Do Architects Learn Enough About Construction and Materials? We asked this question to spark a discussion among our readers, and the number of responses on our sites in English and Spanish was overwhelming.
Having read and collected all these comments, it is clear that most of our readers agree that what is currently taught about materials and building processes is not enough. The vast majority of them admit that they have acquired this knowledge through fieldwork, years after having graduated. So once again we ask: if material knowledge is so important for the development of our profession, why is it not a fundamental part of the programs in universities around the world?
However, some of our readers contest this view, stating that architects don’t have to know everything, and that we can’t sacrifice good design to the constraints that impact the construction process. They base their arguments on the presence of specialists, to whom we should go whenever necessary, in a cohesive and collaborative process between the different disciplines.
Review the best comments received and join the discussion below.
Viewpoint 1: Technical knowledge is actually received in practice, and learning it in theoretical terms is not enough
From Lucas Downes:
As a 5th Year KSU Grad student, I’ve found that my education hasn’t quite prepared me for “real architecture.” We do plenty of fantasy projects that seem to use alien technology in their structure for clients with endless budgets.
But aside from a few building construction classes and an attempt at CDs in studio 4th year, we don’t get a lot of exposure. I’ve gotten all of my knowledge from my internships. And I think experience is an important factor. You can flash wall sections at a student all day long, but it won’t mean much until you actually see it in application.
From Alexandra Ayres:
When I finished my Part I, I didn’t have a clue about any method of construction. In my final year, we were asked to do a CD for the final project and most of us used Detail magazine as our source.
All my knowledge of construction comes from working in an architectural practice and site visits. Even when I did my Part II, we didn’t get taught anything about construction methods. Universities should teach construction from day 1.
We had a few courses in materials and construction, but they didn’t weigh on me. I have learned more in the 5 years since college that I would claim I could learn at a University. Real life experience is where you start to see these things.
From Chad Sutter:
I grew up around construction, worked my way through college in the trades and doing small projects. I had a better understanding of materials and construction than did a few of my professors, including one that was very proud of his Master’s from Pratt; he had no clue about how materials could be used, and how they were joined or connected.
I have also seen plenty of architecture and industrial design grads that have so little understanding of construction they could never get something designed or built fresh out of school, at least not without an experienced mentor guiding their work. That is what worries me about a few schools offering licensure upon graduation, I think it will end up in a few train wrecks.
A career in architecture can be described as a commitment to lifelong learning. It’s why architects are considered pups in their mid-forties. I see this as somewhat of a failing by the institution itself.
Graduates who follow the prescribed route and exclusively work in firms are oftentimes expected to learn by osmosis rather than by ‘doing.’ Anything outside of what they’re exposed to is self-directed learning. This can work, but factor in exams, trying to meet billable hour quotas and having a life outside the architectural realm makes it a slow process.
From Lindsey Leardi:
In my first year at Kansas State University, we were commissioned to design material-less forms to understand space making. Our materials were simply modeling materials: balsa wood, foam core, and chipboard; which have very little to no comparability to real construction materials.
How can you defend something you have no idea how to build? How do you assess the design success of something with no materials? How can you begin to understand the atmosphere you’ve created without materials?
From Jason Le:
I studied architecture. I learned all my construction methods, materials and general regulations through work. I have only been in the field for 1 year but have learned more than I did in University. University just teaches you to sell your idea no matter how ridiculous it is.
I believe the primary problem is that architects are often taught to think that design and construction thinking are separate activities. First we design, and then we apply construction systems to the design.
Conversely, at the firm I worked for, the designs always began with a construction methodology right at the beginning of the design process. What was interesting was that the designs actually got BETTER as they went through the development and construction processes. This only happens when the architect has a firm grasp on their design intentions and how the construction systems used in the design process extend and enrich the project. Every project I worked on came in on time and on budget (although the budgets ranged widely from one project to the next), as well.”
From Tom Harrison:
The majority of architectural education focuses of how to sell and idea with beautiful drawings–irrespective of the quality of the idea. Perhaps a better focus would be on how to design something that can be constructed within budget that will actually perform the function for which it was intended.
Today’s architects would prefer to be artists or stars, but what we see is the symptom and not the disease. The illness is the academy itself. Our predecessors mostly knew what they were doing, they knew everything about the material and the structure was important for their project.
Many students have no idea how to get the most out of their materials and what their weaknesses are. The academy must form sculptors and not drawers. The reality is that the materialization of our works, and therefore construction, is fundamental. Not teaching this in universities mutilates our profession.
From Duncan Whatmore:
It is not a lack of knowledge about materials or construction that creates this scenario. Many years ago, architects decided to abandon the “boring” disciplines of cost and project management in order to concentrate of the “fun designer-y” parts. Consequently, they lacked the control of the process that allowed their visions to be realized. Sure, construction knowledge is essential, but lack of this is not the primary factor in causing this effect–it’s control.
Viewpoint 2: Knowledge of construction should make projects more efficient, but without sacrificing good design
If there was some hybrid of a School of Architecture and a School of Construction where both sides get a chance to learn from the other pool I think we would be able to see a lot more creative designs that don’t have to sacrifice as much.
But from what I can tell, usually the guys you work with on site have WAY more experience since they have been building for years, meanwhile I can only claim I went to school and know how to draw pretty pictures. But that’s where having an office full of experienced guys really comes in. They can guide you through a few projects and start to show you that pie-in-the-sky ideals crash when you are met with a budget that is almost entirely consumed by the most generic designs.
From Bram Tamasoleng:
Many of the answers will say that day-to-day experience works the best to make a good architect. It is true, by experience you will learn the best way to use materials and details but remember that the things you learned from your degree are the power to imagine and to create. By this I mean architect should think about how to create a solution to overcome problems that arise because of their innovative ideas, whether that’s a budget problem or an issue of not being sure if the detail will work or not.
