Whether you are just starting out in the field of architecture or an architect with 40 years of experience, site visits play a central role to our professional development. Most of the times, site visits take place during the construction phase of a project. It is during this stage where a team of multidisciplinary professionals physically get together to realize things previously drawn on paper in real, three-dimensional space. This long and complex process inevitably presents a series of challenges, but precisely so, it offers unique learning opportunities for architects, designers, and everyone else involved. From gaining professional knowledge to developing important life skills, here are eight reasons why site visits are the best learning experience:
1. Site visits allow for an authentic and accurate experience of the space.
While we may think we know a space or building inside out from all the overtime put into drawing plans, elevations, and sections, not to mention creating photorealistic renderings, site visits might prove that the actual space turns out looking and feeling a lot different from what we had envisioned. Physical factors such as time of day, temperature, and human traffic all affect our perception of a space or building, but the effects of these can never be conveyed sufficiently through mere two-dimensional drawings and it is by being on-site that we experience these factors at work and get an accurate understanding of the space.
2. Sometimes, site visits before the design phase of a project is crucial in helping us understand the local culture of a place.
When a project is located in a place unfamiliar to us, a site visit not only allows us to conduct site analysis, but also exposes us to the local way of life and the unique culture of the place. No amount of research in the office can beat being on-site and being physically and psychologically immersed within the environment. This is important so that we can create design solutions that are sensitive and responsive to the particular needs and characteristics of a place.
3. We learn most of the specifics of construction and construction methods on-site.
It is widely agreed among professionals that architectural education in schools rarely does a good job of exposing students to methods of construction. Schools are focused on teaching students to think conceptually and to sell their architectural designs, but when it comes to actual materials and construction, being on-site lets us witness how different materials and components come together and the processes and mechanisms involved in building. In fact, ask any professional in the field and they are likely to tell you that most of their knowledge of construction came from years of on-site experience.
4. Site visits allow us to learn from the expertise of other professionals.
Most of the times, site visits mean meeting professionals of other fields. Through our discussion of problems and solutions with professionals such as engineers, contractors, and electricians, we not only gain knowledge of other disciplines that will be helpful to our work, but more importantly see their expertise being applied in real life on the job site. Understanding aspects of a design from their perspective also helps us foresee and prevent potential problems in our design proposals.
5. Site visits expose us to concerns of safety.
Probably one of the first images that comes to mind when we speak of a construction site is that of people wearing helmets, and this shows just how important safety is on-site. When drawing or specifying a curtain wall glass panel on the computer, we do not have to personally deal with the physicality and weight of this massive material. At a site visit, however, the physical presence of large and heavy materials poses an immediate threat to our safety. An awareness of on-site safety is crucial to a smooth and successful construction process.
6. Site visits train us to think and make decisions on our feet.
When a project runs into a problem at the construction site, architects and designers often need to have discussions with other professionals to arrive at a decision on the spot. From a substitution of materials to signing an agreement, these things force us to be alert to various factors and consequences under a tight time constraint. Many of these decisions have major impacts on a project timeline and cost, so it is important to have the critical awareness and thinking skills needed to make such decisions when they are required of us.
7. Discussions and negotiations during site visits build our interpersonal and communication skills.
As different disciplines often have different methods of working, discussions and negotiations with a multidisciplinary team on-site require us to have good communication skills so that we can effectively convey our thoughts and relate to everyone involved. These conversations allow us to build interpersonal skills and learn from the various communication and working strategies of other professionals so that we become better at collaboration, management, and leadership.
8. When things do not go as planned, site visits let us understand why and how a design failed.
Sometimes, what we draw as two-dimensional plans, elevations, sections, and construction details fail to translate successfully into three-dimensional realities. It is useful to see the physical space or materials and talk with other professionals on-site to understand exactly how and why a design did not turn out the way we envisioned. Such experiences will give us the necessary foresight to prevent similar mistakes in the future projects.
Ultimately, site visits not only allow us to gain more technical and practical knowledge about materials and construction processes, but also offer opportunities to build valuable life skills that we can apply in our daily lives. Nonetheless, all these learning opportunities are only as much as we make of them. By paying more attention to the processes and complexities at a site visit, we might make our experience much more interesting and meaningful than it appears to be.