Despite the fact that architects generally rate very high on survey’s regarding the respect people have for a profession (after all, George Costanza always wanted to be one), I find most people have very little idea of what an architect is and what he does. The simplest way to explain it is he or she is a licensed professional who has been through this before.
Think about construction for a second. In the case of a home, it’s very likely that the client has never and will never do this again. It is often the single biggest financial commitment a person will make. Is it really wise to attempt it without someone to lean on for advise and technical expertise? In the case of a commercial development, the developer may have a lot of experience building buildings, but they can still benefit from the expertise and experience of an architect who deals with all of the various code enforcement agencies (and depending on what you’re building, there can be a lot of them) and negotiating the best solutions to problems and playing middle man between the owner, the various contractors, and the enforcement agencies. In the case of a church or other institution, the worst of both worlds applies with inexperienced owners and multiple enforcement agencies, added to what is usually a committee approach that means someone needs to play referee between the clients as well.
An architect can help all of these people in a practical way due to the way we are trained. We are professional renaissance men and women. We are taught a little about a lot of topics and we learn where to go when we need to know more. In school we have classes on structural design, HVAC design, electrical design, material selection, basic physics, sustainable design, form making, function planning, detailing, etc. It’s a lot of material and we don’t cover it in a lot of depth, but we learn the basics so we can be informed at the early decision making stages about what not to do. Once we enter the field, we learn more specifics as they apply to projects we’re working on. We make contacts with vendors, contractors, developers, surveyors, engineers, and more and these contacts are something we bring to the table to help people get projects done. By the time an architect receives a license, he or she should have a broad education, a few areas of special instruction or experience, and a large rolodex (or if they’re a bit younger, smart phone contact list) full of people they can count on to ask questions or solve problems on a project.