This essay was originally presented as part of a live panel on Architecture for the LGREG-West real estate professionals group in Los Angeles, on June 29, 2015.

The premise of the original presentation was to explain to developers and financiers how Architecture can add value to projects through design.  In preliminary conversation with the director of programming for the group, the focus was expanded to include an introduction to what the Architectural design process entails.  In other words, what, exactly, do Architects do?  And, how do they do it?


This quotation is meant to level the playing field, and focus the conversation on what will be an attempt to explain Architecture objectively. As with any creative pursuit, there are no absolutes about what looks good aesthetically to people. Though, arguably, there are design applications that can be observed to be attractive over time. Ultimately, what you like will vary, and I want you all to feel free to do so. The final part of the panel will be when our moderator plays “hot or not” with us and the audience, and we get to say whether we like the buildings or not.

So, what are Architects?  What do we do exactly?  We are visualizers, creative problem solvers.  Via Wikipedia: “An architect is a person who plans, designs, and oversees the construction of buildings. Professionally, an architect’s decisions affect public safety, and thus an architect must undergo specialized training consisting of advanced education and a practicum (or internship) for practical experience to earn a license to practice architecture.”

As a licensed profession, we go through several stages prior to obtaining a license.  First, we have education.  Then, we have a registered internship process of a minimum of 3 years where we apprentice under a licensed Architect.  We then take a national exam, the ARE, currently consisting of 7 separate tests.  The license itself is awarded by each state, and each state can add requirements.  California requires one state exam, the CSE, or California Supplemental exam, which covers a lot of the peculiarities about california, including the water resources board, coastal commission, fire issues, and earthquakes.  States offer reciprocity for obtaining a license in another state, depending on local requirements.

So who do we work for?  Who hires us?  Well, of course we typically work for a client, either a developer or institution.  But what else is on our agenda?  In the interest of transparency, it is important to note what else is going on in your Architect’s head.  One obligation is to people: Architects are obliged to think about the user in a much more dynamic way than an owner, both for longevity and continuous usability of the eventual building.  Another obligation we feel is professional.  As we design, we want our buildings to create better urban environments, relating to context and the environment.  We may also have more personal agendas, and often Architects have specific styles or theories they are promoting as part of a larger condition they are trying to solve.  Be wary of when this obligation may infect your projects.

So, many of you are versed in the architectural design process, but many are not. This slide is meant to explain where the architect fits into the consultant team, and how we become the coordinator for the project.   First, the Architect is hired directly by the owner, and so is the Contractor later on.  During construction, the Architect serves as an agent of the owner, verifying compliance with project drawings and documentation, but not directing construction.

As for consultants, contracts can be developed either exclusively through the Architect, or can be directly between ownership and consultants.  The list of specialists is practically expanding by the day, so here is a list broken down into categories.  I’m open to any additional specialists that someone in the audience is utilizing.  The first category contains the traditional engineers, mechanical, electrical, plumbing, structural, and civil.  These are the primary engineers for a project.  We also typically include a whole host of specialty engineers, which can really mean the difference for a successful project.  These include acoustic engineers, elevator consultants, traffic and transportation, LEED, Building Envelope, technology and communication, security, soils, and consultants with a programmatic specialty, such as kitchens or healthcare.

Other designers are also included in the team, though certainly sometimes these services are offered by the Architect themselves.  Here, I list them separately.  There is Interior Design, Landscape Architecture, Signage and Wayfinding, Lighting Design, and Art consultants.

We also have the more boring category of code and permitting.  Having an expeditor on board is effectively becoming absolutely necessary for many types of projects in Los Angeles, and can really streamline the approvals process.  We also have code consultants, fire alarm and sprinkler companies, accessibility consultants, and Energy/Title 24.

It is increasingly becoming important to include a construction consultant on the design team to ensure adherence to costs and proper detailing.  Architects also typically hire an outside consultant to prepare the specifications.

The next 3 slides contain the phasing of the design and construction process.  There are traditionally 4 phases of design: schematic, design development, construction documents, and construction administration.  In practice, I feel strongly that there is really an earlier phase, the zero phase, that I call concept design.  In this phase, Architects develop strategies for design, analyze sites and existing conditions, prepare zoning analyses, and conduct programming exercises.  Sometimes this stage is called pre-development, and can include financial studies and feasibility as well.

