Monday, January 8, 2018

ARE YOU EXPERIENCED? Architects Should Be.

Interior by Bernard Maybeck, and...
Some time ago, I visited a contractor friend of mine who was bogged down in framing the floors of an extremely complicated hillside house. The architect had inexplicably specified four different types of floor joists, ranging from solid lumber to laminated beams to I-joists to stranded timber beams, all with different sizes and requiring different methods of installation, and all interconnected in a pointlessly complex manner. 

The hapless contractor was doing his best to cope with this mess, taking it on faith that the architect must have had a good reason for creating it.

In fact, a simpler design—using just one type of joist—would have served just as well. The plain truth was that the architect didn’t have the faintest idea how difficult his design would be to build, because he had no hands-on experience in construction.

...portrait of the architect himself. He knew
what he was doing, because he was the son
of a woodcarver, and he know how to build.
After the contractor had showed me around this disastrous project, he implored: 

“How come architects don’t have to serve an apprenticeship in the field, so they can see how hard their stuff is to build?”

Good question—and one I’ve heard many, many times before. I wish I had a good answer.
It seems perfectly reasonable that someone who designs buildings should also know something about how to build them. Yet field experience is the exception and not the rule among architects. This lack of practical knowledge is one reason the architect’s once-proud reputation as “master builder”—one that goes back centuries—is rapidly crumbling.

In spite of this sad state of affairs, I’m not aware of a single major architecture school that requires a mandatory field internship. Nor do current licensing requirements encourage any form of field work—instead, they stress office internship under the tutelage of a licensed architect.  This is the part of an architectural education that’s considered “practical experience”.     

Via Mizner in Palm Beach, Florida, by architect
Addison Mizner (1872-1933) and...
Perhaps the licensing process is thought to be too prolonged and rigorous already. Maybe so—but the rigor is mainly theoretical. It’s equally important that architects gain a sense of how structures go together in the real-life environment of the building site. No architect can fully appreciate the stupidity of many common architectural details until he’s had to construct them with his own two hands.   

Mizner in person. Not only
did he know how to build,
but he founded a craft
workshop that made many
of the materials for his
I’m solidly with the contractors on this one: As part of every architect’s training, he or she should serve at least a year on a construction site—if even just to dig ditches or clean up. The nature of the work is less important than simply gaining an appreciation of how difficult constructing a building really is.

History has shown that architects with hands-on experience, from Michelangelo to Maybeck to Mizner, seem to develop an innate feel for the nature of materials, an appreciation for simplicity, and a firm grasp on what things cost to build. All of these are crucial to a project’s success.  So if you’re in the market for an architect, never mind the eye-popping website and look for some evidence of hands-on knowledge.  

I don’t think I’m alone in advocating a field internship. Many of my colleagues might agree that prospective architects could use more practical experience. If they had it, the world might look a lot different.   

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