What Do Architects Do?

There are a wide range of tasks involved with the creation of “architecture”.  Aside from the obvious, the “design process”, which itself contains a number of sub-tasks; the creation of a final product in architecture involves management of people, money and time.  It requires knowledge in some sub-sets of law; zoning and land use as well as the understanding of contracts, liability and copyright.  Additionally, it requires a basic understanding of engineering, not to the extent one would require to perform the engineering of course, but to be able to participate in the problem solving process of an engineer and have the ability to make productive suggestions both during the design process and during construction.  An architect also has an understanding of the various trades involved in construction; engineering and trades are in some ways opposite faces of the same coin.  Ultimately one of the most important skills that the architect must master is the ability to communicate ideas clearly and succinctly to a wide range of audiences.  Communication is a key component of the design process: there is an element of education that the architect is providing to their clientele; informing people who have never engaged an architect before and explaining the process.  Listening however is the most important communication skill; the architect must decipher client goals, listen to and track their requests as a first step toward creating a design response.  Even during the construction process, the ability to communicate clearly and listen remains important to the success of a project; the best of design intent can be undone during construction without clear guidance from the architect.

So, the short answer to the question regarding what an architect “does” is that the architect produces the design, administers it and makes sure everyone involved in the process understands what’s going on and is happy with the product.  But what about this design process?  How does that work?  The answer to this question is as diverse as the range of people practicing today.  However, there are some basic characteristics that can be said to define a typical design process.



Before the design process can begin, the architect must first understand the “problem”.  I put that in quotes because it’s not so much a problem as it is a challenge or goal for the design, but it’s often referred to as a problem.   So, in this phase of work, it’s important to collect information about the client’s needs, goals and learn how space is currently used, how space can be used better and other considerations of aesthetics and style.  This step can be critical for evaluating the design later; without a clear road map, you can’t determine whether the space fulfills the specific needs for which it was designed.  Though this process may look slightly different depending on whether the project in question is an addition or remodel versus new construction, the issues are essentially the same.

Additionally, it is important to review applicable codes or regulations to verify that the proposed work would be allowed per state and local ordinances.  There are many issues that could potentially stand in the way of completing a project in a cost effective way; it’s best to discover those as soon as possible.


Schematic Design:

Once there is a baseline understanding of the goals for a given project, it’s possible for a series of simplified plans to be drawn.  Schematic design represents the initial attempts to graphically represent the project and also represents the phase of work that likely varies the most from one architect to another.  The architect might use diagrammatic plans in conjunction with images of similar projects, pictures of materials or colors proposed in the new work, they may choose to produce a quick 3-D model, or a hand-drawn sketch to illustrate their concept.  An architect with a more artistic style might produce hand drawings while others may rely on the computer.  In any event, these are likely to be the least “precise” drawings or renderings.  They illustrate a concept which attempts to reconcile all the issues and ideas identified in the pre-design and bring it together into the drawing.  It is assumed that this drawing, once presented to and reviewed with the client will go through a rigorous process of refinement in the subsequent design process.

In my practice, I will typically produce a series of schematic plans, elevations and 3-D studies that illustrate my client’s idea as to what they are looking for.  I usually provide variations on those ideas as a way of testing assumptions and exploring options.  Typically, the end result is that there are elements of each scheme that stands out.  These elements are identified and brought forward into the next design phase to be integrated into one plan.


Design Development:

After the “SD” phase the architect will refine their work and bring additional detail and precision into their work.  Further thought is put into issues of “style” and aesthetics; beyond questions of how the proposed work will function, there are issues related to how the proposed work relates to its environment.  In the case of an addition, the question is will it match the existing style, or will it contrast with it?  Similarly, if the project calls for the construction of a new home, how will it relate to the neighborhood?  Will it attempt to blend in, or will it be of a contemporary style and if it is, will it respect its surroundings in another way?  If it’s not blending with its surroundings, how will it differ?  As these questions are addressed, the selection of finishes, paint colors, fixtures for the bathrooms and kitchens becomes easier as fixture designs and paint colors are often suggestive of a period, or style.  So, coming to conclusions regarding what some may consider more “esoteric” questions of aesthetics is critical to enabling the wise selection of materials that will be consistent with the concepts initiated in the schematic design phase.


