Working as a Student of Architecture 1: Right Questions to Ask

It’s been over two years working as a Student of Architecture (as in graduate of Bachelor degree in architecture) at Rara Architecture (West Melbourne, Australia), and I often receive questions from my friends about working at an architecture firm.

Although every single Student of Architecture has different experiences, I believe one of the common struggles for many of us is not fully aware of what questions to ask.

When instructed about a task or a project, it’s so easy to say ‘yes I understood’ and get started on it. But you find that you don’t know everything you need to know to make informed decisions. Sometimes, you feel awkward to go back and ask questions over and over, and it can make you nervous and not so sure about your work. This is a trap you don’t want to be caught in.

Of course, the best solution is to simply ask questions. Your colleagues would want you to ask questions rather than being lost and spending longer time than you needed. But to reduce the frequency of asking questions (you don’t want to interrupt their workflow too often…), knowing right questions at the beginning helps getting work done quickly and confidently.

The list below is mainly on practical, task based work that I’ve been asked to undertake, and it’s for me to keep them in mind as much as they may be beneficial for you to know. There are heaps more but I’ll stop here (sorry if they’re too wordy…)

In general (for any kind of tasks you do)

  • What is the extent of the project? (is it a reno? (if so, which area are we renovating?) new house? internal fit out?)
  • Where is it located? – find out orientation, access, any geographical contexts
  • What is the budget / size of the project? – smaller project means fewer hours you can spend. Check fee proposal if you have access to it
  • How urgent is the task? – Is it high priority work? (e.g. you’re making consultant wait / need to submit to council soon -> prioritise it)
  • Any records of past correspondence with client that may be relevant?

Town Planning – shadow diagrams

  • What is the standard method of getting shadows? (each firm may have different ways of doing – e.g. SketchUp’s geolocation)
  • Of what time’s shadows do we need? How many do we need? (usually morning, around noon and afternoon in different seasons. Double check the firm’s standard)
  • How do you represent shadows & linework? Check hatch types & lineweights

Town Planning – external finishes (photoshopping)

  • What materials / finishes have been specified? (e.g. concrete render, scratch finish)
  • Are there specific brand / supplier / products specified? (if so, find the swatches of the products)
  • What are wall types? – so that you can identify what’s applied where (wall type tags are referenced to wall type drawings, which show what external finishes are used for different walls)
  • What would the council be looking for? Anything to be careful of in terms of visual style?- for TP, often council cares how the design responds to the surrounding houses etc. so your imagery could influence how town planners interpret the design. Better you know what to care for, the better you can work with the council.

Building Permit / Contract Documentation – electrical plan / reflected ceiling plan

  • Are there any fittings already specified? (if there is a FFE schedule ready)
    • If so, are there any appliances with special electrical needs?
    • If not, check if you’re assigned to specify light fittings (see below)
  • Are there any special installation / items that need to be annotated?
  • If furniture items aren’t drawn in, where do beds & desks & armchairs etc. are located?
    • For example, you need GPO next to a bed for charging phone & side lamp
  • How do you represent them? Any specific lineweights & symbols & colours? (e.g. fade & simplify plans, use red for icons, place ‘B’ or ‘INS’ to indicate locations of GPO, any Two Way lights, etc.)

Building Permit / Contract Documentation – specifying light fittings

  • Are there any lights already specified? If there a schedule set up? (e.g. based on architectural needs – LED strip for wash etc.)
    • Having a schedule helps you understand the overall style of interior design and specify items that are in harmony with the rest (e.g. finishes)
  • Does the client have preferred products?
    • Some clients may not like pendant / downlight etc.
  • What are the lighting needs? – reno: identify which lights are replaced & newly installed. Find out any special needs e.g. any task lights / directional light for paintings required
  • What is the price range? Can we specify high end (e.g. Ross Gardam) or have to be mid range (About Space) or budget items (Bunnings)?

< Ask yourself as you specify >

  • Are specific items suitable for application? – check light fittings’ IP (ingress protection) rating in relation to the proximity to the wet area. E.g. IP20 lights are not suitable for installation above bathtub
  • What is the lead time? (if contractor needs it fairly soon, you can’t specify something that takes 10 weeks to be shipped)
  • What are the dimensions? Are they too big / small?

Contract Documentation – contacting suppliers (provide info in orange below to supplier)

  • What item is it about? (specific product range / name)
  • For which project & room is it for? (project type & scale)
  • How urgent is it? Which stage is it? (“contract documentation stage, going to tendering in a couple of months”)
  • What is the area (for finishes) / quantity (for fittings) required?
  • For finishes, where is it applied? (wall / floor / ceiling)
  • What do we need to find out? Who do we need to contact?
    • product specification (sometimes also quote) / general pricing -> product manufacturer
    • installer / local retailer details -> product manufacturer
    • fitting quote (e.g. joinery handles) / lead time -> retailer / wholesaler
    • finish quote (e.g. carpet) / lead time -> retailer / installer
  • Are there any drawings that we can attach to emails?

Contract Documentation – drawing internal elevations

  • Which views do we need to draw? (often not all sides of rooms are needed)
  • Are there any ceiling height changes / skylights / bulkheads?
  • Are there any joinery pieces that need to be detailed?
    • If so, how detailed do they need to be? (e.g. low budget work may only require typical wardrobe with full height hinged doors & adjustable shelves, but high end WIR may have fancier designs)
  • Are there appliances / fittings already specified that need to be drawn?
    • If so, check the dimensions, especially in the kitchen as you work on it. Also double check kitchen bench top depth just in case (minimum 600mm for appliances)
  • Are there door & window schedules to refer to?
  • Are there architraves / cornices / skirting specified?
  • Are there any AC units & heating that need to be shown?
    • If so, locate them & ask approximate space required (e.g. bulkhead heating above wardrobe requires minimum 300 mm height)
  • How high should certain items be? (e.g. wall lights, cupboard, opening heights)
  • Is there a standard style to follow? (line weights, layers settings, dashed lines, etc.)

<ask yourself as you draw >

  • How high should items be? (e.g. light switches to be 1000mm above FFL at its centre)
  • How can joinery be detailed for easy use?
  • Are all the items on schedule for that internal elevation been drawn?
  • Are there any details that need to be shown at a larger scale?

Contract Documentation – tagging & annotating & dimensioning internal elevations

  • Is there a schedule to refer to? (both internal finishes and FFE)
    • If so, use it to make sure that tags are consistent
    • If not, set up a schedule and make a list of tags to use
  • Are there specific items to annotate? (e.g. “pendant drop height to be confirmed by architect”)
  • Is there a standard style to follow? (tag types, annotation style, dimensions, etc.)

< ask yourself as you annotate>

  • Are the tags big enough on printed layout? Are they legible?
  • What dimensions would help contractors? (e.g. for items that are attached on the walls, find where needs to be drilled)
  • Are internal elevation markers on the plan? Do drawing tag numbers match?

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