glass, and position myself close to the chips and dip. It's going to be an interesting evening. Like these, there are many common and often erroneous assumptions about professional architects and architecture practices. So, let's unpack some of these myths.

Myth 1
Let's get an important one out of the way. Professional architects always wear black polo neck jumpers. Nope. In fact, I haven't seen anyone in a black polo neck since 1999 - except Steve Jobs because, you know - Steve Jobs. Plus, he wasn't an architect. I rest my case.

Myth 2
The next myth? Professional architects are rolling in cash. Alas, this isn't true, despite a professional architect having to study - for 5 long years - one of the most gruelling courses on any university campus. Think years of model building injuries, pencil lead stuck in fingers, and all-nighters followed by a quick freshen-up in the bathroom, only to have your professors critique your design to shreds. Sadly, none of this counts for much when it comes to an architect's bank balance. To provide a bit of perspective: designing, drafting and overseeing an entire building project will earn a professional architect the same that an estate agent makes on the sale of a single house.

So, while professional architects earn a good income, it certainly isn't one that will make them wealthy. The good news is most professional architects are so passionate about what they do, they'll happily endure a leaner bank balance (and yet more pencil lead stuck in their fingers) to create something amazing for their clients.

Myth 3
Well, if they're not rolling in cash, why are they so expensive? Enter Myth 3: professional architects charge high fees. Interestingly, professional architects' fees are much lower than engineers' fees. This, even though both industries bear the same critical burden of responsibility - ensuring the safety and soundness of the structures in which we and our children live, work, learn and play.

What many may not realise is that architectural firms also tend to give huge discounts on prescribed fees, in order to procure work. According to a 2017 survey done by the South African Institute of Architects, the average architectural practice in South Africa makes a mere 11% profit per year.

Why are architectural fees what they are, then? Besides the obvious costs involved in the running of an architectural firm, there are costs that the client may not necessarily have a view on.

For one, our software is very expensive. If you use an Autodesk product like Revit it will cost up to R35,000 per person, per year. To create beautiful rendered images that clients love, you need Lumion which is another R60,000 per year. Adobe Creative Suite, which includes Photoshop, Illustrator and Indesign, is another R12,000 per year, per license. This doesn't include the basic Microsoft Office Suite, which is another R2,400 per person, per year. This means the software that a professional architect needs to perform his or her work costs a whopping R110,000 per person, per year. And this is just the cost for software. When one factors in the cost of computer hardware necessary to run these programs, the costs climb even further.

Myth 4
The next myth is that professional architects are only needed on large projects, and that your draughtsman cousin can draw up your plans for smaller projects, for much cheaper. While I'm sure your cousin is great at what he does, the fact is, there's much more to designing a space than drawing up plans. Here, the old adage is true - you get what you pay for.

The greatest value a professional architect delivers is in the rigorously trained, well-planned, and masterful design of space. Excellent design principles are consistently applied, regardless of whether it's a house, a school, a museum, or even something as temporary as an emergency post-disaster house. The architect is uniquely skilled to jump between different scales, equally comfortable designing a large concert hall or a micro apartment. In fact, the smallest projects can be the most challenging due to the complexity that limited space introduces. So, the professional architect spends proportionately as much effort and energy on your art studio additions and alterations as on a multi-million Rand concert hall.

In terms of planning, a professional architect has the big picture in mind. They will advocate for your budget. They will design to reduce the lifespan cost of your building, considering future expenses like energy consumption and maintenance. They will design in a way that avoids costly changes during construction. Professional architects anticipate problems and solve them before they are a problem. They ensure your project is code compliant. They expertly design to suit your exact need (and even the need you didn't foresee you'd have). Professional architects have industry codes of conduct they need to adhere to, like being transparent and upfront with their costs.

Getting a professional architect involved in your project will likely make your property more valuable in the long run. The order, beauty, and cohesion that an architect brings to the design will make your home more sellable and attractive to a would-be buyer. And so, using your cousin who did an online drafting course might save you a few pennies, but ultimately, the significant value that a professional architect brings is worth the higher fees.

Myth 5
You can avoid paying heavy architectural fees by choosing a one-man practice, or asking an architect to do a private job for you, right? Wrong. Besides a professional architect's fees being prescribed, it actually pays to choose a firm with a team of architects. We've seen time and again that the collaborative nature of a larger group of architects, and the cross-influences within the team, result in an exponential increase in the quality of the design, for a similar price. In short, you get more bang for your buck.

Myth 6
I don't need a professional architect because I know what I want. The wonderful thing about a professional architect is that they can take the ideas you already have and make them come alive in ways that you never dreamed possible. Let's take our gypsy pants-clad friend as an example. Her dream was to enclose her stoep with glass to create an art studio. What the architect was trying to tell her is that if the stoep is on the west side of her house, and if the stoep is enclosed in glass, she can forget about creating anything worthwhile in that space. The sun will consume whatever art she has before she's even unpacked her brushes. The architect's dream is to make the client's dreams come true, so collaborating with the architect would have yielded a brilliant solution for the placement of her brand new, well-designed studio.

Myth 7 The last myth is an interesting one, because it's difficult to debunk. If you want a quality end product, insist on working with the owner of the firm. The thinking is that, because the firm carries the owner's name, the owner must be the lead designer; project manager and draughtsperson. While it's true that the business has been birthed from the owner's years of successful experience, by the time their name is on the firm's letterhead, they're mostly busy being a boss. They spend their time managing the amazing group of smart, talented, and capable people they handpicked to be part of the team. And when they're not managing the team, they're out looking for prospective clients to keep the work coming in, and the business successful.

Professional architects are masters at creating ordered and beautiful spaces in which we can all flourish. Considering that the building you build today will last longer than your lifetime, why choose anything less than the best design for you, and for your life?