What does an architect do?

So you want to be an architect. You want to design cool buildings and spaces. Well, there’s more to it than that. Many think an architect’s job involves meeting with clients, sitting in front of a big piece of blue paper, and drawing a building. They send the drawing in, discuss a few edits, and construction begins!

Not exactly.

An architect Working on a Building Prototype Made of White Wood

Architect Definition

An architect’s job description certainly includes drawing and designing buildings, but they can’t just build whatever, wherever. There are budgets and laws to follow, safety measures to remember, environmental impacts to consider, and on top of all that, clients to please. It’s a constant juggling session, and sketching is only one small step in bringing a structure to life.

Stages of a Typical Architectural Project

1.  Pre-design

The architect first meets with a client and discusses the project. Next, they’ll give a cost estimate and submit a bid among other architects trying to win the project. Once the client chooses an architect or firm, each party signs a contract.

2. Architectural Schematic Design/Sketches  

Once there’s a contract in place, the architect and his or her team create a design with the structure’s general arrangement. This phase of the project may include schematic designs (rough sketches), models, and floor plans. Today’s architects also use 3D computer renderings and building information modeling (BIM) software to create designs more efficiently.

3. Design Development 

Once a general outline comes together, the architect creates more detailed drawings and specifies things like materials and finishes. They may also hire a structural engineer during this phase and give a new cost estimate. 

Two male and one female architects around a table working on blue prints for a building design

4. Construction Documents

Creating final construction documents really brings the design to fruition. There are two full sets of drawings and specifications to submit: the permit set and the construction set.  

Architects submit the permit set to the local building department and other government agencies for project approval and proper permits. Then contractors use the construction set on site to manage the building process.

5. Building Permits 

Before breaking ground, architects must submit their plans for government approval. Then the city or county examines the project’s structural integrity and ensures it follows zoning laws and other regulations. Depending on the project, this can be a slow process.

5a. Contractor Selection (optional): 

Sometimes architects and construction contractors work under the same firm, also known as a design-build project. In that case, there’s no need to choose a contractor since the project already has one. If the client and architect haven’t selected a contractor, they’ll interview and field bids to begin the construction phase. Before officially hiring the contractor, the architect usually finishes the plans and waits for permits, as most contractors prefer to take on shovel-ready projects. 

6. Construction Administration

At this point, the architect’s duties shift from design to management, and the contractor takes over. The architect conducts site visits, monitors construction, and updates the client on progress. 

7. Project Close-Out 

The project is now complete! The architect reviews final results and approves contractor payments. The client may hire the same architect/team in the future for modifications and updates.  

An architect at a building site observing work in progress with a set of architectural blueprints

Skills Needed to be an Architect 

A modern architect certainly knows their way around a computer, but they also have a variety of soft skills. Architects are detail-oriented, but they must additionally look outward and think about the full extent of projects. People will live and work in these spaces, so every detail must fit into a building’s whole aesthetic and functionality. A good architect is open to feedback from contractors, engineers, clients, and other stakeholders. They’re creative but also pragmatic and willing to compromise. Then there are the hard skills:  

  • Advanced math, including geometry, physics, and budgeting. Architects must ensure their building follows safety standards, meets all regulations and client needs, and stays on budget. Sometimes this requires innovative thinking and working outside of standard mathematical formulas. 
  • Art and design. While it’s important that a building stay upright, it also needs to look good. Architects must know basic design concepts and be able to think creatively. Additionally, although computers play an increasingly bigger role in architecture, today’s architects still need drawing skills for hand sketching.  
  • Familiarity with laws and codes. Before architects can even think about creating structures, they must ensure they’re following local laws and regulations. They should be familiar with safety and structural laws as well as zoning laws.         
  • Computer skills. Today’s architects and their clients have access to detailed images of job sites and accurate data thanks to building information modeling (BIM) software. Because BIM is an essential part of the design process, architects must have proficiency in basic architectural software and be generally tech-savvy. 
An architect at a brown desk working on a BIM structure for a building design in CAD software

Architects are not just designers. They’re artists, engineers, and diplomats. Their work requires thinking about every detail of a structure, both aesthetically and realistically, and moderating a team of stakeholders to ensure every aspect of a project runs smoothly. They’re not just creating a building; they’re creating an environment.  

Read the free guide.

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Kelly Obbie

Social Media Coordinator at CADENAS PARTsolutions | A 2018 graduate of The Media School at Indiana University, Kelly studied journalism, public relations, English and Spanish and has experience in news writing and editing as well as social media writing and management. She also has professional and personal experience in videography and photography. She currently lives in Ohio but has lived in four states, and in her free time, she enjoys running, hiking, learning languages, and watching Disney movies.