Abraham Lincoln conducted a successful legal practice for 25 years before he was elected President.  His legal studies were limited to self-selected readings, and there were no regulations to be satisfied before he could call him-self a lawyer.  Two hundred years ago barbers and medical doctors were one and the same, their principal technical expertise that of bleeding patients.

Over the last 100 years things have changed. Our culture has become increasingly complex and inter-dependent. Problems have occurred because of inconsistent professional qualifications.  And it has been recognized that allowing anyone to call him or herself a doctor-lawyer-engineer-accountant-or-architect poses a risk to public health and welfare.

In response to this concern, governments in all industrialized countries have established legislation controlling participation in any of the five classic professions.  The aim of the legislation is to assure a reliable and consistent level of education, training and experience for all those who purport to practice one of the professions.

In Manitoba, formal acts of the legislature regulate the professions of medicine, law, engineering, accounting and architecture.  These acts restrict the provision of clearly defined professional activities, and those who are not qualified and duly licensed are not permitted to perform these specified services.

A key legal precept underpinning these various acts is that ability or knowledge is not the same as authorization to practice; the inmate of Stony Mountain who knows more law than the lawyer is not permitted to practice law; authorization to practice flows only from satisfying specified and repeatable criteria.
The Architects Act of 1914 states that all buildings having an area over 400-square meters require the services of an architect to provide “planning or supervision for others of the erection, enlargement, or alteration of buildings.”

The act also requires architectural services for buildings of any size that accommodate assembly and institutional occupancies – classifications which include restaurants, community halls and churches.  There are some exceptions – rural agricultural buildings, private single-family residences and grain elevators do not require professional architectural services.

Over the past 20 years, a number of buildings have been completed in Manitoba without the services of an Architect in contravention of the Architects Act.  The courts have determined that this practice is illegal (Pestrak vs.Denoon, 2000; and Manitoba Association of Architects vs. City of Winnnpeg, 2005).

The more recent decision has imposed a permanent injunction on the City of Winnipeg from issuing any further permits for construction which contravene the Architects Act.

The legal framework and restricted scope status of the profession of architecture is similar throughout North America. Though there have been challenges to enforcement of acts in many of the provinces of Canada, and in many of the states of the United States, the resolution in every case has been recognition and enforcement of the architect acts as they are written.

Manitoba is the only major jurisdiction to lag behind this consistent direction in legal and administrative process, and the recent decision from Court of Queen’s Bench has done no more than clarify correct interpretation and bring Manitoba into harmony with the rest of North American law and practice.

There are a number of issues which surround the current debate.  Though each deserves its own full discussion, the limitations of space dictate that the following arguments be presented simply as points of information and comment:

Architects are subject to an international accreditation scheme which demands six to eight years of university education, three years of specified practice, nine nationally administered (three to six hour long) examinations, and an ongoing program of continuing education.

The problem which has been corrected by the recent court decision was one of governments misinterpreting their own laws.  The fact that engineers have been illegally practicing architecture has simply been the most visible result of a bureaucratic error.

Architects are trained tested and certified to provide their services for the design and construction of buildings.  Engineers are trained tested and certified to provide their services for the design and construction of the systems of buildings; most often these are structural, electrical and mechanical systems. These are different curricula and different standards of competence, and are not immediately transferable simply because  one (in this case engineers) can read and interpret the Building Code.

There has been a lot of discussion about cost imposed by the recent court decision.  If there are costs, they are short-term costs to solve a temporary problem resulting from a governmental error.  As soon as this bottleneck is resolved, no cost increase should result from following the same laws that govern the rest of North America.

In 1979 there was a similar court case in British Columbia.  The judge in that case noted that, no matter what overlaps may occur and be contested, the fact that there are two separate acts, one for engineers, and one for architects, makes it clear that the intent of the legislature was that there be two separate and distinct professions.

