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What truly makes a 'professional'

'Professional' is today an increasingly misunderstood and abused word. As architects, subject to high levels of client expectation and responsibility, we should give careful consideration to the conditions necessary for delivering a professional service. They are becoming ever more elusive.

We read of professional footballers, athletes, rally drivers and even professional car salesmen. In the first three examples, 'professional' merely indicates paid activity - in the last, the term is meaningless.

The salesman's objective is to maximise profits on sales. Some salesman are, of course, more reputable then others, but their prime duty is to their company - not the purchaser. But the essence of a 'professional' service is the application of knowledge, skill and judgement that is primarily in the client's best interest. Sometimes the work may even be beyond the client's comprehension.

Medicine, possibly the second oldest profession, offers many clear examples of professionalism. The surgeon must advise his patient where a hip transplant is unwarranted, perhaps recommending physiotherapy instead, thus forgoing all opportunity of financial gain. The patient's interest accordingly takes precedence over any commercial gain for the surgeon. Traders, on the other hand, may offer discounts for hip and pelvis replacements in the interests of sales.

Some readers will think these comments outdated, even outrageous. But such distinctions are very important, particularly at a time when our capacity to deliver the quality of professional service that the courts expect of us (if we are unfortunate enough to be sued) is increasingly threatened by those who meddle with our terms of engagement.

Back to the medical analogy: no one expects surgeons to perform open heart surgery without anaesthetic, a sterile environment, appropriate resources and support, proper preparation and adequate time. In contrast the architect's working arrangements are frequently adjusted, abbreviated, interrupted, shortened, or restructured (often, and without consultation, by qs firms or project managers) in ways that seriously damage our capacity to exercise our professional competence. Do not let this happen to you - such excuses provide no defence in court.

Only last week I learned of one architect who had been commissioned by the developer for scheme design, novated to the builder for production information, and then novated back to the developer again for settlement of the final account! You can guess what that game was all about . . .

Another architect saw no conflict in acting for both developer and builder simultaneously. Try telling that to the judge.

Make no mistake: as architect it is your responsibility to establish and maintain conditions conducive to delivering a competent professional service; you must not let others make arrangements that adversely affect your capacity to achieve the standards expected of a reasonably competent architect. Either negotiate appropriate terms - fees, programme, responsibilities - or, difficult as it may be, you should resign. Otherwise, the costs to you, your pi insurer, and our profession, may ultimately be too heavy to bear.

Architectural education continues to shift towards design at the cost of technical and practice-related areas. The courts offer no concessions to these trends. So, where necessary, get wise. Make sure you establish and maintain the knowledge, skills and conditions appropriate to the delivery of a professional service. Don't commit a professional foul.

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