Architects and problem solving

How might architects delve deeper into the problems they’re asked to solve or those that they've identified.

Architects are often asked to solve a problem for their clients or work on a problem they’ve identified. Whilst I’ve previously argued that design is not problem solving, nevertheless it’s often an architect’s commission. My interest here therefore is in a consideration of an architectural design process that might be more appropriate for problem solving. As Cedric Price observed,

“The best solution to an architectural problem may not necessarily be a building.

Cedric Price

This post is not to criticise, it’s instead to rethink and challenge a problem solving process that always delivers a building.

Architects understandably love to design actual stuff. It’s how they’re trained and it’s in their blood. It’s hard to walk away from that opportunity. Most architects come to the profession with a vision and training to design buildings. Subsequently designing (& deliver) buildings is the majority of the work that an architect is engaged to do too. What to do when this may not be the best solution, albeit the obvious one? It might be that architects need to get more curious and challenge their own process.

Getting curious starts with questions. It starts with identifying and interrogating the actual problem to be solved.

What is the actual problem?
What’s the root cause of the problem? It’s not necessarily the one you’re being asked to solve. If you solve the wrong problem, your solution is likely to be wrong too. A useful way to identify the problem at the heart of the matter is to use the five whys. Repeatedly asking ‘Why’ to every answer identified, up to five times. (The Wikipedia article linked here gives a clear explanation.)
Consider, for example, the current problem of housing affordability. As an architect it might be possible to design cheaper buildings and develop innovative housing models. Ultimately however when asking why housing is unaffordable the conclusion (and ultimate problem) is more likely to be economic than built.

What are all possible solutions to this problem?
Having identified the actual problem, it’s time to do some problem solving. It’s possible that this will take architects out of their comfort zone and their area of expertise, and it’s worth persisting with this brainstorming. Architects are creative, have a breadth of knowledge and are capable of ideating a multitude of ideas, built or otherwise. It’s also worth noting that when crossing over into areas outside of their expertise, the lack of preconceived ideas and assumptions is often an advantage.

Now with a broader range of ideas relating to the actual problem, it’s design time. Testing solutions, iterating and seeking specialist input where necessary. Of course the design might not be a building, but it might. It’s also conceivable that now the problem is clear and a possible solution identified, it might be necessary to get different experts involved and walk away from the project. This is the hard part and I suspect the reason architects often won’t walk this path.

However the problem solving process plays out when designing, it’s invaluable to always be curious, and always question…

What is the problem this is solving?

Is this the best solution to the actual problem?


Picture by Anna Shvets on Pexels [cropped & edited]

Hi! I’m Michael

I’m an architect and coach. I help architects rethink their practice and support them as they uncover better ways to work. I’ve worked in architecture for over 25 years, and I ran my own practice for 14 years. I understand architectural practice from the inside out. Fun Fact: my NSW architect’s registration is #10 007 and I have a license to skill.

I believe improving practice takes asking hard questions and deep listening.

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