Good News: You Don’t Have to Be a Math Genius to Be an Architect

​If you ever thought about being an architect but thought you couldn’t handle the math, you aren’t alone.

Bob Borson Bob Borson

Bob Borson is creator of the famous Life of an Architect blog, a Texas-based architect at Malone Maxwell Borson Architects and an indispensable guide to professional practice.

If you ever thought about being an architect but thought you couldn’t handle the math, you aren’t alone. At parties across the land, as soon as someone finds out there is an architect in the crowd, there is a story being told about how they wanted to be an architect but because they couldn’t draw or weren’t very good at math, they decided to do something else.

It’s too bad that so many people think this, but just like a handful of other stereotypes about architects that aren’t true, I am here to tell you that you do not have to be great at math to be an architect. You can’t be completely incompetent either, but if you can get through school, it’s all downhill … at least until you have to take the architectural licensing exam, but that’s a different post for a different day. I did a quick search for the phrase “good at math” in my Google Mail and I received back 114 emails (and that’s just dating back to January of 2014).

“Do I have to be good at math if I want to be an Architect?”

— just about every high school kid thinking about becoming an architect

This is one of the more popular questions I get asked, and today I am going to try to answer that question once and for all.

The image above is a page out of my college structures composition notebook … Yes, I still have it (along with all my other college notebooks; too what end, I have no idea). I look back on the notes on these pages and a part of me wonders how I ever made it through … but that’s part of the message. I DID get through it and so would everyone else who wanted to be an architect. If you really think being an architect is the right thing for you, the math shouldn’t stand in your way.

I came out of high school with only Algebra 2 under my belt, and when I stay down in my physics class and my structures class and everyone — and I do mean everyone — sitting around me had already completed Trigonometry and Calculus, that’s when I realized I was in a bad spot and had some serious catching up to do. Whenever I get emails from people who are concerned that their math abilities are lacking, I can’t help but laugh when I think about how ill-prepared I was for what I needed to get done.

Now that I am 20-plus years removed from structures classes, I can safely say that 99 percent of all the math I do day in and day out involves the same sort of stuff my daughter is mastering in the 5th grade. Addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, that’s about it. It isn’t the complexity of the math that’s the challenge, it’s coming up with the problem in the first place.

Most of the math that I work with is associated with dimensions. Whenever I put together a detail for a project, one of the overriding controls is the size of the parts that come together. Do I have enough space for all the parts I need? Do things line up? Are the components equally spaced apart? (Think window-wall).

In the detail above, we are looking at the corner of the bridge walkway where the glass floor and the glass wall come together. The arrangement and sizing of the structural steel was worked and reworked until we got it to this point. There is enough of an offset with the steel beam so that the glass at the floor has a place to set. We also sized the vertical columns that connect the structure at the floor to the truss structure at the ceiling with 2-inch-by-3-inch tube steel so that the width of the members could be enclosed within the metal of the window system. When this bridge is finished, you won’t see any of the columns in the glass wall.

Did I use some math skills to solve this problem? Absolutely, but none of this is magic, and absolutely none of it requires trigonometry, calculus or physics. My father used to tell me (and now I am telling you) that you go to college to learn how to learn. This is an important state of mind because learning things that are hard and challenging force you to push yourself and develop skill sets that might be of peripheral value to you.

While it’s possible that there are other architectural jobs out there that require an inane ability to process high-level math problems, I’ve never discovered them. Rather than just stating here that you don’t need math skills simply because I don’t need them, I thought I would ask a handful of architects I know from around the country who all do different types of work (commercial, institutional and residential) and see what they think about the role of math in the field of architecture.

Marica McKeel, Architect

“Basic math is helpful, sure, but I don’t think ‘good at math’ is one of the more important qualities for an architect. We all draw on the computer now, so I find half the time I’m using a distance command to find out the height of an 8-foot ceiling + 2-foot structure because my mind is more fixed on design than math at that point anyway.”

