“A builder is like a little god... somebody who does things, doesn’t just draw things.” - Renzo Piano

Architect, and well-known blogger, Bob Borson recently posted a podcast arguing that all architects should work construction at some point in their life.  This is absolutely brilliant advice if you have the opportunity.

My grandfather was a carpenter and when I was in middle school I was lucky enough to spend one summer helping him renovate an old house and another summer with him building a deck on our house.  He was quite proud when I told him that I wanted to be an architect, but I sensed a but of skepticism.  It turns out that he was fired from a job site for arguing with an architect about an unbuildable detail.  He urged me to befriend the tradespeople on the site because they know the most about how to build their systems.

I headed my grandfather's advice and have tried to learn from the tradespeople in every interaction I have with them.  At the very least, I make sure they know that I respect their work and ideas.  I find that once you demonstrate empathy and explain the design intent, they work hard to turn the vision into reality.

Renzo Piano, one of the best architects of our time, is from a family of builders.  His designs are some of the most beautiful structures in the world and he takes the time to learn from and acknowledge the hard work that the tradespeople put into the buildings.  I once heard a story about how he demanded a personal meeting with the tradespeople working on one of his projects so he could thank them for their work - no executives were allowed to attend.

You cannot understand architecture until you understand how a building is built.

Get Construction Experience

How can you get construction experience if you are already working full time?  Try volunteering for Habitat of Humanity or some other organization.  Perform renovations on your own home or help a friend with their project.

While working an actual construction job is the best way to learn, an alternative is to get construction administration experience as early in your career as possible.  This helps inform your future designs so much. Construction administration is where you find out what parts of your contribution were garbage, which is how you learn and get better.  The heart-pounding fear you feel when you see first-hand that your design is not buildable will force you to think differently when you are “building” a project in the computer.

Learn from the Trades

Many people look down on the trades, but they are the ones that make our designs possible.  More than that, they can make our designs better.  If you can befriend a construction worker, you will see that they know so much about how to build.  They also care a lot about their work and want to help you achieve the design vision.

To this day, nothing excites me more than being on a construction site and seeing how a building gets made.  It is a big part of why I work on Archtoolbox.  Every architect should spend time on site, but more than that they need to be eternally curious about how buildings are put together.  This knowledge makes you a better architect and makes your projects more beautiful.