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.

17 thoughts on “The Fervor of a Convert (part two)

  1. “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. “

    Yes the important technical issues vary by project type and region, but there are many basic principles that have general application. The regional differences mostly apply to the exterior envelope and some regional construction practices. On the job experience is essential, but depending on the firm, the “why” of what we should be doing can be missing. The educational value is dependent upon the quality of the office mentors. Experience out in the field is invaluable in terms of constructability and the understanding of communicating by drawings and specifications, but it again is missing the “why” of how assemblies and systems are put together and how they relate to each other.

    “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.)”

    Why shouldn’t interns be expected to be taught about building technology? Why should all interns have to be taught by the “school of hard knocks?” Why should some interns suffer under poor mentors?

    I agree that schools cannot be expected to cover building technology in a full and complete manner although my schooling included more than yours. I had several courses in structural subjects taught at the school of engineering and one year’s course on materials and methods. I also agree that the schools should do better in preparing students for the continual education they face.

    I think the reality is most graduates do not realize what part of architectural practice they are going to spend most of their time at. When they come to realize that is when they really come to grips with all that they don’t know. I think that is the time when they are ready for some additional building technology education. The problem is that a structured comprehensive education program is not currently available for them (is available at some construction management schools and some community colleges). They are at the mercy of their firm’s mentoring program, getting some field experience, and learning by the school of hard knocks. Why not make it easier for them to learn the basics of how a building goes together?

    • Thanks for commenting, Bob!

      I’ve observed that many recent grads are attracted to design-focused small firms. These firms are run by design-focused practitioners. They are not always able to teach interns technical things, because they themselves aren’t technically-minded. Yes, these are licensed architects. Yes, they are principals in firms. No, they don’t always know the right answer to basic technical questions. Interns need to realize that their mentors and bosses may not always know the right answer, and MUST take some responsibility for their own building technology and building code and construction detailing education.

      A structured education program that addresses building technology for emerging architectural professionals would be good.

      But first, these emerging professionals need to recognize that they need it! If they are under the impression that their bosses or mentors within their firms will be able to TEACH them everything they need to know, they are likely to end up knowing no more than those non-technically-minded principals.

      Maybe this won’t be necessary in the future, like it wasn’t necessary in the past. But right now, we have so many design-focused practitioners who aren’t able to mentor their interns in the technical things, so interns have to have some initiative.

    • Architecture School is responsible for educating students on how to THINK like an architect; practice and experience educates them on how to ACT like an architect.

  2. I am about to retire from the profession of architecture and I couldn’t agree more with your “Fervor of a Convert, Parts 1 & 2.” Firstly, I am gratified to read the thoughts of an architect who has not only given the subject much thought but an architect who can actually effectively communicate those thoughts through the written word. I have edited a couple of publications in my distant past and I have taught foundation courses at the college level. In each of these experiences I insisted on good writing from those on staff and those students taking my courses. I am convinced that the ability to give form to thoughts through writing is essential to creating good architecture. Why? Because writing requires organization and skill, not just having “an idea.” I think this translates particularly well when it comes to what you do — spec writing and blogging about architecture — but it clearly relates to the process of design as well. My regret as I am poised to leave everyday practice is that I have not spent sufficient time on the technical side of construction. Had I done that I believe my clients would have been better served and I might have actually enjoyed my work even more.

    • What an interesting perspective, Jim. Thank you so much for sharing your regret, and for your kind words.

      My first summer internship was the summer after my freshman year in college. I remember one of the principals of the firm walking away from the fax machine after having received a resume and cover letter.

      He stopped to tell me that professionals must have good writing skills, and that not everyone who came to his firm asking for a job had good writing skills. It made an impression on me – I think that was the only piece of advice or instruction that came from this principal all summer.

  3. Excellent post Liz! If you don’t mind, I’ve shared a link to it on my lastest thread post on the AIA LinkedIn forum where I also mentioned, briefly, what you’ve shared here.

    In reading all of the responses to my blog post and your (two posts), I’m gathering that, basically, interns are “on their own” once they leave school and should not expect to “be shown the ropes.” The sooner each person learns this in our careers, the better off we’ll all be.

    It is also freeing to know that one is not expected to know how to detail a roof drain or how far apart to space the construction joints on day one at the office. But kudos to all those who do!

