Architecture Tools


Regardless of the program and institution you select to pursue your architecture degree, the courses offered will be similar. A typical sequence includes the following: general education, design, history and theory, technology, professional practice, and electives.

Each architecture program will require courses in general education—English, humanities, mathematics and science, and social sciences. While you may not enjoy these required courses, realize that they will connect to your architectural studies. To the extent your curriculum provides, always choose courses that are of interest to you.

As you will quickly learn, design is the heart of each architecture curriculum. Once in the studio sequence of a degree program, you will be taking design studio each semester, usually for four to six credits. Design studio may meet between 8 and 12 hours contact hours with the designated faculty and countless hours outside of class. Projects may begin in the abstract and deal with basic skill development, but they will quickly progress in scale and complexity.

Faculty members provide the program or space requirements of a given building project. From there, students individually develop solutions to the problem and present the results to faculty and classmates. This final presentation, called a review, is the culmination of hours of hard work. Comments are provided to the student on the finished project. Just as important as the product is the process. You will learn not only from the studio faculty but also from your fellow students.

Design courses are central to an architectural education, but what is studio? More than simply a place to work, studio is where design happens. A central aspect of an architectural education, the studio is the place to work and more. The studio becomes an extension of the curriculum as you combine what you learn from your architecture courses and apply that knowledge to your design work.

As part of your studio course, you will learn architecture in varying methods as described in the following material. At the beginning of a studio project, you, along with your classmates, may do research on the project and site, and perform a precedent analysis. You may take a field trip to the proposed site. The professor may lecture on aspects of the project as you begin the design process. You will work on design during class time and participate in desk critiques, or individual time with the professor to discuss your design and ideas.

Depending on the length of the project, there may be pin-ups or interim critiques with your entire studio and professor or subsets of your studio classmates. Eventually, at the end, you participate in the charrette, an intensive burst of energy to complete the project before the stated deadline. Finally, there is the final review or critique, which involves outside faculty or visitors from off-campus.

A vital aspect of the design studio and an architectural education is learning through criticism. Brian Kelly, AIA, director of the architecture program and associate professor at the University of Maryland, offers the following:

The development of a rigorous design process governed by critical thinking is a central component of architectural education and an essential tool for successful professional practice. Design studios utilize critical review, debate, and consultation with faculty and professional guests to engage a wide range of issues central to the making of architecture. This engagement between students and their critics takes place in a public arena where students can learn from discussions of their own work and that of their peers.

For some, the public nature of critique is challenging. Beginning students have been known to mistake comments about their design work as praise of their individual character. “Professor Smith likes me and therefore is always enthusiastic about my work.” Likewise, others have confused critical comments focused on the work with evaluation of personal attributes. “Professor Jones has it in for me and always trashes my work.” Both of these positions are naïve appraisals of the role of criticism. Criticism is not personal.

The role of criticism is to improve students’ design processes and thereby lead the way to a higher quality of architecture. Criticism is not simply a matter of “I like it” or “I dislike it.” Criticism involves illuminating the principles on which design work is based and evaluating the rational application of those principles. Simply put, criticism is about the work and the process by which the work was conceptualized. It is not about the individual. The goal of criticism is to enable the student to become a competent critic. Both self-criticism and critique of others is an essential tool for architects in practice.

Brian Kelly, AIA, University of Maryland

All architecture programs require courses in history and theory to address values, concepts, and methods. Most curriculums offer courses that provide an understanding of both Western and non-Western traditions across the ages, from ancient Greek architecture to the modern day. In addition, more focused history courses may be required or offered as electives.

Technology covers structures and environmental systems. Each program teaches these courses differently, but structures will involve basic statics and strength of materials—wood, steel, timber, and masonry. Courses in environmental systems cover HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning), plumbing, lighting, and acoustics. As well, most programs have courses in construction materials and methods. All of these courses, required by most programs, are taught with the idea that you will integrate what you learn to your design studio.

All programs offer coursework in professional practice addressing the legal aspects of architecture, contracts, ethics, leadership roles, and business issues.

As well, all programs provide a wide array of electives. These may include courses in computer applications, advanced technology, history and theory, urban design, and so on. Some programs permit or require students to take elective courses outside the major in areas such as art, business, or engineering.


Aside from courses, an element of an architectural education is the tools. Unlike those in other majors who have textbooks, architecture students have tools. In fact, while architecture students will need to purchase some textbooks, they will need to purchase these tools. Included are the tools of the profession: parallel straightedge, vinyl board cover, scale, triangles, leadholders with various leads (2H, H, B, 2B), sharpener, erasers, erasing shield, compass, x-acto knife with blades, circles template, brush, lamp, push pins, and drafting tape or dots. For now, these tools may not be familiar, but they soon will be. Many programs, through their AIAS chapter, sell toolkits with the items just mentioned plus more. It is well worth the money to purchase such a kit to save time and hassles.

Also, consider obtaining a laptop computer and music-playing device with headphones. In recent years, more and more programs are requiring laptops as part of attendance. Regardless, all students are now entering colleges with a laptop or desktop computer. Talk with upperclass students and the program to learn about which platform (Macintosh or PC) is the best. You will want headphones for your MP3 or CD player to listen to your favorite music but also to eliminate the distracting noise in the studio.

Again, check with the students about software to have loaded; technology is changing quickly, but you will want AutoCAD, SketchUp, Adobe Creative Suite (Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign and others) and software for Building Information Modeling (Revit, Graphisoft and others).  Of course, will probably want Microsoft Office (Word, Excel, Powerpoint) and other software that make you more efficient.  In the last few years, more and more students are starting college with tablets and smartphone apps can help you in your studies.

Next Week: Academic Enrichment

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