Why Architects Need To Get Back Onto The Construction Site

Until the 1800s there was no clear distinction between the project manager, architect, builder, or engineer. Today, architects affect less than 5% of building development that occurs globally. The role of architecture in building is diminishing, and as a result architects are expanding into broader areas of history, theory, and hypothesis.

Architects tend to imagine through drawing but step back when it comes to making their design. As a result, architects continue to be pushed further away from what is happening on site. Critics and architects continue to debate the value of departing from the production of building. But what if architects were to reconnect with the process of making? How would this help architecture to develop?

For some indication we can look to Samuel Mockbee, the late founder of the Rural Design Studio who died in 2001. Mockbee encouraged architects to re-connect to the technical and social outcomes of their making. He co-founded Rural Design Studio with his friend D.K. Ruth in order to create a forum for students to design, and he built homes in rural communities while instigating community-action, collaboration, and sustainability.


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Mockbee said that architects must not decrease the nobility of a project based on its materials and construction methods, nor on the budget or location of the client. His studio allowed students the opportunity to understand and implement material technologies and construction in combination with their architecture education. He sought to create beautiful spaces with materials and objects that otherwise be discarded.

Drew Heath, founder of Drew Heath Architects, is an architect and builder currently located in Sydney. Heath advocates the need for architecture to take up less space, to be less permanent, and to admire and participate in the surrounding natural environment. His projects are site specific.


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Take his Zig Zag Cabin, a low-impact, 9 square meter building located on a 2 acre allotment. Using whatBrett Boardman describes as “an empirical process” Heath constructed the Zig Zag Cabin piece by piece. Heath was able to continually alter the design during construction, which is near impossible when the process of design and making are divided into separate trades.

Both Mockbee and Heath have allowed the building process to shape their designs, and as a result their work is highly responsive and site sensitive. Working on the ground allows them to see the impact of their design decisions in a tactile way and to change them as necessary by the hand of their own discovery.

Clinton Cole, founder of CplusC, attributes his early start in building as a child searching for scraps and having had lots of space. “This is what being an architect and a builder is about,” says the Sydney-based architect, “experimenting with materials and tools to make beautiful things for others to enjoy.” Cole is fascinated with dissecting and reimagining how things are put together.

Building brings additional responsibilities, too. “As an architect you can walk away from a project upon completion with hopefully some great photographs and a happy client,” explains Cole. But “as both architect and builder you have to resolve any warranty issues six to seven years after it is handed over to the client—and this includes any subsequent owner of the property. This obligation gives invaluable insight into how my buildings age, leak, crack, move and wear. It’s like a very long and sometimes very costly Post Occupancy Evaluation.” Cole’s experimentation and understanding of building components and materials informs and evolves his design processes over time.


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Cole also identifies issues in the communication between the small architectural circle and the greater world outside and how this affects the perception and value of what architects do. Like Mockbee he describes the need for architects and builders to become valuable members of the broader community. The architecture industry doesn’t necessarily facilitate this, forcing many architects to engage in unpaid work to do just that, and to do it in a “hands-on way.” Cole also recognizes greater advantages offered by combining architecture with building, including overall project control, budget and quality control, cash flow, and speed.

Fellow Sydney architect and builder Oliver Steele, founder of Steele Associates, shares Cole’s experiences and opinions. Steele primarily builds for other architects. Both Cole and Steele comment on interesting opinions about their duel-title. Architects tend to associate them as builders, while builders associate them as architects. Steele explains, “It is odd to me that it is considered unusual to do both. I’ve learned a lot about building from designing, and a lot about designing from building.”


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And is that so surprising? Participating in the building process is about understanding and exploring the innate connection between architecture and its imminent construction, materials, processes, and techniques. By engaging in this process, architect can look outside the small inner-circle of a single industry and re-consider the holistic meaning for their practice. Through experimentation and involvement in making architects just might be able to expand the possibilities of architecture by rethinking material applications and construction capabilities.

Id love to hear your thoughts in the comment section below. Do you think architects should be more involved in the process of making? 


