The Respective Roles of the Architect, Engineer and Builder

The roles of the architect, engineer and builder have changed considerably over the course of history. Centuries ago, the builder was at the center of things: he would take a rough sketch or drawing and execute all of the details and engineering. Over time, however, these fields have changed and each profession has developed its own essential specialty with regards to the built environment. As a result of these ever-changing roles, many people don’t fully understand the differences between and roles of these professionals in practice today.

For example, it is a common misconception that an architect is essentially as knowledgeable when it comes to math and physics as an engineer. However, while a qualified (licensed) architect will have a working rule-of-thumb knowledge of rough engineering principles, in any construction project more complicated than a house they will typically consult a structural engineer. In architecture school, on the one hand, the emphasis is less on being able to do absolutely accurate calculations as it is on understanding basic principles so that preliminary designs are roughly accurate. An engineer, on the other hand, will look at the architect’s roughly calculated structural designs and then will optimize their plans and improve upon the scheme, making the resulting building both safer and more cost and energy efficient. In other words, structural engineers take the rough ideas produced by the architects and make sure they are structurally sound (i.e. they won’t fall down due to wind, weight or earth-quake ‘loads’ to which a building might be subjected).

In the end, the architect and engineer work together to produce ‘construction documents’ (formerly known as blueprints) which are used to construct a building. In some exceptional cases, however, engineering firms will take a more active role in the design process. A particularly famous structural engineering firm is Arup – an international firm of engineers well-known for working with famous architects. They have worked, for example with the award-winning and world-renowned architect Rem Koolhaas on high-profile and highly complex projects, such as the Seattle Public Library in Seattle, Washington.

With respect to architects and builders, in the simplest of terms: the architect designs a house or building and then a builder builds it. In contemporary practice, the role of architect and builder can, however, vary somewhat from this model. In some cases, the architect acts as general contractor – hiring sub-contractors (including a builder) to execute different parts of the building (from the framing and cladding to the plumbing and wiring). At other times, the builder fulfills this role. In some cases, builders with a significant amount of experience with a particular building type will play the role of architect and actually work with a client to design and build a structure. Architects and builders are notorious for not always getting along. Architects have been known to accuse builders of being sloppy, lazy or slow. Conversely, builders often point out that architects are perfectionists and demand a level of finish that simply isn’t reasonable to expect. Therefore, a large part of being a successful builder or architect is realizing the needs, demands and expectations of other professionals with whom one will be working.

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