What are the Skills Needed to be a Successful Architect?

Members of the Forbes Human Resources Council were asked about the skills they wanted from their employees, and their top three answers were…

Members of the Forbes Human Resources Council were asked about the skills they wanted from their employees, and their top three answers were: a growth mindset; continuous learning; and critical thinking skills. Would you fit that bill? 

As an architect, of course, you need many more job-specific skills than this. There’s a reason why architects have the longest training period of any profession! In this article, we look at the particular skills that are needed to be an architect, as well as a valuable employee in any contemporary workplace.

We explain the difference between hard and soft skills, and break down some common myths about what architects are supposed to be like.   

What skills do architects need?

Architects need a HUGE variety of skills! predominately due to them often being required to be both scientists and artists all in one: not only do architects need to understand the technical aspects of a building, they also need to make it aesthetically pleasing for all those who will use it and live with it.

The overarching skill an architect needs is the ability to design. This can be broken down into smaller skills: sketching and modelling initial ideas; using computer software to communicate those ideas to other people; presenting and discussing ideas with clients and colleagues; identifying and solving problems with designs; and liaising with other professionals to make designs a reality.

Of course, architects also need the more generic skills required by every modern employee – things like paying attention to detail, accepting and acting on feedback, and being a useful member of a team.

In the section below (‘Fifteen essential skills for architects’), we break down further the skills you’ll need to master to become a successful architect.

What’s the difference between hard and soft skills?

Architects, and most other professionals, need a mix of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ skills. A hard skill is something practical and measurable; for an architect, one example might be the ability to create a drawing or plan using CAD (computer-aided design) software. This ability can be tested by asking someone to sit down in front of a computer and create the required drawing or plan.

On the other hand, a soft skill is one that can’t be easily demonstrated – things like negotiation and critical thinking, which tend to be learnt naturally just by moving through the world. Usually, it takes time to find out whether a person possesses a particular soft skill. 

It has been suggested that hard skills can be taught and soft skills cannot, but this is a matter for debate. Certainly not everyone is born to be a brilliant negotiator, but there are few who would not improve this skill with practice and input from an experienced mentor. So if you feel like some of the soft skills below don’t match your personality, don’t despair. Most people get better at things the more they do them. 

Fifteen essential skills for architects

In this list, we sum up the 15 skills that architects can’t do without – divided into eight hard and seven soft skills, though there is considerable overlap between the two (for example, the hard skill of drafting is often improved by the soft skill of creativity). 

Hard skills

First up, the hard skills. All of these things will be taught as part of an architecture degree.

1. Understanding the design process

Whether you’re designing a handbag or a hospital you have to follow a similar kind of process, which involves: understanding (perhaps even researching) others’ needs; responding to them with initial sketches and models; trying out and improving your initial ideas; narrowing them down to a final solution; realising that solution; and finally, evaluating the end product so next time it can be even better.

This process is so useful that ‘design thinking’ is now taught to all kinds of professionals, from civil servants (who design policy) to teachers (who design lessons). It’s the surest method we have for making good quality products.

2. Drafting skills

Drafting is another of way of saying drawing. Architects cannot get by without this skill, though it isn’t necessary to have bags of natural artistic talent. You’ll need to be able to communicate your ideas through hand-drawn sketches, and to work up those ideas to a more polished design using computer software.

Architects draw all kinds of things, from creative concept sketches to technical plans and elevations. If you’re especially skilled in this area, you might choose a career as a draftsperson (which does not require licensure) rather than an architect (which does). 

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3. Knowledge of math and physics in construction

Buildings have to stay upright, contain people safely, withstand all weather conditions, and not be too noisy, hot or cold. It’s a lot to ask, but it can be achieved with a thorough understanding of math and physics. This often strikes fear into the heart of potential architecture students, but you won’t spend your degree doing advanced calculus for six hours a day!

Architects just need to know how math and physics relate to the building process – for example, how much weight certain materials can take, or whether a certain arrangement of windows will make winters unbearably cold for a building’s users. 

4. Computer literacy

There’s no way you can practice as an architect these days without being highly computer literate. Arguably, the same could be said for most jobs, but architects have to use advanced software that most people will never encounter: multi-purpose CAD software, such as SketchUp and Rhino3D, as well as building information modelling (BIM) software which are programs specifically created for the architecture industry, such as AutoCAD and Revit.

You’ll also need to be comfortable with packages like Microsoft Office and Photoshop.

5. Knowledge of industry laws and codes

Practicing as a licensed architect comes with a lot of responsibility (which is why some people opt not to continue to licensure but work as draftspeople or architectural designers instead). If there’s ever a problem with your building, you will bear at least some of the legal responsibility – which means you need to understand not only what is safe, but also what is permitted.

For example, many cities are divided into zones according to use (commercial, residential, etc), and this will determine how many stories a building may have. 

6. Project management

Project management means looking at a project holistically, i.e. how all the parts fit together. As an architect you are mostly responsible for the design stage, but it’s very helpful to look forwards and sideways at what others (e.g. engineers, interior designers, construction workers) have to do as well.

Even if you don’t want an actual job in architectural project management, knowing how it works makes everyone’s lives easier. Architects who understand project management are better able to set and meet targets, evaluate risk, and keep colleagues in the loop. 

7. Business skills

Business skills for architects include things like conducting market research, analyzing data, and writing business plans. If you work for a large firm you may use these skills only rarely, but more and more architects are deciding to go it alone. Fortunately, architecture is a field in which it’s quite straightforward, practically speaking, to work for yourself – but to make a success of it, you’ll need entrepreneurial skills on top of your professional ones.

