The Case Against the Architect
By KENNETH MELLANBY UNIVERSITIES, schools and research stations must build vast new laboratories in the next few years, if scientific progress in Britain is to continue. Many scientists and architects are con- cerned about this problem. Architects, quite rightly, look upon it as an opportunity for fine building. Scientists generally are worried, lest too high a proportion of the limited funds available is spent on what they consider to be mere `architecture,' so that too little will, be left for working laboratories and essential equipment. Architects will, I think, agree that their job is to design a beautiful building which is an efficient place to work in, and which is as economical as possible. Few scientists believe that they achieve, or even care about, the second and third of these objectives.
Architects have a difficult task when they design a laboratory. Many of us, scientists and architects alike, have not yet disabused ourselves of the great aesthetic fallacy of the nineteen- thirties concerning `fitness for purpose'; the idea that a building (or a piece of equipment) which is efficient is necessarily also beautiful. Thoroughly efficient laboratories can be made in hideous Nissen huts or untidy shacks, and shockingly bad laboratories can be aesthetically pleasing (from outside at least) and can fit in harmoniously with larger schemes of building. The main trouble the architect is up against, when he talks to the scientists, is that whatever he does he can seldom produce a more efficient 'machine for working in' than an ugly, cheaply erected shack. For this reason some scientists, who have all too little money to build and equip their laboratories, believe that architects make these buildings unnecessarily expensive and would debar them altogether from participating in their design.
At this point some architects may wish to counter-attack. They may say that the savings obtained by erecting 'shacks' are generally over- estimated, and are often negligible compared with the expense of installing the laboratory services needed by the scientists. In my experience this is quite untrue. It is at the root of the lack of confidence many scientists have in architects. It is often expensive to install services, such as electricity (several voltages), gas, water (high and low pressure), 'compressed air, fume cupboards and the like, but this is generally because the architect makes the installation expensive. On a small scale this is demonstrated when a scientist wishes to adapt a room as a research ,laboratory. He calls in a builder, and shows him what he requires. In a few days he will have his bench, sink, taps and plugs in the places where he wants them. And the bill is £50. If he calls in an archi- tect, and explains what is required, six months later he will be presented with a beautiful draw- ing, where everything is in the wrong place. After interminable wrangles he may despair of getting his way, and accept some modified drawing. After two years the job is completed. It is inferior to the builder's effort. The cost is £500. And he will probably have to spend another £100 rectifying the architect's mistakes.
On a large scale, and in a new building, the extra expense on services caused by the interven- tion of architects in fitting up the building can be, enormous. In these matters the architect, who may think of himself as the channel between the client and the builder, is often in fact not a channel, but a barrier. The scientist generally knows what he wants, and the practical builder knows how to give him it. Our plumbers have a wealth of practical experience, and will not design drains which run uphill or taps which cannot dis- charge into their sinks (two of the commoner mistakes made by architects). The scientist, the builder, the plumber can all talk the same lan- guage, and each can make suggestions as to how the job can be done more rapidly and less expen- sively. So often the architect seems to live in a world apart, out of contact with both sides.
I do not wish to prevent architects from design- ing laboratories. Indeed, I believe it would be a tragedy if this happened. I believe that good buildings are important, particularly in univer-. sities, where they have a 'humanising' effect even on scientists. But unless good buildings can be produced cheaply there is a risk that they will not be produced at all.
I consider that the scientist in charge should start by asking the architect to design an empty building at a cost within the means of the institu- tion, allowing a good margin for mistakes and keeping back sufficient money for fittings and equipment. Within this shell, the architect, and the professor can then discuss the lay-out of the building. Their discussions will keep within prac- tical limits and some of the present time-consum- ing misunderstandings may be avoided. When the lay-out of the rooms within the shell is agreed, the architect will be responsible for erecting the building itself, but his responsibilities will then cease entirely. The internal fittings and services will be the direct responsibility of the professor and the builder. Of course, in very large univer- sity developments, and in buildings to be occu- pied by several 'independent departments, some degree of co-ordination will be required, or there will be almost as much chaos as we have at present. Considerable responsibility may then have to be given to a Clerk of Works, someone who understands about plumbing and electricity —he must on no account be an architect ! I am sure that this procedure will produce much better laboratories at much lower costs, and that far from restricting the opportunities of the architect, it will give him greater scope for working in the medium he understands. Many scientists consider that the unsatisfactory and expensive plans for laboratories are, partly at least, due to the fact that most architects' fees are based on a percentage of the cost of the building. I do not myself think that any reputable architect deliberately puts up the costs in order to swell his fee, but there is little in most con- tracts to encourage economy. I would support the introduction of contracts which guaranteed a fixed fee for a building, whatever the total cost, with perhaps a bonus payment if it did not exceed an agreed total. The galling experience is to pay an additional fee every time a variation order is issued to correct a mistake the architect himself has made in designing details of the services.
I do not wish to leave the impression that all the faults lie with the architects, and none with the scientists. Many scientists do not know what they want, or ask for the wrong things. They have often given, for instance, the idea that laboratories must have huge south-facing windows, as a result of which many modern laboratories, like some schools, are almost uninhabitable to man and lethal to biological material when the sun shines. Then much time and trouble has been taken when architects have been asked to produce buildings which are 'flexible,' on the assumption that requirements will change rapidly. I think this search for 'flexibility' is a mistake. A radical change in even the most flexible building will make a lot of mess, and conversion and adaptation by a builder is much easier than many people imagine. Finally, scientists are really very adapt- able people, and can make reasonably efficient laboratories out of almost all types of building —except perhaps out of those expensive palaces designed specifically as laboratories by some of our leading architects!
'If you ask me, it's the weather that caused the H-bomb.'