I say if an architect could not overcome the problem that means it is not the right solution for the client nor for themself. Options are there just to pick the right one for the right case. Sometimes the process can be trial-and-error but that is what makes an architect–to create and to innovate, and not just be dictated the “conventional way.”
From Lucas Downes:
I don’t think we should be taking credit hour after credit hour of detailing and building construction classes, but a little more preparation would be extremely helpful. Sure it would limit design, but they would be more realistic, and that would provide more challenges–which in turn could create a more interesting design.
I really don’t think school is capable of teaching this type of knowledge without actually doing it in the field. What schools can do is teach students to be global thinkers. That’s really what an architect does daily. He or she has to know something about every aspect of the project and if the architect doesn’t know, they know who does and coordinates with all parties to come up with a solution. Engineers have a notoriously narrow vision, but they are experts in their precise field. The architect must be a confident decision-maker because the contractor and consultants will usually go out of their way to pass the final decision down the line and the client is looking to the architect to make the right call.
However, to those who think architects are just dreamers, some are… and that’s a good thing because if it weren’t for dreamers, we would only repeat past successes and never truly progress. A good architect knows when to dream and push the envelope and also when to be pragmatic and solve the problem.
From Lindsey Leardi:
A tenacious knowledge of construction materials yields better design. The colleagues of mine who have the best understanding of materials are some of the best designers I know.
Viewpoint 3: Architects don’t have to know everything, and we can consult or learn from the specialists
From Lester Kanali:
The way constructors insist that architects get on their level to build something that actually “works” is exactly the same way they should get on the architect’s level. It should be a more cohesive process rather than attacking the skillset of any of the professionals.
From Nora Hild:
Architecture school teaches us about architecture–the theory/design, history and human scale. It is the job of an employer to teach about construction and materials for architectural graduates. And it is the responsibility of graduates to do their own research about best practices, IMO.
From Tom Scooter Seiple:
There’s a significant emphasis on “knowing everything” in the design industry, especially in architecture. Not that it’s bad to be ambitious about knowing more (hell, I’m teaching myself to code and revisiting stats right now), but I often feel it breeds a mentality of superiority and overconfidence. There’s nothing wrong with consulting specialists. That’s what they dedicated their careers to, they are resources!
What other related professions think
From Rj Kietchen:
You work from the build cost up, not design down. As a former General Contractor I can attest to the visual construction path that is followed after consulting with an architect. The architect, armed with drawing skills, imagination, and little else, is utterly unaware of 95% of what it takes to develop a property, the materials involved, the associated direct and indirect costs, and the customers; both builders and end-user.
I used them when clients had already retained them and never otherwise. 40% of my build time was spent educating the architect on why things can’t be built the way they designed it. In the final diagram, you see what the customer could afford to build, but that never prevented the architect from presenting the first image, trying to justify why they were hired.
Architects should be required to work in the field for 1-2 years before receiving a license. It would help them to realize that just because you can draw something doesn’t mean you can build it.
Understand: concrete isn’t perfectly flat, steel isn’t plumb & level. Also, with the kind of people out there actually doing the work (lack of tradesmen) the good ones are getting fewer and farther between. Also, don’t think you can just sit in your office. You HAVE to visit the site. Especially when it’s a remodel. Trust me. As a general contractor, we know when you’ve chosen to not do your due diligence. It results in overdue, over-budget jobs with excess change orders & paperwork that nobody has excess time to do. So, please, take your job seriously. We are counting on you.
From Michael Moore:
I’m not a architect on paper. I have no degree that says I am. What I do have is several years (29 years) experience and I’m 37 years old. I started working during summer breaks as a child. I really fell in love with the trade, building something with my bare hands and seeing it come to life. I started reading blueprints and laying out houses out to be framed when I was 15 years old. It would really amaze the homeowners that a kid was laying everything out, and if they had any requests to make changes, they had to speak to me. I say that, to say this: experience is by far the best education you can have, hands down.
From Cameron Abt:
Frankly, I’m shocked to learn that this isn’t the case already. I’m an electrical and systems engineer, but had to take many mechanical, civil, and other design classes so that we could understand the constraints and goals of other fields. (…) Teaching us how to design for production, maintenance, and disposal not only reduced the number of design iterations required to get to an end product but significantly lowered the total cost of ownership of the system.
Not all engineering schools are like this–some of my friends went on to get jobs with colleagues who did have to learn about manufacturability on the job. But I do know that my friends were soon professionally miles ahead because of this. And I would think, from my admittedly limited knowledge of architecture, that the same would draw true for architectural students.
I’m currently working with many architects on behalf of developers, producing VR tours for new projects. It amazes me how many changes on both architecture and ID need to be made by the developer because the architect wasn’t concerned about the feasibility of construction or, sometimes more often, maintenance of the space thereafter.
Tips and possible solutions from our readers…
From Anushish Pagia:
In my view, a better approach towards the field could be to first categorize the materials available and then use these materials after studying their properties for our design.
From Rj Kietchen:
Know every cost number to every single material you propose, including 25% for waste, then know every single build time amount and cost for every material and every design you propose including 25% for waste. Then take 60 percent of the budgeted project amount for the build, then calculate the material cost and time costs for the proposed design to be less than the 60 percent amount. That will result in a completed project at the budgeted amount and get you another contract to design.
I would strongly encourage others to visit as many construction sites as possible during your education and in your early experience following graduation. If your firm has projects in construction, visit the project site with the project architects, even if you aren’t working on the project. This may require visits before or after your regular working hours. Take lots of pictures, ask lots of questions, and listen.
Contractors are often surprised and pleased when a young architect expresses an interest in what they do, so take full advantage of these opportunities when they arise. You’ll become a better architect!