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The generalist architect vs. the specialist architect


The generalist architect vs. the specialist architect

By Gary Harris, AIA | SRG Partnership | February 9, 2015
The generalist architect vs. the specialist architect

Image courtesy SRG Partnership

Upon graduating from architecture school so many years ago, I embarked on a career wide-eyed and full of vigor to design wonderful buildings and public spaces to be enjoyed by mankind. In school you aren’t necessarily trained to specialize in any one building type or facet of practicing architecture. But a funny thing happens as an architect’s career develops. Some people end up working in firms that specialize in certain building types, like hospitals or schools. Pretty soon they become very knowledgeable about that building sector and they become specialists. However, the need for designing for a certain building sector can wane and those specialists have a hard time adapting to the discovery process needed for designing other types of buildings.

Some of us end up taking a different course. I started out working for an A&E firm where, besides drafting plans and details for the senior architects, I drew structural details, HVAC plans and riser diagrams, electrical power and lighting plans. This work didn't exactly satisfy the creative nature in my architectural soul, but it taught me valuable lessons of collaborating with different disciplines and learning a whole lot about how buildings are put together. I soon moved on to another firm that specialized in K-12 schools. I did that for five years before moving to a firm that did mostly commercial office buildings. And then eventually it was back to public sector architecture, which is what revs my engines.

I have been a project architect while working for a few different firms on underground transit stations to high-rise buildings to airport terminals, from libraries to museums to higher education academic buildings. Add in churches, apartment buildings, and single-family residences, and in a flash of three to four decades I have become the consummate generalist. I have been able to participate in a broad spectrum of building types, and in all facets of practice, from schematic design to construction administration. I am good at doing many things, but I am not an expert in any one thing. I am more facile than the specialist and can adapt very easily. The specialist can be more streamlined and expert in their chosen specialty, but they are limited if they want to expand their business.

The corporate world today quite often insists on hiring specialists, but the generalists have an intrinsic quality to adapt to new horizons or even cultural shifts in the market. Carter Phillips, author of "Evolutionaries: Unlocking the Spiritual and Cultural Potential of Science’s Greatest Idea," states that generalists will thrive in a culture where it’s becoming increasingly valuable to know “a little bit about a lot.” It takes a generalist to “weave the ideas of a specialist into a broader fabric of understanding.”

I think the most successful firms are generalist in their nature but are smart enough to have a right mix of both on their staff. If you can bring that specialist to the table to convince a particular client that you have the best team, your chances for success increase. Eventually, a firm that develops a resume of a variety of building types and services will be the most successful in the market.

So the debate will no doubt continue. I will leave you with these “fighting words” from each camp:

The trouble with generalists is that they know less and less about more and more, until eventually know nothing about everything.

The trouble with specialists is that they know more and more about less and less, until eventually know everything about nothing.

About the Author: During his 40 years of architectural practice, Gary Harris, AIA, has worked as project manager and project architect for major academic, civic, and institutional facilities. More on Harris.

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