People who have read Part One of this post know that although I often write about technical competence for architects, I have not always been technically competent myself. So, why wasn’t I technically-minded earlier in my life? And, if this technical stuff is so important, why don’t architects learn it all in school?
In the family I grew up in, education has been held in very high regard for generations.1 When formal education is so revered, it is offered up as the answer to everything; the other side of that is that someone’s lack of formal education is seen as something to pity, even when knowledge and expertise in one’s field have been gained through practical experience.
A recent column by Robert Samuelson2 discusses the college education issue. Here’s an excerpt:
“The fixation on college-going, justified in the early postwar decades, stigmatizes those who don’t go to college and minimizes their needs for more vocational skills.” – Robert Samuelson
In my opinion, in the field of architecture, not only does this college fixation stigmatize those who don’t obtain a college degree, it also falsely inflates the importance of the university degree in architecture, and it deemphasizes the importance of the things that aren’t taught in college. Many people overvalue the degree and seem to undervalue the practical work experience in architecture. NCARB overvalues the BArch and MArch. Most states overvalue the BArch and MArch. Many employers overvalue the BArch and the MArch.
Although in most states a professional degree (BArch or MArch) is mandatory for licensure, I believe that those states should reevaluate this requirement.3 Yes, most people who have been through the rigors of semester-after-semester of design studio will be better designers than most who haven’t, but schematic design is such a small part of the actual practice of architecture. Not every licensed architect will need to do schematic design. But every licensed architect is required to be technically competent.
During one of my summer internships, I didn’t get along very well with a co-worker – our personalities clashed. One day this co-worker said something important, and I responded with a retort that I now recognize was terribly wrong. He said that I should have been learning more about drafting and construction detailing in architecture school. My response was that I wasn’t going to a vocational school – I was going to a university.
In my mind, not only was there a disconnect between the dirty work of building buildings and the work of designing buildings, there was also a disconnect between the technical work of drawing construction details and the work of designing buildings. Looking back, I suspect that this misconception of mine stemmed from the combination of these 3 things: one, the knowledge that I was on the right track to a career in architecture by pursuing a university degree, two, the feeling that since this technical stuff wasn’t emphasized much at my school it must not be that important, and three, the utterly misguided confidence of a 21-year-old that since I wasn’t very good at the technical stuff, it must not be crucial.
So, if this technical stuff is so important, why don’t schools teach very much of it?
I certainly was taught some things about building technology in school. One very relevant class that I remember was in first semester sophomore year; I was pretty lost when we covered wood framing. I was 18, and I had already known for about 7 years that I wanted to be an architect, but apparently I hadn’t realized that designing wood framing was the sort of thing architects did.
We did our thesis projects in the first semester of fifth year, and second semester we fleshed out the construction details of those design projects. I fumbled through my wall section, probably just using Architectural Graphic Standards to guide me, and possibly not listening very well to my professors…
Those 2 classes may have been the only classes in my program that officially addressed building technology. I do not remember building technology being taught or emphasized in any other classes. (Even my 4 semesters of structures didn’t really address building technology.)
Here’s why: It would be impossible for university programs to teach all the technical information that architects need to learn. On the one hand, the schedule is full. School is a great place to learn how to design, and to study architectural history and theory – things that we wouldn’t have the opportunity to learn on the job. And on the other hand, there’s too much technical stuff to know, and it changes frequently. Every building is different. Each region of the country has different requirements. Firms specialize in different areas of practice. The best place for architects to learn technical things is on the job. As I mentioned in Part One of this post, when it comes to the legal obligations of an architect, the technical things are essential, but the subjects we focus on in school aren’t. This causes some people to suggest that architecture programs shouldn’t be in universities at all.4
Although schools cannot teach students all the technical things they need to know, schools can do a better job of preparing students to be able to learn technical things later.
Most architecture grads understand that a degree in architecture is not the end of their learning. I did grasp that while I was in college, but I didn’t realize that it was truly only the beginning of my learning. Schools should emphasize that students’ time at the university is only the beginning of learning about practicing architecture.
