architecture: what is it?

Architecture is a mysterious blend of art & science....people & space....uses & economics....materials & & systems, ad infinitum. How then can we get a handle on this thing called architecture. The German poet Goethe, once described architecture as "frozen music". Someone else defined architecture as the enclosing of spaces in a meaningful and aesthetic way.

These attempts to describe architecture tend to be general and superficial to someone who wants to "really" know what architecture is all about. What are its deep, dark secrets? What is behind that smooth and shiny facade? Where did it all come from? Where is it going? How do you, a beginning architectural student, fit in? Is there a place for you in the architectural profession? These questions, among many others, are probably spinning through your mind. It may comfort you to know that the questions have always been there....and that the answers are difficult, ....but let us begin to examine this thing called architecture to see if some of the mysteries can be explained.

Architecture usually begins with a need or perhaps a dream. The need may be for a house, a school, a church, an industrial plant, a playground or even a town or city. In some cases the need is accompanied by a sponsor or a client, who may be an individual, citizens group, Board of Trustees or a Bureau of the Government.

Usually, the client will need to investigate the feasibility of the project. He will have to discuss financing, availability of land, return on his investment etc. During this period of time he may talk to bankers, investors, real estate brokers, a lawyer and hopefully an architect.

The architect will meet with the owner and determine the specific requirements of the project. For example, he will need to know what will be the function of the building, how many people will occupy the building, how much parking is required, are future additions to the project likely, what is the budget, what type of atmosphere should this building have, will there be special spaces, special items, how many offices...How big should they be, how many toilet rooms, how many different types of traffic will be involved with the project, etc. In addition, a survey of the local zoning and building code will also be made to determine what restrictions will be applicable to the project. This phase of the design of the building is called "writing the program". Also, the architect will determine if the owner's budget and the project are compatible. This step, as well as the following one, requires close contact with the client.

After the program is written, the architect will study it carefully and then begin to determine logical relationships between the various functions within the building. This is called a flow diagram, once this is established the architect will prepare a preliminary design or several preliminary designs. He will then discuss the designs with the client using either perspective renderings or study models. A preliminary estimate should be made at this time. This is called the schematic design phase because the concepts are fairly broad and general with little if any detail.

During this time the architect is working with the various consultants whose services will be used during the working drawing stage of the project. This includes the civil, structural, mechanical and electrical engineers. They may point out problems that can be designed out of the project at this point. If this is not done, such problems will have to be overcome (sometimes at great cost) later in the development of the project. Also, if a site has not already been purchased the architect should be involved in its selection as this will have a great affect on the project. A plat of survey by a registered land surveyor will also have to be made. This is paid for by the owner.

The next step will be to finalize the design. This is done by working over the preliminary designs. This can be very complex task requiring a great deal of thinking, revising and many discussions with the client. Final presentation drawings or models are appropriate at this time, along with a more detailed cost estimate.

Upon finalizing the design, working drawings can be started. Working drawings are the drawings that are given to the contractor from which he will present a price (called a "bid") to the Owner for constructing the building. If the Contractor's bid is accepted by the Owner, the Contractor is required to use the working drawings to build the building. In addition to the working drawings, the contractor must also satisfy the requirements of the written specifications which the architect prepares. The "specs" are in book form and call out the specific materials, procedures, standards and manufactures that will be used and followed on the job.

While working drawings and the specs are being prepared in the architect’s office, the various consultants are preparing their special drawings. The structural engineer who will need to have the soil boring results will show how the building is cooled and heated and how its plumbing systems work.

It is the architect's responsibility to make sure that all of the drawings are coordinated and work with each other. It is very important that all of the drawings be prepared properly so that the many copies that will be made will be readable. Also, a thorough check will have to be made of the building code to see that all of its requirements are met. Building permits will have to be applied for and a time limit set for the construction of the project.

At this point, the job is let out for bid. In other words, contractors are invited to review the contract documents and submit to the owner a figure as to how much money they would require if they were to build the building. The lowest bidder usually gets the job and is awarded the contract. On some jobs the contract is negotiated instead of bid. It is the contractor’s responsibility to provide insurance and bonding for the job.

When construction begins, the architect or his representative will begin field inspection of the job to spot check that the building is being constructed as per the construction documents. Some large jobs require a full time architectural representative on the job. In addition to approving samples and shop drawings, the architect will also prepare field inspection reports and monthly certificates of completion. He may also have to prepare change orders as required. When the contractor feels he has substantially completed the job, the architect with the aid of a checklist will make a final inspection of the building. When all of the items are completed, the owner will receive a release of all liens on the job and will make the final payment to the contractor.

In contrast to the preceding traditional arrangement, a new and somewhat different approach called the building team is being used on some projects. In this method, all participants are considered team members instead of the typical client, architect and contractor arrangement. The bankers, realtor, investors, contractor, architect, engineers, leasing agents are all pooling their services together to make a profit on their investment. Another new idea designed to save many is to replace the general contractor with construction manager who supervises the work of sub contractors who each are responsible for one part of the job.

The architect will also want to determine very early in the project how and when he will be paid for his services. A contract is usually involved. There are three common ways that architects are paid. The first and most preferred is on a percentage basis. For example, an architect agrees to do a warehouse and he negotiates his fee at 5% of the actual total cost of the building. If the building costs $400,000 the architect’s fee will be $20,000. If the building costs $500,000 the architects fee will be $25,000, etc.

Using a second arrangement, the architect negotiates a flat fee plus expenses. For example, a client wishes a home built in the $100,000 to $200,000 range and the architect agrees to do the project for $11,000 regardless of how much the house eventually costs.

The third arrangement is referred to as a multiple of direct cost agreement. In this arrangement, the architect keeps accurate records of how much time his employees spent on the job. The direct cost is then multiplied by a multiplier of 2.5 to 3.5 to cover his indirect cost, overhead and profit.

In addition to knowing how the architect is to be paid, he should also know when he will be paid. A sensible method for both client and architect is to pay certain percentage at various points in the job. For example, 15% upon completing the schematic design, 20% upon completing the final design, 40% upon the completion of the working drawings 5% for handling the bids, and 20% upon completing the supervision of the building construction.

This has been a simple overview of the kinds of things and architect does. You are enrolled in this course to learn how he does these things, and you will continue to learn how throughout your career. The main concern in the architectural design classes is learning how the architect creates the design for a building, a design which will not only serve its functional requirements, and will not only be strong enough to withstand the forces of nature, but will also be pleasing to the eye. It is with this miraculous subject that you are about to embark on your architectural education.