It is amazing how many people don’t know what an architect actually does, and how many more think they know what an architect does, but really don’t have a clue. This leads to the ever-popular question: ‘So…you draw buildings?’ or the also popular variant: ‘I have a ka-small plot huko shambani… Si you draw for me a house?’
(Full disclosure: I’m usually at the receiving end of the latter question when I’m dealing with some semblance of government official who needs to sign or stamp something that I need in order to progress through the existence that I refer to as ‘my life’).
The Oxford dictionary defines an Architect as: “A person who designs buildings and in many cases also supervises their construction.” The operative word here is the word design. Designing entails a fair amount of conscious and coherent thought being put into the solution of a problem. The results of said thought process hopefully equate to a building or structure, which exists ‘in-potentia’.
This is where the drawing part comes in. The design needs to be built, but short of a fairly long and awkward conversation involving mental telepathy, spiritual connectivity, full body gestures and, in all probability, vernacular expressions being tossed in, it’s virtually impossible to tell someone exactly what to build. Thankfully, we can draw the idea and show it to all parties concerned, and thereby have the idea built exactly as designed (in most cases. Okay, in some cases. Okay, it happens occasionally).
So yes, we do draw buildings, but only as a means of communication. Saying that an architect draws buildings is about the same as saying that a surgeon cuts into meat. It’s a fairly small facet of the immense amount of work that architects really do.
According to the Laws Of Kenya, (Chapter 525) the responsibilities of the architect are prescribed as follows:
(b) advise his clients, study their needs, to prepare, direct and co-ordinate design and to supervise works executed under a building contract.
(h) give such periodic supervision and inspection as may be necessary to ensure that the works are being executed in general accordance with the contract; constant supervision does not form part of his normal duties.
In everyday terminology (for fear that you may get a little confused at this point and need to re-check as to whether this is an article about architecture or law), an architect attempts to understand the requirements of his clients in terms of how a structure can address their particular issues, comes up with a design that works as the solution to those issues and ensures that this is built, hopefully ending with the phrase ‘and they lived happily ever after’.
The thing is, in order for this to happen, there are a fair few issues that the architect needs to take cognizance of: there are the laws of the country (such as The Building Code), county zoning regulations, permissible built-up areas, NEMA requirements, riparian lines, building lines, provision of services (water, electricity, sewerage) and so on.
Add on to that other factors: provision of adequate natural lighting, ventilation, principles of design (symmetry, rhythm etc), language of design (modern, rustic, art-deco…), and particular requirements (I need a small room behind the closet for my… ahem… comic books…) etc.
Then comes the all-important question: finances and budget. An architect needs to be constantly aware of the financial abilities of the client, and ensure that, in as far as possible, the client is able to get a structure that not only answers the majority of the questions raised, but at the same time doesn’t end in the client having to select which of their children can live without an education.
Furthermore, we are then tasked with ensuring that this solution we have come up with is actually built the way it was designed. Cue many hours of supervision on site, constantly monitoring the progress on-site, evaluating the running cost of the project (where the quantity surveyors provide an invaluable service), clarifying details and queries and ensuring the structure is sound (although the final responsibility will always lie with the structural engineer and the contractor).
Add onto that the fact that the architect, in most cases, also acts as an adjudicator/mediator in instances of disputes arising on site between the client and contractor, you begin to understand why getting an architectural degree takes as long as it does.
So the next time you feel the need to ask an architect if he ‘draws buildings’, spare a thought for the immense amount of work and thought that is entailed in designing and supervising the construction of a building.
Aleem Manji, founder of Narobi-based Aleem Manji Architects.