It doesn’t count if it doesn’t get built

September 10, 2012 — 61 Comments

I fully expect to have some people disagree with me today, even go so far as to unsubscribe because this is the post that they finally decide I am truly an idiot (something that they should have already figured out quite honestly…)

.Frank Lloyd Wright - Studio for Ayn Rand


Last week I wrote the following line:

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, it doesn’t count if it doesn’t get built.

– Bob Borson


That line prompted a lot of people to send me an email to let me know that I was wrong, that I wasn’t considering all the angles, that there were ideas in those projects that didn’t get built that could serve me well down the road. I even had good friend and fellow architect Jody Brown from Coffee with an Architect write an article because he couldn’t get that comment out of his head. His article, titled ‘What architects do doesn’t count‘ came out and included this phrase:


…I mean in general, my work isn’t about a built project. It’s about a vision of an unbuilt project. Or more specifically, my work is about visualizing an as yet realized building. My work isn’t a physical thing that you can order from Amazon. My work is not a thing at all. It’s a path to a thing.

– Jody Brown


I like Jody quite a bit and would generally concede that he is smarter than I am but I think he’s only telling a small portion of the story. I should say that I think he’s right about visualizing an as yet unrealized building – but every single building that any architect has ever worked on fits this description. Getting the work built is what makes it real and tangible and not just an idealized version of a possibility.

What about a chef that doesn’t cook? Could you imagine going out to dinner and having the waiter explain to you the vision for that night’s specialty (probably something with foams, sperification, and prepared sous vide) and then the waiter brings out an empty plate because it was a concept that might lead to other actual realized specialties? I suppose what I am trying to say is that you can talk about food all you want (and people do like to talk about food) but until it shows up on the plate and you can actually taste it, I don’t think that counts either. There is a lot that goes into making a dish than the concept – call it the execution – and any architect who tells me that their project turned out exactly how they drew it is full of baloney (pun intended). Maybe that’s a lazy analogy but it’s just one that comes to mind. As architects, we strive to create buildings and spaces that shape and impact the lives and experiences of the people who use and interact with them. Anything less is a disappointment.

What about the person who spends 5 or 6 years attending architecture school, then spends another 3 or 4 years going through the NCARB experience requirements, and then never sits for the architectural registration exam? Seeing something through to completion is important to me regardless the circumstances.

The point I was trying to convey when I wrote  “it doesn’t count if it doesn’t get built” was not to discount the process or the value the experience might convey. I have worked on a lot of projects that have never come to fruition and I have some sort of disappointment associated with every one of them. I became an architect to get things built, to get my ideas realized, to shape the lives of the people who use them – all of these things.

The process, the path, the journey …whatever you want to call it – they all have value but the people who come to us for the services we provide are looking for a way to  realize some vision that they have and they need the help of an architect to articulate it. Nobody really cares about the drawings we create – those are a means to an end but it is that end that brings us to work. Jody is right that … no one is ever passionate about actual pieces of paper … but rather what those pieces of paper represent – a realization of something ethereal, an idea, a possibility. Getting those dreams or needs realized in built form is why I come to work. If all the work I put in was never actually seen through the entire process and actually built, I wouldn’t be an architect.

But it would seem that I am alone in this regard … or at least in the minority.




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  • Hoi Luc

    There are architects and there are “paper” architects..

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  • I think for all of us beginners, believing that the journey counts more (or as much) than the built result is important to keep our confidence up there and avoid any inevitable moments of desperation….
    But I have to agree that as pretty, conceptual, inspiring, revolutionary, etc as drawings/ideas can be, Architecture remains a palpable realm, it is meant to go 3D and be experienced physically. I love my conceptual renders and ideas and do count them as experience but at the end of the day, who doesn’t love seeing their drawings being materialised?

  • Will G

    Well said Bob… a million drawings will never convey the true wonder of experiencing the built work

  • Brandon Tyler Carr

    i do like B.I.G.’s way of designing buildings. how they utilize several different concepts for one thing, and if something does not fit properly, in their eyes. Boulee was know, not for his built work, but for his theoretical buildings.

  • isreal

    Great architects are not known for their great works on paper, but for their great works that are seen (built). i prefer to do one design that is built and sleep or play the whole time that i would have used in doing ten that is not built

  • L. Brian Woodroof

    Unbuilt musings, sketches, and drawings have their place. They form the body of Architectural Theory, which informs the process. Architecture is about the embodiment of the idea into a physical, built reality. Unless it is built, it is not complete.

