Architect’s versus Engineer’s: Who leads the project?

Architects and engineers are essential members of nearly every construction project.  There are very few projects where you wont need the skill sets from both.  The division of labor between architects and engineers is a well-known and accepted concept, but have you ever considered, who leads the project?

For anyone in construction, this may seem obvious, but it occurred to me that it may not be as obvious to everyone else.  So Today I wanted to take a moment to discuss the differences between an architect and an engineer and explain why one is exceptionally qualified to lead the other.

Before I jump into the meat of this discussion, I want to share an experience I had several years ago.  A higher education client was modernizing their university’s central power plant.  Given the substantial engineering this project required, the Owner selected an engineer who was exceptionally skilled with the various building systems impacted by the project.  The firm was hired directly by the owner and setup to lead the project.  The engineer, realized that while the project was primarily an engineering project, there were several architectural elements that would also be impacted.  Not having any in-house architects, the firm turned to an outside architect and hired them as a sub-consultant with the principal engineer in the lead.

The firm I was with at the time received the award to provide the architectural services.  I was assigned the project and worked with the engineer to complete this project.  This was the one and only project I ever worked on where the architect did not have the lead role.

It was the single worst project experience I have ever had.

I’ve got a lot of friends who are engineers.  My wife is one.  Many of my closest friends are engineers.  This means that I have endured decades of jabs about architects and typically being the only architect in the room, I have no recourse but to laugh along.  The truth is that architects do push the boundaries of engineering.  Often to the point of mockery.  We tend to do so out of ignorance.  After all, we certainly don’t understand each system the way our engineer colleagues do.

Despite this, there is one thing my fellow engineers don’t fully appreciate.  Without proper coordination and alignment between all of the engineered parts, the entire project would fail to come together.

Coordination between the various building systems is a critical part of every project.  If left undone, a deficiency in coordination stands to wreak havoc throughout construction and subject the owner to change orders, additional costs, and delays.

It may surprise some to hear that architects are responsible for coordination of engineering systems.

In order to better understand this, it’s important to review the education, training, and examinations required of architects and compare that to the education, training, and examinations required of engineers.

Engineers begin their academic careers in general engineering classes but soon concentrate their education in one of several major disciplines.  An engineering student may choose a major in Mechanical, Electrical, or Civil engineering (just to name a few).  Each of these concentrations focuses education on a specific set of physical properties in which students specialize.  After graduation, those who choose to go into construction, learn to apply those concepts to specific building systems aligned with their engineering major.  When it comes time to become a licensed Professional Engineer, the examinations required by licensing boards are tailored to the engineering discipline.  In short throughout an engineer’s career, the concentration they choose stays with them throughout their lives.  I wont make a blanket statement stating that engineer’s don’t know more than one discipline, but I will say that I have encountered very few who either practice or even dabble in another.

On the other hand in addition to core design and architecture theory classes, architecture students are required to attend several years of classes in structures, building systems, and construction practice.  When a student graduates, one of the first duties (pun intended) assigned is detailing bathrooms (where all building systems come together).  When it comes time for licensure, an architect must pass a series of examinations (seven at last count) that include building systems and structural systems.

In short, the only licensed professional in the design team that is educated in all of the major systems of a building is the architect.

On my disastrous old university project, the engineer did such a poor job of coordination, that his own people would come to meetings often uninformed of the impacts that changes in another in-house engineering discipline had on their work.  Often these guys sat just across the aisle from one another.

I certainly did not know it at the time, but the Owner’s mistake of hiring the engineer as the project lead doomed that project to failure.

It seems like a reasonable assumption that on a project that is primarily about replacing building systems, the engineer would take the lead, so I don’t fault the owner for making that assumption.

I now know what a folly that decision can be and hope I’ve helped some of you avoid this mistake.

Now, every time I am forced to hear another architect joke from one of my brazen engineer friends, I take solace in the fact that without me, the various systems they are such experts in would fail to suit their intended purpose.

I hope you now have a better understanding of the interplay between engineers and architects.  Next week we will discuss whether it’s better to hire each one directly or have one subcontract the other.

What about you?  Have you ever worked on a project with an engineer in the lead role?  Was the project successful?  Did construction go smoothly?  Tell me your stories.

Thanks for reading.  If you enjoyed this content, please feel free to browse my previous articles and please like, share, comment, and subscribe.  This helps promote my content and is greatly appreciated.


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