The Fervor of a Convert (part two)

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.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 technologyNothing 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



  1. 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.
  2. Robert Samuelson is a journalist who writes economics opinion pieces in the Washington Post.  Here’s the column, as published by the Denver Post:
  3. 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.  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). 
  4. 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.  
  5. So, how do emerging professionals – and everyone else – pursue learning?  I plan to address some good ways in a future post.

The Fervor of a Convert (part one)

People who read this blog know that I’m a specifier, and therefore pretty technically-minded.  But many people don’t know that I haven’t always been technically-minded.  I migrated to the technical side of architecture from a place of relative technical weakness.  (I wasn’t utterly ignorant; I did know the actual dimensions of a 2 by 4.  Some architecture grads don’t.)

I first realized the importance of specifications when I started doing CA (construction contract administration) on the projects that I’d produced drawings for.  But it wasn’t until after I started preparing specifications myself that I started to learn and understand more about building technology, building science, construction detailing, and building codes, and finally started learning how to find out information about how buildings actually get put together. 

In hindsight, I realized that the technical weakness that I had when I was working as an emerging project manager and project architect was a pretty bad thing, though not uncommon.  That type of technical weakness is changeable, it is fixable – but it is NOT defensible.

In this blog, I try to write to the person that I used to be – the intern architect or architectural project manager or project architect who doesn’t fully realize the importance of building technology, building science, and construction detailing.

I have broadened my own focus in architecture.  Others can, too.  But they have to be open to learning about these technical things; they have to understand the importance of the technical before they can start drawing good construction details.  Only with good construction details can architects’ designs be executed the way they have been imagined.  The designer who can’t draw, or even recognize, good construction details that communicate to the constructor how to build his design will not be a good designer of anything but unbuilt work.    

I write so relentlessly about the importance of the technical things in architecture because I know what it’s like to not think they’re important.  I know the results of that attitude – embarrassing moments on the jobsite – because I used to have that attitude.  Now that I’ve become a more technical person, I see this issue from another side, and I see clearly that we can do better as a profession.

Looking back now on the early years of my career, I suspect that I had a number of opportunities to learn about building technology and construction detailing that I didn’t take advantage of, because I just didn’t realize the importance. I knew that there were things I needed to learn, but there were so many areas I needed to learn about.  I focused on some other areas of practice instead of on building technology.  I had to learn how to put together a set of drawings.  I had to learn how to communicate with engineers and general contractors.  I had to learn how to communicate with owners and potential clients.  I had to learn how to write proposals for fees and services.  I had to learn how to budget my hours on a project.  I had to get up to speed on new versions of AutoCAD when they came out.  All these things are important to the practice of architecture, and, of course, spending time on design is important, too.

But I have realized that when it comes to that stamp and seal, knowledge about building technology and codes is absolutely essential to the practice of architecture.  Our professional obligations mandated and regulated by governments, building owners’ expectations, and our obligations addressed in our owner-architect agreements and covered by our professional liability insurance, are related to building technology and codes more than to anything else about architecture. 

I am still learning about construction, codes, building science, and detailing.  We all are, because technologies and codes change – but I still feel like I am catching up to where I should be on these issues, because I still have to research a number of things on almost every project.  But I can catch up.  All of us can.

As a brand new intern architect, I didn’t know what specifications were.  When I first started doing project management, I barely comprehended that specs and drawings were supposed to work together.  Then when I started doing CA on projects, the importance of specifications hit me like a bomb.  And now I’m a specifier.  We all start somewhere.  Regardless of the starting point, and regardless of the career destination, architects who want their constructed buildings to look like the designs in their minds must understand building technology.

When I graduated with my Bachelor of Architecture degree, I knew that there was a lot I would need to learn on the job.  But I didn’t realize how much there was to learn, and I didn’t realize which things were most important.  One reason I write this blog is to tell others the things that I now realize that I should have been trying to learn earlier in my career. 

For more about that degree, see Part Two of this post, coming later this week.

Indemnification: I Do Not Think That Word Means What You Think It Means

I’ve been reading contracts again.  The AIA A201-2007, General Conditions of the Contract for Construction, has an Indemnification article in it.

Article 3.18 “Indemnification” starts like this:  “To the fullest extent permitted by law the Contractor shall indemnify and hold harmless the Owner, Architect, Architect’s consultants, and agents and employees of any of them from and against claims, damages, losses and expenses, including but not limited to attorneys’ fees, arising out of or resulting from performance of the Work, provided that such claim, damage, loss or expense is attributable to bodily injury, sickness, disease or death, or to injury to or destruction of tangible property (other than the Work itself), but only to the extent caused by the negligent acts or omissions of the Contractor, a Subcontractor, anyone directly or indirectly employed by them or anyone for whose acts they may be liable, regardless of whether or not such claim, damage loss or expense is caused in part by a part indemnified hereunder. “

I’m not an attorney, but I’m pretty sure that this clause means that if a passerby is injured on a jobsite, because of something that the Contractor did, if the Owner and Architect get sued for that passerby’s damages, and they have to pay the injured person, the money for the damages attributable to the Contractor will ultimately come from the Contractor, instead of from the Owner and Architect.

I looked at the AIA Document Commentary for this document for some further insight.  It says “The contractor’s obligation to indemnify is triggered by an act or omission of the contractor or one of the contractor’s agents or employees, and covers the indemnitee’s loss only to the extent that it was caused by such act or omission.  This is comparative fault language: for example, if the indemnitee and all other third parties are found to be 20 percent responsible, the contractor’s obligation to indemnify would extend to 80 percent of the loss.”

The indemnitor is the Contractor, and the indemnitiees are the Owner, Architect, etc.  What this says is that if the Owner or Architect is partially responsible for the damages, the Contractor wouldn’t have to pay for the part of the damages that the Owner or Architect is responsible for.

That all sounds fair to me, but, of course, I’m not an attorney, and I do consider myself to be impartial.  It sounds fair to me that each member of the team should be required to pay for damages caused by himself, and only for damages caused by himself.

I have come across several Contracts for Construction and General Conditions of the Contract for Construction which have a similar indemnification clause – identical, actually, except that the Architect and the Architect’s consultants are not included.  I have worked on at least one project in which the Owner used AIA A201 as the General Conditions, but, through the Supplementary Conditions, deleted “Architect, and Architect’s consultants” from the indemnification clause.

I got into a discussion with someone over lunch today about this particular situation.  I asked “How does it help the Owner to exclude the Architect from the Contractor’s indemnity?”  I did not get a good answer.

Here’s how I interpret this phenomenon:  Owners who do this (strike the Architect from the protection of a Contractor’s indemnity) mistakenly believe that excluding the Architect from this indemnification clause will help to protect the Owner’s interests. 

There’s a benefit to an Owner to require that the Contractor pay for damages caused by the Contractor

There’s a benefit to an Owner to require that the Owner not have to pay for damages caused by the Contractor

But leaving the Architect exposed to liability for damages caused by the Contractor provides no benefit to the Owner.

The Owner can always sue the Architect.  This indemnification clause doesn’t prevent that.  Any third party can always sue the Architect.  This indemnification clause doesn’t prevent that.  If an indemnification clause such as this includes the Architect, it only means that if the Architect gets sued by some passerby, for damages caused by the Contractor, the Contractor will have to cover the Architect’s costs for attorney fees and any damages awarded to the person who brought suit against the Architect.

Owners, please don’t do the extra work of striking the Architect from the AIA A201 indemnity clause.  It doesn’t help you, and it could really hurt the Architect.