12 comments for “Why Architects Need To Get Back Onto The Construction Site”

  • jin

    this is essential. that is why THERE IS a distinction of different architects ie. project architects, design architects, technical architects, resident architects…. where i’m from, the technicality of construction is the crucial part of a project, about 80-90% of the process. i mean to be a qualified and certified architect, you MUST HAVE these knowledge, even if it’s for a professional exam. design is too subjective if the reality is not realized at the very beginning. 🙂

    • Pan

      But here is the thing, in the UK and the US we have Architectural Technicians (which you referred to in your comment). We are responsible for the technical parts of the construction whilst an architect is about designing the building, they do need to know these things but not in detail, very basic information though. However, in other countries where they don’t have Architectural Technicians, the architects need to know also the technical parts (hence why architectural technicians are considered architects in other countries).

      However, I agree with your point of view


      • jin

        what are the job scopes of an architectural technician in your country? maybe using a production of detail drawings as a reference, what are the roles each of these people? also, i like to know how architects qualify to be certified through professional exams in your country?

        • Pan

          Well, architectural technicians produce detail drawings as you said and also design the structure of the building, they also have to know about the building regulations. Architectural Technology is a 3 year course and because it’s an Hons degree you don’t need exams after you graduate as you are a chartered architectural technician by the CIAT

          Architects do 3 years for Part 1, optional one year of experience, they they do Part 2, and then another year of experience and then Part 3 to finish completely their course.

          • Brian

            I’m trained as an architectural technician in Canada. My dream, ever since I was about 12, was to become an architect and be involved in the construction process. When I researched the process of getting my architectural degree I discovered that I would be in university for 6 to 7 years and when I was finished I would have to apprentice with an architect for another 3 years. Then I would officially be able to begin doing what I have always known I wanted to do. What I chose to do instead was take a 2 year Building Technology Course
            ( Architectural Option ) Then I started my own design business at 19. I subcontracted with as many architects, builders and developers as I could and learned all sides of the industry from some of the best in my area. 16 years later I have designed hundreds of residences and am very clear on my ability as a designer and my knowledge of the construction process. The most difficult challenge I have faced in my career is finding opportunities to build. I’m not interested in being a construction manager, I’m interested in design and the process of building. Convincing a builder to let me work with them on a project I have designed is often met with doubt and concern that I will try to take over the project.

            I have worked often with and architect friend of mine who has always been one of my greatest mentors. He has built almost everything he has designed, and almost everything he designs makes it into a magazine or wins an award. I call him the cathedral builder, because he will often spend 2 to 3 years on a single project. When his projects are done the attention to detail is staggering and the flow and feel of the spaces he creates are alive. You can feel the love and attention that was put into the building as opposed to many production builders homes which often feel like lost children when they are done; even when a good architect has designed the building.

            Whether you are an architect or an architectural technician, I believe there is huge value in experiencing all sides of the building industry. With that experience comes a much deeper knowledge of the design process.

          • jin

            and thats almost the exact practice architects in my country. architects have a lot of authority over the project and they are the site officer, we oversee the projects and are expected to know every detail ( specific paint, coating, brand of raw material etc….). architects control the quality of buildings (somehow, i have no idea why here we get that much responsibility) and make sure everything is constructed with zero defects. I believe that power over the projects we design must be appreciated dearly. Brian, may i know who is your particular friend? would love to have a chat with you and your friend sometime!

  • Pan

    I agree with your point of view that architects need to be more involved on site, at least go and visit, see how everything is going, in the end of the day it is their creation in my opinion, but they won’t have anything to do as there are a lot of fields in construction that will cover the rest of the works.


  • archininja

    An extended interview about architecture and construction with Clinton Cole of CplusC can be found here: http://www.archi-ninja.com/architects-who-build-interview-with-clinton-cole/

    I highly recommend you have a read!

  • Kyle Pennington

    I enjoyed reading this article as I have started my third year in Architecture School after enduring nearly 15 as a carpenter.

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