Why Architects Need to Get Back Onto the Construction Site

By engaging in the building process, architects can look outside the small inner circle of a single industry and reconsider the holistic meaning for their practice.

Linda Bennett Linda Bennett

Linda Bennett is a writer, designer and architect located in Melbourne, Australia. She is the founder and author of archi-ninja. Through her work, Linda explores the relationships between architecture, human habit and anarchy. Here, she writes about architects who are also builders.

Until the 1800s, there was no clear distinction between the project manager, architect, builder or engineer. Today, architects affect less than 5 percent of building development that occurs globally. The role of architecture in building is diminishing, and, as a result, architects are expanding into broader areas of history, theory and hypothesis.

Architects tend to imagine through drawing but step back when it comes to making their designs. As a result, architects continue to be pushed farther away from what is happening on-site. Critics and architects continue to debate the value of departing from the production of building. But what if architects were to reconnect with the process of making? How would this help architecture to develop?

For some indication, we can look to Samuel Mockbee, the late founder of the Rural Design Studio who died in 2001. Mockbee encouraged architects to reconnect to the technical and social outcomes of their making. He co-founded Rural Design Studio with his friend D.K. Ruth in order to create a forum for students to design, and he built homes in rural communities while instigating community-action, collaboration and sustainability.

Samuel Mockbee and his Mason’s Bend Community Center, images via Walker Art Center

Mockbee said that architects must not decrease the nobility of a project based on its materials and construction methods nor on the budget or location of the client. His studio allowed students the opportunities to understand and implement material technologies and construction in combination with their architecture educations. He sought to create beautiful spaces with materials and objects that otherwise are discarded.

Drew Heath, founder of Drew Heath Architects, is an architect and builder currently located in Sydney. Heath advocates the need for architecture to take up less space, to be less permanent and to admire and participate in the surrounding natural environment. His projects are site-specific.

Drew Heath’s Zig Zag Cabin

Take his Zig Zag Cabin, a low-impact 9-square-meter [100-square-foot] building located on a 2-acre allotment. Using what Brett Boardman describes as “an empirical process,” Heath constructed the Zig Zag Cabin piece by piece. Heath was able to continually alter the design during construction, which is near impossible when the process of design and making are divided into separate trades.

Both Mockbee and Heath have allowed the building process to shape their designs; their work is highly responsive and site-sensitive. Working on the ground allows them to see the impact of their design decisions in a tactile way and to change them as necessary by the hand of their own discovery.

CplusC’s Castlecrag Residence

Clinton Cole, founder of CplusC, attributes his early start in building to, as a child, searching for scraps and having had lots of space. “This is what being an architect and a builder is about,” says the Sydney-based architect, “experimenting with materials and tools to make beautiful things for others to enjoy.” Cole is fascinated with dissecting and reimagining how things are put together.

Building brings additional responsibilities, too. “As an architect, you can walk away from a project upon completion with hopefully some great photographs and a happy client,” explains Cole. But “as both architect and builder, you have to resolve any warranty issues six to seven years after it is handed over to the client — and this includes any subsequent owner of the property. This obligation gives invaluable insight into how my buildings age, leak, crack, move and wear. It’s like a very long and sometimes very costly Post Occupancy Evaluation.” Cole’s experimentation and understanding of building components and materials informs and evolves his design processes over time.

Bowen Mountain Bush Retreat by CplusC

Cole also identifies issues in the communication between the small architectural circle and the greater world outside and how this affects the perception and value of what architects do. Like Mockbee, he describes the need for architects and builders to become valuable members of the broader community. The architecture industry doesn’t necessarily facilitate this, forcing many architects to engage in unpaid work to do just that and to do it in a “hands-on way.” Cole also recognizes greater advantages offered by combining architecture with building, including overall project control, budget and quality control, cash flow and speed.

Oliver Steele of Steele Associates explains the design and construction process of Shimmering House; via YouTube

Fellow Sydney architect and builder Oliver Steele, founder of Steele Associates, shares Cole’s experiences and opinions. Steele primarily builds for other architects. Both Cole and Steele comment on interesting opinions about their duel titles. Architects tend to associate them with builders, while builders associate them with architects. Steele explains, “It is odd to me that it is considered unusual to do both. I’ve learned a lot about building from designing and a lot about designing from building.”

And is that so surprising? Participating in the building process is about understanding and exploring the innate connection between architecture and its imminent construction, materials, processes and techniques. By engaging in this process, architects can look outside the small inner circle of a single industry and reconsider the holistic meaning for their practice. Through experimentation and involvement in making, architects just might be able to expand the possibilities of architecture by rethinking material applications and construction capabilities.

Check out CplusC’s Architizer profile here and see 15 pro tips on how to start your own architecture firm.