What does an architect do? (Duties, skills & tools)
The role of architects in our society can hardly be understated. They design the buildings and structures in which we live, work, play, shop and so much more. Architects create the design blueprints which are then used by construction teams to build a given structure.
There was a time when the use of hand-drawn, paper blueprints was the standard. Paper blueprints are not obsolete—architect programs today still teach and expect students to know how to draw designs by hand—but modern architects today rely more on advanced software programs to create digital renderings of their designs.
Creating architectural designs requires mathematical acuity, artistry and innovation, but a career in architecture goes far beyond the drawing table. Architects typically have a hand in just about every phase of a construction project, which could include picking out the construction site to choosing the materials the builders use. With so many niches and specializations to pursue, an architect's career can be incredibly varied and molded to the unique aspirations of each individual.
Key responsibilities of an architect
An architect's individual responsibilities can vary a lot depending on where they work and their particular role. Architects working on a team, for example, may have a lead or senior architect that handles more of the client-facing interactions while the architects they manage do more of the drawing and drafting work behind the scenes.
At any rate, these are some of the core job duties most architects can expect to perform within the different phases of a given project:
- Initial consultation:
- Meet with clients to understand their needs and project goals; provide preliminary cost and construction time estimates; discuss any possible challenges that could affect the project.
- Design development:
- Draft initial design sketches and models; collaborate with clients to finalize designs.
- Project planning:
- Architects may be asked to assemble a team of engineers, surveyors, contractors, electricians, plumbers and the like, and possibly help negotiate contracts with these allied professionals.
- Prepare detailed blueprints and specification documents using programs like Computer Aided Design (CAD) and/or Building Information Modeling (BIM); share documents with a client to get final approval; work with other professionals (like plumbers or electricians) to include more technical details; create finalized instruction documents for the construction team.
- Construction oversight:
- Visit construction locations to see how construction is going and troubleshoot any issues that arise; scout future possible construction sites.
Christopher Osolin, a partner and principal architect for RHO Architects in Seattle, Washington, works primarily on single-family homes and some commercial projects. An architect's experience and responsibilities can be very different depending on the type of project they work on. Osolin said he gravitated towards single-family housing for several reasons, one of which is because he enjoys the closer relationships you get to form with your clients.
"You really get to know someone, and everyone is invested in the design," Osolin said. "You're working extremely closely with clients and it's very satisfying to work directly with them to come up with a design in collaboration with what they would like, and then seeing that through to the end."
"But if you work in a big firm, say, if work on an airport—I've never worked on an airport, but I have friends that have worked on airports and the projects seem to never end. With the amount of consultants and team members, all one person might be doing is consultant coordination for the life of the project. In a larger firm, your hat might not vary much. You might just be doing one thing, and that never really appealed to me. I like being able to shift focus and work on different varieties of a project," Osolin said.
Specialized tasks within architecture
In addition to the above, architects may have more specialized tasks if they work on certain projects that call for a particular area of expertise, including:
Qualifications and skills for a job as an architect
The process of becoming an architect requires a lot of schooling and experience before you can actually get licensed. The 55 U.S. states and territories determine their own licensing requirements, which means this process can vary a bit depending on where you live, including the architecture education you need.
- In the majority of U.S. jurisdictions, architects need to earn a degree from an architecture program accredited by the National Architectural Accreditation Board (NAAB) to qualify for licensure. NAAB-accredited programs include a Bachelor of Architecture (B.Arch), Master of Architecture (M.Arch) or even a Doctor of Architecture (D.Arch) for the especially ambitious. Any architecture degree that goes by another name (e.g. Bachelor of Arts, Master of Arts, etc.) is not an NAAB-accredited program. An NAAB-accredited degree is also necessary if an architect wants to earn the NCARB Certificate, which allows for licensure reciprocity across state lines.
- Getting licensed:
- Following their education, architects must complete their state's experience and examination requirements. In almost all places, the experience requirement consists of completing the Architectural Experience Program (AXP). The AXP is not an educational program, but more like a portfolio. It's a way of tracking your experience hours—you'll need 3,740 in total—and ensuring that you can competently perform the 96 key tasks identified within the AXP.
All architects must then pass the Architect Registration Examination (ARE). This exam is actually made up of six separate exams which test you on different knowledge areas. Completion of the education, experience and examination requirements are the three primary components for licensure in every state, but some states may have additional requirements in order to earn a license in their jurisdiction. Be sure to thoroughly research the licensing requirements where you live to make sure you have everything you need.