This phase tends to be relatively short in my practice.  The timeline in the life of smaller projects tends not to be clearly delineated.  Often, more work is done in the schematic design phase than is typical as there are critical issues that need to be resolved before the project can comfortably move into the next phase.  As a result, the design is better developed when it enters design development than is perhaps typical for larger projects.


Construction Documents:

This is likely the phase of work involves the creation of a document that is most commonly known as the “blue print”; this old method of document reproduction was similar to that of photography.  The drawings were done on translucent film which was placed on top of the “photographic” paper and run through a machine which exposed the paper through the drawing.  The paper was “developed” by running it through a second, ammonia based process; this turned all the parts of the paper exposed to the light blue.  The pencil markings on the film protected the paper from exposure; these areas came through the process as white lines.  Thus, we had a blueprint.  These documents are the most complete and precise of all the drawings provided by the architect.  Though the focus is on drawings which include floor plans, ceiling plans, interior and exterior elevations, sections cut through buildings and walls as well as details that focus on window jambs, foundations and other elements of construction, they aren’t necessarily the only documents in this package.  Drawings can also be supported by specifications which essentially are a written description of materials and products to be used in the project.  Additionally, the specifications might provide a “prescription” for how work is to be completed, how the performance of the final product is to be measured, instructions for bidding, schedules for construction, etc.  A small residential project may not have a separate specification, but information that is typically be contained in one is often placed within the drawings themselves as a way of streamlining documentation.


Though the construction documents represent the most rigorous and “cut and dried” phase of the work provided by an architect, the product varies greatly from architect to architect.  I strive to provide documents that strike a balance between detail and clarity.  Because of the challenge of translating a drawing into a built assembly, I work to make my drawings legible, concise and precise as I can.  The better the contractor understands the intent of the design, the easier it will be to execute the plan and therefore the most cost effective result with the fewest changes and mistakes down the line.


Construction Administration:

Though construction documents represent the culmination of the design process, they are ultimately just a representation of the final product.  The project isn’t done until the contractor turns over the keys to the homeowner; only then can we say the project is complete and judge whether it’s a success!  Though the architect’s involvement is minimal through construction, it can often be at critical junctures during the process.  Mistakes occasionally occur, or unforeseen situations arise as a result of the construction.  The architect’s involvement can serve to resolve these issues.  Armed with the knowledge of the entire project since pre-design, it’s possible for the architect to resolve conflicts that come up during construction in a way that is consistent with the design intent.  This assures that the final product lives up the homeowner’s expectation and followed the construction documents; essentially making sure that the homeowner “gets what they paid for”.  If someone went  to a tailor to have an outfit custom made they would be upset if they showed up to pick up their new clothes only to find that the tailor substituted polyester for the wool and all the buttons were replace with zippers.  An architect’s involvement during construction is of course optional and for the most part, a homeowner may work as their own advocate.  However, a second set of practiced eyes is valuable, especially in the course of larger and more complicated projects.

Generally speaking, architecture constitutes a combination of art and science.  The art is required to translate the abstract ideas of aesthetics and the pragmatic considerations related to space planning into a working plan.  The science is mating those expectations with the structural and mechanical demands imposed by the reality of the built environment.  Not only is the architect rigorously trained to deal with both these aspects of construction, but they deal with these issues on a daily basis and learn from experience; I have found my on-site experience at least as valuable as my educational background.  Having an architect on your project provides you not only with sophisticated design skills, but also provides you with an advocate in the field who will represent your best interests until the project is fully realized.