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  • Nathan

    I have been working for a landscape and city planning firm in China for the last 5 months (I have really enjoyed it too), unfortunatly nothing I have designed has been built yet (which is embarrassing to me). You have to understand that in those 5 months I have had 6 large projects, 4 of which are still open for review and changes… so not all is lost. But the two that were turned down were a blow to my pride.
    For the most part my thinking is that all the design work and presentation are just conceptual. They are great ideas that would be even better if realized, BUT until they are built… they are just cool concepts and people can’t enjoy walking through a concept or enjoy the enviroment you have drawn on paper. It needs to get built to be enjoyed!

  • vic pellerano

    Vic Pellerano
    I agree with Jody Brown – Architecture as in many fields, for example, music are pathways, a jumping off point if you wish. All projects have value, some in tangible aspects and others in spiritual ways. I do understand your reference to the completed building. Why, write music or poems if no one will listen or read them. Your point is well taken. However, the essense of an artist is to create, it becomes the artist’s truth as he see the world around. If in 2 or 3 dimenional or even in his head, it still has a value. Playing to empty chairs or tracings of unbuilt structures, may seem useless and senseless to the non-artist, but, why have we become Architects, Engineers, etc. Not for the money,
    it is something inside of us that compells us to do it. Michaelanglo’s father would slap him, when he saw him sketching. It was not a revered way of supporting a family. It did not work, as we all know. Anyway, we are all in a seperate community when it comes to the ARTS. we see thing diffently and move to a different drummer. Some people will not enjoy or understand our passion.

  • what about Archigram and its influence… you sound to me more like a civil engineer… since most things in Architecture Theory are intangible, but give that extra umph! say, the soul of the building/proyect.

    • sound like a civil engineer? That doesn’t even make sense.
      Theory has it’s place in academia which can influence architectural practice but I am in the business of designing projects that get built.

  • ekta khera

    you say “What about a chef that doesn’t cook?” in reality the situation of a building on paper is more like a chef who has given the ingredients and method. the comparison does not stand the way you said it.

    • that is how I intended it – thought that’s how I presented it

  • I agree, if it is not built, it doesn’t count. Just stick it in the bottom drawer of great ideas, maybe it will see the light of day another time.

  • I have been interested in the field of Architecture since I was just a boy. I have grown as an artist and technical thinker and planner. Yet I still am not where I want t to be. It is my dream to be an architect. I would agree with Mr. Borson, “It doesn’t count if it doesn’t get built”. Mainly because being an artist, I only have paintings and drawings of things that aren’t practical. It does not shape anyone lives physically, maybe psychologically. I love art, but architecture is where the money is really. I want my creations to be more practical. I would agree, “it doesn’t count if it doesn’t get built”. dreams can be put on paper, but it’s the satisfaction of seeing that dream be erected for everyday use that I want to experience….

  • Scott

    Does it count if it gets built but you didn’t get all your fee? Or how about if it doesn’t get built but you got paid? This is a job right?

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  • john noble

    Great article and fun comments but in the end, you are absolutely right.

    Ideas and process are powerful and can be influential with a life of their own, but they are NOT architecture. Architecture is something that has texture, resonance, light and shadow, that one can walk through and smell and hear the echos of conversations and footsteps. All the rest (drawings, models, renderings, visioning sessions, charrettes, power-points and contract documents) is the vital process that is necessary to create the real experience of a real place in the real world.

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  • Eric

    Count me in your minority Bob. I think your friend Jody is too caught up in the tools of Architecture.

  • Gordon

    Bob, I love this article. How very Howard Rourk of you.

    Not sure
    if it’s been said yet, but the unbuilt might not be worth much but it
    could get you an AIA award. lol. As if that means something. You walk a
    client or prospective employee past the wall of awards. “Oh look what’s
    that for?” response “it’s for a great project”. “where is it. I’d like
    to go see it.” “oh well it wasn’t actually built”. *puzzled look*. “but
    look the award says it’s awesome”.

  • Ideas matter

    Architectural concepts often have far more of an influence in shaping an era than a specific building that exemplifies it. It’s not an either or proposition, of material over the immaterial. Without a driving idea, built or not architecture is simply…building.

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  • I agree with both of you. How about that for diplomacy? Perhaps if the general public had more understanding of the creative process and how to visualize and interpret what the technical drawings mean, how they are used, and what they indicate, then we wouldn’t be arguing about their value. If there’s no point of reference, if there’s no way to make something understandable to someone that has no experience with it, they’ll never be able to assign a value to it (and I mean emotional and psychological value, not necessarily monetary value). We that are in the A & D fields sometimes take for granted that people understand what we’re drawing and what the drawings convey, and most of the time they don’t.

