Monday, October 21, 2013


There is a vast arena of jobs that people do in the world, and frequently no one really knows what another person does when they go to work. Most everyone has a title associated with their job, but these titles generally do little to describe what a person actually does.

I don’t know what my family or friends do at work, but every day they get up in the morning, go to work, and come home in the evening. When I ask the question “What do you do all day at work?” the answer is frequently “lots of things.”

As an architect, my answer to that same question could also be “lots of things”.

Architecture is a design profession, but the notion of design goes far beyond lines on paper (or computer monitor). There is a great deal of variation within the field architecture, as there is in most professions. Below is a look into what I do as a sole practitioner architect, working in the San Francisco Bay Area. I have omitted the ‘behind the scenes’ work, such as the work of landing a job, developing a program, discussing and evaluating a budget, and many other associated processes that occur before a project is actively begun.

Due diligence plays an integral role in an architect’s job, although certainly this is not the sexy part of the work. Due diligence includes: local code research; site-specific research; understanding possible site restrictions; and procuring any documents required by the governing agency such as a survey, soils report, etc. Feasibility studies, programming, and budget analysis can also be part of this process. Requirements such as design review, presenting to committees, height and set-back limitations, and discussions and meetings with the governing jurisdiction are also a part of due diligence.

Once the due diligence is underway (and this can be an on-going process), the design can begin. Design is typically broken into three parts: site design, schematic design, and design development. But design is not a linear process with a beginning, middle, and end. It is more of a serpentine movement, one that has a beginning and an end, but with many wiggles in between.

It is nearly impossible to describe a design process, as it is truly a process that begins with a line on a piece of paper that is transformed, based on the site, geography, position of the sun, clients’ needs and desires, program, and what is seen, heard, thought, read, dreamed, smelled, and even eaten. The end product is both an abstract and a dialogue that covers all elements of life, and it is dedicated to the client and to good design.
 There are sub-sets of design that are more tangible and easier to describe than the pure design process. Site design is an important first step in the design process, where geography, climate, solar evaluation, wind and weather patterns, access, views, light quality, etc., are all important factors to consider and understand before beginning the design of a building. Other sub-sets of design which are part of an architect’s work include lighting design (when a lighting consultant is not used), kitchen and bath design, cabinet and furniture design, color, texture, and material palettes, furniture lay-out, office lay-out, stair design, steel design, glass design, even textile design.

As the design and details are being developed, the architect's language is expressed graphically in the conventions of plan, section, and elevation. Plans are views looking directly down at a horizontal surface (a bird's eye view), and include floor plans, roof plan, (showing all roof planes, roof slopes, skylights, and any other roof elements), and electric plan (all light fixtures, receptacles, and light switching).

The floor plan shows location of all walls, windows, doors, stairs, kitchen and bath lay-out, casework, decks and patios, trellises, landscaping features, etc. Dimensions of all exterior and interior walls and components are notated, as well as special instructions. Every window and door is located within a wall and given a number, which is cross-referenced on the window/door schedule (schedules discussed below). Architectural symbols are marked on the plan denoting where sections, details, interior elevations, and blown-up plans (frequently kitchens, baths, and special conditions) have been drawn. The plan becomes very dense with information, and it is a bit of a design exercise to make this sheet easy to read and also look graphically beautiful.
PLUShouse floor plan
Sections are vertical cuts taken through a building, like cutting a loaf of bread into slices. Several sections are frequently taken through a building in order to describe different roof planes, floor elevation changes, wall conditions, etc. Vertical control is identified on the sections, ceiling and roof heights are dimensioned, stairs and railings are layed out and dimensioned, and any other elements best described in sectional view are noted.

