leah baker

leah baker

What Do Architects Do?

Architects are considered professionals, similar to doctors and lawyers, and go through similar amounts of education, experience, and examination to earn their title and license to practice. Officially, the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB) defines an architect as:

“Licensed professionals trained in the art and science of the design and construction of buildings and structures that primarily provide shelter. An architect will create the overall aesthetic and look of buildings and structures, but the design of a building involves far more than its appearance. Buildings also must be functional, safe, and economical and must suit the specific needs of the people who use them. Most importantly, they must be built with the public’s health, safety and welfare in mind.”

But most people don’t know what architects really DO. This article outlines what architects do for their clients over the course of a project and why they are crucial to a project’s success.

Various phases of an architecture project include:

  • Pre Design
  • Design
  • Permitting
  • Construction Documents
  • Bidding and Negotiation
  • Construction administration

An architect plays a key role during all of these phases and has various tasks and responsibilities that go along with each one.


Pre Design

This phase is not a standard architectural service, but for residential projects, many architects include it. If it is not included in their services, a client will either have to pay extra for it as an additional service or come with all of the necessary information and provide it to the architect when they begin.

Pre Design is about understanding all of the existing information for a particular site or property so that the architect can create a compliant design that is the best fit for its surrounding and its inhabitants.

  • To understand the existing context, architects study:
    • Surrounding buildings and site
    • Environment factors affecting the site
    • Particular jurisdiction requirements limiting the design

Throughout the project, but especially before coming up with a design, architects have to know and understand state and local building and planning codes. These are massively long, complex documents that require a thorough code check for each and every project

If the project is a renovation the architect will observe, measure and photograph the existing building to then create existing drawings and to understand existing conditions. In a case where the client hires a drafting service to create the existing drawings before hiring an architect, this still may not be a huge time and money saver because the architect will need to transfer the drawings into their software program and integrate it into their workflow regardless.

And last, but certainly not least, is helping to define and understand the client’s program. The “program” is the word used to describe all the client’s needs, requirements, and expectations for what needs to be included in the building. Part of that is simply things like stating how many bedrooms and bathrooms should be in the house and the square footage requirements. But another part of it is understanding how the client lives, how they want to feel in the spaces, what styles are they drawn to, etc. This part is a much more qualitative and investigative process than the former, but a talented architect that is able to capture these qualities in the architecture will achieve a much more satisfying result for the clients.



This portion of the process is what most people know about what architects do. This is the phase where the designs are created. It is perhaps the most time consuming and least cut and dried task that an architect does. Architects don’t know the right solution right from the start, it takes time to test, draw, and explore possible alternatives to arrive at the best one. It’s like a doctor investigating the unknown cause of a particular problem in the body. They perform tests to narrow down the possibilities and go from there.

Depending on the project, the amount of time and work that goes into this phase (and consequently its cost) can vary greatly depending on the scope of the project, the particular architect, and the expectations of the client. If a client has a project and they already know exactly what they want, this is more of a job for a drafting service or contractor with drawing capabilities in house.

Depending on the particular style and process of the architect they will place varying amounts of emphasis on this process. Some will come up with a solution that works, give it to you, and moving on with the next tasks, and some will put great emphasis on every aspect of the details making sure it is the best it can be for you. Make sure you take this into consideration when hiring your architect so that your expectations are aligned.

Tasks that will be completed during this phase:

  • Drawing Tasks – continual process of refinement
    • Basic bubble diagrams or adjacency sketches to get and idea of where different elements should be placed
    • Measured sketches to get a better idea of layout, and scale
    • Hardlined drawings in the computer in 2D or 3D – these are continually developed and refined throughout the rest of the process – plans, elevations, sections,
    • 3d models to help visualize and understand materials – these are continually developed and refined throughout the rest of the process
  • Give an idea of cost (generally) – while the architect is not a contractor and cannot give you definite numbers, they will be able to give the client some very general numbers or at least comparables to understand the consequences of the design choices.



