How to think about architectural knowledge on the job: Part 1


Have you ever thought about how you know what you know?

If you’ve followed a conventional educational path from school to university and have recently started working in an architect’s office, the chances are that you may not have given this much thought. In fact, many people never give this much thought!

And, you’ve probably made the reasonable assumption that your teachers knew what they were talking about and that what they taught you was correct. It may well have been. But how would you know?  

The problem is that in an educational context, the people who teach you are usually the same people who assess you. In that sense, your education could be considered to be a closed system. You are being taught what you need to know in order to pass, and the only consequences of ‘not knowing something’ or ‘getting something wrong’ is that you don’t pass.

There are no external consequences other than obtaining a good degree or developing an impressive portfolio in order to obtain a job.

‘I've been making a list of the things they don't teach you at school.’

Neil Gaiman

In a working environment, things are different. There are all sorts of consequences. These can range from impacts on your personal reputation or that of your practice, to impacts on clients, users and the wider public.

Why am I mentioning this?

Because the amount of knowledge that you need to acquire in order to be a successful architect is vast, and you will need to obtain it from a huge range of sources. Some of these sources will be trustworthy, some less so. In addition to this, the passage of time will render some of what you’ve learnt obsolete, so you will constantly need to refresh your knowledge. Some types of knowledge will be straightforward, while others will be more complex and difficult to grasp. In other words, its going to be an ongoing process, and how you manage that process is really important.

With respect to your knowledge and learning you will need to:

  • Develop an appropriate level of caution.
  • Know how and when to find things out for yourself.
  • Establish who and what to trust.
  • Be able to deal with uncertainty, ambiguity and an ever-changing world.

Here are a couple of examples of different types of knowledge that you will come across:

Example 1: Building terms


You will need to know the names of different parts of a building, for example: gable, transom, architrave, escutcheon, threshold.

Over time, you will come to know colloquial terms used on site for a range of things, for example: ‘muck’ (mortar), ‘sparky’ (electrician), ‘crusher run’ (a type of aggregate stone).

This is simple stuff. You either know the meaning of the term or you don’t. And if you don’t, you can look it up, or ask.

This kind of knowledge is important, but not critical. It will add to your reputation as an architect but a building is unlikely to fail as a result of you not knowing what something is called.

Example 2: Proportion


This is trickier.

Your ability to appreciate proportion is something that develops over time. You will continue to look at buildings and objects as always, but you will increasingly be able to determine the quality of their proportions. You will do this on your own and in conversation with other people. You will do it with reference to other people’s opinion, such as friends, colleagues or authority figures (the boss, an esteemed architecture critic or a big name architect).

Your improving knowledge of proportion will impact what you design and increasingly you will discard design ideas that result in solutions with poor proportions, in favour of solutions with better proportions.

You will find it difficult to explain to other people why one thing has better proportions than another and you will be forced to resort to comments such as ‘it just has’ or ‘it’s obvious, can’t you see?’

You will also find it difficult to explain how you know what you know about proportion.

Your knowledge of proportion is important and critical to producing quality design work.

Knowledge about knowledge

In certain circles, the two examples above might be described as examples of (1) ‘explicit knowledge’ and (2) ‘tacit knowledge’.

But this is a blog about practical architecture and I’d prefer to leave the academic subject of knowledge to one side and refer to things as ‘simple’ and ‘tricky’.

In a previous post I wrote about measuring building areas and in this, you will be able to identify different kinds of knowledge along the simple to tricky spectrum. For instance:

The definition of the various kinds of area measurement is simple.

The way in which the measurement is carried out, in certain circumstances, is open to interpretation and is therefore tricky.

Communicating measured areas using a drawing is an example of knowledge that was once tricky but, through experience, has been simplified so that it can be readily adopted by other people.

So what does all of this mean?

You’re at the start of your career. Over the coming years you’re going to learn many new things and experience a great deal. Becoming aware, and making the most of the knowledge and experience that you acquire along the way is going to be of great benefit to you.

As architects, we use our knowledge for practical purposes. We do things with it. Being aware of our relationship with this knowledge will make you more effective. It will enable you to be confident when you feel you’re on solid ground, cautious when you recognise a tricky situation and unafraid to hold your hands up and admit when your knowledge is lacking.

For any subject, here are some things that you should be thinking about:

  • Reliability: Where did I get my knowedge from and can I trust the source?
  • Consequences: What are the implications if I'm wrong?
  • Responsibility: Who will take the wrap if I'm wrong?
  • Communication: How and when should I tell other peole what I do or don't know?
  • Awareness: Should I be confident, cautious or admit, to myself or others, that I don't know?
  • Recording: How will I be able to retrieve what I've learnt when I need it again in the future?

The act of designing something is one of the trickiest skills to learn, which is why you spent a lot of time at architecture school. But in order to apply your design skills you also need a huge amount of other knowledge. One way to see your career is as a constant process of knowledge acquisition and knowledge application, with one part of the process informing the other.

This Ted Talk by Eduardo Briceno provides a useful reference point on the subject of learning on the job: How to get better at the things you care about.

In Part 2 of this series, I’ll look at a simple case study where knowledge is embedded in to a design. Will it be right? Or will there be consequences?

Andy FosterComment