Then we have our typical first phase of Architectural design, Schematic Design.  Here the design moves from concept to drawings form, and a few preliminary engineers can be brought into the team.  The entitlements and government approval process typically begins during this stage, and community input and other stakeholder issues are to be resolved.  This can include architectural review boards and planning commissions.

The typical 2nd phase of design is Design Development.  Here the design moves further to incorporate a full architectural set, and all the consultants are brought on board for coordination by the Architect.  This phase used to be, in terms of architectural production and billing, about equal to that of Construction Documents, the next phase.  But, more recently, as BIM modelling has come into more use by firms, this stage of Design Development has gotten more expansive.  I’m not going to get into what BIM modelling really is, but as a summary it allows the Architect to construct an information based entire 3D model of the building, where drawings become a byproduct of that model.  This can lead to streamlining later on in the construction process, but does require a heavy investment of time by the Architect at this phase.  If you guys are more interested in BIM, we can talk more about it later.

Then we have Construction Documents, where the final drawings, details, and documentation required for construction are completed.

Lastly we have the Construction Administration phase.  Which, really begins with the bidding process.  And the Architect can take varying roles to assist or coordinate with bidding, depending on the owner’s needs.  As mentioned earlier, during Construction the Architect solely serves as an agent of the owner to verify adherence to the design.  We process and approve shop drawings, conduct site visits, process change orders, RFI’s and sketches.  We also approve the payment certificates, verifying the completion of construction for payment to the contractor.

So, where does design come from?  How can we register value through the design process?  Again, I believe it is all ultimately about transparency.  Every design move by the Architect should have a traceable reason.  This chart is an ongoing collection of the inputs I believe inform design, so feel free to suggest additional ones as well.  I’ve categorized them based on general topics: Environmental, contextual, circulation issues, program, stakeholders, and economics.

For Environmental, we have daylighting and solar gain issues, including building orientation and energy.  There is also ventilation, which typically would include just mechanical issues but more recently includes the incorporation of natural cross ventilation.  The health of an end user is also important, and this includes well being, comfort, and other health related issues.

Context can become supremely important to how a building is designed.  Adjacent buildings and urban contexts, existing site features – especially for a more suburban or rural site – and zoning standards can heavily influence design.  For zoning, I know a lot of my experience is designing in New York.  People frequently wonder why certain buildings look the way they do there, and really it is almost entirely zoning reasons.  Developers are maxing out their entitlements, and the setbacks and other zoning regulations become literally represented in the massing of the building.

Circulation contributes to the design of buildings as well, notably in LA with vehicular circulation and parking.  For our designs, one of our earliest exercises is playing between number of required spaces and how large the building becomes, and how these two interplay on the site.  Often, this can control a large portion of what the building ultimately looks like, especially with the costs associated with digging.  The entrance of a building, or how to entice someone to enter can become important, as well as the actual human circulation within a building.  Separate from how one moves throughout a building is egress, which are the fire code implications of exiting a building, and other accessibility concerns.

Program is obviously incredibly important for a design, and includes both direct and indirect uses, which for example, include lounge areas or places to encourage collaboration for an office.  There are also marketing goals, which could be of concern to a company like Westfield.  Though he couldn’t be here today, Steve Dumas says that “experience” is the most important element to how they add value to design.  So, it’s about designing for that lasting impact on the translatable user experience, through social media or anecdote.

The various stakeholders all have to be accommodated in the design, including user groups, the owners, the community, and other elements of civic engagement.

Perhaps the most obvious inputs for design concern the economics of a project, and this includes the cost, size, or construction types, say type III or V, which also begins to determine building height and other constraints.

All of these inputs then formalize into the color, texture, material, shape, and geometry of a building, and what I call the “legibility” of a design, sort of ultimately how a person can relate to the building in order to use it.  These formalizations get inscribed in the deliverables for the project, including diagrams, renderings, drawings, and data or inventory.