  4. When I graduated from High School I knew everything. When I graduated from College as a wood products, building technology specialist, I knew I could study forever and not know it all. The science that goes into each product that is put into a building is staggering. There are a lot of support people, like myself, out there to help specifiers get through the details and optimize their use of different building products. The earlier in a project you ask for assistance, after the basic design stage, the more valuable it can be. Our selection of Engineered Wood Products is constantly evolving to stock the best products to value engineer a building.

  5. Liz, sorry to rant so long, but this was a great follow up post. I wasn’t sure where it was going, but your brought it around and wrote a well balanced and insightful article. Again, for those who throw darts at the educational system with statements like “why don’t they…” I will simply say, teach at a university for one semester and see if you don’t change your opinion.

    As you mentioned, I frequently introduce real world topics into my studio course and sprinkle reality on them. The funny thing is when they evaluate the course, many of them criticize me sharply for going on too much about me! I don’t talk much about me other than to use an occasional studio situation as a seque to tell them something briefly about real life. If they’re going to go work as an architect WHY wouldn’t we tell them what to expect?

    They, in their young I deserve everything naivity still want to limit the class to “help me on MY project.” We need to start to change the culture at an earlier age before we trash our educational institutions. Many people drop out of architectural school with much grumbling. I’d like to think the ones that finish are the ones that “get it” and will become great contributors to our profession.

    We all need to realize that what we know now would not have been of any interest to us when we were young and foolish in college. This is a life-long education.

  6. Thanks Liz.
    Your thoughts on this subject have provoked a lot ideas for me.

    One that has bothered me for a long time is that our system of drawings AND specifications is a problem. Our natural tendency is to the drawing and less to the words.

    Here’s my thoughts. The emphasis in school is drawing, models, design. We are directed to be visual. The written word [product descriptions, codes, assembly information, tolerances, etc.] don’t fit into that directive. Specifications by default get a low priority intellectually/academically.

    OK we somehow learn that specifications are important. We do the research, write the particulars and coordinate with design intent, cost analysis, availability, conformance to code and stipulate an end result.

    But because the two elements are often physically separate [book specs & drawing set] as well as distinctly different forms of communication, allows them to be addressed differently by contractors and building officials. And don’t forget that the education emphasized this distinction.

    Often contractors don’t read specs, or worse, parcel out sections to individual trades leaving out relevant and legal requirements. At the same time building official reviews will ignore specs because of the volume and complexity of coordinating specs with drawings. [I was often asked to put the specs on the drawings because they don’t want to waste time searching the specs book.]

    So my search has been for a method to integrate drawings and specs to form an integrated description of the design intent. I have not been able to do it…….yet.

    And for anyone else reading this, don’t start promoting the old concept of keynoting. That system was designed to promote mistakes.

  7. Another way to look at it is that architecture is both an art and a science. The professional schools of architecture emphasize the art portion; some almost to the point of almost totally ignoring the science.

    The contrast is when you get out into the real world and the ratio between art and science is much different. More total hours in an office are spent on the science side rather than the art side. The question then becomes how do you learn the science side to the degree that you become competent in that area? If you are fortunate enough to intern in a good office that provides you good varied experience and good mentors, you can learn a great deal. If you intern in a office with not such good practice, doesn’t worry too much about the type of experiences your have, and lacks good mentors; you are going to have trouble learning enough on the science side.

    Architectural practice is of course also a business to be run and contractual documents to be prepared and enforced. Most professional schools provide a little education about professional practice.

    CSI, for quite a few years, has provided education for people out of school in the areas not covered well in school – how the industry operates and the roles and responsibilities of the parties, about contract documents, specifications, and construction contract administration. Why not also take on the area of construction science in the area of building technology?

  8. The key phrase in Bob Johnson’s most recent posting is that “architecture is BOTH an art AND a science” (my emphasis)

    Too often the discussion of “professional education” vs “trade school” is couched in either-or terms, as if one is independent and exclusive of the other. And more, that the “science” aspects (including codes, and making the buildling actually buildable) are somehow constraints on the creative process. In reality, of course, the more a designer knows about construction, the more likely it is that their building will be constructed the way it was designed, without having to “compromise the design” due to “science”.

    One of things I most like about specifying is that it’s a means to integrate the art and science of architecture. There’s plenty of the “art” of architecture in specifications. The ways in which buildings are detailed are as much a part of design as are plans and elevations, and need to be as consistent with the overall design concept.

