Thanks to the old stereotype of the architect hunched over a drafting board, T-square in hand, many people still think that an architect’s main purpose is to draw “blueprints” (nowadays more properly called working drawings).

The trouble with this romantic notion is that it suggests that architects are paid to draw, when in fact, they’re paid to think.

In truth, producing working drawings is a tedious but relatively incidental aspect of the architect’s charge. It’s roughly analogous to taking a novel that’s been written in shorthand and typing it into a computer. The essential creative work–if it’s been done properly–is all but finished, and only the mechanics of formatting remain.

Alas, this preliminary thinking, which is the real kernel of the design process, takes a lot of time and effort and yet may not yield much of a tangible product until much later. Considering this dearth of physical results, it’s gratifying that many people nevertheless perceive why spending 15 percent or so of their building budget on architecture might be a worthwhile investment.

Still, there are also lots of perfectly intelligent people who are mystified, annoyed or even angered that a few sheets of drawings should take months to complete, cost them many thousands of dollars, and further delay them from getting their project under construction. These people quite reasonably reckon that all that money spent on mere paper could buy them a bigger Jacuzzi or a fancier front door.

I can only counter such reasoning by pointing out that architects provide a service, not a commodity. To say that your architectural investment only buys you a few sheets of paper is like saying that the cost of a Harvard education only gets you a lousy little diploma.

There are plenty of familiar arguments for hiring a licensed architect, most of them having to do with the technical side of the process. For one thing, the high level of detail found in a good set of working drawings–far from scaring off contractors as some people fear–actually makes the bidding and construction process easier and more accurate. For another, an experienced architect can help circumvent building-code booby traps that can make for nasty (and costly) surprises during construction. These services alone can save thousands of dollars in lost time and change orders. Hence, that seemingly extravagant 15 percent fee can repay itself quite rapidly.

Beyond these cut-and-dry reasons for hiring a professional, however, there’s one more–perhaps the only one that architects care passionately about–and that is the pursuit of good design for its own sake. Obviously, there are cheaper ways to get plans drawn than by hiring an architect, and no doubt there are times when a design that’s merely “good enough” would probably suffice. But from this architect’s perspective, at least, there can’t be much magic in this kind of undertaking. After all, humanity’s rise over the millennia has come, not from doing things well enough, but from doing them as well as we possibly could.

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