Architect Definition: What Does An Architect Do?

Before we can actually get into "what does an architect do", it is important to define "what is an architect". For my international readers I am primarily talking about architects in the United States.

The National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB) architect definition is:

"Licensed professionals trained in the art and science of the design and construction of buildings and structures that primarily provide shelter. An architect will create the overall aesthetic and look of buildings and structures, but the design of a building involves far more than its appearance. Buildings also must be functional, safe, and economical and must suit the specific needs of the people who use them. Most importantly, they must be built with the public’s health, safety and welfare in mind."

The key phase in the above is "licensed professionals". To be considered an architect in the U.S. you must be licensed (registered) in the state in which you practice.

Now that we have the definition out of the way, what do architects do all day?

According to the American Institute of Architects (AIA) there are currently around 100,000 licensed architects in the United States. Depending of your knowledge of the profession you may picture an architect with T-Square and drafting table or some leading man in the countless rom-coms. The truth is, describing what an architect does is quite tricky. The industry is very diverse and there are hundreds of architecture niches in which an architect can specialize.

I will try to create a general overview of "what does an architect do", but this list is by no means comprehensive. Since I am only discussing specifically what a licensed architect does, this excludes interns and unlicensed design professionals.

Where do architects work? 

According to a recent AIA study 79% of architects work in firms with 9 or fewer employees. Only 2% of architects work in firms with 100 or more employees. The chart below shows the detailed breakdown of number of employees and share of firm percentages.

The fact that most architects work in small firms is certainly something to consider if you are looking to become an architect. Depending on your personality traits, you may not like working in a small group versus a larger community atmosphere.

While there are large firms such as SOM, Gensler and HOK, these offices are generally located in large metropolitan areas. This is fine as long as you want to live and work in a large city. If not, you will likely need to find employment in a small office or start your own practice.

What software do architects use?

When the title architect is brought up to someone outside of the profession they usually picture someone using drafting board or perhaps sketching by hand. While some architects do continue to draw by hand it has been almost completely phased out.

Sketching is still a very important part of the early design process. However in terms of producing construction drawings (CD's) it has been replaced by Computer Aided Design (CAD) software.

Here are a few of the most common programs used by architects today.


AutoCAD is the industry leader in 2D drawing programs. Originally created for engineers, AutoCAD is a way of creating building plans, sections and elevations. However, now 2D drawing is being phased out as common practice for creating building drawings. The use of BIM (Building Information Management) software for building design is becoming more and more common.


Revit (BIM)

Revit is one of the most common BIM programs used in architecture. The concept of BIM software is to create a complete 3D model of a building. Then, using that model the program "cuts" sections and plans through the model to be displayed as 2D plans and sections. These can then be placed on individual pages called sheets, then converted to a PDF or printed.

The advantage of BIM is that if you make one change in the model, move a window for instance, then it is automatically updated in all drawings. This is a huge time saver versus the traditional 2D drawing method of painstakingly going through every drawing effected by a design change.


Adobe Photoshop

While not used for producing drawings in the traditional sense, Photoshop is a powerful tool in the world of architecture. Typically it is used in the early phases of design to create graphically interesting plans, sections and 3D views of the building. These graphic presentations give the client and/or planning organizations a chance to see what the project may look like when built.


Adobe InDesign

Like Photoshop, Indesign is used early on in the design process. InDesign is typically used for creating books, however the architecture industry generally uses it for creating design packages and presentations.


Sketchup is as close to traditional hand sketching in the digital world as we currently have. Sketchup is a relatively simple 3D modelling program that can be used to create a variety of forms and textures. With some practice, it is possible to create very detailed models extremely fast.

The model quality isn't as polished as some of the more refined 3D programs but you make up for that in speed and presentation. 

3DS Max

3DS Max is a fairly advanced program that uses a 3D model of a building either created in 3DS or another modelling program like Rhino. By applying materials and lighting a very realistic visual representation of the building can be created. This is called a rendering. Photoshop is also used with this software to create further refinements and details to the image.

So you have all this architecture software loaded up on your computer, now what?