Somewhere along this general spot in the timeline, the architect will be preparing drawings and documents required to obtain the building permit to do the work. Depending on the jurisdiction and the scope of the project, this can be very simple and done in one day, or it can take many months and lots of back and forth work.

Permitting tasks:

  • Prepare the permit drawings based on the city or county’s requirements
  • Prepare the applications and appropriate forms
  • Usher it through the permit process – going through stations at the building department itself or coordinating with each plan checker via email;
  • Depending on the complexity of the process per the jurisdiction, some of the steps requested will be unknown to the architects no matter how many times they’ve gone through the process – and therefore there will most likely be comments to incorporate into the drawings and tasks to complete to get through this process

With a more complex project, having an architect with experience working with the particular planning and building department is crucial to moving the project along as quickly as possible.


Construction documents

This phase is where the bulk of the hours of work happen for architects. It’s the process of taking the project documents from basic schematics and design ideas to documents from which a contractor can physically build the building from it. This process is also where other professionals and experts come in. While an architect isn’t an engineer or an expert in HVAC design, they are trained to understand the basics of all the components that go into building a building because they are faced with the task of being the head of coordinating all other consultant and their drawings on a project. Architects that have a better understanding of other systems in the building will create a design with those other systems in mind.

Construction document tasks:

  • Prepare door and window schedules – draw every window and door and place dimensions and other data into an easy to ready schedule
  • Coordinate with structural engineer
  • Mechanical, Electrical, and Plumbing drawings – depending on the complexity of the project these could be done by an outside consultant and coordinated by the architect or done by the architect themselves – such is often the case with electrical layout and lighting design.
  • Coordinating the requirements for energy calculations requirements
  • Design details of how things go together. While most contractors have their typical ways of constructing things, there will be many instances unique to each project. These elements will have to be designed specifically depending on the client’s needs, the architectural design aesthetics desired and the requirements for good construction practices.
  • Preparation of a spec document – a word document that outlines every single element in the entire project right down to the model numbers and finishes of every piece of cabinetry, tile, towel bar, showerhead, and flooring, etc.


Bidding & Negotiation

During this phase, the architect can recommend and/or reach out to potential contractors and coordinate with them to get more accurate pricing. Often times for residential projects the contractor is often selected based on qualifications and fit with the client rather than purely on bid. In that case, a formal bid process does not take place and therefore, the duties of the architect are more to help interview contractors and review estimates for inclusion of all necessary items once one is selected.


Construction administration

This is the phase during which the project is under construction. An architect’s role during this phase involves overseeing the construction process, making sure the work is in accordance with the drawings and documents. They also do tasks such as reviewing show drawings for things like cabinetry, countertops, customer stairs, and other fabrications.

Many clients see this as a phase to save money by not having the architect on board during construction and instead manage the project directly with the contractor themselves. As one can imagine, this strategy can tend to be risky and end up costing more money than having the architect involved in the first place. Architects have a deep understanding for the buildings they’ve designed, much more than the clients. They are able to catch potential problems during construction before they happen. Also, especially with residential projects, the project is fast tracked and ends up going into construction before many of the smaller design decisions have been made. Consequently, the architect needs to be involved during this phase to actually complete the design process, answer questions from the contractor, and work things out on the fly.

Ultimately, everything an architect does comes down to being responsible for the health, safety, and welfare of the public. But, their role in society encompasses much more than that as they shape our built environment. They work to understand and interpret the needs of clients and inhabitants while maximizing functionality, safety, and sustainability. They act as the client’s representative helping them navigate the entire process while coordinating and managing other consultants as well. It is necessary for architects to be both creative artist and good scientists at the same time.

We spend 90% of our lives in buildings. Architectural design has an immense impact on the quality of our lives. Therefore, it pays to get an architect that helps you achieve the best building possible and guide you through the entire process. Let Graphite help connect you with a great architect!

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