Lee Calisti, Architect

“One’s math ability should never be the factor that keeps them out of architecture. However, one needs to be adept at math, namely algebra, geometry and trigonometry, to deal with the array of dimensions, quantities, area, volume and other geometric relationships. This plays into spatial thinking and patterns. The higher, more complex areas of math such as calculus hinder many students, but it is the logic pattern of math such as this that is a critical tool in the mind of an architect. I’ve never used calculus in my job, but developing logical patterns to solve problems is a daily event.”

Via Designer Hacks

Evan Troxel, Architect

“The architecture school I went to required Trigonometry to get my degree. I took it in high school and loved it; it was pretty easy for me as I always did very well in all of my math classes. Then I took Calculus during my senior year and bombed (because the teacher sucked, I swear). I had never gotten a C+ in any class, especially math, but I did in Calc. For some reason, I had to take Trig again for college credit, so I took it at the local community college at night one semester (because it was cheaper) and then transferred the units. Easy peasy. In other words, no… you don’t have to be GOOD at math because the requirements to get your degree are fairly low.

That said, it is better if you are decent at math. Here are some examples people usually don’t think of as math but are things architects use all the time: We are constantly adding and subtracting measurements, thicknesses, volumes and areas. We are responsible for budgets. We work with spreadsheets that tally sizes of spaces and everything has to all add up. We do TONS of geometry, and we love it. Geometry is math, right? Yes it is. Drawing + Math = Awesome. That’s one reason we’re architects and not artists.”

Jes Stafford, Architect

“Architects should be math ninjas. The aspiring architect should rush headlong into math as if charging into a field of battle. Math is an education in problem-solving and of knowing what is asked. There are few stronger parallels to all the the variables in the Builder-Architect-Client dynamic. All math puns intended.

Also, strengths and weaknesses in various math disciplines can indicate or help diagnose learning disabilities, cognitive disorders. The earlier these problems are identified and addressed, the easier life can be for someone who might otherwise quietly suffer.”

Nicholas Renard, Architect

“Math Question (always show your work):

Not really. If you understand general geometry and physics, you are good; having addition, subtraction, multiplication and sometimes division skills are encouraged. Aspiring architects should challenge themselves with as much math as they can handle (plus the class one further than they can handle). Math teaches and develops analytical problem-solving skills. At our core, architects are problem-solvers. We use what we experience from history, art, physics, life, architecture and, yes, math to influence our solutions to our problems projects.”

Rest assured, you don’t need to understand the above in order to be an architect; image via Taringa.

Jeremiah Russell, Architect

“Would-be architects should understand the principles and concepts of math — mostly geometry, trigonometry and basic physics. It is not necessary to be a math genius (we all have calculators) nor is it necessary to master or memorize complex load calculations and diagrams, etc. That’s what reference materials are for. Ultimately do not be swayed if you are not strong in math. It’s a body of knowledge that can be learned and should not be a source of stress.”

Andrew Hawkins, Architect

“Math is important to my daily tasks as an Architect. It mostly involves simple calculations, but for me, it is necessary to be able to do them quickly in my head. And they are mostly simple equations, but it definitely helps if you can do them in your head and on the fly. (And this makes you look very capable). The basic building blocks are dimensions and conversions involving feet, inches, meters and centimeters; all of these back and forth to one another. It is all very simple math, but it is, in my opinion, essential to being an Architect. As an owner, there are more complex mathematical issues, but those are not so much off the cuff and have spreadsheets and formulas to guide them.”

Neal A. Pann, Architect

“For day-to-day work in the office, an architect only needs a comprehension in basic math skills and some trigonometry. Honestly nothing more than good high school–level math skills.”

So, despite the fact that I am now planning on receiving hate mail from math professors everywhere, all the comments received from my architectural compatriots around the country seem to basically say the same thing. Math is a good skill to have but nothing that should get in the way of you becoming an architect. It’s OK that you struggle with math, just persevere and do what needs to be done and you can look back over your shoulder at math for the rest of your long and illustrious career as an architect.



This post first appeared on Life of an Architect. Top image via Lafayette; all other images via Life of an Architect unless otherwise stated.

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