Essential architect skills
Successful architects possess a wide breadth of technical and soft skills. Architects begin to develop the technical skills listed below during a degree program which includes courses on design, mathematics and physics for architects, architecture software programs, construction processes and more. Graduates continue to hone these skills as they gain hands-on experience working for architects and pursuing their own licenses.
Although this is not an exhaustive list, take a look at some of the skills you must develop in order to pursue a career in architecture:
|Technical skills||Soft skills|
|Ability to draw well and create handmade designs||Strong interpersonal communication|
|Familiarity with modern building and construction methods||Ability to balance and manage multiple projects at once|
|Understanding of relevant mathematics, physics, and engineering||Creative problem-solving and troubleshooting as issues arise|
|Proficiency with Computer-Aided Design (CAD), Building Information Modeling (BIM) and other architectural software||Detail-oriented|
|Knowledge of relevant legal constraints such as zoning codes, safety regulations and accessibility standards||Leadership and project management capabilities; ability to work independently and on a team|
Architecture skills in practice
Computer-Aided Design (CAD) and Building Information Modeling (BIM) are two technologies that get mentioned a lot in architecture, but what exactly are these programs and how are they used?
CAD is a category of software programs, not the name of a specific program itself, used to create 2D and 3D digital models of real objects. Many industries use CAD programs, including architecture. BIM is technically a type of CAD, but represents a much newer type of program that includes all facets of a building and its systems.
"We were working on projects using CAD, and then in the past 20 years what really took off is three-dimensional CAD, which then sort of morphed into Building Information Modeling where you're really building the building on the computer," Osolin said. "[BIM] is a much a much more complex system. You are really figuring out at a much earlier stage all of the pieces that come together, the physical pieces and parts that you have to put together to do a project."
If a building plan can be created on the computer, are hand drawings still necessary? Yes—although one could theoretically start the design process on the computer, architects today still sketch and draw designs, especially during the ideation phase when they are first conceptualizing a project. Many architects attest that the drawing process stimulates creativity in a way that a computer simply cannot. Glenn Murcutt, an esteemed Australian architect, is quoted to have once said, "The hand can discover before the eye sees."
If a building plan can be created on the computer, are hand drawings still necessary? Yes—although one could theoretically start the design process on the computer, architects today still sketch and draw designs, especially during the ideation phase when they are first conceptualizing a project.
"Most of the people [we interview] are younger than I am by a decade or two. You know, we tend to gravitate towards the people who can draw by hand and who can illustrate an idea," Osolin said. "And that is not necessarily something we have a criterion for, but we're drawn to a portfolio and there are hand sketches in there, illustrating an idea that is very clearly communicated because that's key in our profession. You have to communicate your ideas. Whether it's a beginning idea to a client or the final drawings to the contractor, it has to be clear so everyone knows what your intentions are."
Daily life of an architect
Each architect's daily routine can be unique. Factors such as the size and type of their employer, job description and more can all affect their schedule.
Most architects work in an office-based setting, but today it's common for architects to have the opportunity to work from home either part time or full time. In their 2023 Compensation & Benefits report, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) reported that 59% of architects they surveyed worked in a hybrid remote format (some days from the office, some days from home) and 27% worked fully remotely.
Architects may have to leave the home or office at times to conduct site visits, either to assess a site for a future build or to check in on projects that are in progress and work with the other professionals who are involved in the actual construction. How much they do this really depends on the individual—lead or senior architects that are heading a project may be expected to do this more often than the architects they oversee.
"I'm a partner at an 11-person firm and my day-to-day can vary quite a bit. And that's kind of what keeps it interesting and fresh, it's not doing the same thing over and over again," Osolin said. "Especially in a small firm, I wear a lot of different hats. So yesterday I was working on a design and talking to a client to finalize the details. And then this morning, I could be on a phone call with our IT guy trying to troubleshoot some IT issues. And then I'll jump into another project where I'm coordinating with consultants."
Architects generally work normal, full-time hours (Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.) but they are a project-driven profession meaning it's incredibly common to work longer hours, especially during crunch time as deadlines approach. Architects that are self-employed, either as freelancers or owners of their own firms, may have more flexibility in setting their schedules. Either way, Osolin said that all architects should expect to put a lot of time into what they do.