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8. Knowledge of sustainability 

More than a buzzword, sustainability is a major factor in today’s building projects that just wasn’t a priority for previous generations. New buildings should be energy efficient (e.g. by harnessing the power of the sun), have a healthy interior environment, use natural or recycled materials as far as possible, and develop land responsibly.

Even better than creating new buildings is to adapt what already exists; it was not for nothing that light-touch upgraders Lacaton & Vassal won the 2021 Pritzker Prize. Some architects are now choosing to specialize in renovation and adaptive reuse; perhaps you will be one of them…?

Soft skills

As well as the hard skills above, architects need to develop soft skills that allow them to work to the best of their ability and be all-round pleasant co-workers. 

9. Critical thinking and abstraction

Critical thinking means thinking thoroughly and analytically about an issue, asking yourself lots of wh- questions (e.g. what? why?). Critical thinkers rarely accept the status quo unless they can see lots of good reasons for it. Luckily, a degree in any subject will teach you this skill, but you could give yourself an extra advantage by reading widely and gaining the broadest life experiences you can.

The linked skill of abstraction is necessary for architects because in the early stages of a building project they must operate in the realm of ideas, rather than concrete reality; they must hold multiple possibilities in their mind while asking, ‘What if…?’

10. Interpersonal skills

Let’s face it, architects spend most of their in front of a screen – so why are interpersonal skills so important? First, employers want to hire people who are friendly and work well with others. Would you rather work alongside someone who’s always complaining, or someone who offers to help you out when things get tough?

Second, you’ll interact with more external people than you think, for example clients in meetings and industry professionals on site. Building projects rarely run smoothly, but problems rarely seem so terrible when the parties involved have a good working relationship. 

11. Communication skills

It goes without saying that you’ll need to be able to communicate your ideas visually, whether it’s with a pencil sketch, a quick cardboard model, or a detailed electronic drawing. But architects also need good written and verbal communication skills: you may be asked to pitch an idea to clients and give other presentations, or write reports and other documents.

You don’t have to be an amazing public speaker or master wordsmith, but you have to get the ideas out of your head and into the world in a way most people can understand.  

12. Administration skills

Administration skills include things like time management, keeping accurate records, and maintaining professional standards (e.g. following email etiquette). There’s often no right or wrong way with admin – some people like to answer emails as they come through, for instance, while others dedicate one or two slots per day to responding – but you’ll need to work out a system that helps you keep on top of your workload. 

13. Creativity

You may never get the chance to design something like Beijing’s CCTV Headquarters or London’s ‘Walkie Talkie’, but everyday creativity is still essential for architects. Creativity in the profession is often about solving problems or making improvements in ways that aren’t immediately obvious; though it’s become a cliché, you have to think outside the box.

Arguably, this is the skill that separates architects (who concern themselves with a building’s function and appearance) from engineers (who are chiefly concerned with function). 

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14. Flexibility

On a building project, things can and do go wrong – or if not exactly wrong, then very differently from the vision in your head! How you react to changing circumstances is crucial. Insisting that things must be done in a particular way (even if you’re sure your way is the best) tends to be counterproductive.

Sometimes there just isn’t enough time or money to create the ideal building, or there may be personnel changes that seem to throw a project out of balance, but unless you can fix the problem the healthiest response is usually to make the best of whatever happens. 

15. Initiative 

People who wait to receive instructions can be decent employees, but those who act under their own steam are often great ones – as long as they’re not stepping outside of a boundary or on anyone’s toes! Initiative is a skill that many of us learn naturally as we get older, for example buying household products before they run out (though plenty of people in their forties still stand confused over the basin on a monthly basis, empty toothpaste tube in hand).

In short, initiative means filling a gap when you spot it, rather than always waiting to be told what to do. 

FAQs

Do you need drawing skills to be an architect?

They definitely help, but some great architects get away with being pretty average draftspeople. Drawing is a means to end – the process is used to record and communicate ideas. If you can do this (and bear in mind you will be taught these specific skills at university, and have plenty of chance to practice them), you can draw ‘well enough’.

The main thing is not to be frightened of an empty page, or of making imperfect sketches. Computer software will help you turn your scribbles into something more presentable. 

Do you need math skills to be an architect?

Crucial calculations are ultimately made by engineers rather than architects, but you’ll need some architecture-specific mathematical skills such as calculating length, area and volume, and converting scales. Any decent architecture degree will provide you with a grounding in these concepts; you don’t need to be a math whizz kid even to apply. 

What personal qualities do architects need?

Some of the soft skills in the main part of the article might be considered personal qualities – flexibility, for instance – but on top of these, most architects are people who are deeply curious about the world and have a drive to make it better. They also tend to be hardworking and tenacious; after all, how else would they get through seven years of architecture school? 

How should I present my skills on my resume?

There are various ways you can do this. Some people like to list their skills in a discrete section of their resume; others like to bring them up in the context of specific jobs they’ve done, so potential employers can see real-world evidence of them. For more ideas on this topic, see our article How to Create the Perfect Architecture Resume.

Summary

Architects need to wear a lot of different hats, combining hard skills (those which are institutionally learned and testable, like drafting) with soft (those which come with life experience, like taking initiative).

An architecture degree will equip you with many of them, but you can also improve them by spending your own time practicing, reading, watching online tutorials, or asking for advice.

And remember you don’t need to be super-talented at art or math to learn to design great buildings; to subvert the adage, great architects are made and not born!

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