"Your Coursing Is Off"

Despite technology, an experienced eye remains crucial

In spring 1970, I dropped out of architecture school for a time between my third- and fourth-year design studios to work for an architect in Fort Smith, Ark.

Jack Ledbetter, AIA, had a tiny practice designing schools, community centers, and small office buildings in northwest Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma. Ledbetter’s only other employee was an architectural draftsman, B.V. Cardwell, who had years of experience.

I worked in Ledbetter’s studio well, converted garage — for a year before returning to college to complete my degree. During that time, Cardwell was my supervisor. Ledbetter was the designer and specifications writer, leaving Cardwell and me to prepare the working drawings. Several of the projects were so small that Ledbetter served as his own structural and mechanical consultant doing the engineering calculations.

So I found myself not only the junior architectural draftsman, but also the junior structural draftsman, the junior electrical draftsman and the junior mechanical draftsman on several projects. With so much to learn, it was no wonder that I first heard the saying

“like drinking from a firehose” here.

Cardwell was infinitely patient with me but exacting on accuracy. “Your coursing is off,” he’d tell me as he leaned over my shoulder, squinting at the building elevation I was drawing.

“What?” I’d reply in astonishment. “It’s one-quarter-inch scale. How can you see that?”

“Count your lines,” he’d respond. “Masonry courses at eight inches, so you should have three courses of brick in eight vertical inches. You have too many lines below the head of those windows.”

If Mr. Ledbetter was nearby, he’d glance at my elevation and remark, “Yes, he’s off by a course.”

In amazement, I would look back and forth between the two men and then count the lines that I had drawn on the elevation. Sure enough, I had either drawn too many lines, or sometimes not enough, to accurately depict the elevation. In their many years of architectural drafting, they had developed an eye for accuracy and constructability.

In the years since, I have worked to develop that same eye for accuracy and constructability, first in hand drafting and later in computer-aided drawing. It was the hand drafting that had the most impact on my ability to see accuracy.

Although I had proved that it’s possible to hand-draw details incorrectly, I think the age of copy and paste along with the pre-installed detail libraries of computer drawing software more easily lull modern drafters into inaccuracy. So a designer’s eye for accuracy becomes even more crucial.

The construction materials, methods, and techniques of the 21st century are costlier and more complex than those of the 20th century. No matter how small the project, today’s building codes as well as sustainability and wellness standards have made it all but impossible for architects to serve as their own engineering consultant as Ledbetter did all those years ago. It is tempting to look back on how much better “the good old days” were the days before MicroStation, AutoCADD and now Revit. The days before computers. The days when the drawing tools and techniques of graphite or pen and ink on vellum were much easier to learn. The days when many construction technologies, materials and methods were decades or sometimes centuries old. The development of an eye for accuracy was a much simpler task then.

The very nature of design requires architects to share their ideas with pictures. Oh, a written specification is necessary to describe products and materials, but how it fits in the puzzle of the project can only be shown in a picture. Young architects must work harder to learn complicated computer modeling software and grasp the emerging implications of artificial intelligence. Today’s young architects also must work harder to keep current on their knowledge of construction with the ever-changing materials and processes. And, beyond the aspects of design practicality and feasibility, young architects must be constantly mindful of liability in the litigious modern world.  

The complexity of design has driven the growth of specialization. The sheer complexity of design combined with the speed of innovation has made it difficult for even the most experienced — or should we say grizzled? — architect to understand and apply the elements of design. So a vast array of consulting has appeared, including specifications writing, lighting, building envelope, roofing, acoustics, controls, hardware, energy, sustainability and LEED, wellness, air quality, security, blast — oh yes, blast in this age of terrorism — and on and on.

But with the specter of specialization comes the angel of practicality. Young architects may still need to know that masonry courses at eight inches and to count the lines on the elevations, but resources from product suppliers and consulting professionals can assist with the complexity of combining three dimensions of actual masonry, steel, concrete, wiring, ducts, and piping into something that people can live within.

That is the point, isn’t it? The architect’s eye for accuracy is for the benefit of the people who live within their buildings. Young architects do work harder than those of us from the good old days, but they are also able to work smarter. The reward for all that harder, smarter work is the improvement in the lives of the people who inhabit the buildings that architects create.

Neither Jack Ledbetter nor B.V. Cardwell lived to see me graduate from architecture school, but I think they would both be pleased to see me now, leaning over the shoulder of an intern, squinting at the computer screen, and saying, “Your coursing is off!”

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