Being involved in every stage of a job gives architects more control over the finished product-and can translate into higher fees, says Barry B. LePatner.
Peter Reitzfeld Being involved in every stage of a job gives architects more control over the finished product-and can translate into higher fees, says Barry B. LePatner.

Architecture is increasingly the focus of media attention, but architects are, in some ways, less significant than ever, says Barry B. LePatner, a New York attorney who has represented architects, engineers, and property owners for more than 30 years. Only a small fraction of buildings are designed by architects, he points out, and even when architects are involved, they typically take a back seat once ground is broken. The days when architects oversaw projects from conception through completion have given way to an era in which construction managers (or owners' representatives) have usurped much of that role. In his new book, Broken Buildings, Busted Budgets: How to Fix America's Trillion-Dollar Construction Industry (University of Chicago Press;, LePatner describes what is wrong with the current system and suggests ways that architects can help—by retaking their rightful place as master builders. Be there. “If you're visiting the site once a week for a walk-through, you're not seeing what goes up,” says LePatner. “Once the sheetrock is in place, you may never know what's behind it.” Architects, he says, “need to show that they are going to be present at every stage of the job.” Doing that will give you more control over precisely what gets built and will make you indispensable to your client.

If you don't understand construction, hire someone who does. “The architect used to know as much about construction—and construction costs—as the contractor,” LePatner says. “Now, most architecture firms will admit they do not have sophisticated, construction-savvy people on staff. I have recommended for many years that architects hire people from the contracting world. Put them on your team and have them work with you on design docs and specifications. If the client can build from your drawings, you can remain in the picture.” And remaining in the picture means not only having more control over the finished product, but earning higher fees.

Invest in technology. These days, software makes it easy to stay on top of a construction project. With Wi-Fi, you can run a project from a laptop at the job site. If a change order is required, you can have it approved by the client in minutes. And software costs are no longer prohibitive. Technology makes it possible for even small firms to control large jobs.

Expand by contracting. In the 1970s, says LePatner, the AIA set out to reduce architects' exposure to malpractice suits by reducing their involvement in the construction process. Before then, the AIA's standard agreement required architects to provide “full-time” oversight during construction; the new version reduced that role to “periodic observation.” That change marginalized architects. Construction managers and owners' reps stepped in to fill the void. But, LePatner says, “it isn't too late to retake the ground that was lost.” One way to do that? Make sure that your contract gives you the right to visit the site in order to protect the owner against unwarranted substitutions or deviations, and that it stipulates that the contractor will be responsible for the costs—including your fees—of making the necessary corrections.

Form a design-build team. “Learn how to work with a contractor you trust, setting up a design-build entity that will market specific building types that you are knowledgeable about,” says LePatner. “For example, small medical facilities are being built all over the country, for 6 to 10 million dollars apiece. One of these buildings can bring a design-build team a sevenfigure profit for about 18 months' work. This is a perfect way for architects to get themselves back in the game.”