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Relevance versus Regulation – A Reciprocal Relationship

Over the last 50 years, a profession of trusted licensed generalists has fractured into a sea of diverse specialists who increasingly base their methods on risk avoidance versus the public interest. As the public has felt increasingly disenfranchised by this shift, the trust in that profession has waned to the point where the government has responded.

Although the above may also be true for my profession of architecture, I am speaking of medicine. Healthcare and construction are two huge economic engines that have both experienced top-to-bottom effects from technology, litigation and, most important, a crisis in clients’ confidence. The sense that each profession has been tone deaf to the consumer has set the table in medicine for some form of national healthcare to be imposed on a country where the free market used to be sacrosanct, and has meant the nature of architectural practice has been pushed through ever finer sieves of governmental oversight at every level of government.

“Back in the day,” architecture was viewed as the “mother of the arts.” This somewhat New Age description aptly describes the sense that the practitioner of the “mother of the arts” was someone who had an all-encompassing knowledge and open-ended skill set—a professional who could absorb, control, and finally triumph over perceived limits of buildability, environmental impact, and cultural relevance.  Since World War II, the perception of the architect as the open-minded yet innovative leader in the mode of Thomas Jefferson has been deeply compromised.

Each obvious failure of a Pruitt-Igoe housing project, a John Hancock tower, or the anecdotal never-ending water leaks has chipped away at the sense that architects are fonts of useful innovation, environmental integration, and cultural inspiration.

Somewhere along the way, it became unfashionable for architects to be concerned with very many things that were not of the fine-arts world. The "epic fails" and gross miscalculations of practical application are there for all to see. The 40 years between the demolition of Penn Station in New York City and the New Haven Coliseum in Connecticut defined the profession as a group playing with itself at the cost of everyone else. It takes only one Boston City Hall to turn heroic intent into mockery.

If public confidence ebbs in any element of our society, that trust vacuum gets filled with a more binding set of external controls to keep us all safe against any potential threat by those who miscalculate—to our collective detriment. The most obvious cause-and-effect exemplar is healthcare, but other areas where perceived risk births government oversight are all around us.

In the world of finance, the grotesque miscalculations of those who manipulate money were vice-gripped by federal regulation in the Dodd-Frank Reform and Consumer Protection Act. When Three Mile Island left people trembling as they looked at the more than 100 nuclear reactors in the United States, federal regulations were amped up to virtually prohibit any new reactor from being built. When various food products proved to be unsafe as modern, huge-scale farming methods made safety uncontrollable by farmers, the Food and Drug Administration jumped in with more specific limitations of what can and can’t be done.

Federal regulations are created when the sense that our collective safety is compromised by incompetence or self-interest. When former president Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency, it wasn’t because everybody felt good about the environment; it was because people were sickened by it. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration was created to respond to an increasingly de-unionized workforce that felt threatened in the workplace.

Of course with every new regulation, the legal community rejoices, and often lawyers fan the flames of public angst and entitlement to widen their client pool. But public-policy profit centers for law firms follow in the wake of perception; they do not create it.

The practice of architecture is directly regulated by at least 50 entities—the United States of America—in wildly varying degrees. In the last generation, “the controlling legal authority” of state governments has amped up its level of explicit specifications and inspection in direct proportion to the loss of public confidence in architects’ abilities to effectively protect the public’s interest. New agents of state, county, and local authorities have been created to deal with things such as the protection of historic architecture, the preservation of the natural environment, and the specific risks of coastal construction, not to mention the interests of those who are handicapped and the need for energy-efficient buildings. Additionally, village districts, historic districts, and architectural review boards boldly went where no regulatory body had gone before: aesthetics.

Essentially, the ebbing moral authority of “the mother of the arts” practitioners has caused a withering of the architect’s role by a thousand cuts of government intrusion and regulation. This would be an outrageous power grab if it weren’t for the fact that we have lost the public’s confidence.

Accurately or inaccurately, the cultural meme is that architects prefer to create our own gauges of value and worth independent of the rest of society.  The narrowing of the lens of what architects value in building design has been mirrored by the broadening of the regulations they are subjected to. We are seen as ignorant of the interests of communities and the personal interests of those who use our buildings, as well as of the costs to build a building, to maintain it, or to heat and cool it. Perception is often reality, and when those who ensure something as fundamental as the delivery of healthcare or the responsible design of buildings have lost the confidence of the general public, people want protection from unregulated practitioner self-interest.

It is significant that in my home state of Connecticut, the licensure of architects and other design professionals falls under the state’s Department of Consumer Protection. Interestingly enough, on one level, enhanced regulation may have worked: claims on architects’ liability coverage peaked in 1983 with an average of 44 claims per 100 firms. Since then, claims have leveled out to an average of 22 claims per 100 firms—and only one in four claims result in a pay-out. But clearly there is still political value for a government to be seen as protecting consumers from what we might be selling them.

If architectural education and professional recognition ignore the practical details of holistic building design to focus instead on formal expression, then they create the birthing room for new or enhanced roles for other disciplines. Landscape architects, LEED Accredited Professionals, interior designers, and consultants of every stripe have all taken on roles that the general public once comfortably trusted to architects.

The vast majority of these disciplines have worth, merit, and usefulness, but their increasing necessity to create a viable path to building is directly proportional to the exploding number of regulations that are accreting on to the design/permit/build process.

Over the last generation all the national building codes have had a dramatic rise in the quantity of regulations they impose.  The bulk of this enhanced specificity limits the window of judgment left to architects.  As with any adaptive being, architects, in response to this changing world, often act as newly mandated interpreters of these intrusive regulatory requirements. A cottage industry of architect intermediaries now deals with the regulatory minutiae in urban, coastal, environmentally sensitive, or historic environments. They have become the technicians navigating the labyrinths of government control—all set up to protect society in ways that were once entrusted to the good judgment of ethical practitioners of architecture.

My office is the design architect for a house in California that needed 13 consultant firms (geotechnical, archeological, hydrological, and on and on), two years of applications and hearings, and more than $600,000 in soft costs to get a building permit for an as-of-right project, set half a mile inland from the coast with no wetlands or watercourses to deal with. In some municipalities, the approvals process has become a very effective jobs program.

You reap what you sow.

When Frank Lloyd Wright postured, “If the roof doesn’t leak, the architect hasn’t been creative enough,” the people who wanted to stay dry began to question whether architects could be trusted. Even Howard Roark needed a buy-in of faith that the visionary could actually see the full impact of his work. Unfortunately, architects have come to produce works of “dog whistle” appeal—a pitch so generally indiscernible that only other architects can recognize its appeal.

Meanwhile, the rest of society has taken the several hundred thousand of us with professional architecture degrees and given us perhaps 80,000 jobs that use that training. Relevance keys value, value creates demand, demand determines the useful supply. No matter what the state of the economy is, we have never, ever, come close to “full employment” as a profession—our suppressed fees verify this condition. Our growing irrelevance ultimately means architectural practice is in oversupply in a free market economy—despite whatever enhanced utility we have in an increasingly regulated process that requires more “consultants” to chart the ever-more-byzantine path to construction.

In a democracy, it is the squeaky wheel that gets the regulation. When architects treat aesthetic consensus with an attitude of religious infallibility and entitlement, there is cultural blowback. That attitude breeds a fear that we are not acting in society’s best interests. Society’s natural extension, government, responds. “Let them eat cake” definitively ended one reign of arrogance. Ours may also be ending without our having a say in the decision.