What’s Required to Become an Architect

Fred Stitt in DC

The Skills

There are five sets of skills common to the most competent architects:

1) A Liberated Imagination

2) Design Sensitivity

3) Presentation Skills

4) Technical Expertise

5) Management Skills

Not everyone becomes fully adept in all of those areas. Many compensate by partnering with others to make up the difference. In fact most architectural partnerships, of which there are many thousands, are born of the need of individuals to complement one another’s skills and interests.

Architects who wish to function as more than architectural employees must have some competence in all of these skills even if they’re not among the top practitioners. Architects who lead the profession become proficient in all of them.

The Skills in More Detail

A liberated imagination is most rare; particularly an imagination that is uninhibited, visionary, and open to all possibilities in solving real world problems.

This requires a composite personality and roles of scientist-artist, logician-emotionalist, engineer-poet, theorist-activist. While the mixture of factual curiosity and unrestrained imagination is common among young children, it’s not usually encouraged, and so most people lose it along the way. A frequent complaint among graduates of Architecture schools is about the limited amount of creative imagination that they were allowed to use in school.

Design sensitivity encompasses sensual and perceptual skills combined with awareness of the internal structure of natural objects, the resources of cultural history, music, and a facility with the arts in general.

An architect’s education includes experiencing as much as possible of the finest of all the arts and architecture. This includes study of the reasons why the arts have such a profound impact on people and the methods by which artists create the aesthetic experience. The understanding and appreciation of the aesthetic experience includes nature study. The inner patterns that create what we experience as beautiful in nature are at the heart of what we experience in the visual arts, music, and architecture.

In design school, much of the studio work involves designing hypothetical buildings. The exercises are intended to help the student learn to synthesize all the elements – the site, user needs, climate, engineering, constructions materials, appurtenances, financial limitations, etc. — all into one coherent work of art. Most architects, including the finest architects of all time, don’t usually become fully competent at integrating all these elements until after many years of practice.

Presentation skills include the ability to express one’s architectural vision clearly enough for others to see it. Historically this is accomplished in drawings or model building. In the future, more two- and three- dimensional representations of one’s designs will be through electronic media. Strategic presentation, wherein one must argue for a design in the face of strong adversarial opposition, must also be practiced and strenuously cultivated. Skills in dealing with negative criticism are most successfully learned separately from learning how to design — they are separate skills.

Technical expertise includes understanding the nature of materials, manufacture, and primary causes of failures. It includes basics of structural calculations, and calculations for estimating appropriate heating, cooling, ventilation, electrical loads, lighting, acoustics, water supply and drainage. Although professional engineers will be hired to perform the more complex engineering duties, the architect is ultimately responsible for their work and must be capable of knowing if they’re performing competently or not.

Architects create working drawings to show contractors how to translate a design into reality. Making these drawings is one of the most costly, time-consuming, and risky of all architectural responsibilities. Experience has shown that the essentials of drawing organization, management, and the best of production practices should be introduced in school, tested in the field, and then restudied in the course of ongoing continuing education.

Managerial or administrative skills encompass a vast array of activities including: marketing and client relations, fee management and collection, office management, personnel supervision, project management, accounting and financial management, business negotiation and contract writing, legal and ethical responsibilities, community relations, and many subsidiary disciplines such as real estate investment and techniques for dealing with regulatory agencies. Business management has traditionally been the weakest and most personally hazardous area of architectural practice. Over 80% of alumni of architectural schools everywhere say they are deeply dissatisfied with this aspect of their schooling. SFIA is working on innovative ways to introduce managerial issues within the design studio courses as well as providing effective academic classes on management.

Architecture, to be worthy of the name, must reward, enhance, and encourage the growth of human sensitivity and consciousness. How we can best do that is still not fully understood, although we have many clues from the finest architecture throughout history. Learning how to do this is the mission of this school and everyone is welcome to help us in pursuing that mission.