Saturday, May 16, 2009

What architects do

I stumbled across a programme called English Heritage on BBC 2 last night (Friday 15 May). Enjoyable for three reasons: first it was an insight into the work of English Heritage, second it was about renovation of Kings Cross station but while both of these were interesting the what I found fascinating was; third - the work of architects.

That’s physical, building, architects. Not the software engineering type.

Like many others in the software engineering community I’ve been guilty in the past of throwing the architectural metaphor around without really understanding what building architects do. Sure I know a little but much of what I think they do is guesswork.

So this programme grabbed my interest because it showed real architects at work. Here are some points that stood out to me:
• Work had begun on the project and the architecture plans were far from complete. Design was continuing and evolving as work continued.
• There was a budget and work had to be within the budget. It looked like the budget (and I suspect time) was set and design and construction occurred within that budget. I saw no sign of a up front master plan which had been broken down item by item, then estimated for time and cost and the sum total agreed.
• In some cases demolition had occurred and it wasn’t clear what would be build in place.
• Building areas where being found and possible work suggested.
• Most of the work was on the old Kings Cross station, some was redesign, some was addition, some was removal and some was simple refactoring.
• We never saw the architects at their drawing boards; we did see them walking around the site, investigating ongoing work; arguing, discussing and negotiating with clients and authorities.
• We saw architects having to change their designs because of business constraints (not enough money to renovate one area) and regulating authorities (English Heritage restricting what the architects could do and how they did it).
• We saw one set of architects disagreeing with another set (Network Rail’s architects wanted to do things want way and English Heritage’s architects thought it should be done another way.)

All in all I found it a fascinating insight into what architects do. As I long suspected, the practice of architecting buildings is not what a lot of software people assume it to be.