There is a disconnect between what people think an architect does versus what an architect does. Hollywood typically depicts architects as artsy, sophisticated, successful people. It shows them drawing designs on napkins or going to a job site in a hard hat with plans in hand. Either that or it shows Mike Brady building models for his houses and sky scrapers he is designing.
Even in school, architects are taught to conceptualize and draw designs without regard for budgets or code restrictions. In fact, many people stay out of architecture because they think they aren’t good enough at math or drawing. It isn’t until we get out of school and into a real architectural firm that we slowly realize that much of our day does not consist of conceptualizing or drawing whimsical designs. Much of it doesn’t consist of drawing or math. Our superpower is communication and coordination.
The main responsibility of an architect is life safety for the buildings they design. It’s not to inspire or motivate through the amazing structures we design, but rather to keep the occupants safe. This means that in any given project, about 5% of the time is spent designing and about 95% is spent coordinating all of the aspects that keep the building safe.
We work closely with mechanical, plumbing, electrical, structural, and civil engineers along with interior designers to ensure the building systems, structure, and site are adequately designed. We research codes and zoning laws so that the buildings are ADA accessible, have the correct fire suppression requirements, and that people can quickly exit the building no matter wherever they happen to be. We determine if the water pressure to the building is adequate, if the soil is stable enough to bear on, if the walls have the right amount of insulation to meet energy requirements.
Every project has an AHJ, or Authority Having Jurisdiction. This is usually the city building permit department, but in rural areas, this falls to the state fire marshal. Every building plan is submitted to these AHJ’s and they have the final say about what goes in and what gets taken out of the building. Typically, the AHJ’s schedule is backed up by months, so time management is a big part of the architect’s skillsets.
Many of the materials and finishes designed into a project have long lead times to get them in, so frequently what was designed and approved by the owner has to change for expediency. Design of integrated themes and styles never ends since many things change throughout the construction.
Lastly, we are responsible for making sure the client’s expectations are met. This can be a moving target, since projects can take 2-3 years from start to finish. The architect’s role isn’t as pronounced once construction starts as it is when the building is being designed, so that means the client relationship can diminish during that time if we don’t nurture it continuously.
Don’t get me wrong—there are slivers of design inspiration and production flow that keep our right brains happy. But far and away it is our left brains that lead to successful projects and happy clients.
Mike Brady navigated the integration of having 6 kids, a wife, and a live-in housekeeper (not something most architects can afford). Perhaps his superpower was communication and coordination after all.