When asked the question “what does an architect do?”, most people will give an answer of “designs buildings”, “creates blueprints”, or something else along those lines. While these answers are clearly a step in the right direction, the many details of the architectural design process are something few people outside the industry fully understand.
One of the reasons why people are often confused about what, exactly, an architect does is that architecture frequently overlaps with various other industries. Engineers, interior designers, and construction site managers might all perform jobs related to architecture, without actually being formal architects themselves.
Additionally, the field of architecture is further complicated by the fact it contains several different branches. While commercial architects, residential architects, and industrial architects all need to understand the same underlying principles, their day-to-day lives will each be very unique.
In this article, we will attempt to answer the burning question “what does an architect, specifically, do?” We will also attempt to clearly define the different components of the architectural design process. By understanding how this process works, you will have a much easier time choosing an architect to work with (when the need inevitably emerges).
What is an architect?
Currently, the NCARB estimates that there are more than 113,000 architects actively licensed to practice in the United States. The NCARB—National Council of Architectural Registration Boards—defines architects as “Licensed professionals trained in the art and science of the design and construction of buildings and structures that primarily provide shelter.”
The NCARB’s lengthy definition goes on to explain architecture involves many different elements including aesthetics, safety, and economics. In other words, while the design of any building or civic structure will involve many different moving pieces, the architect remains the one responsible for effectively making sure these pieces all work together. Because of the need for comprehensive building designs, architects need to be familiar with many different disciplines. The process of designing a building requires both “left brain” and “right brain” inputs.
What skills does an architect need to have?
As suggested, architects need to have a wide-reaching skillset and a strong familiarity with the entire design process. The majority of architects work in small firms or entirely on their own. When comparing architects or entire firms, be sure to keep these essential skills in mind.
- Budgeting: a good architect will have a general awareness of how much land, materials, and labor will cost.
- Interior Design: while many interior design details are “cosmetic”, the overall appearance of any room or space will be deeply affected by an architect’s choices.
- Eye for Aesthetics: there are many different “schools” of architecture that can be used in any given building—the best architects will help you identify which design scheme is right for you.
- Spatial Relations: ideally, an architect will be able to envision how the many different components of a building can all effectively come together as one.
- Math: there is no avoiding the measuring, projections, engineering, and limit testing that will inevitably be part of the design process.
- Computer Skills: in the modern era, a lot of architecture is done digitally—being familiar with PhotoShop, InDesign, BIM, Sketchup, and 3DS Max can help create a huge advantage.
- Collaboration: as the leading design force, architects will often to work with and get input from other parties.
Without these skills—and countless others—succeeding as an architect will be incredibly difficult.
What are the different components of the design process?
While engineers, carpenters, and devoted interior designers may be involved with different pieces of the design process, an architect will likely have a significant stake throughout the entire thing. Currently, the American Institute of Architecture (AIA) divides the overall design process into multiple different components:
- Schematic Design (SD): during this phase of the design process, things such as project goals, restrictions, and needs will be discussed. The architect may also study related buildings for further inspiration.
- Design Development (DD): this is the point in the process where the rough ideas from step one become further fleshed out. Infrastructure details (think: electric, plumbing, etc.) will usually be incorporated and design adjustments will be made as needed.
- Construction Documents (CD): these documents will contain even further details, such as the building materials needed, in order for contractors to reasonably estimate what the cost of a future project might be.
- Bidding and Negotiating: depending on the specs of the project, an architect will typically send their design to multiple contractors in order to establish a competitive price. The architect will typically advise the owner which bid seems most reasonable.
- Construction: this is a phase of the design process where the architect’s vision on paper is turned into material reality. The architect will usually have some input into the construction process, answering questions and making occasional design adjustments.
Without each of these valuable steps, none of the buildings you see today would have been able to come to life. As you can see, there is much more involved in the process than drawing a loose design of a building.
What are the different types of architects?
Within the field of architecture, there are many different subtypes and forms of specialization. The architect or firm that makes the most sense for a given project will depend on the scope of the project, the building’s intended use, zoning laws, and various other factors.
Some of the most common types of architects include:
Residential Architects: these architects naturally focus on constructing places for people to live. Generally speaking, these buildings are smaller and more personalized than their commercial and industrial counterparts.
Commercial Architects: the primary goal of commercial architecture is to create a space that is economically productive. Commercial architects will usually be governed by an additional set of regulations, engineering restraints, and aesthetic norms.
Industrial Architects: as you might assume, industrial architects are much less concerned about aesthetics and primarily concerned with safety and efficiency. Industrial architects will typically operate on the largest scales.
Green Design Architects: in the modern era, the relationship between architecture and environmentalism has grown increasingly closer. Green design architects try to find ways to lower the carbon footprint and total energy use of various types of buildings.
Urban Designers: urban designers will take a step back and look beyond the specs of an individual building—they will focus on how all of the buildings within a given area function as a collective unit.
While there are some top architecture firms that focus on all of these specialties at once, the vast majority of firms you encounter will be committed to a specific type of architecture.
We rely on buildings every day of our lives, but these buildings are something that many people take for granted. The process of designing and successfully creating a building involves inputs from many different sources. Architects play a profound role in turning bold ideas into livable realities.