What Can You Expect to Learn in Architecture School? – PART 5

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 Construction
PART 3: Structural Analysis & Conceptualization 
PART 4: Lighting and Acoustics Design

Architects have X-ray vision. Bzzt bzzt.

We can’t see through peoples’ clothes (sorry) – though we can see into their minds; Instead of apparel, architects can mentally dissect the inner workings of a building.

In your quest to achieve your degree in Archi-torture, you will undoubtedly have to dip your toes into the realms of engineering courses – and survive. You’ll be taking up subjects to understand all the different systems that run through buildings, how to optimize them in your design, and what options you can suggest should they all conflict.

One thing to keep in mind: Just because you’ve taken up a few utilities courses doesn’t mean you can do the work of an engineer, because as I’ve already explained before, Architects and Engineers are wired differently.

What these courses will do is give you a good background and grasp of the trades, so you can take the lead during design coordination and site meetings. Architects, as the maestro of the orchestra, constantly have to reconcile everyone’s considerations into the architecture, so you naturally have to know first what those considerations are. 

Sanitary Systems
(c) Aldo Mayoralgo

1. Plumbing and Sanitary Systems

Water is life. And water also means washing your hands, doing the dishes, taking a hot shower, and flushing last night’s salad dinner down the john.

If you have no water running through the veins of your buildings, your users are in for some deep…. poop.

In your courses for plumbing and sanitary systems, you’ll be tackling a lot of things about water and how to harness it in making your buildings livable.

You’ll first start by studying how water circulates the earth naturally. Yes, just like in elementary, you’ll be studying the water cycle – albeit in a more technical manner this time.

Then you’ll study how man is able to manage, collect and distribute natural water to sustain its communities on a macro level. Early wells and dams will be your introduction, and then the discussion will eventually move on to contemporary times.

When it comes to handling water, there are two kinds to consider – water supply and waste water. Basically there is a cyclical process of:

  • Man gets water from nature, makes it squeaky clean, then stores it in facilities.
  • Man supplies man with clean, potable water through a water supply chain.
  • Man uses clean, potable water which now turns into waste water.
  • Man disposes of waste water (if he is responsible he will try and reuse the “not so” waste water) and it goes into the sewer.
  • Sewer water travels to a waste water treatment center, where man tries to take out the nasty stuff that can harm nature.
  • Man releases treated water into nature, where it will do its own awesome treatment process, and the cycle begins anew.

After getting the broad strokes down, now you will focus on the part in the middle – how man uses water (usually on a residential level), and how plumbing and sanitary systems are integrated into the architecture based on these. During this time, it’s up to the professor what flow they’ll take in teaching – but you can definitely expect to learn the following:

(c) Aldo Mayoralgo
(c) Aldo Mayoralgo

You’ll be introduced to the different fixtures, fittings and elements that comprise and connect your water distribution and sanitary systems. Things like valves, meters, tanks, elbows and wyes, water closets, drains, clean-outs, risers, horizontal branches, p-traps, soil stacks, and a ton more. Expect to go through a few nosebleeds and information overloads. What’s the difference between a stack vent and a vent stack?

You’ll be taught how to calculate standards of water use based on building size and typology, number of fixtures (and their corresponding fixture units), and user numbers and demographic. It’s here how you’ll understand the many different factors that will dictate how big your pipes will be and how many toilets your floors will need. It’ll also be a time where you’ll discover some interesting gender differences (men need urinals, women need mirrors and emergency item dispensers), and how they relate to your bathroom designs.

You’ll take a step back and take a good look at your site, and from there you’ll learn the different clues on how to plan out how water will flow for all the needed uses. A number of important questions will be introduced to you, and these are the things you will always need to consider in your design projects. Some questions include:

  • Where is the existing water supply line I can tap into located? How about the existing sewer line where my waste will go?
  • Based on the natural topography, where will rain water naturally slide to and collect? What does this mean for the location of my storm water drains?
  • Where are the best places to put my septic tank and underwater water cistern? Would it be better to have an additional overhead tank for certain zones?
  • Would it be better if I had solar water heaters for this area, or will having a single-point/multi-point per bathroom suffice?
  • How can maintenance be undergone without crippling parts of my design and making users uncomfortable?
Conceptual Sanitary
(c) Aldo Mayoralgo

After planning out your site, you’ll get nitty-gritty with the different layouts in your plumbing design. While the sanitary engineer is the one that really does this and has you review it, it’s good to learn how to do the basics yourself. If your professor is holistic (and sadistic), he’ll have you do plates on laying out lines and fittings for water supply, waste water, storm water, (taking into consideration things like cost, efficiency, and pipe slopes),

He or she may also have you study and specify heating systems, provisions for storm water harvesting, parametric cost estimates, do walk-throughs of maintenance concepts, and do reports on the latest technology relating to sustainability and innovation.

It’s a lot to take in, but with the importance of water in not only our comfort, but survival, the importance of your adeptness in plumbing conceptualization cannot be over-stressed.

Now that we’re done with plumbing, you can move on to something more…. shocking.

(c) Aldo Mayoralgo
(c) Aldo Mayoralgo

2. Electrical Systems

In today’s technological, global world, architects and electrical engineers are pretty darn important – because we ensure that electricity safely and effectively runs through buildings, for everyone’s Skype-ing pleasure. So naturally, you’ll have to know your stuff when it comes to how all these electrical considerations relate to your design.

