Learn about the many roles architects fill and the value they can add to your project.
By Seth Anderson, AIA, Principal Architect
When visiting family and friends, I frequently get asked what exactly I do as an architect. The answer, I find, is more complicated than a simple answer over the dinner table or a pint of beer. And usually whoever is asking has a preconceived notion of what the job entails based on media stereotypes.
Movies, television and books perpetuate the image of architects as mainly creative types, pen in hand, triangle and compass on the desk, ready to draw their next creation as inspiration strikes. Or they’re shown presenting a building model the size of your kitchen table in hopes of landing a project (think Ted from “How I Met Your Mother”). Or we see stock-image architects with hard hat and roll of drawings under their arm, headed to the job site.
These media stereotypes provide an exaggerated and limited view of an architect’s world. Yes, we design all sorts of things from buildings to campuses to cities and even furniture and sculpture. We occasionally build models, although more often they are virtual rather than physical. And I still visit job sites where I do wear a hard hat. But the architect’s role in the development of a building extends far beyond what most people might consider “design.” The best way to understand what an architect does is to look at some of the common services an architect provides.
Evaluation and Planning
When I think of my job as an architect, I’m reminded of the Yogi Berra quote:
“If you don’t know where you are going, you might wind up someplace else.” To understand where you are going, you need a road map for getting there. An architect helps you create this road map by developing a program for your project.
A program will include things such as a list of the required rooms and spaces, the square footage of each space, what rooms should be next to each other, and goals for the design, including how the building should make the occupants feel, how energy efficient it should be, or its anticipated financial performance.
During the planning phase, the architect also helps clients determine what the project will cost and how to get financing. Sometimes all that is needed is an evaluation of an existing facility and recommendations for improving the indoor environmental quality or rearranging space to make workflows more productive. Architects also evaluate properties and buildings that a client is considering for purchase or lease.
A lot of people are involved in projects – as many as 60 providing design or consulting services alone – so you need someone to coordinate the team. Typically, this is the role of the architect, who will keep the team members organized and moving in the same direction. Your architect also hires and directs the necessary engineering and specialty consultants, helps obtain permits, assists with hiring a contractor, and monitors the project schedule and cost.
An architect uses his or her creativity to come up with an initial design and might even still use pen and paper and physical models, in addition to newer tools like computer modeling. But once the concept has been developed, architects use a variety of resources and their experience from past projects to complete a whole host of other tasks.
For example, the conceptual design must be checked for conformance with building and zoning code requirements; construction materials and components such as doors, windows and finishes need to be researched and selected; and the performance of the building needs to be evaluated.
Most architects hire consultants to assist with the design of the mechanical and structural systems, but it is up to the architect to determine which system is most appropriate to accomplish the design, cost and schedule objectives of the project.
Once these tasks are complete, the architect incorporates all the gathered information into a refined set of drawings and specifications. This refined design also includes the careful detailing of the building exterior to keep water out and control the transfer of air, sound, temperature and light, as well as the character of the interior environments. The last step of the design process is to communicate all this information to people in the field constructing the building: the general contractor and their sub-contractors, vendors and suppliers.
The architect’s involvement in the project doesn’t end at the start of construction. The architect may assist the client with hiring testing and inspection services to ensure the building meets performance requirements; review the field reports of the inspectors; observe the quality of work; answer questions when unforeseen circumstances arise; approve the contractor’s requests for payment; and review product information submitted by the contractor to confirm the design intent.
Some architects even provide construction services, if properly licensed, for the buildings they design in an arrangement called design-build. An architect might also create drawings at the end of the project to document precisely how the building was constructed for use in the operations and maintenance of the building.
A lot of steps are required to get from your vision to a finished project. An architect acts as your guide, working to keep each team member focused on the final outcome. Of course not all projects will require all the services an architect offers. However, whether a project is large or small, including an architect as part of your team early in the process will help the project run more smoothly.
So how do I explain what I do to my own mother? I tell her I am a coordinator of people, information and ideas. And yes Mom, I’m happy to help design your kitchen remodel.
Seth Anderson, LEED® AP, is a member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and a founding member of the Central Oregon Professional Architecture Network. He also serves as extra-territorial director for the Southwestern Oregon AIA Chapter. Seth is dedicated to serving his clients and colleagues through continuing education and improvements to the practice of architecture. He coordinates the daily activities of the staff at Ambient Architecture, LLC, and is a licensed architect in Oregon, Washington, Texas and California.