I Am The Architect

Posted on November 5, 2011


Let’s Start at the Beginning

* I am still an unlicensed architect. I’m working on it..

A lot of people have misconceptions about what architects do. I think most of it stems from architects not being very good at explaining what it is that we do to the general public. Part of the reason we’re bad at explaining it, is because architecture encompasses a very wide range of tasks. Not only that, different architects specialize in different aspects of the building process, leading to definitions based on one specific branch of architecture.

Helping prove my point, is that the AIA (American Institute of Architects) doesn’t have a clear definition of what an architect is on their website. Come on boys. You are THE organisation for architects in the US and you didn’t think outsiders might want to know who we are and what we do? That’s when I turned to the good old Merriam-Webster’s dictionary to find the most basic definition for architects possible.

architect: A person who designs and guides a plan or undertaking.

This definition encompasses a lot of fields that aren’t architecture (like software architect, etc.), but it does provide the broadest example of what an architect is. Architecture includes much more than simply building buildings. We create master plans for cities, design public space, act as consultants and even do simple home remodels. The modern architect needs to have the skills to take on a myriad of tasks. To put it another way, architects solve problems.

So What the Heck Do Architects Do, Anyways?

Architects help the client realize their vision. Good architects will solve problems the client wasn’t even aware they had, making it possible for them to utilize their new space in the best way they can. Architects have to navigate their client’s vision through a sea of building codes, jurisdictions, inspections, etc. We coordinate all the different trades to ensure a seamless project. Architects oversee the whole building process from start to finish.

The Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago by Renzo Piano...sexy

The types of work that architects do is very wide ranging. We build schools, museums, skyscrapers, homes, zoos, offices, and everything else under the sun. In Illinois, where I live, a licensed architect is not needed to build any single dwelling or duplex on a parcel of land or any remodeling that doesn’t touch any structural or life safety elements. As you can see, to build pretty much anything that people occupy, you need to have a licensed architect’s stamp on the drawings. The architect doesn’t have to actually draw the drawings him/herself, but by putting their stamp on it, they are liable for it. This is why most architects don’t use their stamp lightly. They make sure that the set of drawings is 100% accurate, because if there’s any problems, it’s their ass. I’ve heard some architects jokingly say that you become licensed to earn your stamp and put it in your drawer and never use it. Once you have a set of stamped drawings approved by your local building department, you can start construction.

The process of working with an architect is goes through many steps and is worth having it’s own blog post. So until I get to that, you can read about the process on the AIA’s website.

Architects usually charge for their services with an hourly fee or a percentage of the construction cost. There are a couple of other ways we can collect money from you, but others have discussed the topic of money much better than I can or am willing to (like hereherehere and here).

Why do Architects Matter?

When I tell people that I’m an (unlicensed) architect, they always say, “good for you” and look at me for a second like I have some sort of special gift. “He’s the chosen one!” There seems to be a reverence for architects that I can’t figure out. It’s the same sort of respect reserved for doctors, lawyers and judges. Don’t get me wrong, I love having people praise me, but I don’t think people really get why architects are important.

Architects go through a similarly grueling process to become licensed in their field (like lawyer, doctors, etc.), but the uncertainty of what our role is in the building process causes confusion. So here is the reason you should look up to architects. Architects have a very unique job. We are at the leading edge of how our entire built environment is shaped. Think about that for a second. Every structure you’ve experienced in your life which has been built by human hands, is a piece of architecture. We may rely on others expertise for aspects of the process and not be the ones physically putting it all together, but we are the vision. We are the conductors of the built world. When cities fail, it’s probably our fault. When they work beautifully like a living organism, it’s because it has been thoughtfully guided by a architects and architecture over time.

That’s it for my first post! Let me know what you think in the comments or hit me up on Twitter @benjamindockter.

Posted in: Architects