Architecture 101: A Guide for Educators

By Gavin Ruedisueli

The Maria Montessori Mazatlán School in Mazatlán, Sinaloa, Mexico, by EPArquitectos and Estudio Macías Peredo.

It’s January. Your school board has just voted to proceed with long-overdue renovations at your elementary school, including a major addition that will double the size of the building. All the space issues you have griped with your colleagues about while being slowly bathed by a leaking roof can finally be resolved. As principal of this elementary school, you stand between the conflicting wishes of your staff and the project manager, and you have some limited interactions with the architect. What should you know?

But before you set your hopes up to redesign your entire school building, here is a quick intro to working with architects — what the jargon means, and how the design process works.

Series of images of the Private Sezin School Open Roof Space, by architecture firm ATÖLYE.

How does a finished building like this come about? As it turns out, it takes months, perhaps years of work with many people.

The first term you need to know is BIM, or Building Information Modeling (pronounced “bim”). We’ve all seen the classic image of an architect poring over a large drafting table. But architects haven’t done hand drawings since the 1980s. Some even argue that 2D drawing on a computer is going the way of the dinosaurs. The design world is rapidly moving towards producing a virtual model of the building in full-detail, through BIM software programs like Revit (see image below). All of the designers and consultants work on the same model, seeing how their own work effects that of others.

The design world is rapidly moving towards producing a virtual model of the building in full-detail, called building information modeling (BIM). All of the designers and consultants work on the same model, seeing how their own work effects that of others.

Architects do make pretty pictures on the computer, and about 10% of our work is the romantic stuff of drawings and renderings. But 90% of our time goes into just making the building work, from building code compliance to mechanical systems to structural coordination. Maintaining the vision — that 10% of architecture most people see and appreciate— through the hurdles of the design and construction process, is one of the most challenging and important jobs of the architect.

Now, let’s dive into the five steps of the design process.

  1. Programming and Visioning

First, we begin by gathering your community to align everyone on a vision for the building. In many instances, a programming team from the architecture firm (and/or an outside consultant) come into the school to run design charrettes or workshops. One might expect large town-hall style meetings during which students and faculty can voice their concerns, like lack of storage space or need for sightlines to students, and play off each other’s ideas an informal environment.

Below are some possible diagrams that are produced from this phase.

A basic programming diagram for the Sezin School. Architects like to make diagrams like this because it helps make the design read more clearly to both themselves and others in meetings.
Concept diagrams of different classroom layouts for the Sezin School.

2. Schematic design (SD)

This is where concepts get translated into space. You can think of schematic designs as rough mockups of the building — gestures of the idea.

Schematic elevation (view of vertical face) of the Montessori School.
Schematic section (vertical cut through building) of the Montessori School.
Concept models showing the buildup of part of the Montessori School.

3. Design development (DD)

After some feedback and iteration, this phase is where the mockups get turned into detailed designs.

The concept designs for the Sezin School get turned into a floorplan with detailed placement of walls, fixtures, and furniture.

4. Construction documentation (CD)

This phase is the nuts and bolts — literally. Every inch of the building gets detailed into blueprints that can be handed to the construction crew for building. At this point in the game, the architect’s job is to meticulously document anything they want included within the scope of construction, from specific polishing instructions for concrete floors to the type of hardware on doors. Anything that is part of the building must be documented in the drawings or specifications.

Construction detail of one of the exterior walls of the Montessori School, also referencing details that zoom in on critical spots.

5. Construction administration (CA)

This is where a project management team oversees the construction process to ensure everything gets implemented correctly.

This whole process can take anywhere from a few months to over five years, depending on the size and scope of the project. Today’s blog merely skims the surface, and you can read more about the design process here.

Architectural design is an iterative process. Behind the scenes, architects are constantly studying precedents — previously built buildings — to learn from them and re-engage with old ideas in new ways. Typically, a design will start out super vague and flexible (see image below).

Architecture firms, such as in this case OMA, generate hundreds of conceptual study models for larger projects during the schematic design phase.

But by the time the building is being constructed, even a seemingly small change like moving a wall can seem like a major task. Moving a wall might have implications for anything it touches — such as ductwork. This would involve convening multiple trades to meet and discuss this issue, which would have been a non-issue in the preceding phases where there weren’t as many people or pipes involved.

It is important as a client to make sure that the architect is aware of as much as possible from your end in the beginning so that these last-minute changes can be minimized — so you can avoid these cringe-worthy fails.

So, how do you get that dream building built? Stay tuned for more articles on understanding the design process and working with designers.

Gavin Ruedisueli is an architectural designer, originally from bucolic Loudoun County, Virginia. He completed his Bachelor of Science in Art and Design Degree in 2008 at MIT, where he concentrated in Architecture and received the undergraduate faculty design award. He worked as an architectural designer at Behnisch Architekten in the Boston office, run by partner Matthew Noblett, where he worked on a the design team for the John and Frances Angelos Law Center at the University of Baltimore, contributing to all phases schematic design through construction administration. Most recently, Gavin graduated with his Master of Architecture I degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Design. He currently works under Professor Andrew Witt at the Harvard Graduate School of Design’s Computational Geometry Lab.

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