The past several decades have witnessed rapid urban development in China and all over the world.
Cities are facing high demand for construction activities, especially for housing. Given this, universities have produced many architects who are familiar with design and construction drawings.
However, after graduation, when they deliver their drawings to builders and engineers, many technical issues occur. Sometimes communication between architects and builders leads to disputes, with each party defending their position.
This reflects the gaps that exist between architects and builders, and highlights a significant demand for more effective teamwork throughout the process of designing and constructing buildings. As two key parties in the industry, there is no doubt that effective collaboration between architects and builders is critical to ensure effective delivery of construction projects. If not, increased costs and inefficient processes result.
The gaps between architects and builders are obvious in today’s modern construction industry, especially in the off-site sector. The education architecture students receive is no doubt one of the reasons for this.
This was reinforced through face-to-face interviews with some architects in ongoing case studies.
“Architects are not given a systematic university training in designing (for) off-site. I don’t think (the) building department (at our universities) has any training for off-site as well. So there is no training we can rely upon (for) these for architects and builders to obtain related knowledge as they develop their careers,” said one.
Modern buildings are complex and fragmented, involving numerous players, skills, and technologies. Construction is an applied field, meaning that architectural education needs to centre not only on drawings but also on how things get done.
In China, most architects believe that they are mainly responsible for design. They rarely take responsibility for managing building operations or if they do, they consider it at a relatively shallow level and through the lens of an architect. This is because architects generally believe builders should be in charge of site activities.
It seems Chinese architecture schools subconsciously hope that their students will develop into master architects rather than outstanding builders. Master architects are well respected in Chinese society and famous architects attract considerable tangible and intangible benefits for themselves and their schools. Master architects attract students who aspire to be future master architects. Naturally, schools of architecture wish the same for their students.
What inevitably results is that students in architecture schools have little interest in understanding how buildings are actually constructed.
With the rapid development of the industry, today’s architectural education is in a state of flux.
“Today’s architects are in an awkward position,” noted a deputy head of one Chinese university. “We are not as free as real artists because we need to be restricted by rationality derived from design skills. We are not as technical as other engineers because the discipline character and educational background make us so.”
The gap between architects and builders reflects the gap in education between traditional architectural design education and construction education. When seeking a happy medium between architectural education which is neither too artistic nor too technical, education that focuses on architectural technology may provide an alternative answer.
Architectural technology is the application of technology to the design of buildings. It is a component of architecture and building engineering and is sometimes viewed as a distinct discipline or sub-category of architecture. It could be a bridge between traditional architectural design education and construction education.
Facing these challenges, would emphasizing architectural technology provide an alternative approach to narrow the gaps between architects and builders?
To achieve this goal, some universities in China have been exploring and reforming their teaching systems over the past several years. For example, at Southeast University, architectural education involves a practical team exercise focussing on architectural technology called Industry-Education-Research Cooperation (IERC). The IERC model represents a collegial and cooperative relationship between industry, education, and research. Funding is at the core of this model.
The most significant difference between IERC construction courses and traditional build courses is that the learning outcomes are based on real-life buildings. If construction courses require industry funding, the learning outcomes must have commercial value and provide other benefits to industry.
For example, industry may benefit from having their profile raised in students’ eyes, thus providing opportunities for them to attract talented students. Furthermore, some academics’ research programs dovetail with these courses and allow organizations to share in research outcomes.
Through the IERC activities, students became aware of the gaps between designers’ and builders’ perspectives. In many cases, architects’ drawings could not be fabricated or assembled. Students became aware that some issues cannot be represented on drawings and are easy to overlook.
Although this exercise cannot address all the technical issues that architects may meet as they progress their careers, architects are reminded to carefully consider their drawings when they collaborate with builders. If we wish to narrow the gaps between architects and builders, we need to break ties with the old ways of doing things and explore new approaches.
Architectural technology education could help architects prepare for the role transition that inevitably awaits them. Their future roles may be likened to those of experienced coordinators and interdisciplinary practitioners who balance the demands and requirements of architects, builders, designers and engineers to minimize unpredictable issues.
It has not been shown conclusively whether the gaps between architects and builders are narrowed by this approach. However, this is an alternative approach to architectural education that is being widely promoted in many architecture universities in China including Tsinghua University, Tongji University and others. Student projects recently completed in China include Jiangning Exhibition Hall, Micro Emission House in Future, and Dream Home in future.
The current trend is for more and more learning outcomes to draw on real-life buildings. Architecture students attach increasing importance to how buildings are actually constructed and how they might collaborate with builders.
It’s time for educators to rethink architectural education to prepare students for the forthcoming challenges of the modern construction industry.