Ok, so what does it look like?  Why does it look like that?  I tried to break down some of the trends going on globally, and how they are represented by Architects here in LA.  I’ve come up with 6 different trends.  The first is one of two that incorporate the term “parametric.” But, that has lately become a loaded term, so I’ll just call the first category algorithmic design. And, a good example would be the morphosis building for Emerson College in Hollywood.  If you haven’t been, it’s worth the tour.  This type of design involves scripting or other types of visual softwares that control the precise nature of components of a design.  Meaning, before, Architects would have to physically draw every element of a building.  Now, depending on variables that we insert into algorithmic models, we can control how an entire surface or serious of components look without having to design individual objects.  And you can see that in this undulating facade at Emerson.

Next is what I call curvilinear design.  Internationally, the biggest name here is Zaha Hadid.  Through a complex modelling process more akin to animation software, architects can have the computer determine the sinuous qualities of Architectural space.  A good example of that locally is Belzberg Architects and the Holocaust museum.

Another major trend in Architectural design is one of “differentiation,” whereby architectural elements are varied across a facade to create unique and specific conditions.  The idea here is that whenever you move back a few feet or up a story, there are ultimately different conditions which could be emphasized.  What this type of design can do is create individual spaces, rather than a repetitive or stacked condition. I think Lorcan O’Herlihy does an excellent job with this technique for many of his condo buildings in the West Hollywood area.  This trend adds a lot of texture to the facades of buildings.

Here we have the last 3 styles in Los Angeles.  The first is your streamline modernism, I’m not sure what to call it but I termed it “clean contemporary.”  I think Koning Eizenberg does an excellent job with their projects, and I’ve put Hancock Lofts and 28th Street apartments up as good examples that utilize the clean lines, attention to detail, and abundant use of exceptional materials to create contemporary spaces.  You could extend this style to include, for example, what Westfield now does for Century City and other malls as well.

The next style, is, well, I’m not sure where it comes from.  I’m going to turn slightly subjective here, and call this trend “Boxy Modern.”  It’s becoming quite common in Los Angeles now on all the type-III multi-family projects.  I think it may originally come from some notion to break the scale of the facades down.  But really it just looks like random boxes stuck onto a building.  Avalon Bay communities is a proponent of this design technique, with their projects in Hollywood and Little Tokyo.

The last type of style is a reference to historic Architecture.  I think it’s important to include this because ultimately, people like it.  So, it’s something to consider when designing a project.  I chose a couple of buildings from Playa Vista which incorporate this strategy, with different levels of success.

These are the typical parts of an Architectural Contract, according to AIA document B101.  I’m not planning to go into it in detail, though if you guys are interested, we can head back here later.  Just wanted to mention section 7, whereby the products of Architecture are typically “instruments of service” and remain copyrights of the Architect for the direct use of the project only.  Though, apparently, large developers often alter this item, and own the drawings outright during and after construction.

So now for Alternative Project delivery.  Architectural services have splintered, and hybridized with other adjacent professions to create new types of project delivery.  The first one is the two part team of a Design Architect and a Production Architect or Architect of Record.  This is becoming more common as a way to get the speculative and research based design skills of a smaller firm with combining the expertise of a larger more experienced firm.  This strategy was employed by the One Santa Fe project.

Also very popular now are Design Build firms.  These collaborations can take on multiple forms, but mostly engage the single family residential world.  You have a combination Architect and Developer, Architect and Contractor, and the catch all everything company, where even marketing and a real estate brokerage are included in the business model.  A successful project I’ve toured recently was Buzz Court by HeyDay Partnership.  They construct small lot projects in the Silverlake vicinity.

Partnerships and joint ventures are another type of project delivery, usually entities created for the purposes of one single project.  The first type is created for RFPs, where a whole project can be delivered by a design and development team for, typically, an institution or government agency.  Here we have a good view of the new courthouse going up across the street by SOM.  Design firms also enter into joint ventures for the purposes of a project, or can team up with developers.

At the all-inclusive end of Architecture firms are conglomerates, such as Aecom, which really combine all the design elements and even construction services under one umbrella.  Aecom has their own in-house architects and engineers.

Lastly are what the AIA calls Architecture Plus, or I call design hybrids.  And this is fairly typical, where an Architecture firm offers interior design or landscape design, or even industrial design.  Rios Clemente Hale would be a good example of that, where they don’t really develop the distinction between disciplines so much.  Architecture Plus also includes advanced feasibility analysis and financial development consulting.

Lastly, there a lot of terms, organizations, and acronyms in the Architecture world, here are a few of them.  And, we can come back to these if you guys have questions or would like to discuss them.