Commentary – The Master Builder – How The Role of Architects has Evolved and Where You Can Find the Modern Version of the Master Builder

Over the past few months, I have had a few of notable interactions where the role of Architects in construction was the topic of conversation.


The first interaction was when I received a call from a Construction Manager friend and ex-colleague who wanted to know, “Are there ever circumstances under which I would recommend a Design-Build delivery model to a Client?”

It was a loaded question, as I later learned he was launching a private practice centered on the notion that he could deliver a complete project as a single point of contact.  During the call we discussed the risks of a Design-Build model and reviewed best practices for delivering projects using this model. 


Several months later, I found myself on a panel discussion hosted by the Denver Chapter of the American Institute of Architects.  The discussion was one of eight (8) sessions which make up the Christopher Kelly Leadership Development Program.  

The primary topic for this session was Contracts and Negotiations, however, there was an underlying topic of the role of Architects in construction throughout the discussion.

History of the role of Architects

Since the beginning of my Architectural career, the role of the Architect has always been in question.  Discussion almost always begin with complaints over the current state of the profession followed by regret over having lost the status of Master-Builder.

I did a little research and found a great thesis paper written by Chad JonesChad Jones is a Construction Manager in Salt Lake City Utah with a Masters in Construction Management.

In his thesis, Jones writes, “The roots of the architect can be traced back to the times of the Ancient Greeks. The term architect, or arkhitekton in Greek, was the title given to the master builder who would oversee the design and construction…The head builder would assume the responsibility of the design and would work out all construction details throughout the construction process

The Architect’s Role in Modern Times

In modern times, Architects have a much more limited role. 

Under the best circumstances, Clients engage Architects at the programming stage to develop their concept.  The Architect then takes that concept and develops it into construction documents that can be passed onto a Builder.  If the Owner is savvy, the Architect will have a role during construction.  During Construction the Architect assists the Builder in selecting materials and walks-through the site periodically to ensure the construction aligns with the design.

Unfortunately, there are well-documented circumstances where instead of engaging directly with the Architect, Owners engage the Builder first, allowing the Architect to operate as a sub-contractor to the Builder.  In these circumstances the Architect’s role is far more diminished.

That is a far cry from the role of Master Builder.

How Did we Get Here?

So how did the Architect’s role become so compromised? 

According to Jones’ research, the role of Architects evolved dramatically from the time of the Dark Ages through the Renaissance.  First as a master mason and ultimately to master builder, Architects were in fact tradesmen skilled in the art of masonry.

As the modern world sought more decorative buildings, the role of Architects expanded to include artists and sculptors that were outside of the building trades.  It is at this time that we see the term Master Builder and Architect separated.

In Colonial America the abundance of wood as the building material of choice meant that carpenters assumed the role of Master Builder.  However, once again, the role quickly expanded outside of the building trades as the desire for more complex and elaborate designs gave way to a group of “educated elite” who relied on tradesmen to erect their designs.

These “educated elite” sought education at the first school of architecture at le Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris.  By 1857 the founding of the American Institute of Architects laid the foundation for the modern version of Architects we know Today.

What History Tells Us

The History of the Architect’s role shows an evolution that adapted to society.  In the early days when masonry was the material of choice, masons took the lead.  As building materials evolved so too did the master builder.  The ever growing complexity of designs further expanded the role.

In our modern era, the complexity of construction techniques has led to specializations.  Today it is common to see firms specialize in specific sectors of construction.  In some cases we even see specializations on particular building methods. 

Architecture Practice Today

Today, modern Architectural education is a rigorous 5 year program followed by a 3 year apprenticeship.  Those who get that far will then sit for a 6 part professional exam which tests skills such as; project management, space planning, construction detailing, and knowledge of building systems.  Only then can the title of Architect be used.

A particularly interesting change has been the evolution from small single-person Architectural practices to multi-national Engineering, Procurement, and Construction Management (EPCM) firms.  These firms which combine a broad range of Architectural, Engineering, and Construction disciplines under one Company represent the modern version of the Master Builder concept.

This evolution acknowledges that the breadth of construction is so vastly evolved that no single person can master all of that knowledge.  Building in the modern era requires collaboration and experience from a large number of individuals.

Why Architects will never Regain the Role of Master Builder

Architects will probably always lament the loss of control and most will continue to romanticize the era of the Master-Builder.  However, I suspect very few of those who bear the title Today would remain if modern Architecture was practiced as it was back then.

First, Master-Builders were tradesmen, who’s day to day experience was filled with back-breaking work most people shun Today.  This was (and is) physically demanding work which most of my fellow Architects would be unable or unwilling to perform.

Second, Jones shares, “Rarely would these gentlemen accept payment for their designs. Therefore, the competition with the building artisans was not financially driven; it was a competition for the title of architect…“.  I cannot think of a single Architect who would be willing to offer their designs for free.

Just last week I attended an AIA conference where the chat was blowing up with Architects declaring that they should be paid more for their designs.

Finally, and most importantly, modern construction is way more complex than it once was.  Buildings are complex machines with multiple building systems.  Construction methods are far more complex and construction materials are far more advanced than ever before.  In modern times, It takes hundreds of collaborations across multiple disciplines to build even the most basic structures.


The specializations we have Today are the result of the complexity of the built environment.  Architects are at the helm of those specializations and while these advancements may have required us to cede control, it is our Clients who benefit.

Let us not forget that we are not mere artists.  We are Architects taking on the responsibility to realize our Client’s dreams.  Whether that be a new home, a new business, or a new hospital, the mission is not to design for the sake of design.  The mission, ultimately is to create space.

What do you think?  Have Architects given up too much in modern times?  Will we ever regain the control we once had?  Tell me your stories.

Thanks for reading.  If you enjoyed this content, please feel free to browse my previous articles and please like, share, comment, and subscribe.  This helps promote my content and is greatly appreciated.

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