Architecture and Externalities: Our Achilles’ Heel

I’ve been thinking lately about the relationship of our profession, architecture, with other disciplines and working methods that address themselves to solutions, recommendations, and decision-making. Specifically, I’m thinking about our profession’s attitude to “externalities” in the solutions we propose for our clients.

In earlier posts on this blog we’ve discussed the architect’s working method as one of balancing and juggling priorities. This accent on the balance of things, on relationships, distinguishes our profession from many activities, and distinguishes architecture from building. Here’s a link to that discussion, called “What is Design“, that we posted last September. We believe that our complex world needs these skills, and seek to apply them to our projects and for the benefit of both clients and the public.

There’s a fundamental flaw in our profession’s approach, however. It has to do with our attitude to issues and priorities that other participants in the project process see as outside the decision-making box, where we think they’re inside. This attitude sets us apart from many other participants in the project process, and often leads to our lack of involvement in the first place. It’s hard to hire and pay for someone who isn’t concentrating on your priorities to the exclusion of all else. That’s only fair, in a world of customer expectation.

Let’s look for a minute at this concept of “externalities“. In short, an externality is a consequence or effect that sits outside the box, not taken into account in the design of a decision, or product, or process. Classic economic examples relate to the imposition of public costs through private action, such as the air pollution caused by our decisions to commute long distances and separate land uses across our cities. The air pollution is an externality in our decision equation. Its consequences are borne by all of us, separate from my cost of commuting.

Architecture is a profession that notionally includes a role for ideas of public good and public benefit in the designs and decisions we create. We are allowed to practice as a self-regulating profession precisely because we are tasked with bringing these issues to the table in our work. Other project participants (the investor, the builder, the building inspector, the engineer for a particular piece of the building) advocate for one or two issues, and see everything else as external (and thus not taken into account in their recommendations or requirements). Architects are trained for a larger view, and mandated by law to include many issues of public good (even only if at the level of minimum standards of fire safety, energy conservation, and accessibility). Adding to this burden is our concern for the effect of our projects and decisions on the quality of our communities.

How many disciplines  allow so few “externalities” in their work? This is one of the reasons that architects are recruited for so little work in our communities. Too much baggage!

Here are some examples, even from within the public professions themselves.

The medical doctor designs solutions for a patient’s health without regard to cost. That is an externality to the public health system. The doctor doesn’t take into account that spending a public dollar on this treatment may mean that someone else gets no treatment at all. The health system is designed to make this someone else’s problem, not the doctor’s.

The lawyer advocates for her client’s point of view whether it’s a good one or not, and sometimes regardless of fact and truth. Someone else needs to argue the other point of view. If it never gets presented (think OJ Simpson), too bad. The other point of view is someone else’s responsibility. That’s the legal system. Lots of externalities there.

For building projects, investors focus on their return, often using very short term thinking. If the project is being sold immediately to others (such as a condo or flipped development project) then long term issues such as quality of construction and concern for building operating costs are treated as external to the decision-making process.

Building projects, especially private investment projects, involve a pile of external consequences:

for users, the public, for subsequent owners,

and for the sustainability of our society and planet as a whole.

Our problem as architects is that we somehow can’t stop looking at these issues, and trying to juggle them in the design solution. This is often in direct contrast to others in the decision-making team, who want the solution focused more narrowly. That’s why they don’t hire us unless they are required by law to do so.

This is the fundamental tension in our profession. We spend large amounts of time and resource to juggle issues in design solutions that others, including our paying customers, see as externalities. Our fundamental flaw (the Achilles’ Heel of the profession) is that our advocacy for integrated, quality, balanced solutions means we pay attention to things that others do not see as important to the task at hand. Given this approach, and the largely capital-investment-driven world we live in today, why would we be hired at all?

As we move forward in building our communities using private investment initiative, this dilemma isn’t going away. It’s likely to get worse. My only consolation is that the architect’s method of integrated, holistic thinking, and our ability to juggle lots of often contradictory externalities, is going to be needed at some point. I hope we get there before a system based on isolated solutions collapses under the weight of its external effects. Wish us all luck.

We’d like to know your thoughts on this subject. It applies to many circumstances and projects, in all kinds of sectors. I’m sure we’re not alone in balancing and thinking about these challenges.

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