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  • Alex

    Hi Bob,
    I’m from Israel and I enjoy your blog very much. I completely agree with you. For me an unbuilt project is like an unborn child. It hurts but it’s a part of life. I feel there’s too much talk about buildings. What we really are into is peoples lives and their experiences in the buildings we design. If they cannot experience them, then it doesn’t count. It isn’t always about budgets, and not always there’s someone to blame. It just happens. But unless people are experiencing the buildings we design our job is not complete

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  • pepperpots

    Perhaps Architecture has lost its essence since design seems to revolve around budgets and not so much on vision. Is the project budget to blame for these unrealized designs? Is it best for an architect to design around a budget to avoid the disappointment of a design not being realized? It seems that when these designs exceed the budget a lot of details have to be removed ending up in a version with only highlights of the owner’s dream and architect’s original design/vision. It is unfortunate but ultimately true.

  • I can understand why some might disagree, but for the most part I agree with this. But I’ll give you an argument for the inverse. Leonardo da Vinci had sketchbooks with ideas ahead of their time, including an idea for a helicopter. While many of his concepts did not get built they may have inspired someone to develop the idea into reality. Architectural designs can be the same way, just because it doesn’t get built on site A doesn’t mean it won’t be built on site B, or the design inspires something elsewhere. So absolutely if I design something I want it built; otherwise I feel empty.

    I talked to my structural engineer about a project where his client is rehabbing an old warehouse that should just be torn down. The engineer has had to retool three times to accommodate the changing design resulting from the client not making up their mind. He apparently gets a reduction in fee on his E/O insurance for things he engineers that are NOT built, so there are a couple of ironic liability and financial benefits.

  • Raymond Bowman

    I would tweak the phrasing and say that “if it can’t be built, it doesn’t count”. I wrote a post about this on my blog, and summarized it this way: detailing is where the rubber meets the road. Floating planes, ambiguous materials, perfectly evenly lit surfaces, all look nice in the computer, but if you can’t get them out, then they don’t do any good to your client. And if you want to look big picture, I think of all the Utopian urban design theories that were all the rage many decades ago. In theory they worked great, but in reality they were awkward or even dangerous. I think for architecture to “count”, it has to be buildable and functional.

  • Dave Anderson

    As architects, at the end of the day all we actually have is the vision. Unless, of course you are a true master builder and do design/build. To paraphrase Katie, “if you just want to “build” things – go into construction.” To truly get things built, you not only have to have the vision, you have to be able to both convey that vision to others and sell it.
    That said, it is the chance to design and imagine things that gives me the joy of my profession. At our best, we are a 3-dimensional problem solvers with the ability to convey our vision to others and convince them that we have the answer to their problem. Sometimes, those “problems” are hypothetical (think design studio) and other times the funding can’t be achieved or circumstances change. That doesn’t make the problem any less real nor does it render the solution invalid. My past un-built designs have made me a better architect. Some are pure folly. Some are absolute genius (I guess I just couldn’t “sell” them!). Either way, they haven’t been built. That does not make them any less a piece of architecture.

    • Dave, I am not going to argue that going through the design process doesn’t have value – I think I said that in my post. I am however going to say that the very definition of architecture is the art or practice of designing AND building structures.

      that having been said, you can go fishing without catching any fish.

      Thanks for commenting Dave – I appreciate it.

      • Cory

        Perhaps the definition of architecture is wrong..?

  • Geoff H

    Its all about the building, if it wasn’t there would be no need for the design in the first instance. The end result is where its at, its where i learn the most, its where i get the most critical and crucial feedback from my harshest critic … me.

  • Andrew M

    So, does it count if it got built and was later demolished? Or are you suggesting that it not only has to get built, it has to last?

    • Having your project demolished is a different subject for discussion but no – I am not inferring that your project has to get built AND last in order to count.

  • I’m with you on this one Bob – “I became an architect to get things built…”

  • Anon

    I never want to work for Kate.

    Also do you have any of FLW renderings for Henry Rearden?

    • I’m sure Kate is lovely and sorry, I don’t have any FLW renderings of Henry Rearden. I don’t think I’ve ever seen any

      • Sayan

        Poor guy Hank just missed out FLW. Maybe Howard Roark could have helped.
        And Hi from India Bob, love your blog! (yeah, yeah I know Ayn rand wouldn’t like me)

  • Agree completely Bob! One of the best aspects of this profession is that at the end of the day (yes, it is a looooong day), we can point to a building and say “I designed that”. It is the difference between the person who tells you “I had the idea for and the person who tells you “I designed the “. Having an idea or a vision is one thing, greatness comes with a successful execution of that idea or vision. For us, that is our built work.

