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An Architecture Student’s
Necessary Experience // Sevrin Scarcelli


Architectural education has become too focused on abstraction and has limited the opportunities to learn the built realities of the design profession. Within the field of architecture there is an array of skills required to realize a project beyond the obvious design skills.  These include an ability to communicate, problem solve, and lead. Some of these skills are taught in school while others are not regarded until we are graduated and starting our first jobs. Hands-on design-build experience is a necessity in architectural education. Design-build involvement prepares architecture students for the inevitable realities of design and construction.



“The function of the architect requires a training in all the departments of learning.”


As designers we thirst for knowledge that will develop and foster new ideas. Hands-on learning is an interactive and engaging process that feeds that thirst and enriches development. In school we sketch and draft our designs usually inspired from personal experience or the study of great buildings and architects, but until we start to build models with our hands we cannot fully comprehend what has just been created in two dimensions. But how can the construction of scaled-down basswood models compare to the realities of building construction? As architects we must be able to understand how a building is assembled in the real world. The best way to gain a deeper understanding of this reality is to have hands-on construction experience.  In Vitruvius’ Ten Books on Architecture (1), he writes directly to the Imperator Caesar of Ancient Rome, a specific how-to guide on all things architecture. With reference to the education of an architect, Vitruvius states “architects who have aimed at acquiring manual skill without scholarship have never been able to reach a position of authority to correspond to their pains, while those who relied only upon theories and scholarship were obviously hunting the shadow, not the substance. But those who have a thorough knowledge of both, like men armed at all points, have the sooner attained their object and carried authority with them.”

In school professors and guest critics warn us about the ‘stubborn contractor’ that only wants the cheaper and faster way of building. We are encouraged to understand a contractor's world in order to be able to communicate with builders and defend our designs. Brian MacKay- Lyons (3), an architect and professor of a design/build program suggests a practical and beneficial approach when he states, “I also learned in practice that contractors aren’t happier if you start to act like a builder and start telling them where to pile the lumber or how to do things. I found that what works best in the construction industry is, when the builder asks you a question, to say you don’t know the answer. Then the builder can be the builder and their experience is then something you can learn from.” MacKay-Lyons goes on to explain that the goal of design-build is “to learn humility, so that (we) don’t become the asshole architects on the site telling the builders what to do and not respecting them.” Having a design-build experience while still in school helps preparation for future interactions between the builder, engineer, client and architect. Being able to communicate between these different parties cannot be taught in a classroom or from a book, it comes from experience. This becomes a vital part of our profession that is not understood in school until we either intern or participate in a design-build studio.  

The construction of the Ionic Order according to Vitruvius (2)


Working within a design-build studio for the final semester of our architectural education, we have experienced a project in full from programming to construction. We have witnessed far more realities of our chosen profession than our fellow classmates who are limited by the virtual realities of their computers. The Design+Make motto is “ taking responsibility for design through making.” In addition to taking on the responsibility for design, we are taking responsibility for creating value for a client that cannot be replicated and forging new meaning that will initiate exploration. Many of us have had to wear multiple hats with little or no prior experience in order to turn our idea into a reality. Roles were given to insure completion of the project; Site Manager, Schedule Director, Budget Director, Client Liaison, Marketing Manager, Prototype Director, Shop/ Fabrication Managers, Construction Manager and Material Research and Management. Within these roles we have managed all aspects of a project from start to finish including schedule, budget and communication with clients, contractors and engineers. We have gained a new level of understanding for valuable communication skills and the complex nature of ‘staying on schedule and within the budget’. Having a design-build background can insure not only hands-on construction experience, but also involvement in the business side of architecture, a side that cannot be taught in a classroom. It is our job as architects to understand every aspect of the profession which has evolved into a business that requires additional professionals; engineers, contractors, subcontractors. Participating in a design-build experience will prepare students for this alternative side of the profession that is often overlooked in school.

The Design+Make Studio building the reality of their idea

“Perhaps, to the uninformed, it may appear unaccountable that a man should be able to retain in his memory such a variety of learning; but the close alliance with each other, of the different branches of science, will explain the difficulty.”

- Vitruvius

As architectural students we are pushed to understand deeply and absorb the immeasurable knowledge of man, nature and creation. But communication with allied professionals and craftspeople often overlooked in schooling is required to retain a variety of learning (5). As designers we are responsible for creating a multitude of built environments and as students we benefit from contemplating all skills required to realize architecture. Design-build projects provide a unified experience in the architectural profession and the evolution of design.

(1)  Pollio, Vitruvius, and M. H. Morgan. Vitruvius: The Ten Books on Architecture. New York: Dover Publications, 1960. Print.

(2)  Pollio.

(3)  "Design Dialogue: Brian MacKay-Lyons." Interview by Marie Zawistowski and Keith Zawistowski. Inform. Inform Magazine, 25

       Sept. 2014. Web. 17 Apr. 2016.

(4) Image:


(5)  Pollio.







"Design Dialogue: Brian MacKay-Lyons." Interview by Marie Zawistowski and Keith Zawistowski. Inform. Inform Magazine, 25 Sept. 2014. Web. 17 Apr. 2016.

Pollio, Vitruvius, and M. H. Morgan. Vitruvius: The Ten Books on Architecture. New York: Dover Publications, 1960. Print.



Written by Sevrin Scarcelli

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