An Architect's Frequently Asked Questions

David Tritt answers questions about what it is really like to be an architect.

Over the years, there have been a few questions that have occurred in my life in often enough that they can be classified as FAQ’s in regard to what it is like to be an architect and/or specifics of what the job entails. These are some, along with my responses:

I AM NOT GOOD AT MATH, AND THERE IS A LOT OF MATH AND SO I DON’T THINK IT WOULD BE GOOD FOR ME, WHAT DO YOU THINK? This is the one that architects hear the most often I think (not a scientific survey on my part) and my answer is always that NO, there is not a lot of math in the practice of architecture.  The only math is arithmetic in the base 12 system (feet and inches) and some basic understanding of geometry.  There is no calculus, trigonometry, or algebra involved, even though these are courses taken in college.  The intent of which is to understand the engineering courses one must take later in their academic career.  (Mind you, I am speaking mostly about my own experience, others may differ somewhat.)  

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash.

IS IT HARD TO BECOME AN ARCHITECT?  Hard is not how I would describe it if you love it.  Challenging is the more appropriate term, I would think.  And time-consuming, especially in college. After college, if you don’t mind the low pay the first few years (the apprenticeship years) your career can involve more than a handful of all-nighters.  But in the end, learning how buildings are constructed in the real world is an essential part and a completion of the education of an architect.

WHAT IS IMPORTANT IN TERMS OF INTEREST, IF NOT MATH AS DESCRIBED ABOVE?  The art of the building. The most important thing to me is creating something in an artful way that you and your client can be proud of.  There are tens of thousands, if not millions, of parts that fit together to construct a piece ofarchitecture and each piece follows the other. So how does one put all of the pieces together in an artful way?  And at the same time satisfy the client’s needs and budget?   

WHAT ARE THE EDUCATIONAL REQUIREMENTS?  There are several paths for one to get a formal architectural education. Universities with a school or department of architecture offer either or both a 4-year Bachelor of Arts with a major in architecture degree (not a professional degree), a 5-year Bachelor of Architecture degree (a professional degree), and/or a 2-3 year Master of Architecture degree (also a professional degree).  Generally speaking, the 4-yearundergraduate degree is to be coupled with the 3-year Master of Architecture degree, although not always true, even though that was the original intent.  Also most graduate schools make their Master of Architecture program available to undergraduates with degree majors other than architecture, which is also a popular way to achieve an architectural degree. It has always been argued that this last curriculum path gives a more inclusive and well rounded education.  

In addition, there are several years after one obtains a degree that one needs experience in an architectural practice before being eligible to take the state licensure exams.  The exams are tough.  They have several parts that last for days when taken as a whole.  For this reason, most people prefer to take them one at a time.

WHO DECIDES HOW A BUILDING IS BUILT? THE ARCHITECT OR THE BUILDING CONTRACTOR? It is a joint effort, along with the owner and the rest of the design team. The architect prepares the architectural drawings that the contractor uses to actually construct the building, along with drawings and specifications prepared by the rest of the team.  One does not have to know ALL of the parts that go into a building, for an architect works with other design professionals who do as well: engineers, construction managers, contractors, material suppliers, code specialists, etc., who prepare their own sets of drawings and specifications for the contractor, but the architect is responsible for coordinating all of these people and answering questions as the process proceeds.  I have always been told that we may not know the answer to every question, but we do know where to look for the answer.

IS DRAWING AND MODEL-MAKING A THING OF THE PAST? No. At least not the way I work.  Computer programs have taken over most of what occurs on a daily basis in an architectural office, but the art of being able to conceptualize something and immediately draw it is still valuable and provides another tool to communicate and develop a design.  I myself still draw, but I also employ computer programs to do illustrations and develop details with others.  I have found, as have others, that computer illustrations/renderings sometimes are off putting to some clients who still prefer to see hand drawn illustrations.  They are not as sterile and are more artful in a lot of instances. It should be taken on a case-by-case basis however, every client and planning commission who sees your illustration is different.

