The Fervor of a Convert (part one)

People who read this blog know that I’m a specifier, and therefore pretty technically-minded.  But many people don’t know that I haven’t always been technically-minded.  I migrated to the technical side of architecture from a place of relative technical weakness.  (I wasn’t utterly ignorant; I did know the actual dimensions of a 2 by 4.  Some architecture grads don’t.)

I first realized the importance of specifications when I started doing CA (construction contract administration) on the projects that I’d produced drawings for.  But it wasn’t until after I started preparing specifications myself that I started to learn and understand more about building technology, building science, construction detailing, and building codes, and finally started learning how to find out information about how buildings actually get put together. 

In hindsight, I realized that the technical weakness that I had when I was working as an emerging project manager and project architect was a pretty bad thing, though not uncommon.  That type of technical weakness is changeable, it is fixable – but it is NOT defensible.

In this blog, I try to write to the person that I used to be – the intern architect or architectural project manager or project architect who doesn’t fully realize the importance of building technology, building science, and construction detailing.

I have broadened my own focus in architecture.  Others can, too.  But they have to be open to learning about these technical things; they have to understand the importance of the technical before they can start drawing good construction details.  Only with good construction details can architects’ designs be executed the way they have been imagined.  The designer who can’t draw, or even recognize, good construction details that communicate to the constructor how to build his design will not be a good designer of anything but unbuilt work.    

I write so relentlessly about the importance of the technical things in architecture because I know what it’s like to not think they’re important.  I know the results of that attitude – embarrassing moments on the jobsite – because I used to have that attitude.  Now that I’ve become a more technical person, I see this issue from another side, and I see clearly that we can do better as a profession.

Looking back now on the early years of my career, I suspect that I had a number of opportunities to learn about building technology and construction detailing that I didn’t take advantage of, because I just didn’t realize the importance. I knew that there were things I needed to learn, but there were so many areas I needed to learn about.  I focused on some other areas of practice instead of on building technology.  I had to learn how to put together a set of drawings.  I had to learn how to communicate with engineers and general contractors.  I had to learn how to communicate with owners and potential clients.  I had to learn how to write proposals for fees and services.  I had to learn how to budget my hours on a project.  I had to get up to speed on new versions of AutoCAD when they came out.  All these things are important to the practice of architecture, and, of course, spending time on design is important, too.

But I have realized that when it comes to that stamp and seal, knowledge about building technology and codes is absolutely essential to the practice of architecture.  Our professional obligations mandated and regulated by governments, building owners’ expectations, and our obligations addressed in our owner-architect agreements and covered by our professional liability insurance, are related to building technology and codes more than to anything else about architecture. 

I am still learning about construction, codes, building science, and detailing.  We all are, because technologies and codes change – but I still feel like I am catching up to where I should be on these issues, because I still have to research a number of things on almost every project.  But I can catch up.  All of us can.

As a brand new intern architect, I didn’t know what specifications were.  When I first started doing project management, I barely comprehended that specs and drawings were supposed to work together.  Then when I started doing CA on projects, the importance of specifications hit me like a bomb.  And now I’m a specifier.  We all start somewhere.  Regardless of the starting point, and regardless of the career destination, architects who want their constructed buildings to look like the designs in their minds must understand building technology.

When I graduated with my Bachelor of Architecture degree, I knew that there was a lot I would need to learn on the job.  But I didn’t realize how much there was to learn, and I didn’t realize which things were most important.  One reason I write this blog is to tell others the things that I now realize that I should have been trying to learn earlier in my career. 

For more about that degree, see Part Two of this post, coming later this week.

10 thoughts on “The Fervor of a Convert (part one)

  1. Great post! I really wish that my architectural education at the university level had spent more time on specifications and materials science. I know that the hours and hours of studio design are important, but I think that the technical side is EQUALLY important, and I don’t think that studio design courses emphasize that very much.

    Scarier than architect who can’t recognize a good detail being a designer of unbuilt work is the architect who doesn’t recognize a good detail actually having built work.

  2. Aside from the obvious need for good specifications in constructing a building, they are also are used extensively in construction claims/litigation where parties are often surprised after a dispute arises at what they contracted to provide, or how it was intended to be installed- sort of like the old saw “If all else fails, read the directions.” Many times we see these spec provisions bite the designer as well as the contractor. To design without knowledge of how materials go together is to constantly be disappointed upon visiting the site and finding out that when tradespeople are left to guess at how things are intended to fit together, the results are not always as glorious as initially envisioned. I look forward to reading part two.

  3. I couldn’t agree more with your article! What you have covered here should be the opening comments for the design classes for students. As I have seen many times, after you walk through one door, 10 more open to things you never knew before. In the beginning of our careers in architecture, our educators and mentors are the ones who open those doors to expose us to all various areas of architecture. Looking forward to your next blog!

    • Thanks for your comment! You are so right about doors opening to things that we didn’t even know about. It keeps happening all through life! That’s a really difficult concept to grasp as a young person, though.

  4. Pingback: The Fervor of a Convert (part two) « Comments From a Spec Writer

  5. Liz, you make many good points and I think we all agree that the ability to write as an architect is an important and undervalued skill. As for those who critique the educational system, let me add this to balance the discussion. Students may not be introduced to everything that the critics feel ought to be introduced, but it’s simply because you can’t in 5 years or even 10. However, the concepts are being introduced but it’s up to the student to embrace these skills as important. It’s the “lead a horse to water” argument.

    As a part-time studio instructor I see what skills are introduced in various classes and writing cogent papers is one of them. It’s the lack of interest on the student’s part that keeps them from adding this knowledge and skill. They just want to design and build 3d computer models. Face it, they’re young. The educational system “takes it on the chin” far too often and although it’s not perfect, we need to hold the student or the young architect accountable to have the necessary skills rather than play today’s blame game on another entity. It’s time we (as you did for yourself) seek out what skills we need to be successful and go learn them.

  6. I would agree that it is difficult to get students in professional schools to have an interest in technical subjects – that is not what that thought they went to school for – they have high aspirations. It isn’t until they have been out in the real world for a year or two that reality starts to set in. This may be different for the students who have some significant work experience in an office and/or on the construction site and have a more realistic picture of what professional practice entails.

    It is during internship years that most emerging professionals learn more about what they are going to be doing and what they don’t know in terms of being competent at that. This is the reason that I am an advocate of providing these emerging professionals an opportunity to take an education course in building technology that covers the typical systems and assemblies of building construction. The object is not to make them experts – that takes years of experience, field experience, continuing education, and seeking out knowledge. The object is to teach the basic principles so they know the basic “whys” of building construction upon which to grow. I believe CSI is in a position to provide the basic building technology education.

  7. Pingback: What is “Building Technology”? « Comments From a Spec Writer

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