    • Thanks Justin, it is a thrill getting something designed and built. It’s really great to see that building or space evolve over time as well – those things never get old, it’s part of the reason I love being on the job site so much.

  • Claire McCusker

    I also see the value in getting your design built. It annoys me that architects don’t see the construction process as an important ( and most challenging) part of the process. Design drawings are a form of communication, like art the value in the work is in its interpretation by the people who experience it. These include the contractor who uses your drawing to build the structure, the client that occupies the space or the man on the street who simply walks past. Are these people’s response to your work of less importance than that of the architect who created it. In truth no architect has achieved his purpose if he is not able to expose his work to the general public and have an impact on someone elses life.

    • the challenge is what makes the end product so sweet – in fact, the more challenging it is to see something through to completion, the greater the sense of accomplishment. Getting to share that with the users/ observers is a gift to me

    • Agreed, though good architects know that very well. It is also important to convey to the client that the architect needs to be retained for construction administration. The budget clients like to cut this phase out to save on costs. A relative of mine had a contractor redo their kitchen, and while it turned out okay there were a lot of things that cold had been done to save cost and improve design. For example, they had a skylight put over a new island and the location of the two was not coordinated, so the suspended lighting around the skylight doesn’t line up with the island elements as it turns the corner. They also totally removed the walls from the kitchen to their living and dining rooms. Saving some of the wall would had saved cost and given a cozier feel that is now somewhat cold and too open.

  • Bill Kleinschmidt

    In the past 12 months, I’ve had 3 projects not get built for various recession-related reasons. I am bent!!! The sets of plans / sketch-up models for each one are cool, but I will be infinitely more fulfilled experiencing the the actual spaces.

  • Kate

    Hmmm. Trying not to have a knee-jerk reaction and run off crying…..

    (But no. Seriously – I am one of those people who DID finish architecture school, and fulfilled all the NCARB req’ts while working for a very high-end residential/ecclesiastical firm. I’ve been working as a Proj. Arch/Designer for the past 13 years. Still haven’t sat for the test….)

    Have some of my projects been completed? Yes. Have some of my projects been built in part? Yes. Have some of my projects been cannibalized, and chopped-up and reassembled in horrendous ways (either due to “difficult” clients, bad builders or other constraints…)? Yes. Do I completely disown/discount/deny the “incomplete” projects? No. Because I feel I (and/or the clients) have taken away a little something, learned something new, solved a problem in an inventive way on EACH and EVERY project. That’s what I do.

    If I just wanted to “build” things – I’d go into construction. 😉

  • I agree! Until it’s built, it is just a pretty picture! There can be philosophical ideas in the drawings, but we are in the profession of creating buildings that hopefully rise to the level of art. A major challenge in a world cramped by codes.. Until it is built and you know the roof doesn’t leak, the HVAC system works as intended and it ideally exceeds the client’s expectations, you can’t claim to be complete! The unbuilt plan resides in the ephemeral world of dreams.

  • jayorr5

    I agree with Bob. The idea that unbuilt work does not count as architecture in the full sense does not demean the process of design. It is the opposite. It includes the physical realization of the design work as PART of the process.

    I think that gets at one of the issues in architecture as a profession at the moment. What counts is not JUST the process of design but the product as well: the realization of the process in a physical structure.

    And judgment over the quality of the work should not be rendered at the moment you hand the keys over to the owner based upon how photogenic the project is. Wait and see how the building persists in time. It should take 10, 20 or even 30 years of use before you can really evaluate the success of a project.

  • Sheri Scott

    SLS has a good point about if you are actually a part of the construction process. Also, as a residential architect myself, I believe the mindset is different when designing a home vs a commercial building. I don’t feel that my project is complete until the life it was designed for is being lived in it.


    A corollary would be that, once constructed, a building must stand alone, on its own merits. All the pretty and beguiling words and histrionics the architect may have used to convey or ‘sell’ the concept to the client are for naught if the built structure doesn’t express the spirit that was intended.

  • I got to agree with both you & Jody – and I think it depends on when one considers their work mostly completed. I know plenty of archies that never show up on a project until the wrap party, while others like you are there throughout the whole process.

  • I am curious if someone wrote a piece of music that would never be played think it was a great piece of music. I have alway remember a quote I attribute to Aldo van Eyck ” The purpose of architecture is to build meaning, so get close to the meaning and build.”
    I’ve been working in architecture since the 70’s and it seem every recession we have there is an increase in the school of thought that the built form isn’t as important as the process.

    • Deane

      There’s actually a new Beck album out right now that consists of a collection of sheet music. It’s up to the buyer to interpret it and play it.