While every office and every project is different there are five standard design phases that are worked through by an architect in order to complete a building.

The Five Building Design Phases

As defined by the AIA, the following design phases outline the primary responsibilities of an architect.

1. Schematic Design

During the first phase, Schematic Design, (SD) an architect consults with the owner to determine project goals and requirements. During schematic design, an architect commonly develops study drawings, documents, or other media that illustrate the concepts of the design and include spatial relationships, scale, and form for the owner to review.

2. Design Development

Design development (DD) services use the initial design documents from the schematic phase and take them one step further. This phase lays out mechanical, electrical, plumbing, structural, and architectural details. Typically referred to as DD, this phase results in drawings that often specify design elements such as material types and location of windows and doors. 

3. Construction Documents

Once the owner and architect are satisfied with the documents produced during DD, the architect moves forward and produces drawings with greater detail. These drawings typically include specifications for construction details and materials. Once CDs are satisfactorily produced, the architect sends them to contractors for pricing or bidding, if part of the contract. 

4. Bid or Negotiation

The first step of this phase is preparation of the bid documents to go out to potential contractors for pricing. After bid sets are distributed, both the owner and architect wait for bids to come in. The owner, with the help of the architect, evaluate the bids and select a winning bid. 

5. Construction Administration

The architect’s core responsibility during this phase is to help the contractor to build the project as specified in the CDs as approved by the owner. Questions may arise on site that require the architect to develop architectural sketches: drawings issued after construction documents have been released that offer additional clarification to finish the project properly. 

Architect Specializations

Depending on the size of the firm these specialization hats could all be worn by one architect. In a larger firm there could be one person or a whole team assigned to each topic.

In addition, some of these roles may be as an outside consultant on behalf of the primary architecture design office. For example it is common to contract a Spec Writer from outside the office to prepare the building specification rather than having a full time in house staff member.

Here are some of the architect specializations currently in the marketplace:

Design Architect

There are several different levels of designers, these are not official titles but are generally accepted in the architecture industry. A Junior Designer will typically have 3-5 years of experience, an Intermediate Designer (6-9 years) and a Senior Designer (10+ years). Less that three years of experience is considered an Intern and is often enrolled in the Intern Development Program (IDP) as a path to licensure.

A Design Architect is probably what most people picture architects to be. Depending on the firm size the design architect will generally be leading the overall concept of the project design. This is done by analyzing the program (written description of the project requirements from the client) and translating it into a building. 

This process is different for every architect but is often starts with performing site analysis. This is involves the architect identifies the project site, photos, surveys and any existing conditions. Using this information as a starting point the architect can begin to develop the massing and plans to fit the given program and site constraints. This will often start with simple hand drawings then evolve into 2D and 3D development using the software mentioned previously. 

Technical Architect

Generally larger firms will separate technical and design architects. Most architects often lean towards one or the other as their career evolves. The simple answer for the difference between technical  and design architects is the phases is which they do most of their work.

A Design Architect will typically start the project and work from the Schematic Design Phase through Design Development. At that point a Technical Architect will take it through Construction Documents and Construction Administration.

A Technical Architect will often draw how the building is put together, rather than define the overall look of the project. For example resolving the drainage detail on a flat roof and detailing the drawings for it would be a technical task.

Project Manager

As defined by the AIA, a Project Manager is responsible for carrying out day-to-day duties and responsibilities. PM's marshal and apply their knowledge and skills to lead, solve problems, motivate others, advocate, measure, document, and communicate.

He or she is also in charge of planning, organizing, and staffing the project. They must develops a primary understanding of how and when the project will be worked on and what leadership and staff will be needed to perform the work.  

Development of a work plan for the project begins with consideration of schedules, ways to organize relationships between the parties, the firm’s available resources, and perhaps fees. In addition to the above, the PM typically monitors the project progress and the conclusion of the project.

BIM Manager

As mentioned above BIM is a complete 3D model of the building. Typically on larger projects there is a BIM Manager that is in charge of the model and the updates. There is little design associated with this role and is more of a consultant management and technical position.

