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What Is an Architect? Learn What Architects Do

Written by MasterClass

Apr 13, 2019 • 5 min read

Buildings are a fundamental part of the human experience. We live, work, shop, learn, worship, seek care, and spend our leisure time inside these structures—and we evaluate them based on how effectively they serve their specific purposes. In every case, the design of modern buildings is the work of essential craftspeople: architects.

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What Is an Architect?

An architect is a skilled professional who plans and designs buildings and generally plays a key role in their construction. Architects are highly trained in the art and science of building design. Since they bear responsibility for the safety of their buildings’ occupants, architects must be professionally licensed.

What Does an Architect Do?

Architects design buildings, but their job description involves responsibility for much more than just the artistic elements of design. Architects also:

  • Run small businesses and manage teams of employees
  • Help market their firms and secure new business
  • Communicate effectively with clients to create buildings that satisfy the clients’ needs
  • Budget, coordinate, and oversee projects
  • Translate their ideas into schematic design drawings and documents
  • Incorporate mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and other details into the designs
  • Satisfy building code and zoning regulations
  • Secure project approval and permits from regulatory authorities
  • Prepare construction documents with detailed structural and material information
  • Work with contractors during a building’s construction phase
  • Protect the health, safety, and welfare of their buildings’ future occupants

The work of an architect is restricted by budget limitations, client desires, building codes, and many other practical concerns. But, as award-winning architect Frank Gehry observed: “Within all those constraints, I have 15% freedom to make my art.” Learn more about Frank Gehry’s design philosophy here.

What Is the Origin of Architecture?

The word architect comes from Ancient Greek—arkhi- (chief) + tekton (builder)—and means “chief builder.” For much of history, there was no distinction between the artisan who designed a building and the one who actually constructed it. Then, beginning in the 1500s, the increasing availability of paper and pencils and the development of linear-perspective drawing—allowing three-dimensional structures to be accurately represented in two dimensions—enabled buildings to be planned much more extensively before their construction. In the 1800s, new organizations like the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) formed to establish professional standards for architects and to promote their craft.

What Are the Different Types of Architects?

Today, there are several different “architect jobs” under the architect umbrella. Some of these specialized roles include:

  • Design Architect. Design architects most correspond to the popular notion of an architect. They’re responsible for conceiving a project’s overall design. They interpret a client’s needs, analyze the building site and surrounding environment, consider the budget, and create a design within these parameters.
  • Technical Architect. Technical architects are responsible for the fine details of a building’s planning, ensuring that it can successfully be built and that it will function. Technical architects produce construction drawings and participate in construction administration. Smaller projects may not separate the design and technical roles, but for larger-scale projects, like office buildings, technical architects are usually essential.
  • Project Manager. The creation of new buildings is a complex endeavor, and project managers staff the project, develop a work plan, and coordinate daily between the many different members of the team. Project managers require a deep knowledge of the architectural process to communicate with all parties, problem-solve, and lead.
  • Interior Designer. In large-scale projects, interior designers play a crucial separate role, the one that will most intimately shape the experience of the building’s occupants. Interior designers determine the arrangement of non-bearing walls and doors, select materials and finishes, place power outlets, design lighting, and even choose furniture—all while considering the needs of the client and building codes. Interior designers have their own certification organizations, like North America’s Council for Interior Design Qualification.
  • Landscape Architect. Landscape architects design outdoor spaces like parks and gardens, as well as certain structures within them. Landscape architects require many of the same skills as other architects, plus additional ones like stormwater management, planting design, and sustainability planning. Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of New York City’s Central Park, was the first person to use the title “landscape architect.” Today, organizations like the American Society of Landscape Architects and the U.K.’s Landscape Institute provide accreditation to Landscape Architects. As twenty-first-century urban planning places increasing emphasis on green spaces, the importance of landscape architecture is only growing.

The 4 Stages of the Architecture Process

The design of a building involves four key stages:

  1. Schematic Design “Schematic” means “represented simply.” During this first stage of the design process, architects meet with clients, learn project needs, assess the construction sites, and develop their overall design. Architects produce design materials, including renderings and models, with a degree of detail that will allow the clients to evaluate and approve the design.
  2. Design Development Once the clients have approved the design, the architects fill in the plans with finer details: air conditioning, electrical systems, plumbing, etc. At this stage, architects may collaborate with structural engineers. Building codes, environmental regulations, and other ordinances become particular areas of concern. The Design Development stage also incorporates interior design and, in some cases, landscape planning. Before it is finalized, the clients also approve this more detailed level of design.
  3. Construction Documents Once the design is finalized, the architects prepare documents with full construction details that will enable the project to be built. These documents are the assembly instructions that the contractors will follow. Versions of the construction documents will be distributed to potential contractors so the contractors can estimate construction costs and bid on the job.
  4. Construction Administration Finally, the design becomes an actual construction project as the building is built. Depending on the nature of the architectural firm, the preferences of the client, and local jurisdictional rules, architects will be involved at this stage in different ways. In some cases, they transition into a consulting role. In others, they directly manage the subcontractors on behalf of the client. In almost every case, questions can arise during construction that will require the architects to generate new materials, addendums to the existing construction documents that correct or clarify details so that the building can be completed as designed.

Learn more about how to become an architect here.