In Newfoundland and Labrador, the involvement of an architect is mandated for certain types of buildings. These regulations keep people safe and minimize loss in case of a disaster, make buildings inclusive, keep water out, and heat in.

But there are other more qualitative reasons for involving an architect that have less to do with upholding standards, and more to do with that touchy feely stuff.  Fundamentally, architects are responsible to think creatively to help people, companies, and governments develop buildings that will enhance the activities that animate them.

As a professional, an architect has a social responsibility to assure that the building contributes positively to the lives of the people who use it: Schools foster learning, Healthcare facilities provide healing environments, and housing suits lifestyle and makes us feel like we are safe and grounded.

The architecture industry in our province isn’t well. Over the last 10 years the province has changed from awarding contracts based on who knows your cousin, to the lowest bid. I wouldn’t look for the cheapest doctor or lawyer, because I acknowledge the importance of their job. So why would I go for an inexpensive architect?  This has created a paradigm where few architects are focused on great design, instead they are focused on their businesses surviving.

Other provinces have gone through similar cycles of looking for something cheap and immediate instead of valuing quality. In Nova Scotia, for a while, the fees got so low no one could do their job properly.  Market forces caused many architects to do such a limited amount of work they couldn’t possibly design good buildings. The built environment suffered.

Since then, they’ve wisened up. Around 2011, Nova Scotia started changing their model from selecting architects based on the lowest bid to focusing more on quality. Consequently, Nova Scotians are now starting to reap the benefits of this change.

The best illustration of this change is the new Halifax Public Library. The design of this building was awarded to a team led by local architects who partnered with a Danish firm. The library has won countless awards and garnered international attention: the Lieutenant Governor Award, a spot on CNN, and publications in Wired and EnRoute magazines.

In 2006, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities collaborated with the National Research Council and the Government of Canada to publish a guide to Selecting a Professional Consultant. This document states that when investing money upfront in architects, engineers, and other consultants, this investment pays for itself at a rate of 11:1 over the life of a building.  Consulting fees make up only 3-4% of the life cycle cost of a building. Paying professionals a little bit extra gives them the time to do their job properly, drawing fully on their expertise.

Recent proposed change to the Public Tendering Act in Newfoundland and Labrador has the goal of moving towards a more Quality Based Selection (QBS) process rather than awarding contracts based on price. In theory, the proposed changes are positive, but we have to pay close attention to the regulations that more closely define the broad stroke goals in the Act.

Community centres, hospitals, schools, and other public facilities in this province depend on this Act.  Architecture has a profound impact on our wellbeing, economy, and environment.  Let’s be smarter about this and hold our government accountable to its promise of doing the same.