On Architects Being “Good at Math”

I see the back and forth of “you have to be good at math to be an architect” and “no you don’t need to be good at math to be an architect” on a regular basis. The former is stated by someone outside of the profession, and the latter is issued as a correction by an architect — not me, I wouldn’t say that — but there’s always an architect who will jump in and make that statement.

I was originally going to write about all the different math I use as an architect and ponder what exactly is meant by the phase “good at math” — is that a mathematical genius or just someone who turns around addition/subtraction/multiplication/division in their head quickly or something else? Who knows. But the vagueness of it is probably the biggest problem I have with the whole architects being “good at math” thing. This is what I want to focus on: I don’t really have a stance on “good at math” and I think (?) I want to have one. Let’s explore…

Architects come in a variety of flavors as our complex, modern times bring out the specialists in all of us. I would guess that the hands-on middle management type architects at small and mid-sized firms maybe use the most math as they have to deal with all aspects of project delivery and coordination. I’m also thinking that the techie programmer-type architects use a lot of math to help make stuff for their teams. Business-y architects who lead firms need to use business math. Geometry is foundational to designing all three dimensions of our built world, so design architects are using math regularly too. Of course, you need to do some math in order to pass a licensing exam to become an architect as well. So we’re all using math, which leads me to think that architects who say you don’t need to be “good at math” can’t possibly mean you don’t need to know any math. Next.

Am I “good” at math? I wouldn’t say “good” — maybe average or ordinary. I took math every year of high school and college and my grades were meh, so I think my teachers and instructors would agree with my self-assessment. But I know math, and if anything, using it like my job depends on it out in the real world has probably made me a bit better at it than I was in school. The most important thing about math is that the education system slowly eases you into a calculator. They like to make you figure it out the long way on paper for each type/level of math and then you’ve earned the right to do that particular math on a calculator going forward. This is an important point, because even the “you don’t need to be good at math” architects would say that being “good at math” is important for engineers. But engineers use calculators and software that does the calculating for them — and it’s this software in particular that has gotten so good over the years that a lot of math is taken out of the hands of engineers. Maybe you don’t need to be “good at math” to be an engineer anymore? I mean, have you seen how much work the computer does on a structural analytical model? It’s nuts. Of course, with BIMs, there’s math that happens automatically for architects too. Over time all this tech has had a big, positive impact on our accuracy and our ability to get the right answers.

Is being “good at math” implying that you get the correct answers to math problems? That makes the most sense, and it’s kind of important to be right for the whole health/safety/welfare part of what we do. But then why would any architect say you don’t need to be “good at math” if this were the case? Are they designing shit that’s gonna maim or kill? Damn.

This reminds me that a big, important kind of math that architects need comes from the area calculation and justification parts of building codes (actually, there’s a lot of math all over building codes, but this area stuff has maybe the widest impact over all types of architecture). The area math isn’t difficult though, I’d say it’s like junior high level algebra at worst. Here too, technology is quickly learning how to do this math for us so that someday we won’t need those mad algebra skills from 7th grade to be architects.

Perhaps this is how the “good at math” conversation will end. No one will need to know any math because technology will do it all for us. I feel like one- and two-point perspectives have essentially already gone this route since software can just let us look at any perspective of our design we want now with a click of the mouse. Even though I did know the geometry necessary for making those perspectives by hand at one time, I’d need to do a quick YouTube tutorial to get those skills out from the archives of my brain.

Where does all this pondering leave me in terms of an official stance on the architects needing to be “good at math” thing? I don’t know, except to say that I’m average at math and I’m a good architect, whatever that means.

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