Chief Builder

1 07 2013

This past weekend, I spent a lot of time building various components for a Fourth of July float for Judy’s clinics. I had, at my disposal, my circular saw, jig saw, drill, hammer, and other assorted hand tools. As I was assembling the various components, it occurred to me  (as it has, so many times, in the past), that all architects and design professionals should possess, at least, a rudimentary proficiency in construction. And yes, I was only working on a float and not a multi-story structure but, there was a considerable measuring and sawing and drilling and hammering happening in order to create the stage set for our latest float (float number 10, if memory serves me correctly).

I’m not saying that other architects are inept when in comes to hands-on construction; but, a majority are now educated and work in climate controlled, sterile classrooms and offices and, only seldom get out to a construction site, much less actually work on one. Surprisingly, this state of the profession is actually a 20th century phenomena, as architects have gradually (then more rapidly) lost that important connection with hands-on construction expertise. Historically, most ancient structures, from pyramids to temples to cathedrals to palaces  to humble abodes, were designed and constructed by master craftsmen; whether they were masons or carpenters, etc.

As a matter of fact, the origin of the definition for Architect is:

mid 16th century: from French architecte, from Italian architetto, via Latin from Greek arkhitektōn, from arkhi- ‘chief’ +tektōn ‘builder’

Of course everything evolves and I’m sure that, at some point, architects decided that the profession needed to be streamlined and, those that wanted to focus on design held on to the title of architect while those that wanted to focus on building took on other titles such as builder or contractor. And, as we continue to progress through the computer age, this transition becomes even more pronounced.

I, on the other hand, refused college, upon graduation from high school, and went to work in the construction industry as a draftsman. While I honed my drawing skills during the week, I spent many weekends working on the various construction crews learning how things really went together (and sometimes, NOT go together). Even after entering to college, I never passed up an opportunity to work on a construction job-site in order to gain more of a perspective of what works and what doesn’t work.

I have often argued that all architecture students should be mandated to spend time working in construction, if not while in school, then as a part of their internship prior to licensing. There is so much to be gained from working with craftsmen (and getting your hands dirty) to really understand how buildings go together and that, sometimes, a seemingly brilliant design idea simply cannot be built or are too cost prohibitive.

To be fair, there  continues to exist a small segment of the industry, called design/build, in which architects and contractors team up, under one umbrella, for a cost-effective project delivery. Unfortunately, it is still a small component in our industry and many of the architects and designers still spend all of their time in the office.

In any event, I will continue to design and to build; I even have my eye on constructing various dream projects (and more floats) and am confident in my abilities gleaned from my varied background. So, the next time you speak to an architect, don’t just look at his stylish suit and tie, look to see if he has calloused hands and ask if he could build your next project.

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