Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Architect and the Engineer

The old saw is that an engineer learns more and more about less and less, until eventually she knows everything about nothing. The architect learns less and less about more and more, until eventually she knows nothing about everything.

Sure enough, NCARB agrees with that. NCARB, the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards, has published a document entitled Architecture as It Differs From Engineering. It's a 2004 update of a document originally created in 1982 and amended in 1995, and its purpose is "to assist its Member Boards in their continuing effort to prevent the unlawful practice of architecture by unlicensed persons." Basically, it's a legal brief to be used by state boards when they go after non-architects for providing design services. They go through differences in training; outline precedent cases in which engineers were sued or blocked from project completion because they had done design work; compare the Architectural Registration Exam (ARE) to the Fundamentals of Engineering and Principles and Practices of Engineering exams; bring in quotes from an "expert group" about professional differences; and compare B.Arch and B.S. Civil Engineering curricula from six colleges.

The argument boils down to this:
  • architects go to school longer than engineers;
  • architects have broader training than engineers;
  • this training is more "integrative and imaginative" than that of other fields;
  • this training allows architects to coordinate the work of others; and
  • this training ensures that architects promote individual, community, and ecological values.
Therefore, "a registered architect should be involved in the design of all buildings intended for human occupancy and habitation, and...a registered architect is the only design professional prepared to coordinate all the other disciplines required for the project."

Being someone involved in the training of architects, I think I'd have to respectfully disagree. There aren't an awful lot of courses in the curriculum that help students manage teams of diverse specialists. There's only sporadic attention to ecological concerns and data-driven outcomes testing. The consideration of "how does a building impact its surroundings" is typically true only inasmuch as the surroundings are mass models of gray chipboard. And the understanding of culture and behavior and values is also not a feature of most architectural curricula.

In the end, as we look at the comparison of the B.Arch and B.S.C.E. curricula they provide in Appendix C, the only fundamental differences are that the engineering students take a lot more math, physics and technical systems, and that the architecture students have studio and architectural history. So in order to bolster NCARB's claims, studio and arch history courses had better have a lot of attention paid to team facilitation, post-occupancy evaluation, individual cognition and social behavior, cultural norms and values, contextual sensitivity, and ecological fit.

And, as the saying goes, how's THAT workin' out for ya?

1 comment:

Eric Randall said...

I've worked at several different offices in my career, and I have found there to be an common thread that architects want to believe they know more than they do, and attempt to do more than they really should be doing.

Example: Perhaps it's the office I work at right now, perhaps - for the sake of my job security, depending on who may read this - it isn't, but let's just say that office X has been commissioned to design a movie theater. Innocently, maybe I asked "What do we really know about theater design? Should we think about hiring a consultant for this?"...which was met with an adamant "We don't need a consultant. We can look up some stuff on the internet."....ask me in 3 months how THAT is working out for me. This whole idea of the architect as a master-coordinator, the conductor of the symphony that is design and construction is, to me, an outdated anachronism. We need to start admitting more plainly what we DON'T know, and have the economic and egotistical courage to pass on works that we don't have any business doing.

If I understand my engineering licensing laws, technically a licensed P.E. could sign and seal Electrical drawings as easily as she could civil plans or fire sprinkler drawings - as, in the eyes of the licensing board a PE is a PE is a PE. However, the licensing boards also strictly forbid such practice, with stiff penalties and possible forfeiture of license if a PE seals drawings on a discipline he is not qualified to design. Maybe NCARB should take a look at that model. That way we won't have architects skilled in medical and retail trying to design movie theaters with Wikipedia as their primary research source.