If there’s one complaint I hear again and again from contractors, tradespeople and anyone else involved in the practical end of building, it’s this: “Why don’t architects have to serve an apprenticeship in construction?”

My usual two-word answer is, “Good question.” It seems self-evident that a person entrusted with designing an entire building should have at least a passing knowledge of how that building will be put together.

Alas, this is far from the case. Unless they’re motivated enough to train themselves, architects come away from their professional educations with practically no understanding of field construction. Typically, after four to five years of academic training, they have to serve several years’ apprenticeship under a licensed architect, and must pass an exhaustive series of examinations before being licensed — a process which, necessary as it is, nevertheless contributes little to an architect’s practical knowledge of building.

The American system of architectural education (and, in fairness, that of many other nations as well) not only accepts but reinforces the virtually absolute separation that currently exists between design and building. Over the past century, only a relative handful of architects — best known among them Frank Lloyd Wright, Paolo Soleri, and Christopher Alexander — have advanced the idea that hands-on experience is integral to the competent practice of architecture. Students of Wright’s schools at Taliesin and Taliesin West, for example, were expected to dig ditches, mix concrete and perform myriad other unglamorous chores usually left to the lowest echelon of tradespeople.

Why would a prospective architect benefit from doing such physical construction? For one, it’s probably the only way to gain a truly tactile appreciation for building materials — both for their innate beauty, and for their innate limitations. On a computer screen, creating a complicated design in poured concrete is neat and easy. Building such a thing in the field is usually another matter. When would-be architects find themselves obliged to produce work — perhaps of their own design — that’s needlessly complex or even impossible to carry out, they quickly learn to appreciate choosing the right materials for the job and the simplest means of putting them together.

Field work also helps focus the occasional meanderings of the creative mind on the real objective of the design process, that of realizing a project in four dimensions. Coordinating different phases of the work, not to speak of simply getting materials and equipment to the site, are routine construction challenges that can cost time and money, yet which architects without field experience seldom take into account.

Lastly, enduring the physical and mental demands of construction also brings an appreciation for plain hard work, and an understanding of just how much human effort is involved in raising a building. Whether for the laborers down in the ditches, or the contractor trying to juggle a dozen different scheduling requirements, practically nothing in construction comes easily.

Learning all these things firsthand might earn architects something we don’t always have in our profession — the genuine respect of those entrusted with building our creations. Now, once again, why don’t architects have to serve an apprenticeship in construction?

Good question.

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