What Can You Expect to Learn in Architecture School? – PART 3

This is the 3nd part of a multi-part series about “What You Can Expect to Learn in Architecture School”. If you’ve missed previous parts that be sure to check them out and then come back to this page. Happy learning! 

PART 1: Architectural Communication, History and Criticism, and Architectural Design and Theory.
PART 2: Building Materials and Constuction

Systems Planning 1

Mother of God

If you’re like me, then you’re not really a whiz with mathematics, and long calculations are sometimes public enemy number 1.

But if you love purposefully crunching values and find a thrill in chasing down a target numerical indication, then you’ll be in for a treat in your structural courses.

Understanding how your building will stand is a crucial fundamental for an architect. This post will talk about what you can expect to learn from the courses that teach these, and what are crucial to be absorbed. Let’s get crunching.

RELATED POST: Know the Difference: How Architects and Engineers are Wired Differently


Framing Plan 1

Structural Analysis and Conceptualization

Architects are not Civil Engineers. The nitty-gritty of structural systems are not our specialty or core competence. However, structure plays a crucial consideration when you form your buildings, which is why architects are taught the broad strokes of structural design. Here are a few things you’ll delve into in your structural subjects.

You’ll learn about loads, reactions, external and internal forces, and the like. The world of structural analysis is a very physical one, and its view-ports are forces and resistances. Chances are, your professors will teach you about forces and reactions on a simple and basic level first. You’ll be brought to light on a number of fundamental terms, such as – forces, line of action, reactions, shear, bending, moments, stress, strain, compression, tension, torsion, the list goes on and on . This is your foundation in understanding structure, so you should definitely understand these concepts to that dot.


You’ll learn about what kind of loads buildings have to be able to resist. Buildings are designed to withstand a certain threshold, depending on a number of factors. It’s a very specialized process, such that putting the same building in different sites would mean drastically different things in terms of both structural design and construction methodology. For instance, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai – which is the world’s tallest building – would have a heck of a harder time standing up in, say, Tokyo Japan. This is because the Earthquake magnitude and frequency in Dubai is drastically smaller than in Japan, which would give good ‘ol Burj a hell of a run for its money. Expect to learn about dead loads, live loads, wind loads, lateral loads, soil strength and stability, and the like.

You’ll look closer and break down a building in terms of structural systems. You’ll look past non-load-bearing components like dry walls and take a look at different kinds of bone set-ups that hold a building up. Post and lintel, arches, vaults, tensile fabrics, tension rods, you’ll study them all. You’ll determine the advantage and disadvantages of different set ups. Structural defects like re-entrant corners, soft stories, weakness along an axis, will also be discussed. Be prepared for a lot of film viewings on great innovative structures, history of structural design, and tragic structural failures.

Basically you’ll be comparing how some building skeletons are more apt for different purposes and contexts, with consideration to things like cost, time, ceiling clearances, and efficiency.

You’ll look even closer and look at what happens within the individual components of a structural system. By experience, this is where things start to get a bit tedious. Now is when you’ll really apply all the initial concepts you were taught – through lots and lots of calculations. You’ll learn about all the different kinds of structural elements – footings, retaining walls, beams, columns, girders, trusses, purlins, shear walls, etc – and see how they play a game of “pass the load around until it reaches the ground”. You’ll dissect each one and see how they resist a unique host of problems and how their insides can combat them.

To give you an idea of what I mean: Columns only resist compression, and they can be prone to buckling if too long, and crushing if too short, hence they are designed with certain proportions, spacing of lateral ties, and what have you. Beams, on the other hand resist compression up top but tension at the bottom, have shear at the joints, max bending at mid span, and so their reinforcing bars have certain configurations, stirrups are closer spaced near the joints, etc. There’s a lot to take in, but it’s very eye opening.

Footing Section

You’ll tackle material inclinations and see how they can harmonize to make 1 + 1 = 3. For instance, steel is expensive but it is strong in both compression and tension, while concrete is cheaper but is only strong in compression. The solution? Combine the two together to make reinforced concrete. Tadaaaa! Have a lower budget, but the project is smaller in scale? Instead of steel bars to reinforce your concrete, use specially treated bamboo – which is stronger than steel in tension per weight. Just make sure your numbers are crunched carefully.

If your school is really sadistic (or they just want you to have a comprehensive education), they’ll make you look even closer and calculate sizing of the smallest components. Wanna have some fun? Calculate the volume of concrete and size and number of steel bars needed to resist given forces and stress. Or calculate the strength of the steel and concrete needed for a given column. Determine if the steel ratio is adequate, or if not, find the balance such that the beam’s steel fails before the concrete and prevents shattering. Sounds enjoyable? If you think it does, you might have secretly been born an engineer. Time to rethink your course choice. Wakokokoko.

Now take note: An architect will never do analysis and sign structural drawings for a building project (unless to take a 2nd degree in Civil Engineering so you can pursue dual practices ala Santiago Calatrava, or if your local laws are different from the norm), so for the most part, your education in detailed structural analysis will be just for you not to be ignorant on-site and in coordination meetings. But hey, I honestly found this part of the courses to be highly fascinating, and paradoxically grueling.

Framing Plan Example

You’ll learn about the standards your country uses in determining structural safety. Of course, you’ll be introduced to different laws surrounding your local civil engineering practice. Different states, depending on their vulnerabilities to earthquakes, wind loads and the like will have different requirements in their structural codes. In general, the principles in different countries’ structural codes will be the same across the board. They could have different factors of safety for essential structures – because you have overdesign critical buildings like hospitals to make sure they still stand in the strongest of disasters. Things like that.

The end goal of an education in structural conceptualization is for architect and structural engineer to be able to collaborate clearly, harmoniously, and insight-fully for a design project. It’s about being able to bring two minds together to make how a building stands enhance how a building makes life better.

As architects who have a firm background in structural conceptualization, you can have educated discourses with your engineers on ways to improve the design without compromising integrity:

“Instead of a column here, can we have a tension rod that suspends this so the room opens up more, or can we reinforce this end so we can lighten up the opposite end to increase the view, or maybe we can widen the column spacing since our ceiling clearance can allow for a deeper beam depth, or since we have our structural members hidden within a berm and an increase in size won’t be noticeable, can we cantilever this part of the second floor so it seems like it’s floating?”

Having a fine grasp in structure is a fantastic tool indeed. Of course they aren’t the easiest of courses of the brain, but you know what they say – the more stress you can withstand, the stronger you are. 


Keep your hard hats on! In the next installments of the series, I’ll be giving you a briefing on all the engineering disciplines and utilities architects will need to learn about. Stay tuned for Part 4! 

All posts in the “What Can You Expect to Learn In Architecture School?” Series:

PART 1: Architectural Communication, History and Criticism, and Architectural Design and Theory.
PART 2: Building Materials and Constuction
PART 3: Structural Analysis & Conceptualization 
PART 4: Lighting and Acoustics Design
PART 5: Plumbing/Sanitary and Electrical Systems
PART 6: Mechanical, and Fire & Life Safety Systems
PART 7: Building Laws and Professional Practice
PART 8: Site & Urban Planning and Design, Architectural Research

Did you like what you just read? There’s more where that came from! Click the image below to check out all the posts in the category of FORMATION!


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