Wednesday23 August 2017

Why architecture students should pick up the trowel

From: The Student Blog

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This summer I’m supervising the construction of a small extension to my house. I say supervising, rather helping to construct, as we don’t currently have a builder.This experience has been thoroughly revealing as the practices and conventions that I employ on paper are put into practice. It’s something that the studio protects you from in order for you to flourish and develop your design skills.

But what if architecture students were let loose on a construction site? I’ve had friends who have done it before and some who are spending this summer on sites, and when they return more often than not they have the skills to allow their designs to become perceptible.

A couple of summers ago I spent six weeks onsite (albeit in the site office) learning about the different occupations that operate around the construction of a project. Getting out on site, a subbie told me (looking up from laying a block wall) that “architects should get out here and do this sort of thing”.

I believe he was right. But I do see the debate here as somewhat of a vicious circle. The argument is, that focussing too much on technical skill can lead to neglect in design thinking and practice, but in reality, if one doesn’t have the understanding of building technology, then those wild ideas may be compromised, or not be fully realised. If it can’t be communicated to those on the ground, it won’t get built, or at least not the way it was envisaged. And so embedding in students that the role of the architect should not be one that is confined to the office I feel is crucial. By the looks of things, it’s not the fault of architecture schools; on a recent interim RIBA visit to mine, it was recommended that actually less building technology could be fed to students.

So where does the responsibility lie? Each student should consider how valuable real-life experience is to them. Surely though, this is once again something that must be addressed by the RIBA? And you could argue that it has.

The RIBA’s recent ‘Part of the Picture’ campaign allows graduates to use up to three months of onsite or other relevant experience to count towards their part I placement. However, this feels like a short-term solution, and doesn’t really equip students with that knowledge of scale, tactility and genuine reward at seeing one’s own designed form come to fruition. The obsession to create architecture graduates who are strictly office workers is hard for me to digest, and here to stay unless we get out there and pick up a trowel.

The RIBA’s recent ‘Part of the Picture’ campaign

The RIBA’s recent ‘Part of the Picture’ campaign

I do think that the key to unlocking the role of the architect is to go back to its roots as the master builder once again. That is, a master builder with extra added BIM skills – but that’s a whole different debate.


Jonathan Bown is a third year student at the Plymouth School of Architecture, where he is president of the Plymouth Architecture & Design Society.

Readers' comments (5)

  • Jonathan, I wholeheartedly agree. I have long since held the view that architects need to be taught literally from the ground up, learning the fundamental skills and principles of construction and planning, as well as architectural history, before moving onto anything else, and since I have spent the last two years working in site offices and in multi-disciplinary teams, to me, the idea of architects working in isolation in an office far removed from construction sites and other professionals is totally absurd.

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  • BIM simply enables what we've been talking about for decades - i.e. truly collaborate and work as integrated teams.

    Is there scope for convergence of education? Common foundation courses perhaps that teach the basics of design , procurement, construction and FM, before specialising in your dream career. It seems to me odd that we are trained in tribal isolationism then suddenly expected to work in an integrated way as if by magic after graduation!

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  • Is Habitat for Humanity in the UK? I sometimes volunteer for that here in Canada and it's a lot of good experience.

    Just wish it was more outdoor rather than in the shop.

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  • Hi just an additional agreement.
    Given the movement of renewables integration into building at the sharp end and a constant change of new materials, volunteering on projects which have an eco aspect to them is a good way to obtain some on site experience and to review and understand eco instalations. There are several avaliable projects around which make short term volunteering viable with other students from other courses and for experienced practitioners to join in.
    Look for eco build networks and self build volunteeing opportunities that may allow some additional design or design process input

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  • Hi Jonathan, I am in firm agreement with the idea of students building up the principles of built form through on site training. I have at times considered finding a work placement on site, or even enrolling onto a trades course at my local college part-time.

    I think there does need to be a reform in the way we are educated and that link to university / masters / and then on to a career.

    However the RIBA changes have allowed for this work experience under a Professional who isn't an Architect so perhaps now it is up to us to start seeking on site work experience on our years out to bridge that gap.

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