What Does An Architect Do?
If you talk to a group of architects and ask them what they do, they will all come up with a different answer. Come back the next day and they will all give you a different answer again.
What an architect does can vary immensely day to day, from project to project or job to job. What an architect does depends on a lot of things.
That is one of the great advantages of architecture as a profession – it offers a huge range of opportunities depending on who you are, your skills and capabilities and what you are interested in or want to do. The things an architect does are very dependent on the phases or stages of every architectural design project.
Pre-Design or Planning
Before they even begin the design, a great designer will undertake a large amount of preliminary research, consultation and analysis to understand the overall project requirements. Once an architect has a project to work on, they will define and consider:
- The project brief which includes budgets, the scope of project, schedules and timeframes; and other client requirements;
- The existing site conditions;
- The town planning or legal regulations on the site;
- The typology of the building or structure they are designing;
- The materials that are available or they might use;
- The end-users and the needs of the people who will inhabit the structure;
- The architectural program or the specific activities and requirements of the spaces in the structure;
The design process may seem like sitting around drawing pretty pictures or playing around on computer software to make models of buildings. But this is just a very small part of the job.
The design process is an iterative process of problem-solving, which means an architectural designer can spend a lot of time trying to figure out what they are going to build and what the design solution is.
Based on the research they have done in the pre-design phase they will develop a design concept or unifying idea that acts as a set of guidelines or a framework for what they are trying to achieve in their design. The concept evolves by considering all the information they have gathered and looking for patterns and connections.
During the early design process, an architect will test many ideas against the project requirements to determine what works and what does not work. It is a process of understanding and balancing all the complex project requirements. They will make models, and do lots of drawings including sketches, and diagrams to start to capture and test their ideas. Some of this may be done on a computer, but much is done by hand. This process is about testing ideas and options in many different ways to find the best solution.
At certain points before approval to proceed is given, a designer will participate in many meetings with clients, or authorities or other interested parties. They will need to transfer their rough sketches to more formal presentation drawings at certain points to communicate their ideas.
Design Development and Documentation
Once the design idea has been approved by the client the design will need to be developed so that it will work as a building or structure, and can be built. It will need to be documented in a set of working drawings that show how it will be built and can be given to a builder.
It is important to know that documentation takes up a big percentage of the project. It is not about playing around on software and presentations. It is about figuring out how the building goes together and researching products and materials and producing many, many drawings that show such things as tiling layouts, how a stair works, how the pieces of a roof and gutter go together to keep out the rain, the car park layout, toilet layouts.
Every piece of the building must be considered to communicate to a builder how the building is to be built. The documentation must comply with building regulations and manufacturers requirements, so an architect must be constantly researching and studying to understand these things.
The documentation must also co-ordinate with other consultants requirements such as electrical, hydraulic (plumbing), mechanical (air-conditioning) or security. The documentation and design must also comply with regulations and an architect will often be required to seek approvals from Councils and authorities.
If you look around the room you are sitting in, consider every element and material – the door, the door frame, the door handle, the floor, the detail where the floor meets the wall, the paint color on the wall, the light fitting, the power point. All of this needs to be considered and selected and documented so the builder knows what to buy and build. This takes a lot of time.
Co-ordination – Meetings, Changes, Consultants
Throughout the life of a project, an architect may have many meetings with a whole range of people who are involved in the project.
During pre-design and early design, they will meet with the client and the end-users, and possibly local Councils or town planner to understand what can or cannot be built on the site.
During the design development and documentation period, they will meet with other design consultants such as engineers, interior designers, landscape designers, town planners or specialists such as acoustic or audiovisual consultants. They will also meet with various product manufacturers as they select materials and products as part of the documentation.
During the construction and contract administration period, they will meet with builders and sub-contractors such as plumbers, electricians, or security or information technology (IT) installers.
Construction and Contract Administration
Construction occurs when the documentation is complete. An architect may be responsible for sending the documents to multiple builders or contractors to obtain and assess costs and quotes.
They may be responsible for appointing a contractor which requires understanding their cost proposal and negotiating. On a small project, the architect may be in charge of managing the contract on behalf of the client, so they need to know how to read and understand building contracts and manage and act by that contract. This can include a lot of administration, emails and paperwork.
During construction, an architect is expected to regularly meet with the contractor, answer questions, amend any errors in the drawings or provide any additional drawings from things they may have missed. They will often attend the building site, maybe once a week or more, and work with the different builders and tradespeople. This process can be messy, and there may be many problems that require solving quickly and under pressure.
Once the project is complete, the architect must assess the building or structure for any defects or faults. They must oversee the contractor fixing these and monitor the operation of the building for up to a year.
This process also involves the administration and paperwork.
In a sole practice or a small practice, an architect may be required to undertake practice management. This essentially includes all the tasks associated with running an architectural business.
They must monitor cash flow, human resources, the facilities, programs and deadlines, marketing, branding, sales and profits, the standards and quality of work coming out of the practice, and the day to day operation of the business. They may have an accountant or book-keeper to do this, or they may do it themselves, so it is important to understand business. An architect may have to do marketing, networking and business development to generate new clients and projects to work on, especially if they are working for themselves.
The Project, Practice and Your Role
At any time an architect may be working on different projects at different stages and so will have to jump between all these different activities and roles throughout the day or week. The things you will do as an architect will vary based on:
- The size of the practice you are working for;
- The size of the project you are working on; and
- What you want to do and your skills and capabilities.
In a smaller practice, you may be given a small project that you follow through from start to finish, so you will need to do all the things listed in this article.
In a larger practice, staff may be divided into teams or given different roles within the practice or project. Some architects may be “design architects” and only work on design ideas. Some are documenters and spend their time documenting projects. Site architects may only work on site during the construction process and do a lot of administration.
On a large project, you could have many designers and documenters, which means you could just be responsible for documenting one part of the building only such as carparks or bathrooms – for weeks or months.
You may be working on one project for a long period, or you may have multiple different projects at different stages so you have to jump between roles.
As you can see, what an architect does can vary greatly from being out on a new site, in a client meeting, working with other consultants, documenting and drawing, creating presentation drawings, working with builders, or administration.
As a profession, architecture provides many opportunities for many areas of interest and skillsets, as well as alternative careers.
Part of your journey as an architectural student and practitioner is to uncover the aspects of architecture and the architectural process that you love, that you are interested in, and that you can become truly great at.
PS… I’d love to know what you think an architect does? Does anything in this article surprise you? If you have any questions, please let me know in the comments below.