There is good news and bad news when it comes to your electrical engineering courses. The good news is, in comparison to plumbing, electrical layouting is a lot easier and flexible (you don’t need to consider water pressures and pipe slopes, and certain transmissions are wireless). The bad news is… doing calculations for electrical systems is more of a headache. Or maybe I was just never the type that enjoyed doing load schedules and calculating sizes of wires and conduits. Not my cup of tea. Maybe it’ll be yours.

All in all, the approach to your electrical systems courses will tend to be similar to plumbing. You’ll first learn about the dominant energy sources people used over to light up their lives and run their machinery, up until our present day.

From there you’ll be introduced to how the energy grid works – how energy is produced and distributed all over the world until it reaches your homes for your consumption.

Lighting and Power, Aux
(c) Aldo Mayoralgo

Then you’ll be introduced to the different fundamental devices and lines our contemporary buildings are wired with. You’ll study all the different kinds of wires, cables, and conduits. You’ll trace the energy distribution in a house or building, see how the fuse-box/circuit breaker and different panel boards can be efficiently located – and visualize the critical “spine” of your entire system which you will tap into.

Your eyes will be opened up to a myriad of electrical considerations that will affect your building’s design and detailing. You’ll find out how your building’s use, user numbers and profile, required energy/capacities of all the equipment and different hazards (like flooding) will affect your system in the micro and macro levels – and how that can tie into your design harmoniously.

Yes, chances are you will be taught how to calculate capacities and wire/conduit sizes. You’ll be asked to produce riser diagrams as well. These exercises and examinations will probably be the most enjoyable parts of your archi lives. Note sarcasm.

Conceptual Panel Board

You’ll learn about alternative energy technology and how to integrate them into your overall system. It will tickle your mind to a lot of possibilities for all sorts of conveniences and contingencies.

If I want to have a standby generator in the event of a blackout, what are the ramifications in both my spaces and my connections?

Or if i want to have solar panels or wind turbines for sustainable energy, how do I see if it’s viable or possible with my given set-up? 

Of course if you love crunching numbers it’s easy to get caught up in the mathematics of these courses. But don’t forget – your job is that of an architect.

Electrical Samples

Know that the most important and relevant part of your electrical courses will be how to layout all the different elements and needed spaces architecturally. You’ll never be as adept, informed, or spot-on as an electrical engineer in terms of the numbers – unless you take it as a Masters degree or what have you.

But you will be taught the key things architects do given their knowledge of how your building’s electrical spine.

(c) Aldo Mayoralgo
(c) Aldo Mayoralgo
(c) Aldo Mayoralgo
(c) Aldo Mayoralgo

You’ll design lighting and switching layouts, (and in real practice have electrical engineers compute and verify the loads). A bulk of what you’ll be doing when it comes to electrical considerations will be designing and locating sockets, switches, fuses, CCTVs, and the like. A number of questions you’ll be asking yourself will include:

  • How do you locate the panel boards to ensure quick but private access? You could tuck them away, but be sure the maintenance guy can run up and cut the power during an emergency.
  • How will you divide your lighting circuits so you can control separately your general lighting, wall accents, and landscape lighting? Are the switches easily accessible by your roving security personnel?
  • In the event of a national tragedy, can the flagpole accent light turn red and become more somber with a dimmer switch you specified?
  • Did you anticipate where your TV would be located in your living room, such that the TV cable doesn’t need to travel across the room like a tripping hazard or ceiling eyesore- all because you misplaced the socket location?
  • Are there any blind spots in the CCTV camera system you located for your parking lot? And did you make sure to specify an exterior grade model that won’t crumple in a storm?
  • Is the socket for your PC mistakenly placed behind your bed’s headrest? Or did you misplace your bathroom light and heating switches so that they are located outside the room? What a boo-boo that would be – especially if a client has pranksters in the family.

Layouting well is not as simple as it sounds. When we discuss later-on how all the engineering systems have to fit well together in the shell of your design, you’ll find how much of a tricky thing it can be.

You’ll find out space requirements of needed electrical rooms for projects (as determined by an Electrical Engineer or, in this case, your research) and judiciously place them on site, as well as detail them according to important considerations, such as:

  • Where will you put your genset room knowing that it can be really noisy? Not on top of your dormitories or offices I hope. Also note that the genset room can’t get flooded. So will you be elevating it, protecting it with a sump pump, or put a trench brain before the door?
  • Where will you put your IT Server room that needs to run 24/7? Don’t forget that it needs to have its own emergency system and air-conditioner to always keep it cool.

As with any other field with rapidly advancing technology, you’ll undoubtedly also be asked to do reports and research papers on innovative technologies out on the market. Like how you can now control all the lights and sound systems via a system integrated into a smartphone app, or how you can tap into your CCTV feeds remotely – also by smartphone. Then there the responsible researches regarding pressing issues like sustainable and energy-efficient design.

These are the things your electrical courses will focus you on. Similar to your plumbing and sanitary courses, you probably won’t be expected to be experts in computations and layouting. They know that in real practice, the nitty-gritty numbers will never be a big concern for you.

(c) Aldo Mayoralgo
(c) Aldo Mayoralgo

Bottom line: Like structural conceptualization, you should aim to get a great grasp of the principles and important considerations of these engineering courses and apply them to what really matters – a more informed design process.


In Part 6, we’ll talk about Mechancial and Fire & Life Safety Systems. It’ll be all about how architects ensure comfortable, safe, and disaster responsive buildings. More of that in the next installment. See you !

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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