Find Your Switch: Architectural Process and the Middle Ground

Light Switch Symbols

There’s a 2007 book by Matthew Frederic entitled 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School.  It is a linear, short read with one-page hitters accompanied by a corresponding hand-drawn graphic.  It’s easy to thumb through for students, practitioners, and laymen alike.

Lesson Number 1 is “How to draw a line.”  Irrespective of talent, yes:  there’s a “right way,” and a “wrong way.”

Lesson Number 10 states “Our experience of an architectural space is strongly influenced by how we arrive in it.”  Most everyone has recognized and experienced this in one form or another.

Lesson Number 14 reminds us that “Architecture beings with an idea.”  I had a British-born professor lovingly mock with a Midwest accent, “if it ain’t drawn, it ain’t.”  To express an idea, one must get it on paper.

But to a professional, one of the biggest nuggets of the book lies with Lesson Number 21:  “An architect knows something about everything.  An engineer knows everything about one thing.”  That’s a bit snarky towards our engineering friends, but the sentiment regarding the architectural profession is true.

In my weekly routine I’m a:

Computer technician | graphic artist | contract writer | student | photographer | educator | number-cruncher | drafter | listener | historian | arbitrator | researcher | etc, etc, etc…

Not one of these items explicitly deals with designing a building, but they all help get the building designed.  Sometimes I need to lean on architectural history to solve a problem.  Alternatively, I might rely on a spreadsheet and database analysis to help analyze spatial usage.  Sometimes, successfully photographing a building is all I need to initially analyze a design challenge.  Other times, I need to field measure it down to the quarter inch.  In my career, I’ve developed a rounded vocabulary of skillsets in which to attack design issues.

We all have moments where the list of “other things” feels like distractions.  These detours are often part of the exploration process; embrace them.  However, knowing when to turn one off, and another on is a key to success.  Be mindful of when one approach works, and when another one doesn’t.  Don’t be afraid to try different methods to solve different problems if you think there might be a better way.

This brings me to the dichotomy of that process.  Binary thinking is very prevalent in architecture.  The classic motif is figure/void which is the presence or absence of space.  This is often thought of as buildings vs the space between buildings.  It’s also framed as private vs public space.  In the classic example of binary opposition, the presence/absence relationship frames both architectural and architectural process decisions.  Do you put a wall here or not?  Do you think about historical context when you make that decision, or not?  Binary decisions are compounded and compounded repeatedly until a final decision is made.

Therein lies the benefit of an architectural firm’s support early on in a project.  The American Institute of Architects has a sample document D200 posted on their website; click here for reference.  It is 22 pages of “bullet points” that an architecture firm partially or fully addresses depending on the scope of the project.  As mentioned, these decisions about multiple topics are often solved in multiple ways that culminate with the final architectural product.  The means and methods that a design group utilizes comes with a breadth of employing previous situations and techniques.  And ironically in architecture, intentionally not doing something is sometimes more difficult than its counterpart.  Binary thinking…is the lightbulb on, off, or does it have a dimmer?  In all things, embrace the middle ground to inform solid decisions.


Andrew Thomas



– Andrew Thomas is a Project and BIM Manager with Architect One in the Topeka, Kansas office