Aetypic's conceptual sketches for the SFPUC Newcomb Yard project.

“I AM A PEOPLE PERSON”, IS THERE ROOM FOR ME IN THE PROFESSION?  Of course there is.  The Don Draper factor is huge.  The face of the firm is so important in our competitive world.  Mind you, architecture is highly competitive.  Although camaraderie amongst our architectural community is tight, there is fierce competition between us to obtain clients and new work.  Leading and managing an architectural staff takes talent. The human resources aspect of any business is one of the balls a good manager keeps in the air while focusing on meeting internal project budgets, staffing, and DEADLINES!

IT SEEMS THAT ARCHITECTURE IS A BUSINESS, TRUE?  A resounding YES.  The business portion of a practice is a fulltime job for several people in a midsized firm. AND THE MOST IMPORTANT if a firm is to survive and achieve its goals of creating good design.

MY INTEREST IS MORE THE TECHNICAL SIDE OF CONSTRUCTION, IS THERE A PLACE FOR ME? OR SHOULD I WORK FOR A CONTRACTOR INSTEAD?  Either is viable. Technically-oriented professionals are essential to any architectural practice, so please pursue an architectural education if you are so inclined.  As mentioned above, there are a lot of parts to put together to build a building, and most of our time (and our fee) is based in this area of practice.  So bring it on.

Collaborative work sessions are typical in an architectural office.

DOES EVERY BUILDING YOU DESIGN GET BUILT?  No. As a guess, maybe 1 out of 3 designs get built. Many building designs are done as feasibility studies in order for an owner to present to a city planning commission for its review and potential approval.  Not all projects get approved in their initial form or at all in some cases.  In other cases, a design may be used for fundraising purposes and funds are not raised.  Or they are put on hold.  Or the bond measure did not get passed.  There are many reasons a project does not get beyond the planning stages.  But in order to get to this stage a complete building needs to be designed.  This involves renderings, models, cost estimates, and schedule projections. In addition, the architect is expected to not only present the project to any interested planning commissions at public meetings, but also to run and present to any and all community groups that may be stakeholders in the project.  It obviously is a major part of an architect’s time and service. If the project goes no further it will not be built.  The architect will be paid for efforts rendered for these services to that point, and will not proceed with the working drawings and specifications for construction. 

DO ARCHITECTS FIND IT TO BE A REWARDING CAREER?  IS IT WHAT YOU THOUGHT IT WOULD BE?  I think most architects do.  The learning curve is steep though, and not everyone adapts to it easily. My freshman class in undergraduate school was approximately 100 students and just 23 graduated 5 years later.  There were only 17 students in my class in graduate school, but everyone was pretty dedicated and all 17 graduated.  But in terms of what I thought it would belike I know what it CAN be like if you look at all the successful architecture in the world.  It’s a noble profession and its lofty goals sometimes are mocked as being unrealistic, but there is a great deal of satisfaction in working on a successful project.  

Something that is often overlooked is that architecture is an expensive art form.  Maybe movies compare, but building a building is costly and carries a heavy responsibility on all those involved.  It takes a great deal of effort to not only know how to build but how to build responsibly and to represent our profession to the highest degree, and to respect our clients that their budgets are well spent and that the final product meets their expectations. 


Although the professions are aligned, and inmost cases possess the same goals, and in a lot of cases may work in the same practice or company, they are trained differently and have different responsibilities in the design and construction of buildings.

WHY DID YOU BECOME AN ARCHITECT?  Honestly, as a kid I saw a pencil street level rendering black and white sketch in one my father’s plan books.  He was considering moving to Canton, Ohio and building a “ranch house” there for our family. It did not happen, but there was this sketch in the book, the only modern building shown, that was the coolest house I had ever seen.  It had a Corvette in the driveway, which did not hurt.  It really stuck in my mind.  Especially when I was told that you could make these drawings and build them, and you could do that and it could be your job if you chose.  That was pretty much it for me.

Article Written by David Tritt, Senior Architect.

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