Learning challenging things is hard, because people who are learning are always slightly out of their comfort zones. It’s unsettling to be out of one’s comfort zone, and to be responsible for production in an architecture firm, at the same time. It’s difficult, or maybe impossible, to learn things when one was not expecting to need to learn things. Schools should emphasize that students should expect to be out of their comfort zones, and learning new things, for years to come.
Every professor in an architecture program should tell his or her students how the subject matter contributes to the knowledge foundation for the students’ future practice. Every studio project final crit could end with a professor explaining that in real-world practice, schematic design phase may be only about 15 percent of a project, and that the architect would need to produce many very detailed technical drawings to create a set of construction documents that someone could actually build the studio projects from. Some of those detailed technical drawings should be explored in school, as a follow-up to that studio project. Schools should take every opportunity to explain to students that although they aren’t learning or doing many technical things now, they will need to learn them, and do them, later.
The mere combination of knowledge of how to schematically design, and mastery of the modeling or drafting software that one’s firm uses, does not make one an architect. Software skills are just a tool, a starting point, that makes it possible for an intern to work at a firm; an intern has to be able to contribute something to the firm, usually production documents, in order to earn wages and be able to have the opportunity to learn from the firm. Schools should emphasize that, although interns will be contributing team players at the firms at which they work, what they gain in knowledge from their experiences should end up being more valuable than their initial contributions to the firm. Interns should expect to work on production documents, and maybe help out with some design. Interns should expect to be given the opportunity to learn about building technology. (Note that I did not say that interns should expect to be taught about building technology. Nothing is handed to us as emerging professionals in architecture. We have to keep consciously working to learn, all through our careers.)
It’s overwhelming to think that a BArch or MArch, and all the time and money and work that degree takes to earn, is only the beginning of learning how to practice architecture. Maybe this is why so many students don’t comprehend that. But schools need to make sure that their students understand this concept. Schools need their graduates to understand that although they should be ready to work in architecture firms by the time they graduate, they still have much to learn before they can engage in the independent practice of architecture. Perhaps more than anything else, schools must prepare their students for a lifetime of learning.5
- Including my parents, there are 10 of us in my immediate family. My dad and I have bachelor’s degrees, my youngest brother is currently in law school, and among the other 7, there are 2 medical degrees, 4 master’s degrees, one doctorate, and 1 law degree. These were earned from Georgetown, Columbia, Notre Dame, University of Virginia, and the University of Oklahoma, in public health, Spanish literature, art history, and philosophy. The reason that my mom went to medical school in the 60’s when she was 22 was because her brother enjoyed medical school so much. My mother’s father taught philosophy and law at Fordham. Including this grandfather, three of my four grandparents, who were born between 1900 and 1910, graduated from college. My father’s mother, who was born in 1903, didn’t go to college, and that is a fact that was kind of whispered, rather than stated outright… perhaps so that not too many people would find out. As I mentioned, formal education is considered pretty important in my family.
- Robert Samuelson is a journalist who writes economics opinion pieces in the Washington Post. Here’s the column, as published by the Denver Post: http://www.denverpost.com/samuelson/ci_20714508/degrees-failure-idea-that-everyone-needs-attend-college?source=rss_emailed
- Here in Colorado we still have the apprentice/draftsman route to licensure. A college degree is not necessary for licensure as an architect in Colorado. http://www.dora.state.co.us/aes/licensing/requirements-arc.htm#exp However, my understanding is that most Colorado firms do not want to hire an emerging professional who does not have a professional degree (a BArch or MArch).
- Garry Stevens’ “Why Architecture Should Leave the University” is really something to think about, even if we just use it as a starting point to improve architecture programs in universities. http://www.archsoc.com/kcas/leaveuniversity.html
- So, how do emerging professionals – and everyone else – pursue learning? I plan to address some good ways in a future post.