  9. Very well said Dave.

    We often talk about the need for good coordination among the various elements of the construction documents – architect with consultants, specifications with drawings, etc. But there is also other coordination to worry about.

    As Dave points out, the coordination of the science with the art is also very important – the building technology needs to support the art, and the art needs to fulfill function. The “designer” needs to work closely with the “technically savvy professional” and the “technically savvy professional” needs to work closely with the “designer.” The ideal is for the “designer” to be technically savvy and the “technically savvy professional” to have an appreciation for design.. The more each understand where the other is coming from, the more successful the project will be. This is what makes architecture different from art.

  10. Liz,

    Your post was a breath of fresh air regarding the degree of honesty required to assess the current situation. I would just suggest that one of the most basic issues, especially in the so-called prestigious programs (and those desperately emulating them because the young faculty went to one of those places), is that architects are very poorly educated in both art and science. But this is natural since the professors are also very badly educated and lack any critical thinking skills. For a group of people pretending to have so much to say about everything and be a group of highly cultured professionals, architects and architectural discourse is on the whole, pretty embarrassing and sloppy. The idea often expressed in many discussions by, about, regarding specifiers is that they don’t know very much about the art of design. In general, architects know very little about the art of design either. The professional design-centric verbiage is thin gruel indeed and allowing designers to continue to think that they are more akin to the artist while the specifier is more interested in science in to repeat an old but not very useful dichotomy.

    This dichotomy is of recent origin and traces its roots to the Counter-Enlightenment period with the coming of the myth of the artist/genius who was “touched” (later turned into a more secular notion of the “avant-garde” touched by a Hegelian zeitgeist. At least the Greek origins of the term “architekton” provide a useful counterpart (though there is no sense in assuming that an original meaning is the right or necessary one). Architect is derived from the term “archon” and “techton.” The archons were the leaders of the state (Athens), generally thought of as nine in number. They were prudent, wise and religiously dedicated stewards of the city-state. To be an archon was to be a leader, ruler, commander, or “master” in some sense but generally in a political or military sense. “Techton” comes from “techne” meaning a maker or artificer, both in the craft and professional sense. Combining these, an archi-techton was a “chief-artificer, master-builder, director of works, architect, engineer” (Herotodus) or in Demosthenes and Euripides, “a constructor or author.” (See Liddel and Scott, “Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon,” 7th Ed., 1978). My apologies to any Classicists regarding my liberties for the sake of explanation. This definition has little truck with the treacly architect as artist mumbo-jumbo but rather imagines the architect an administrator of the works (Vitruvius was after all the head of Rome’s water and sewer “department,”) or leader of a building or other state project (under which temples naturally fell). Contract administration was a signal attribute along with leadership and management skills. An architechton was a leader of a logistical operation who, in certain cases, through the use of the special religious/philosophical role of geometry could elevate an object with a certain elegance. The role of classical Greek aesthetics is highly complicated by the common use of a Stoic theory of optics to determine aesthetic adjustments for a viewer.

    It has become rather sad to know the kind of perfunctory knowledge and critical thinking skill pervading architectural pedagogy at both the undergraduate and graduate level. In my years of teaching at architecture schools, law schools and business schools, what most struck me was the almost complete incapacity to think critically that went hand-in-hand with the successful design student. After all, demonstrating a kind of docile plasticity to the teachers assertions was always the best way to proceed. The teachers themselves are often so obviously intellectual charlatans or painfully repeating phrases to appear cultured or interesting that the more intellectually capable students simply hold their noses and suffer through and the less capable fall prey to the hokum. Often enough it is the latter who become designers while the former become specifiers or even more often enough get the hell out all together.

    Does anyone believe a discussion of “what a brick wants to be” makes any sense? Or pathetic attempts to appear righteously engaged with political or social issues constitutes an education? Or the worst offenders of all, the mercenaries of vapid au courant vocabularies of form and/or rhetoric splashing around in the academic cesspool?

    All this simply to say that architects are not very well educated in the sciences or technology at schools, on this all can agree, but it should be also noted that they are not well educated in anything else either, let alone, “art.”

    Thanks for wrestling with these issues and encouraging a more rigorous examination.

  11. Pingback: What is “Building Technology”? « Comments From a Spec Writer

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