The Architect's Handbook of Professional Practice

On the surface, a book about architectural business management, but at is core, a thesis on values and culture.


Table of Contents


Running a successful architecture firm is, fundamentally, about running a successful business. We have certain unique considerations related to the profession, but business is won and lost with first principles.

Coming in at over 1000 pages, this very comprehensive Handbook covers all the legal, technical, and socio-economic factors that practice founders or runners will need. This applies to a broad spectrum from one man bands to global multi-office firms. Although produced for a US audience by the American Institute of Architects, much of the advice can be applied globally.

If we stripped away the cover of the book, many of the general management principles would sit comfortably in a handbook for any other profession, fundamental as they are.


Now in its 15th edition (2014), the Handbook represents an unbroken line of evolving traditions since its first publication in 1920. It is the closest thing we have to a consensus narrative of the profession in the United States, providing a snapshot of not only the institutional norms but also the societal values that they manifest.

Two-thirds of the content is wholly new, since the previous edition in 2008, reflecting the vast economic, technological and cultural developments since then. This includes new chapters such as Diversity and Demographics, Career Development, Public Interest Design and Research in Practice.

A large and imposing book, it does not project an invitation of an easy afternoon’s reading. It works best as a reference text, with multiple entry points that can be read in any order, but it is also, generally, an invaluable resource to those in practice, and could easily be read cover to cover. We will take a further look at the history of the handbook itself.

If this wide-ranging book has a single theme, it is that architecture is based on physical and moral foundations. The various chapters and topics raised are all subsets of this core belief.

The art of the exercise

Tellingly, the Handbook begins with a reflection on ethics – those of virtue, social contract, deontology, and consequentialism. It is solidly a philosophical reflection, bringing historical thoughts to the present, as they come to life in the values of architectural education and practice today.

Regarding Kant’s dismissal of consequences … “Architecture education, too, has had a strong focus on design intentions, with relatively little attention paid to design results, as we learned from post occupancy evaluations of buildings.“

Or the observation by philosopher Peter Singer, who argues that we must consider the consequences of all sentient beings: “This presents a major challenge to architecture, which consistently degrades the habitat of other animals in the process of creating the habitat of human beings. Were architects to consider the impact on all sentient beings, buildings would like to be much more energy conserving, environmentally friendly, and ecologically diverse than most are now“.

Within a few pages, the authors strike at the heart of our key contemporary challenges.

However, Part 1 concludes with the dubious affirmation of architecture as “the mother art”, together with a rallying call for architects to focus on design and aesthetics as the element with which they will bring most value to the project. The architect is implored to ‘background’ the ‘contingencies’/‘externalities’ as much as possible and focus on the ‘art’ of the exercise. We know the consequences of taking this route, and so we must read the remaining 98% of the book with this in mind.

A toolbox

Architect Alejandro Aravena and others have challenged us to employ architectural skills from the point of view of a set of tools (to understand society), rather than from a specific artistic or class-based position.

Here, the authors point out that the US Bureau of Labour Statistics identifies the following skills that an architect needs:

  • analytical
  • communication
  • creativity
  • critical-thinking
  • organisational
  • technical
  • visualisation

If this is indeed the toolbox that architects have at their disposal, then we are very well-placed to address the challenges of the 21st-century. The key, however, is to engage with those tools, from first principles, and discard class-based ‘professional’ lenses that get in the way. With a clear line of sight between our tools and the challenges in society around us, we can re-visualise their relevance to the challenges at hand.


Given that “economic cycles are the most powerful business force facing the architecture profession”, the chapter on financial management could not be more critical.

We can imagine larger firms having the resource capacity to track external indicators, and employ various methods of diversification to mitigate the boom and bust cycles – geographic, building type, and service type. This is not always possible with the small firm or one-man band.

Nevertheless, it remains an essential capacity. Therefore, the small firm, to match the tracking and mitigation abilities of the larger, should find ways to federate with others. Cooperatives have shown the way in this regard as their principle No.6 (of 7) requires cooperation among cooperatives: “Cooperatives, serve their members most effectively, and strengthen the cooperative movement by working together through local, national, regional and international structures.” Cooperation is, of course, not unique to this business type, but since this is a pre-requisite for cooperatives, we can observe a long history and variety of the strategies there.

Integrated project delivery

Randy Deutsch’s section on Integrated Project Delivery (IPD) is particularly relevant for us, as this collaborative model is a direct precedent for how we might go about assembling a project team.

It is worth listing his ten IPD principles in full:

  1. Mutual respect and trust
  2. Mutual benefit and reward
  3. Risks identified and accepted early
  4. Collaborative innovation and decision-making
  5. Early involvement of key participants
  6. Early goal definition
  7. Intensified planning
  8. Open communication
  9. Appropriate collaboration technology
  10. Organisation and leadership

If we didn’t know better, we might have thought that these were the characteristics of a multi-stakeholder cooperative. If not, cooperatives can provide the example.

Perhaps we will also see IPD DAO’s in the future.

Strategic design

Bruce Redman Becker makes a critical point in the section on architect-developers. Apart from the important observation that the taboo against getting involved in development has diminished in recent decades, he goes to the heart of what we might otherwise find in the realm of strategic design – namely, participation in early-stage decision-making.

In their traditional role, architects are engaged when almost all the critical decisions have already been made. However, by taking the reins of the development process, architects are engaged at the outset, with strategy.

The barrier to entry is quite high, given the financial demands of real estate, however, we can observe similar examples when architects build their own home or carry out projects for those close to them. Redman Becker also points out that these arrangements allow for a life-cycle engagement with the project, through the operation and maintenance phase.

Home truths

As architects, why do we do what we do? What motivates us?

For those with children, what time do they have to picked up from school, or younger ones from the nursery? Post-pandemic, how many of us are grateful for the opportunity of remote work?

What do workers really want?

Typically, we work to earn a living, to use, and develop our skills, and presumably to fulfil our potential in life – both personal and professional. The 2012 SHRM (Society of a human Research Management) Employee Job Satisfaction study of US workers had a wish-list that included growth opportunities, camaraderie with coworkers, and a strong relationship with superiors … but work-life balance emerged on top. For all the financial and professional potential embodied in working life, well-being was the priority.

A decade before the Covid-19 pandemic, another SHRM survey on remote work found that employers shifted their focus from “where, when, and how work gets done, to the results and business impact of the work“.

This suggests to us that work structures that foreground well-being will increase the probability of a healthier workforce, with greater productivity and staff retention.


Professions come with different types of handbooks – the employee handbook or ‘office manual’ immediately comes to mind. The Architect’s Handbook of Professional Practice, however, is neither a dry list of rules and regulations, nor a visual reference book of design norms. It is, in values and content, about the culture of architectural practice.

Formally, it goes back to 1920; however, it represents, from an American perspective at least, a summation of the experience of design and management in the built environment, that reaches back centuries into history. The glossary of terms alone runs to 23 pages.

It is a reminder of the breadth of knowledge and experience that the profession of architecture is founded upon.

Author: American Institute of Architects
Year of Publication: 2014

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