What Does An Architect Do?

February 22, 2022
Jared Petitjean
Principal Architect

If you go onto a search engine and type "what does an architect do", the majority of the results that come back will most likely say that they design buildings. Ask a random person on the street the same thing and the responses vary depending on who you ask. Some may say they design buildings, or make buildings look pretty. Some may say they draw the "blueprints" for buildings. Some even may say that architects just make buildings cost more to build. Whatever the response may be, there are some that are true and some that are false. And while some statements are true, they aren't quite accurate or they just give you a general idea of what architects do. This is because the majority of people either have never had the opportunity to interact or work with an architect directly, or they never needed to hire an architect in first place.

"...we create a solution to our client's design problem using a well tuned designed process."

So what does an architect actually do anyway? In short, we create a solution to our client's design problem using a well tuned designed process. And while that seems like a simple thing to do on the surface, it is a bit more complex. I want to highlight 3 areas of the practice that I think can give you a better idea of what we do as architects and how complex it can get.

  • Program & Design
  • Codes
  • Building Systems

Now this may vary depending of the firm size and what projects that a particular firm works on, but those are three common areas that I have help clients navigate across all of the projects that I have been a team member on or have been lead architect on. I could dedicate entire blog posts to each one of these areas and I might do that in the future. For now though, I will give a quick run down of what architects have to navigate, or at least what I have had to navigate, in each of the sections.

Program & Design

Bubble Diagram
Bubble diagram for Office Space. Image by Jared Petitjean

When you hire an architect, typically the first thing they will want to do is sit down with you to discuss your project in more detail. This is part of the programming phase where you and the architect will set up the parameters of the project. The architect may ask a series of questions focused on specific aspects of the project and they may even ask questions about you personally to get to know you better. The architectural design process is collaborative and social process that takes time and you will be working closely with your architect during most of the design process. Getting to know you as a person helps establish a more positive relationship going forward and help us better understand how we can tailor the project specifically for you outside of the tangible requirements. After the initial meeting, we take all of the information we gathered and begin designing the building through a series of exercises for a lack of better terms. Some of the exercises we do include things like spatial diagrams, solar studies, building code analysis, elevation studies, material and color studies for selections, and massing studies. You may think, well you I told you what I want, why can't you just draw it up in the next few days so we can start building? Why do you have to go through all that? There are few reasons why we can't simply draw something up in a few days and be done with it. First is we are licensed professionals. We are obligated to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public when we design buildings. Because of this, there is some due diligence on our part that we have to perform to ensure that we are meeting those obligations. Second, we are trained to approach a design problem in such a way that allows us to search for the best possible solutions. We look for things that someone outside of architecture may not think to look for. But most of all, building a building costs a lot of money, time, and energy. As a client you don't want to waste you money, time, and energy on something that doesn't meet your needs, or doesn't function properly. The design process is setup based on those factors to help find the best solution that fits your budget, timeframe, and can be easily maintained and service well over time.  


Not only does a building need to meet the requirements of the client, but it has to meet all of the applicable requirements set forth by the local and state governments. In the State of Louisiana where I practice, there are at least five basic building codes that I have to reference depending on the kind of project I am working on. There have been times when I've had to reference more than that.  Each building code has sections in them outlining the minimum requirements that building or building system has to meet based certain classifications like its construction type and occupancy type. In most states there are also energy conservation code requirements that have to be met in addition to the established building codes. There a zoning ordinances set up by local governments that dictate what types of uses are allowed on a piece of property, how far back a building needs to be set off of a property line, how much parking needs to be provided, & how much landscaping needs to be provided just to name a few. Zoning requirements can be somewhat lax or very restrictive depending on the municipality that the project will be built. In some instances, there could be an additional overlay district or subdivision covenant that will govern over all architectural style of the building or restricts what kind of materials can be used. Navigating these codes can be difficult at times, but as architects, most of us have had to reference the code books enough that we know where to go to find a specific requirement.

Building Systems

HVAC mark-up for new office building. Image by Jared Petitjean

Building systems can be comprised of the building envelope (exterior wall assembly, roof, doors, and windows), structural framing, heating/ventilation/air conditioning systems (HVAC), plumbing, electrical, and fire protection. You can think of each these systems as a giant kit of parts for an huge erector set. How all these systems come together and need to be installed are documented in the drawings and project manuals that are produced at the end of the design process. These systems can be very simple or complex depending on the project. On every project though, an architect has to coordinate all these systems  during the design process to help avoid conflicts between systems prior to a building being built. If conflicts do arise between systems during the design process, the architect needs to be able to sit down with the engineers, designers, or product representatives to formulate a solution that can resolve the conflict. Sometimes conflicts between systems can arise during construction because of unknow conditions and need to be resolved in the field. This may happen during a renovation project where an existing building system was hidden but uncovered during the demolition phase of construction. Coordinating all of these systems takes time but it a necessary task that architect performs to help make sure a building will be functional.

Most of what I have talked about is the behind the scenes stuff that most people don't see and illustrates what architects actually do. What everyone does see are the drawings, or "blue prints", at the end, which is by-product of the design process that gets use to build the building. To sum it all up, architects do way more than just draw buildings and there is a lot of value we can bring to the table to help find the best design solution for a project.

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