Is Architecture More Than Merely a Service Industry?

I recently came across a blog (schneiderism) where a post discussed the idea of architecture being a service industry.  Technically architecture is a service industry, at least in that it does not primarily provide a tangible product.  But it seems that within the definition of service industry you have what I’ll term the “math” service professions and the “art” service professions.

The “math” service professions can be judged with a prescribed method for determining if the service was done correctly.  What I mean by this is that a checklist can be made of what needs to be accomplished, and when the checklist is complete the work is done.  When an electrician does the wiring for a new light fixture the success of that service can be deemed complete when the light fixture operates correctly and when the building hasn’t burned down to the ground.  The same goes for an accountant, a painter, or even a car mechanic.

I don’t want to come across like the work done by these professionals doesn’t mean anything.  The service they provide can be invaluable, but at the same time their scope of work can be defined in narrow terms and their success can easily be measured in terms of function.

For the electrician their scope of work can be defined by which light fixture needs to be installed, and if the house burns down because of their wiring then their work is considered an absolute failure.  Likewise with the accountant – balance the books and make sure the numbers add up.  If the numbers do add up then it’s a success; if they don’t it’s a failure.  The car mechanic is also limited to fixing what is broken and having his or her success based on the car running properly or not.  There isn’t a gray area.

The “art” service professions are defined by providing a solution to a problem that can be solved a million different ways.  The problems faced by the “art” service professionals lack the narrow definition of what is right and what is wrong, and instead composes of a vast gray area where solutions that are at opposite ends of the spectrum can be considered the correct solution.

Determining how the solution is defined can be just as complicated.  The solution for the “art” service professions invoke feeling and emotion.  Solutions provided by architects, graphic designers, and car designers include both function and form.  Each of these professions can be judged right or wrong by measuring the solution against its function (does the building meet building codes?), but when the function is met it’s the form that invokes feeling and passion that then determines what the client deems the correct solution.

Another difference between the “math” and the “art” is the concept of being viewed as a commodity, meaning that a determining factor for selecting the right choice is based on price.  Because the “math” service professions are judged by function (the tangible) a customer can select two professionals who have the ability to complete the task based on price.  Reputation and experience can be deciding factors as well, but price in more cases than not can decide who is awarded the project.

Price becomes a difficult decider when it comes to selecting someone who deals with the function and the form (the intangible), but of course it has been used as a decider.  Selecting an architect based on price will get you a strip mall – a pseudo permanent building (their typically torn down within twenty years) that meets the clients program and is designed purely on the function of the space, and the form is an exact copy of the prevailing architectural fashion.

The proper method for deciding on an “art” service professional includes personal interviews for the purpose of determining if the personalities can work together, and to build confidence for a selection process that takes a great leap of faith.  It involves the client’s brain and heart.  It takes trust and a belief that the client’s needs and expectations will not only be met but will be exceeded.  The “art” service professions have the insight to fuse the tangible with the intangible for the purpose of creating something that works and inspires.

So to go back to the original question – is architecture a service industry?  Yes.  But is architecture a commodity?  It shouldn’t be.


3 thoughts on “Is Architecture More Than Merely a Service Industry?

  1. Mile High Pixie

    Again, an excellent point sir. Often when my firm doesn’t get a job, the marketing director calls them to see what happened and how we could do better, and the response is quite often, “we just felt good about the other firm, felt like they’d be a better fit.” There are intangible qualities to what a firm or even different architects within a firm that can make or break a professional relationship and a project. And there’s no price tag on those things, no way to quantify them.

    I suppose you can use an architect’s track record, to some extent. You can find out how other projects of theirs are performing, and you can talk to other clients to ask what they’re like to work with. Even then, some folks will still say, “well, they seem great, but they cost X and this other mediocre firm costs X minus $10,000 in their fees.” I have also had clients try to wear our firm down on fee, and we end up doing all the work we were gonna do, but for half the price. Good work costs money. Why do we allow clients to underpay us for good work? (See, but now I’m ranting.)

  2. Eric Post author

    Your comment reminds me of a time when I was working at a Ford dealership in the early ’90’s as a lot attendant. A customer came in and was trying to get the salesman to lower the price on a Ford Explorer. The Explorer was incredibly popular so the salesman wouldn’t budge on the price, so the customer countered with “well, I can buy an Isuzu Rodeo for $4,000 less than this Explorer.” The salesman smiled and said “then if I was you I would go down to that Isuzu dealership and buy that Rodeo because the price you’re willing to pay is the going price for crap!”

    Mile High Pixie, in your instance the client views your firm’s architectural services as a commodity since the client’s final decision for selecting an architectural firm was going to be based on price. It can turn into a vicious downward spiral where an architecture firm agrees to cut its fee in half, then it doesn’t have the necessary fees to do a good job on the project, the project turns out badly, and now it lost money on a project that has ruined its reputation. Now that firm is broke and looks bad.

    If an architecture firm positions itself so that it could walk away from a client who views its services as a commodity (i.e. more efficient office, lower overhead) then it’s better prepared to protect the firm’s integrity and reputation. And in the process it weeds out the crap projects and only works on the great projects, and before long it’s now considered the expert. When you’re the expert people are willing to pay top dollar for your services.

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