The BIM Manager will coordinate multiple models with outside consultants. For instance, the structural engineers have a structure BIM model that must be linked with the architectural model. Especially on large projects this process can get extremely complicated so this role is very important for effective project delivery. 

Specifications (Spec) Writer

Specification writers create a written document that describes to builders the different types of materials and how they are used on a project. The spec writer's job is to make sure that the many components of a building fit and work together. This is especially important on large construction projects, with a 1000+ page specification document.

Interior Designer

Depending on the size of the project there may be a separate interior designer or interiors team. For example, on a single family residence the architect will carry out the interior design. However, on a large commercial project this task is often contracted to an interior design firm.

There is a separate licensing body, the Council for Interior Design Qualification regulates the interior design profession. Some architects transition to the interior design field and work for a specific firm specializing in interiors or may work within an architecture firm.

As defined by NCIDQ an interior designer's roles and responsibilities include:

  • Research and analysis of the client's goals and requirements

  • Formulation of preliminary space plans and two and three dimensional design concept studies and sketches

  • Confirmation that preliminary space plans and design concepts are safe, functional, aesthetically appropriate, and meet all public health, safety and welfare requirements, including code, accessibility, environmental, and sustainability guidelines.

  • Selection and specification of furniture, fixtures, equipment and millwork

  • Preparation of construction documents, consisting of plans, elevations, details and specifications, to illustrate non-structural and/or non-seismic partition layouts; power and communications locations; reflected ceiling plans and lighting designs; materials and finishes; and furniture layouts.

Workplace Consultancy

Workplace consultancy is common with large projects and can be a career specialization option for some architects. It is an interesting option that takes on more of a research position as opposed to strictly design.  Typically the WC team will interview clients and staff on for a potential project. The purpose is to get feedback on what is and isn't working in the current building.

Often working closely with the interior designers they optimize future desking arrangements and meeting spaces. The overall goal of workplace consultancy is for the client to get the most out of their project in terms of employee satisfaction and productivity.

For example HOK's workplace consultancy team provides a description of this service. Our consultants help clients align their physical space and organizational requirements to support their business goals. HOK helps organizations of all types optimize their real estate portfolios to support current and future business needs. Our workplace consultants create solutions that inspire collaboration, promote alternative work strategies, improve employee mobility and streamline space use.


As part of a large office or as a consultants an architect can specialize in sustainability. Sustainability is becoming a very important aspect of building design and will be increasingly important in the future. The goal of sustainable design is to reduce the impact buildings have on the environment and natural resources.

The leading organization in the United States is the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). The USGBC is a non-profit organization that is dedicated to sustainable building design and construction. The USBC developed the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) which is a set of rating systems for the design, construction, operation, and maintenance of green buildings, homes, and neighborhoods.

The first step for any architect interested in becoming a sustainability consultant is to become LEED Accredited.

Urban Designer

The Urban Design profession is regulated by The American Planning Association . While outside what is generally considered an architect's responsibilities, like interior design, some architects choose to specialize in this area.

Urban Design is defined as the arrangement, appearance and function of our suburbs, towns and cities. It is both a process and an outcome of creating localities in which people live, engage with each other, and engage with the physical place around them. 

Sole Proprietor

This is a one man band architecture office. He or she may have an assistant and a few consultants but generally carries all of the work alone. This is quite common in small scale residential projects as the workload is manageable for one person.

As mentioned above Sole Proprietorships make up almost a third of all architects working today. 

Director / Partner

This role is often part of the hierarchy of a large firm. A Director or Partner will often oversee the development of multiple projects at once. At this level it would be expected for the person to bring in new work for the office in addition to management and guiding the future of the practice.

So now when someone asks "What does an architect do?" you can tell them all they want to hear and more.

For further reading on actually getting that architecture job, including applications, interview preparation and questions see The Complete Package below:

See also my posts on:

Want a Great Architecture Job? Don't Send a Resume

Where To Apply For Architecture Jobs Online

Good luck!

Brandon Hubbard, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP BD+C

Have a suggestion for a future blog post? Please let me know in the comments below.

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