As a boy, when I visited my dad at work, the most interesting thing in his office was a tall drafting chair that you could sit on and spin. Well, that and a huge bucket of colored pens.

Today, my office doesn’t have a single drafting chair and I’d be hard pressed to find the colored pens. Architecture has changed from a generation ago, and so has farming. Some of you might still have memories packing sheds that really were sheds, rather than the multi-million dollar high-tech facilities they are today.

A head of lettuce, is still a head of lettuce, but everything about bringing that product to market has changed, especially the facilities.

Land is forever, but facilities change

It’s a cliché that change is constant, but changes in food security, global competition, consumer demands and government regulations mean that the buildings you build today will not be exactly the buildings you need tomorrow.

As it is right now, buildable land in the Salinas Valley is scarce. Most of what’s out there has challenges—that’s why it hasn’t been developed yet. When resources are in short supply, it becomes even more important to use them wisely.

That’s why I’m arguing that when facilities and land use decisions consume a significant portion of your company’s time and treasure, it’s time to bring a trusted architect into high-level meetings where facility and land use decisions are being made.

You wouldn’t make a decision with legal ramifications without having a lawyer in the room, and you shouldn’t make a major facility or land use decision without an architect in the room.

I know, you’re probably shaking your head right now. I’m well aware that architects have a reputation for being the prima donnas of the construction industry. Avoid them when you can, and if you can’t avoid them altogether, make sure you limit their scope and bring them in after the big decisions are made–decisions like what to build and where to build it.

Hammer isn’t the best tool for every job 

If that has been your strategy in the past, I hope you’ll consider a new strategy for 2013. It’s in your financial interest to find a trusted architect and then keep his number handy. To be clear, maybe I need to coin a new term. What you need is architectural counsel at a high level. Let me explain why.

Architects don’t just design buildings. The design function is important, but as plenty of do-it-yourselfers can tell you, you can find designs on the Internet. The value add that architectural counsel brings to your company (beyond the legal requirement for specific projects) is a broad and deep understanding of the built environment, from land use issues to codes to industry standards. And, when you include architectural counsel in your high-level discussions, you have an unbiased professional who can provide both objectivity and perspective.

Andrew Maslow, creator of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, was the first one to say, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

Here’s the thing about talking to an architect before you decide to build: In evaluating facility operations and land use decisions, they’ve got a whole toolbox to work with and they aren’t biased toward any particular outcome.

Starchitect versus problem solver

Yes, there are some architects—so-called starchitects—who consider themselves designers above all else, and they are happiest when they are pushing the envelope of what’s possible.

But, those aren’t the majority of working professionals, and they are fairly easy to spot. The architect you need to find will come to the table with your best interests front and center. Not, how can I make a statement, but how can my expertise help find a solution?

Buildings don’t exist in a vacuum, context is important

In that capacity, the architect isn’t just looking at the design of one building, but how to make the built environment work best for the client’s immediate needs and long-term goals.

Consider the client who walks in the door and says he needs a new 30,000 square-foot warehouse. He’s got a site picked out and he’s ready to go.

In his mind, he’s saving time and money because he already knows what he wants. And, if he has walked into a contractor’s office with his proposal in hand, he probably thinks he’s saving even more because the contractor promises to jump right on it. To a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

But, if that client were to talk with an architect about his proposal, the first question wouldn’t be, “Are you sure 30,000 square-feet is enough?” It would be, “What are you trying to accomplish? What problem is this building supposed to solve?”

Suppose our imaginary client responds that he’s having trouble getting product to market and the existing warehouse is perceived to be a bottleneck.

With an eye toward a speedy and cost-effective solution, an architectural counsel would want to know how the current warehouse is being used. Are there ways to use the space more efficiently? Is there technology on the horizon that might change everything? What are the applicable codes and regulations that would come into play with a major renovation or a new building? Would additional dock doors make a significant difference—at significantly less cost?

Keeping your goal in sight

“What do you want to accomplish?” is always the starting point for discussions of site selection, renovation, new construction, building design and flexibility for future growth.

Think about visiting a physician. Sometimes you have a good idea what’s wrong, but other times you have no idea. Either way, the physician is going to ask about your symptoms and come up with an independent diagnosis that either confirms what you suspected or takes into account possibilities you hadn’t considered. That expertise is what you are paying for, and it’s why you don’t go directly to the pharmacy in every situation.

But back to my legal analogy. Most business owners consider it good practice to have an on-going relationship with a lawyer or legal team. Considering the many decisions large and small that have legal ramifications, it makes sense to be able to pick up the phone and call a legal advisor who is familiar with your company, your strategic objectives and how you like to do business.

That’s the role architectural counsel can fill when it comes to decisions about facilities or land use.

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