January 26, 2015

What do Architects Do?

by: Taz Loomans

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Most people don’t really know what architects do on a day to day basis. Perhaps you have a vague notion that architects make napkin sketches sitting in sleek, low-lit bars playing jazz piano and a few months later fabulous buildings like the Guggenheim in Bilbao by Frank Gehry or the Bullet Building by Norman Foster manifest from that sketch. This is not entirely true, there are a number of people and processes missing from that scenario. A lot of things happen between the napkin sketch and when the doors of a building open and that stretch is where the modern practice of architecture resides, for the most part. Why do you need to know about this? Because the more you understand what architects do, the more effectively you can engage with the process, demand better, and have more say in the built environment around you whether you’re a client, a community stakeholder, an end user or just a passerby.

In today’s world of stringent permitting requirements, multiple stakeholders and tight budgets and timelines, getting buildings built becomes a very complicated process. To help you wrap your head around it, I’ve broken the process down into five essential parts:

1. The first part is identifying the need for a building project. Is there a population boom in a particular city and some new schools need to be built? Is there an empty lot in an urban area where someone wants to built a community center? Is there a building that needs to be expanded to accommodate a growing business? Is there a home that needs renovation to accommodate someone who now needs to use a wheelchair around the house?

2. The second part is finding a design solution for that need. Enter architect. But this is not the arena solely for architects. This is where the community, the end users, and other interested parties should get involved. This is where the architect listens and later goes back to interested parties and shows them what she understood the need to be through her design solution. (Sometimes the design solution is not to build something new at all. Sometimes the design solution is a social one, or an organizational shift or putting in place new ways to use what is already there. These kinds of solutions are rarely proposed by architects but need to be integrated into the mix.) Ideally, the process of coming up with a design solution is intimately intertwined with the community for which the building project is being designed, not as a detached top down approach from an “expert” given to the “lay people”. Christopher Alexander, Ianto Evans and others would say that everyone can participate in and generate a design solution based on a deep understanding of their own needs and on an understanding of certain principles of what works. But we live in a world where architects have a particular role in the built environment, so I will speak from this perspective today.

If a building project does emerge as part of the design solution, an important part of this part is figuring out the details. It is one thing to make broad strokes of what a building is going to look like on a napkin, it’s entirely another to know what materials you’re going to use, what structural system will work best, how the roof will keep water out of the building, how the windows will be sealed, and whether the masonry joints will have a concave or convex profile. Figuring out these very small details is where architects spend the majority of their time.

3. The third part of the building process is getting permission to build the project. This includes getting permits from city, county, state and even national governments. Usually you just need to deal with your city. A project of any significant size, and sometimes even tiny projects like moving a toilet to another wall, require city permits. And depending on the size of the project, obtaining those city permits requires detailed drawings of the building project that include stamps from licensed professionals such as architects, landscape architects, structural engineers, civil engineers, electrical engineers and mechanical engineers. This can get very expensive and unwieldy and often this process either stops people from engaging in a building project or encourages people to circumvent the permitting process altogether. Municipal permitting is necessary but also stifles creativity and innovation and needs a major overhaul, but that is for another post. Architects spend a whole lot of time in the permitting phase of the building process as well. They create drawings, coordinate different systems with their consultants (landscape architects, civil engineers, mechanical, plumbing and electrical engineers and other) and then submit their drawings to the agency that will give them the go ahead to build the project. More often than not, the agency makes a bunch of corrections to the set of drawings and the design team then makes those corrections and resubmits the drawings for approvals. The process of getting a permit usually lasts months and in some extreme cases even years! Eventually permission is granted and the process can move forward to part four.

[Sidenote] Why do we have to seek permission from a governmental body to build a project? Because those bodies are charged with enforcing certain standards and laws that are associated with things like life safety, minimizing environmental impact, and accessibility. They do things like make sure that you don’t use flammable materials to build an elevator shaft where fire could travel from floor to floor, that all the rainwater that runs off the roof of your building can be drained and taken care of right on your site, and that people in wheelchairs can get in and out of your building. Essentially, governmental agencies don’t give us permission to build something unless it complies with all the codes, regulations and ordinances that apply.

4. The fourth part of the building process is constructing the project, taking it from lines on a paper to a physical thing in real life. This is the whole point of what we do. The drawings we put together are used for the purpose of communicating the design solution to our clients, the city and ultimately to the builder. This is where the architect hands the project off to a builder. She doesn’t entirely hand it off though. She stays involved and oversees the building process and makes sure it’s being built according to the design intent shown on the drawings. The architect also serves as the person who normally handles the conflicts that inevitably arise at this stage. Cost overruns have to be reconciled, unexpected problems come up at the building site, and material deliveries get delayed and the architect is often charged with mediating between the builder and the client to resolve these issues.

5. The fifth part of the project is occupying and operating the building. Exit Architect, enter end-user. But it’s good practice for architects to keep in touch with the end users of buildings to see if their design solution actually holds up in real life and over time. Sometimes architects perform post-occupancy surveys to learn from the unfolding uses and operations of the buildings they designed so they can use that information to improve their next design solution.

As you can see, the bulk of what architects do is neither glorious nor glamorous. There is a lot of drawing of construction details, a lot of different people to manage, and a lot of legal codes to sift through. This is the mileu in which architects reside  on a daily basis. What makes the press – a flashy high-profile building that is credited to one starchitect is not at all representative of the actual practice of architecture. Architects are more like plumbers than like celebrities. They spend their time mucking around in the trenches of getting projects built (projects as small as moving a toilet and as big as masterplanning a neighborhood).


Whereas lawyers use written legal documents and doctors use everything from a stethoscope to an MRI machine to do the work they need to do, architects use drawings as the primary way to communicate their ideas. These include everything from napkin sketches drawn by hand, hyper-realistic computer renderings generated by powerful 3D modeling software and detailed construction documents drafted on software like Revit, Autocad, and ArchiCad. Architects communicate to their own teams, to clients, to building officials and to the public through drawings.

Lead Image Credit: Image by Schinkel und Persius (SPSG Potsdam) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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