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Do architects know how houses are built? Not really

Architect Arrol Gellner's essay in the L.A. Times Real Estate section explains that architects don't generally know much about construction. Surprised? Here's what he says:

If there's one complaint I hear again and again from contractors, tradespeople and anyone else involved in the practical end of building, it's this: "Why don't architects have to serve an apprenticeship in construction?"

My standard two-word answer is, "Good question." It would seem self-evident that a person entrusted with designing an entire building should have at least a passing knowledge of how that building will be put together.

Alas, this is far from the case.

Read the whole article: Hands-on work could prevent blueprints for castles in the air


ARCHITECT’S VIEWPOINT
Hands-on work could prevent blueprints for castles in the air
By Arrol Gellner, Inman News
If there’s one complaint I hear again and again from contractors, tradespeople and anyone else involved in the practical end of building, it’s this: “Why don’t architects have to serve an apprenticeship in construction?”
My standard two-word answer is, “Good question.” It would seem self-evident that a person entrusted with designing an entire building should have at least a passing knowledge of how that building will be put together.
Alas, this is far from the case. Unless they’re motivated enough to train themselves, architects come away from their professional educations with practically no understanding of field construction.
Typically, after four to five years of academic training, they have to serve several years’ apprenticeship under a licensed architect and must pass an exhaustive series of examinations before being licensed — a process that, necessary as it is, nevertheless contributes little to an architect’s practical knowledge of building.
The U.S. system of architectural education (and, in fairness, that of many other nations as well) not only accepts but also reinforces the separation that currently exists between design and building. Over the last century, only a relative handful of architects — best known among them Frank Lloyd Wright, Paolo Soleri and Christopher Alexander — have advanced the idea that hands-on experience is integral to the competent practice of architecture. Students of Wright’s schools at Taliesin and Taliesin West, for example, were expected to dig ditches, mix concrete and perform myriad other unglamorous chores usually left to tradespeople.
Why would a prospective architect benefit from doing such physical construction? For one, it’s probably the only way to gain a truly tactile appreciation for building materials — both for their beauty and their limitations.
On a computer screen, creating a complicated design in poured concrete is neat and easy. Building such a thing in the field is usually another matter. When would-be architects find themselves obliged to produce work — perhaps of their own design — that’s needlessly complex or even impossible to carry out, they quickly learn to appreciate choosing the right materials for the job and the simplest means of putting them together.
Fieldwork also helps focus the occasional meanderings of the creative mind on the real objective of the design process, that of realizing a project in four dimensions. Coordinating different phases of the work, not to speak of simply getting materials and equipment to the site, are routine construction challenges that can cost time and money, yet that architects without field experience might not take into account.
Lastly, enduring the physical and mental demands of construction also brings an appreciation for plain hard work and an understanding of just how much human effort is involved in raising a building. Whether for the laborers down in the ditches or the contractor trying to juggle a dozen scheduling requirements, practically nothing in construction comes easily.
Learning all these things firsthand might earn architects something we don’t always have in our profession — the genuine respect of those entrusted with building our creations. Now, once again, why don’t architects have to serve an apprenticeship in construction?
Good question.
Arrol Gellner is an architect with more than 25 years’ experience in residential and commercial architecture.

4 Comments on Do architects know how houses are built? Not really

  1. There was recently a similar discussion on my blog at:
    http://kitchen-exchange.blogspot.com/2007/06/choosing-residential-remodeling.html, which bounced there from another blog site:
    http://www.thekitchendesigner.org/journal/2007/5/30/architect-kitchen-designer-a-match-made-in.html#comment852282
    I agree that architects (and designers) need to get out on the job site and get some sawdust in their ears before they settle down to just designing.
    I was fortunate to come to kitchen design from a contracting and cabinetmaking background and it has always stood me in good stead.
    Whatever the specialty, residential or commercial, design without some serious grounding in reality just invites the derision of contractors and anyone else who has to make design work in the real world.
    Head-in-the-sand design also can be downright dangerous for the occupants of such spaces.
    I agree wholeheartedly with Gellner. Any architect worth his/her salt should WANT to get out in the field to learn before applying theory. It doesn’t take long. One or two projects can be enough to inject a little humility in the veins and make the aspirant realize that design must be buildable.
    I also think the role of educators in this process is to advise that this course be taken…not to teach it. That should be up to a (good) contractor.

  2. This issue is why people in the trades call them archi-DINKS, not architects!
    My dad worked the last 30 years of his career has a hospital electrician in a medical center that was built, brand new, from a hole in the mountainside, during his first 5 years on the job in the ‘old hospital.’ He spent the next 25 years on the job spending at least half of his days figuring out ways to mitigate the design mistake of the archi-dinks when they laid OUT the hospital. I remember very clearly 2 weeks before the ‘new’ hospital actually opened my father and other members of his department having to completely rewire (including conduit, etc.) the ENTIRE EMERGENCY ROOM, because the wiring that was called out in the plans and which had been installed, wasn’t correct for the various life support and other hospital machinery.
    Archi-TECH, my foot.

  3. The other thing architects need to learn in school is how to design a floorplan. When I was working with a group of very talented architects some years ago, details such as placing an oven so that when you open it, it doesn’t block the entrance to the kitchen were the least of my problems; even ‘details’ such how big a master bedroom bathroom should be or the correct size of a closet were totally foreign to many of them.
    Also, learning to read a topography map might be a class so doors do not open into mid-air, windows do not open into hillsides and you don’t have a house take up ever inch of flat land on a sloping lot, leaving zero usable yard space for kids in a five bedroom family home.
    And then there’s one of my favorites – placing all the windows in a house on a view lot so that you… can’t see the view – or putting a floor to ceiling fireplace on the one wall facing an ocean view.
    Alas, SCI-Arc and UCLA do not seem to think any of these subjects are worth teaching.

  4. Construction is an aspect of the process that architects should ideally know – I agree. But I stress “ideally.” It takes time to learn all the various facets of the building environment. After recently graduating from arch. school, and now teaching a portion of the curriculum, I see how difficult it is already to train designers in the “design” portion of it. If more and more practitioners had it their way, more and more professional education would become vocational, because heaven forbid companies have to train their employees. For example, does a company really NEED to have recent graduates be an ace in Outlook/Word or similar before starting, say, a law job? Shouldn’t the education stress the bigger picture that guides the profession overall? Some schools believe in the conceptual and educating the next generation of leaders, not of worker bees. If more “apprenticeships” are required of professional positions, a la medical doctors, then lawyers, architects, etc. will all end up in 8+ years of grad school/residencies. I can almost understand the high/good pay of most doctors, but then can you explain why even without the apprenticeship that architects make the equivalent of teachers, but extrapolated to 12-months? And will you require lawyers to have residencies in litigation, if some lawyers would never see the inside of a courtroom? Some architects focus on the conceptual portion; others on construction. Others are simply academics. We professionals have to draw a line at what NEEDS to be trained/taught, and establish a decent balance of feasibility within a sane # of years in school. Then, just understand that some of the training just takes time, and therefore developed over time on the job.

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