PLUShouse sections

Elevations are views looking straight at a vertical plane, and are drawn for every exterior wall and frequently for every interior wall. Elevations show windows, doors, roofs, rain water downspouts, and any other elements located on a wall.
PLUShouse north & east elevations
Architectural details are an important part of design, and are in no way subordinate to the overall building design. Details are specific to each building, and respond to the idea and design of the building in the way materials, elements, components, and building parts are joined. If a steel post is exposed, do you see the connection of the post to the beam it is supporting, or is this a blind connection? If you can see the soffit (underside of the roof) when you look out a window, what is the material, color, shape, texture of the soffit, and how does it relate to the building as a whole? Details can be drawn in one or in multiple conventions of plan, section, and elevation. The detailing of the building should be consistent with the overall building idea, and must occur both in a functional and aesthetic manner.
Fisher/Castellano stair details
In order to detail a building well, it is necessary to have a thorough knowledge of structure, technique, products, fasteners, weather-proofing, materials, and methods of construction. Said differently, one has to know how a building is built, understand the materials used in the building (their opportunities and limitations), how to keep the water out, and also keep the building beautiful. Detailing is fun and multi-faceted, and it frequently informs the overall building design as well as the structural design.

Mies van der Rohe

 As Mies van der Rohe (a German architect 

at the forefront of modernist design in the 
early 20th century) stated, “God is in the details.”

An empirical task architects perform is the development of product and material schedules. This is typically done in spread-sheet format. All products associated with the project - windows, doors, electric and plumbing products, hardware, appliances, etc. need to be listed and described by type, manufacturer, product identification number, size and color, as well as any special notations (e.g. window gets installed directly to corner post, no return). A finish schedule lays out similar information, and describes all materials and surface treatments used in the building, both interior and exterior. The finish schedule includes wall finishes, paint colors, flooring, kitchen countertop, casework, roofing, soffit, railings, decks and patio material etc. For instance, an interior stair rail will be specified as 3"x1/2" cold steel bar, clear finish, eased edges, blind weld spots. The schedules are ultimately used by the builder in pricing the building, ordering the materials and products, and getting the project built with the intended products and finishes.
Door schedule
Coordinating the architecture drawings with the engineering drawings (structural, civil, mechanical, and electrical), and with recycled water and photovoltaic systems drawings, is also part of an architects’ job. Even though a building may look very simple, it can have a complex structure that needs to be precisely coordinated with the architecture. For this reason, a thorough understanding of how all systems work, and how they are integrated with and become a part of the building, is of great importance. This is one of the tasks I look forward to - I get to use my latent technical skills, and it signifies that the design will soon become a reality of a built building.
Structural/Architecture coordination
The final output, before construction can begin, is a to create a set of construction documents. These documents consist of detailed graphic and written instructions that set forth the requirements for the construction of the project. Included are the architecture drawings, details, specifications, and schedules of materials and products, as well as all building systems (structural, mechanical, electric), site utilities, and other components applicable to the project ( e.g. recycled water systems and solar systems). This set of documents becomes the basis upon which the building is built. It is also the document submitted to the governing city when applying for a building permit, the last step before construction can begin.

An architect’s work does not end once the design and construction documents are finalized, and the construction has commenced. Architects are frequently involved in the selection of the General Contractor (this frequently occurs at the project outset), the bidding and price negotiation process, and with budget analysis and review. Other ‘behind the scenes’ tasks include client meetings, presentations, model building, 3-dimensional drawings and sketches, sun angle calculations (to determine the depth of roof overhangs or sun shades), product research, permit submittals, keeping up with sustainable issues and products, building and coordinating a strong project team, and so on.

Once construction has begun, the architect oversees the construction process with site visits, discussions with the general contractor and subcontractors, review of payments, change orders, product substitution, and any modifications or changes that may occur during the building process. It is extremely rewarding to develop a relationship and work closely with a client, to see a project team work towards a common goal, and to experience the transformation of an idea to a design, to a set of drawings, and then to a beautiful and functioning building.


Fisher/Castellano Residence
Architects are both artists and mechanics. The end product, the Architecture, must be beautiful. It must make you feel a certain way, slow you down, and create an experience both in the approach to, and movement through, the building. A building must also keep out the weather, comply with planning and building codes, respond to a program, meet a certain budget, get built in a timely manner, and be environmentally sustainable. All these items are important in designing and producing a good building.

It’s a lot of things, and it’s all about taking it from here to there.

Lindy Small Architecture AIA