What Can You Expect to Learn in Architecture School? – PART 4

This is the 4th part of a multi-part series about “What Can You 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
PART 3: Structural Analysis & Conceptualization

Imagine a pretty looking building without power, indoor plumbing, lighting, air-conditioning, and sound systems. Would you live in it?

Not so pleasant, right? In today’s contemporary world, we practically run on technology and convenience. Remove all that and it’ll literally be like a 21st century Dark Age. Technological advancement has become the cornerstone of human development, and the way we integrate all sorts of gizmos to our built environment is a clear indication of that.

Which is why you’ll be studying all kinds of building systems in architecture school.

In the fourth and fifth parts of the “What Can You Expect in Architecture School?” series, I’ll be giving you a glimpse on all those pesky (but useful) utility courses that you’ll be tackling in your upper years. Don’t be daunted – you’ll cross the river when you get there. Besides, you’ll be surprised at how fun they can actually be. This installment will give you the down-low on two of the most crucial utilities with respect to the beauty and pleasantness of your designs – Lighting and Acoustics. 

(c) Aldo Mayoralgo
(c) Aldo Mayoralgo

1. Lighting Systems and Design

Let there be light. Coming into design school I wasn’t all that receptive on the intricacies of lighting – little did I know there was a whole world just waiting to be explored. Fact of the matter is, knowing the proper way to light up your spaces is one of the most important considerations in any design – both functionally and aesthetically.

You can have two buildings with the exact same form factor, but one can blow the other out of the water because of how the lighting design accents its faces and focal points, especially at night.

At the same time, indiscriminately placing bulbs to fill up a space can be a major mistake – it will cause light pollution, waste electricity, and give a big headache to your users.

Here are some of the things you can expect to learn in your courses on lighting that will help you harness the power of illuminating environments meaningfully.

Naturally, you’ll first get the down low on the basic terms like wavelength, luminance, illumination, beam angles, and the like. Everything else will sprout from here. It might be boring or theoretical, but these fundamentals will set you up for greater understanding for the applications of lighting design. Really.  

You’ll take a look at the human body and determine how receptive we are to light, and what is pleasant or painful for our eyes. Not all light is the good kind of light – some of it is quite harmful and there are certain standards for pleasurable light fields. Again, this can get a bit technical since you’ll be studying the spectrum of light and the inner workings and parts of your eye. You’ll find even more that biology is one of the strongest influences of architecture, especially in the context of lighting design.

You’ll learn about the different kinds of bulbs, luminaires, fixtures, housings, as well as switching set-ups, and weigh out their advantages and disadvantages. Different bulbs and luminaires are not created equal. Some are more apt for outdoors because of their power, while others are just right for a typical office room. Some are really powerful but heat up really fast, others are really energy efficient but their color rendering isn’t quite as warm as you’d like. It’s a broad range of options that needs to be studied extensively.

(c) Aldo Mayoralgo
(c) Aldo Mayoralgo

You’ll analyze each lighting option based on a number of factors – like lifespan, heating, color rendering, power consumption, etc. Basically after you study the properties of lighting, you’ll be shown the different products out in the market that will be your palette of tools to use in your designs.

You’ll be primed on the different modes and uses of lighting, for both indoor and outdoor purposes. You’ll be differentiating lighting based on breadth – like ambient vs general vs task lighting. From there, you’ll get more specific and be given pointers on when to use certain techniques like cove lighting, up-lighting, back-lighting, wall washing, and the like to produce intended effects.

You’ll dip your toes into what makes good lighting system. You’ll study indicators like daylight factor curves that allow you to efficiently layout your set-up to save energy, reduce glare, and work harmoniously with natural light.  You’ll study different kinds of spaces and look at their different needs and standards. For instance, office spaces are supposed to have a homogeneous field that keeps you alert, bedrooms should make you feel relaxed and not interfere with circadian rhythms, Outdoor spaces should take into consideration the lighting’s effects on natural flora and fauna, and museums should focus and highlight the collection it displays – and not the bathrooms in the corner.

Conceptual Lighting Diagram
(c) Aldo Mayoralgo

Finally, you’ll be given exercises on how to put it all together. Other than exams, case studies and research papers (aw poop), your professors will most probably have you implement what you’ve learned on lighting systems into a design project. Expect to produce switching and wiring layouts, computations on efficiency, a schedule of the lights you used, parametric cost estimates, and of course diagrams and renderings to demonstrate your design intent.

Artsy Cafe Exterior Perspective
(c) Aldo Mayoralgo

All in all, lighting design might sound like a daunting science (to a certain extent, it is – there’s a whole profession built solely on just lighting consultancy), but it is probably the most crucial utility a good architect will have to be familiar with to create gorgeous spaces. It’s true, how well and thought-out your architecture is lit can make or break your design – in terms of both beauty and function.

So we’re done with sight. Now what about sound?