"[A building] has a sort of romanticized covering to it. Sure, buildings look really beautiful when they're done, but to get that done it can be grueling. It's a lot of work. And that was one thing I was prepared for. Just to put a lot of hours perfecting my craft, and I was very dedicated to it."
The impact and legacy of architects
It's no exaggeration to say that architects can influence society in profound ways. Think, for example, of the agoras and forums of the ancient Greek and Roman empires, respectively. These plazas were public gathering spaces where important socio-political ideas were exchanged, many of which rerouted the course of human history. Without the work of architects (which comes from the Greek arkhi- meaning "chief" and tektōn meaning "builder") these and many other public spaces might not exist.
The legacy of architecture on society hardly stops there. Take a moment to consider some of the other ways architects impact various facets of society.
Buildings and public spaces
Like the Greek agoras and Roman forums, architects can create spaces for the community that enrich and engage its citizens. We may not call them by those names today, but we still have our own versions of these spaces in the form of plazas, markets and even shopping malls. Architects who help design and build these kinds of places often do so in collaboration with urban planners.
Architects can even contribute to public health outcomes through the structures they create. Landscape architects, for example, create green spaces in urban areas which can have positive effects on peoples' physical and mental health.
Architects and the work they do can also have economic implications. New and revitalized public buildings tend to draw people to live, work and play in those areas, thus stimulating the local economy. Conversely, dilapidated or poorly planned spaces not only drive people away but can attract crime, making the problem even worse.
Sustainability and environmental impact
The construction industry alone is a huge contributor to global CO2 emissions every year. These and other environmental impacts of construction—including deforestation and noise pollution which can endanger animals that rely on sounds to communicate, to name a few—make it an industry that can wreak havoc on the environment. Architects, however, can reduce these consequences and help forge a more sustainable future.
Many architects specialize in building sustainable structures, but any architect can pursue eco-friendly options in their work. This may include using sustainable materials in the construction process, being cognizant of the structure's energy consumption by implementing efficient electrical, HVAC, plumbing and other systems, or even designing more green spaces within a building itself.
The city-state of Singapore has some of the best and most widely recognized examples of sustainable architectural design. Buildings across the city have incorporated so many green spaces and gardens inside and out that you might even forget that you're in a bustling urban area. Many architects, urban planners and even government leaders look to Singapore as an example of how architectural design should continue to evolve to help combat climate change.
Social and cultural influence
Many of the public spaces and buildings designed by architects contribute to the social and cultural life of a community, including arts centers, cultural centers, places of worship, museums and more. Places like these not only strengthen a community's culture but can also help preserve cultural ideas, traditions and artifacts.
Many of the most famous architectural wonders of the world are cultural buildings—the Colosseum, the Taj Mahal, Angkor Wat, the list goes on—but there are plenty of modern examples as well, including the Sydney Opera House in Australia, the National Stadium in Beijing and the Guggenheim Museum in Spain, to name only a few.
Frequently asked questions (FAQ)
How much time do architects spend on-site versus in the office?
This depends on the individual's job scope. Some architects may not conduct site visits at all, especially if they work on a large team. At any rate, most architects are going to spend more of their time in the office than on-site.
What's the difference between an architect and an interior designer?
Architects design the entire structure of a building, whereas interior designers are responsible for the interior aesthetics and functionality including the furnishings, décor, appliances and the like.
How do architects stay updated with changing regulations and standards?
Architects must complete a certain number of continuing education units (CEUs) each renewal cycle in order to maintain their state-issued license. Many continuing education opportunities are centered around new codes, regulations and standards that affect their practice. Architecture firms may also have someone who is in charge of this and works with the team to ensure that all standards are met.
Are architects involved in the post-construction phase?
Again, this depends from person to person. Some architects may indeed be involved in a post-construction review of the project before handing the keys over to the client, but this depends on the individual's role within their firm or other employer.
The field of architecture is a true synthesis of art and science that touches nearly every facet of our lives. It's as dynamic as it is broad and has existed since the dawn of civilization. From designing homes to hotels, skyscrapers to schools, malls to museums—the job is always interesting and full of possibilities to make it your own.
It takes a lot of work to become an architect, but if you're willing to put in the effort, you could nurture a career that is rewarding, lucrative (explore architecture salaries) and impactful. Learning more about the profession is the first step to finding out if it's a career that's right for you. Next, start to research education programs that could pave the way to a career in architecture.