Do Architects Have To Be Mathematicians?

Love Architecture, Hate Math? What To Do

a row of yellow houses that look like yellow boxes turned on their angled side down -- next to a multi-sided round tower building with a pointed roof, like a pencil
Cube Houses (Kubuswoningen, 1984), Rotterdam, Netherlands, by Piet Blom (1934-1999). Visions Of Our Land/Getty Images (cropped)

Architects aren't the only professionals using math. As a student you may wonder how important mathematics is to the field of architecture. How much math do architecture students study in college?

French architect Odile Decq has said that "it's not obligatory to be good at math or science." But if you take a look at the college curricula at several universities, you'll find that a basic knowledge of mathematics is required for most degrees — and for most college majors. When you earn a four-year Bachelor's Degree, the world knows that you've studied a variety of subjects, including mathematics. A college education is a little different than a more simplified training program. And today's registered architect is indeed educated.

Architecture Schools at the Program Level

When considering a school of architecture, first remember that in the United States, architecture programs are accredited by NAAB, the National Architectural Accrediting Board. NAAB does NOT accredit the university, so look at the program level. choose the school that is best for by looking at the courses in the program you'll be buying into. One way to start your research is to use a Web browser and search for "architecture curriculum." A curriculum is a course of study, or the classes you'll need to take in order to get an architecture degree. Comparing the course descriptions of several colleges will give you an idea of how a school integrates mathematics into practicing architecture — universities that are strong in engineering may have an approach that is different from a school within a university known for its liberal arts. Here are a few examples, direct from the college catelog.

For The Cooper Union school in New York City, the Program Description sounds more inspiring than the Degree Requirements, but read both. "The curriculum stresses the importance of architecture as a humanistic discipline," they say in describing their architecture program. But then in the first two years you'll take courses such as "Computer Applications and Descriptive Geometry" and "Calculus and Analytic Geometry" and "Concepts of Physics," along with "Structures I," "Structures II," "Structures III," and "Structures IV." At The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, they want you to know the science and the art.

A West Coast school like the University of Southern California (USC) School of Architecture may take another approach. A 160-Unit Sample Curriculum includes "Contemporary Precalculus" your first semester and "Physics for Architects" the second semester, but it also includes "Fundamentals of Design Communication" and "Writing and Critical Reasoning" in those same semesters. Communicating a vision —  putting a visual idea into words — might be the most difficult task faced by a professional architect, and USC wants to help you learn that, too. Also remember that a California school more than a school in another state may focus more on building to withstand earthquakes. In fact, USC offers "Building Structures and Seismic Design" right in the second year of study, and the course description is this:

"Structure defines form and space and supports gravity, lateral, and thermal loads. The course introduces the four S’s required for architectural structures: Synergy, Strength, Stiffness, and Stability. Synergy, a system greater the sum of its parts, reinforces architectural objectives; strength resists breaking; stiffness resists deformation; and stability resists collapse. Structures must also resist bending, shear, tension, compression, thermal stress and strain. Learn the historic evolution, material, and system of structures, as well as the basic design and analysis tools for conceptual design."

This course is practical architecture, right? If it interests you, watch out for the "Prerequisites," which are courses you have to take before you can even sign up to take this one. What is the basic knowledge the professor wants you to know? "Contemporary Precalculus" and "Physics for Architects" are the prerequisites.

Passing the ARE®

All of the projects and tests in college are not the end to becoming a registered architect. You also have to pass the Architect Registration Examination.® ARE 5.0 has six topic areas to pass before you can call yourself an architect. In the Practice Management part of the test you'll be asked to do some business math, to "Evaluate the financial well-being of the practice." In the Project Management area, you'll have to answer questions about a project's budget. This is math, too, but maybe not the kind that scares you out of architecture. 

Becoming a licensed architect can be intimidating. It's important to remember that tests are not given to punish students and professionals, but to maintain educational and professional standards. The National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB), administrators of ARE, state:

"The ARE is designed to assess aspects of architectural practice that affect the integrity, soundness, and health impact of a building. The exam also assesses an architect’s responsibilities within firms, such as managing projects and coordinating the work of other professionals." — NCARB

The Bottom Line

Do professional architects really use all those formulas from Algebra 101? Well, maybe not. But they certainly do use math. But, you know what? So do toddlers playing with blocks, teenagers learning to drive, and anyone betting on a horse race or a football game. Math is a tool for making decisions. Math is a language used to communicate ideas and validate assumptions. Critical thinking, analysis, and problem solving are all skills that may be related to mathematics. "I have found that people who like to solve puzzles can do well in architecture," architect Nathan Kipnis told author Lee Waldrep.

Other architects continually suggest that "people" skills are most important for the successful professional architect. Communication, listening, and collaboration are often cited as essential.

A big part of communication is writing clearly — Maya Lin's winning entry for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was mostly words — no math and no detailed sketch.

The most important thing to remember is that everyone wants you to succeed. Professors will help you. Why would they want you to fail?

If you're interested in architecture as a career, you're already interested in mathematics. The built environment is created with geometric forms, and geometry is mathematics. Don't be afraid of mathematics. Embrace it. Use it. Design with it.

Sources

  • Odile Decq Interview, January 22, 2011, designboom, July 5, 2011, http://www.designboom.com/interviews/odile-decq-interview/ [accessed July 14, 2013]
  • Becoming an Architect by Lee W. Waldrep, Wiley, 2006, pp. 33-41
  • Pass the ARE, National Council of Architectural Registration Boards, https://www.ncarb.org/pass-the-are [accessed May 8, 2018]
  • Practice Management, National Council of Architectural Registration Boards, https://www.ncarb.org/pass-are/are5/prepare/practice-management [accessed May 28, 2018]
  • Project Management, National Council of Architectural Registration Boards, https://www.ncarb.org/pass-are/are5/prepare/project-management [accessed Nat 28m 2018]
  • Program Description, The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, http://cooper.edu/architecture/the-school/bachelor-architecture [accessed May 28, 2018]
  • Degree Requirements: Bachelor of Architecture, The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, http://cooper.edu/architecture/curriculum/bachelor [accessed May 28, 2018]
  • Bachelor of Architecture (5 year) Curriculum, USC School of Architecture, https://arch.usc.edu/programs/bachelor-architecture [accessed May 28, 2018]
  • Building Structures and Seismic Design, Overview, USC School of Architecture, https://arch.usc.edu/courses/213ag [accessed May 28, 2018]