Architecture: Trade or Profession?

Sealander Architects is a small firm. You can’t get much smaller than we are. Because we are small, we do the things small business owners do. We vacuum. We do the marketing. We clean the toilets. We do our own drafting.
It is this last task I want to talk about today, because the architecture profession has become upended. The vertically different job descriptions are going by the wayside.
In the profession of architecture, there is a ladder that one climbs. Kids right out of school are draftspeople. You draw. After a little while, one might become a job captain. This is the person in charge of the entire drawing set. The job captain makes sure the plans are in front, followed by the sections, with the details making up the rear guard. After a little while, one moves on to project architect. This is the person most intimately responsible for the overall design. Is the building turning out the way it should? Are the code issues addressed? Are the consultants on board? At long last, one moves on to Principal in Charge. This is the person who landed the job. This is the person who goes to the important client meetings. This may be the person in charge of the big picture: what this project really is all about.
When this heirarchy was set up, the architecture profession was very labor intensive. Hand drawings took a long time. One needed, and could employ, dozens of draftspeople to do what was essentially drudgery: drawing by hand different views of the project. There were some firms, such as Anshen & Allen in San Francisco, that realized the importance of professional competency in even the most menial tasks. Everything that got sent out of the office should have the hand of a competent architect on it. This was a firm that fought against the stratification of competencies. When Computer Aided Drafting and Design swept through the industry, draftspeople picked up the software well before they picked up an understanding of what they were supposed to draw. Principals knew how to design, but never figured out how to design on a screen. Most firms ended up with draftspeople who could draw, and principals who knew how to design and build, but the principals could not draw and the draftspeople could not design and build.
What happened with BIM? Things got worse for draftspeople, and things got worse for principals in charge. Those draftspeople who did not develop an understanding of design and construction found the 3-d world to be much worse than the 2-d world. They were now having to draw things in three dimensions they did not understand. Those principals who never learned CAD in 2-d were hopelessly lost in 3-d.
Now, a silver bullet to this problem seemed to have come from Sketch-Up. Here was a program that was almost as intuitive as a Sharpie and Trace paper. In fact, firms that design using a combination of Sketch-Up and AutoCAD are a dime a dozen. Finally, it seems, you had principals designing on the screen (Sketch-Up) and draftspeople drawing on the screen (AutoCAD), acting like one happy family.
The problem, of course, was the bifurcation of platforms that lead to a duplication of effort. Draftspeople were essentially redrawing in AutoCAD what principals were drawing in Sketch-Up.
Thus the advantage of the modern smart office: Principal-level designers who are fluent in BIM. These are people who know how to design. They know how buildings go together. And, they can knock out a set of construction documents in the blink of an eye. What type of principal can do this? The tech-savvy small-firm principal. That’s us.

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Principal at Sealander Architects, Ellsworth Maine. Revit guru. Married with 3 children. Avid gardener. Lived in San Francisco for nine years. Master in Architecture from Columbia University Bachelor of arts in religious studies, Wesleyan University. Graduated Staples High School, Westport CT. Hope to spend some time in Hokkaido before all is said and done.