As clearly noted in that decision, the effect of the proposed exemption clause will be to allow engineers to practice architecture.  Allowing engineers to practice architecture would be inconsistent with legislative intent, inconsistent with international precedent, and a violation of the public interest.

 Originally published in Winnipeg Free Press, Saturday, October 1, 2005

Last week, I wrote an article about the declining quality of government office space in our downtown, arguing that we would save money and have a higher-quality environment if governments invested in permanent buildings, rather than renting space through short-term leases.

The example I cited of this declining quality was the leased headquarters for the Department of Indian and Native Affairs (INAC) on Hargrave Street.

The building consists of two parts:  A renovated bus-maintenance facility (more recently the home of Malabar) and a new building immediately to the north.  The renovated portion was photographed for the article, with a caption noting the poor quality of the building.  Because this part of the project is a fairly handsome heritage-quality structure, I suspect there may have been more than one confused reader.

It is the newer addition to the north, rather than the renovated older building, that prompted my concern.

The development of both parts of the project was carried out concurrently, and the difference in quality got me thinking.

For many years, heritage buildings across North America were torn down rather casually whenever highest- and best-use calculations indicated that a parking lot or a new building was more financially attractive.

As a result of continued efforts by concerned citizens and government authorities, heritage buildings can no longer be demolished simply because their owners sees potential short-term gain.

Heritage preservation has become a cultural norm rather than a fringe reaction to “progress” – and the architecture and construction techniques of heritage preservation have also become cultural norms.  As owners, contractors, engineers and architects, we know how to do it, and we do it with reasonable quality and consistency.

Restoration and renovation of a heritage building usually starts with a building of reasonable architectural quality.  The interventions that are made in the building – especially the visible aspects of the building – are made within a framework of well-understood conventions.  And the result of most heritage restoration efforts is reasonably nice enhancement of our urban landscape.

But interestingly enough, the same principle does not apply to the design of new buildings:  there is no industry-wide consensus about what is supposed to be done, no architectural framework or protocols.

When we see a restoration adjacent to a new building – as with the INAC project on Hargrave – it should not come as a surprise that the heritage portion seems well finished and a comfortable urban neighbour.

And without a demand and expectation for quality architecture, it should perhaps not come as a surprise that the new building lacks the presence and comfort of its older sibling.

In any age, most architecture is of middling quality.  Most of the buildings in the Exchange District were built as low-cost warehousing and manufacturing facilities using the technology and the architectural habits of the day.  These buildings were not “high architecture.”  However, neither were they the cheapest buildings money could buy. And there appears to have been a certain level of corporate pride evidenced in most of the buildings we now find there.

It is this level of (admittedly hypothesized) pride in creation which may be the telling distinction between good average buildings and buildings which appear ready for oblivion as soon as they are completed.  We do not have to imitate the texture, style, materials or image of heritage buildings in order to have successful contemporary urban architecture.

But the fact that most heritage restorations are positive elements in our urban landscape, and that some contemporary construction is lacking a message of quality and pride, should give us pause.

Originally published in Winnipeg Free Press, Saturday, May 15, 2004

Governments need space for administrative services and personnel, and in a city the size of Winnipeg, it’s a significant amount of space.

As the governments search for ways to minimize costs, the expense of operating this space is open to scrutiny, and attempts are constantly being made to either reduce these costs or keep them in check.

Several decades ago, both the federal and provincial governments built their own buildings to house most of their administrative employees.

In the long run, this may be the most economical way to operate, but it requires initial (and more visible) spending – as opposed to rental costs, which can be treated as an ongoing operational “line item”.  Because renting space can provide flexibility, and because renting reduces obligations for large initial capital outlays, governments have tended to house more and more of their employees in leased space.

As leases expire (usually after either five or 10 years), governments start looking for the lowest cost space the market can provide.  This has sometimes led to such extremes as accommodating staff in large abandoned steel warehouse buildings in Winnipeg’s industrial parks.  This is perhaps not the best place to house administrative staff, and it can take a while before people remember that a city’s centre is likely a better place for such work.