Acoustical Systems 2
(c) Mayoralgo & Celestial

2. Acoustical Systems and Design

Ah yes, the sweet science of sound. Acoustics courses will make you learn to make your building sound nice. But exactly does that mean?

Different spaces within your buildings will have different needs with regards to how they want sound to travel in them. Offices will want sound contained into cubicles or zones so as not to distract co-workers, but still maintain a good degree of voice clarity. Churches and other religious structures tend to want a degree of reverberance and echo to instill a certain force of word. Music studios will want sound to be fully contained, but also prevent needless vibrations from hammering into recordings. Auditoriums are at the complex end of acoustical science, because you have to crunch numbers and diagrams to produce a homogeneous sound field and ward of a myriad of acoustical defects.

So how will you learn to provide all these?

First you’ll start with studying the sound, its properties and behavior. Just like light, you will inevitably have to be taught the theoretical fundamentals. And again, just like light, spending sessions listening to lectures about wavelengths and diffraction will be a strong test in staying awake. But keep yourself resilient, because if you don’t know how sound moves and affects us, there’s really no way you’ll be able to understands how architects can complement that.

You’ll be given a more intimate look at our ears and how they work. Naturally, the cornerstone of acoustical design is how our bodies (and also the bodies of other natural critters) react to sound. Some magnitudes and wavelengths of sounds are within the comfortable range, others with blow our eardrums out, and yet others can only be picked up by animals like dogs. The most useful take home from these sessions will be standards on what constitutes a pleasant acoustical field.

You’ll discuss how sound travels in a room, and what techniques can be used to limit or enhance its spread. You’ll be taught the perils of different kinds of acoustical defects – like sound shadow, excessive reverberance, flutter echo, or excessive white noise, and be introduced to techniques on how to curb them.

Generally, you’ll be focusing on two aspects of this – spatial techniques and material techniques.

Spatial Manipulation

Spatial techniques would include broad strokes to arrange space, so that the room’s volume will be able to enhance acoustical intent. For instance, having bare rectangular walls will make sound bounce back and forth in an echo-tastic party, but even just transforming one side to an accordion-like character will help curb this behavior. Other than this, spatial techniques also speaks of planning out your spaces correctly so that your toilets can’t be heard while you’re having dinner.

Acoustic Wall Conceptual
(c) Aldo Mayoralgo

Material techniques would talk about manipulating the properties of the materials that enclose your volumes to achieve acoustical intent. You’ll study about what kind of cladding or paneling will help in diffusion, reflection, and absorption – and which is desirable for certain portions of a room based on its use. You’ll find out why having that pretty glass wall all round is a bad idea, and be introduced to a myriad of acoustical toys like hangers, dividers, resonators and diffusers. You’ll learn the layering and jointing methods to allow or keep rooms from spilling sound to others, and you’ll be drafting your own construction details. Be prepared for a gamut of information when it comes to materials.

The two techniques will always go hand-in-hand, so you’ll need a good mastery of both principles to be effective.

From here, you can officially start analyzing all kinds of spaces and rooms and be familiarized with each of their standard requirements. As previously mentioned, offices will have configurations and material configurations that are drastically different from that of a classroom. Auditoriums for natural speech will have different calculations and reflection diagrams as those built for sound system assistance, or that of a flexible multi-purpose hall, and so-on-and-so-forth.

Speaking of calculations and reflection diagrams, be prepared to memorize formulas on the quantified aspects of acoustic fields, like finding optimum reverberation time and marrying it with a room’s volume and material construction. I’m sorry, but there is quite a bit of math in acoustics. To be fair though, it’s actually pretty fun.

Acoustical Systems
(c) Mayoralgo & Celestial

Naturally, exams, case studies and research reports will be a norm, but like lighting courses, you’ll probably have a design plate or two to test what you’ve learned. Don’t think of it as a hassle though, what you learn in your acoustics classes are some of the most practical and universal considerations you can apply to any future project. Hopefully you’ll be tasked to design an auditorium and really put everything you’ve learned into practice. If you can marry your lighting and acoustic concepts with a synthesized set-up, all the better.

(c) Aldo Mayoralgo
(c) Aldo Mayoralgo

Lastly, your school has a strong thrust for environmental responsibility, they’ll include lectures on environmental acoustics somewhere in the mix. The sound of your building doesn’t stop within its walls – they can spillover to its surroundings. Environmental acoustics will give you a number of considerations so you can see the bigger picture in terms of your building’s context – and ensure that your neighbors, both human and fuzzy critter alike, won’t be banging your doors down in protest. Also, have you ever designed an amphitheater? This aspect of acoustics gives you the basics to make sure you can get your greek on and do it properly.

Yes, being an architect gives you a mastery over light and sound – and that’s pretty darn cool if you ask me.


But wait, there’s more! In Part 5, we’ll be talking about all the different building systems an architect should be able to orchestrate. More of that in the next installment. Stay tuned!

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 5: Mechanical, and Fire & Life Safety Systems
PART 6: Building Laws and Professional Practice
PART 7: 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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