As this realization takes hold, “downtown first” is re-instituted as priority policy for leasing office space.  The pendulum swings, and we are currently in an era in which downtown offices are again sought for provincial and federal administration.

As building owners and developers compete to attract government tenants in our downtown, they of course must provide the required space at a cost lower than that of all competitors.  As the musical chairs of moving departments to new cheaper-for-the-next-five-years locations takes place, the quality of selected space and of buildings can decline.  This decline can result in lower-quality work environments – and when buildings are stripped to their bare minimum the public environment suffers as well.

A recent example of this decline can be seen in the development of the new headquarters for the Department of Indian and Native Affairs Canada on Hargrave Street.

The building presents an unwelcoming façade.

Materials and details are of poor quality, and the overall impression created by the building is that our government has no aspirations, either to present itself to the public, to tell the recipients of its services that they are important, nor to tell its employees that they are valued.

Three solutions to this situation would lead to higher quality architecture and to a stronger image for the services:

The first of these would be to revert to the policy of constructing buildings for government use, a solution that would probably be cheapest in the long run.

The second would be to enter into long-term lease/buy-back contracts with strict performance, location and architectural standards.

And the third would be to insist on a higher level of architectural and technical performance within the current short-term leasing environment.  Though this requires serious commitment, forethought and management from government tenants, it has been used successfully for some projects.

Originally published in Winnipeg Free Press, Saturday, May 8, 2004

During the 19th and early 20th centuries, the nursery trade in Germany was dominated by demand for slow-growing long-lived linden, basswood and oak. 

This continued through the First World War and the aftermath of the Treaty of Versailles, when the country was in economic ruin. Then, during the 1920s, even with the economy growing healthier, a strange thing happened in the market for trees:  No one wanted trees that would take a generation or two to reach maturity, and everyone wanted quick-growing poplars which would fill out quickly, yet die within a generation.

This desire to satisfy only short-term goals, and to not act for future generations, paralleled a general decline in German society during this period.

It is hard to draw direct lessons, but this tale does make one think.

In Manitoba, the provincial government has gone through periods of confidence in the future.  These periods have been marked by building of high-quality infrastructure.  Pendulums tend to swing, however, and we seem to have moved into a period when inaction – or action of the lowest admissible quality – is deemed to be a duty of responsible government.

A case in point:

When Grand Beach Provincial Park was opened, the Department of Parks, and the political will behind the department, felt that this was a first-class place.  Excellent planning was carried out.  Good quality roads were built.

And some special, though modest, architecture was created – the public washrooms perched on the dunes, and the entry gateway buildings.

There was a message that this place mattered, and that the government was ready to show both the citizens of Manitoba and visitors that this was no provincial province.

Since that original development things have changed.

About 10 years ago, the province constructed a new park management building.

The building sits in a prime public location, yet it looks more like a standard kit cottage than a civic building.  The original gateway buildings at the entries to the beach and campgrounds were handsome, small buildings of concrete, cedar, and laminated wooden beams.  Some of the original work was repaired two years ago, and instead of rebuilding to the quality of the original work, the Parks Department installed a random collection of lumber and casual carpentry to repair the building.  This haphazard construction now greets visitors to the park.

Lack of quality like this in our public built environment may have many causes.

I suspect politicians do not want to be seen spending lavishly.  I also suspect that to avoid the ire of politicians, senior administrators do not demand more than minimal quality in public works.  This fear of pushing beyond the minimum spreads all too easily down the administrative ranks, and soon a culture develops in which the minimum becomes all that is possible.

It is not in the public interest to construct or repair buildings to the extraordinarily low standards that have been set at Grand Beach.  The image we project to our citizens and to our visitors suffers dramatically; the level of confidence we have in ourselves falls; and there are true economic costs that come with telling ourselves and the world that we cannot do things well.

Originally published in Winnipeg Free Press, Saturday, March 6, 2004