If you ever thought about being an architect but thought you couldn’t handle the math, you aren’t alone. At parties across the land, as soon as someone finds out there is an architect in the crowd, there is a story being told about how they wanted to be an architect but since they couldn’t draw or weren’t very good at math, they decided to do something else.

It’s too bad that more than most people think this but just like a handful of other stereotypes about architects that aren’t true, I am here to tell you that you do not have to be great at math to be an architect. You can’t be completely incompetent either, but if you can through school, it’s all downhill … at least until you have to the architectural licensing exam, but that’s a different post for a different day. I did a quick search for the phrase “good at math” in my Google mail and I received back 114 emails (and that just dating back to January of 2014).

Do I have to be good at math if I want to be an Architect?

~ just about every high school kid thinking about becoming an architect

This is one of the more popular questions I get asked and today I am going to try to answer that question once and for all.

The image above is a page out of my college structures composition notebook … yes, I still have it (along with all my other college notebooks, too what end I have no idea). I look back on the notes on these pages and a part of me wonders how I ever made it through … but that’s part of the message. I DID get through it and so would everyone else who wanted to be an architect. If you really think being an architect is the right thing for you, the math shouldn’t stand in your way.

I came out of high school with only Algebra 2 under my belt and when I stay down in my physics class and my structures class and everyone – and I do mean everyone – sitting around me had already completed Trigonometry and Calculus, that’s when I realized I was in a bad spot and had some serious catching up to do. Whenever I get emails from people who are concerned that their math abilities are lacking, I can’t help but laugh when I think about how ill prepared I was for what I needed to get done.

Now that I am 20+ years removed from structures classes, I can safely say that 99% of all the math I do day in and day out involves the same sort of stuff my daughter is mastering in the 5th grade. Addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, that’s about it. It isn’t the complexity of the math that’s the challenge, it’s coming up with the problem in the first place.

Most of the math that I work with is associated with dimensions. Whenever I put together a detail for a project, one of over-riding controls is the size of the parts that come together. Do I have enough space for all the parts I need? Do things line up? The the components equally spaced apart when required? (think window-wall).

In the detail above, we are looking at the corner of the bridge walkway where the glass floor and the glass wall come together. The arrangement and sizing of the structural steel was worked and re-worked until we got it to this point. There is enough of an offset with the steel beam so that the glass at the floor has a place to set. We also sized the vertical columns that connect the structure at the floor to the truss structure at the ceiling with 2″x3″ tube steel so that the width of the members could be enclosed within the metal of the window system. When this bridge is finished, you won’t see any of the columns in the glass wall.

Did I use some math skills to solve this problem? Absolutely, but none of this is magic and absolutely none of it requires trigonometry, calculus or physics. My father used to tell me (and now I am telling you) that you go to college to learn how to learn. This is an important state of mind because learning things that are hard and challenging force you to push yourself and develop skill sets that might be of peripheral value to you.

While it’s possible that there are other architectural jobs out there that require an inane ability to process high level math problems, I’ve never discovered them. Rather than just stating here that you don’t need math skills simply because I don’t need them, I thought I would ask a handful of architects I know from around the country who all do different types of work (commercial, institutional, and residential), and see what they think about the role of math in the field of architecture.

Basic math is helpful sure, but I don’t think “good at math” is one of the more important qualities for an architect. We all draw in the computer now so I find half the time I’m using a distance command to find out the height of an 8′ ceiling + 2′ structure because my mind is more fixed on design than math at that point anyway.

One’s math ability should never be the factor that keeps them out of architecture. However, one needs to be adept at math, namely algebra, geometry and trigonometry, to deal with the array of dimensions, quantities, area, volume and other geometric relationships. This plays into spatial thinking and patterns. The higher, more complex areas of math such as calculus hinder many students, but it is the logic pattern of math such as this that is a critical tool in the mind of an architect. I’ve never used calculus in my job, but developing logical patterns to solve problems is a daily event..

The architecture school I went to required Trigonometry to get my degree. I took it in high school and loved it; it was pretty easy for me as I always did very well in all of my math classes. Then I took Calculus during my senior year and bombed (because the teacher sucked, I swear). I had never gotten a C+ in any class, especially math, but I did in Calc. For some reason I had to take Trig again for college credit so I took it at the local community college at night one semester (because it was cheaper) and then transferred the units. Easy peasy. In other words, no… you don’t have to be GOOD at math because the requirements to get your degree are fairly low.

That said, it is better if you are decent at math. Here are some examples people usually don’t think of as math, but are things architects use all the time: We are constantly adding and subtracting measurements, thicknesses, volumes and areas. We are responsible for budgets. We work with spreadsheets that tally sizes of spaces and everything has to all add up. We do TONS of geometry, and we love it. Geometry is math, right? Yes it is. Drawing + Math = Awesome. That’s one reason we’re architects and not artists.

Architects should be math ninjas. The aspiring architect should rush headlong into math as if charging into a field of battle. Math is an education in problem solving and of knowing what is asked. There are few stronger parallels to all the the variables in the Builder-Architect-Client dynamic. All math puns intended.

Also, strengths and weaknesses in various math disciplines can indicate or help diagnose learning disabilities, cognitive disorders. The earlier these problems are identified and addressed, the easier life can be for someone who might otherwise quietly suffer.

Math Question (always show your work):

Not really. If you understand general geometry and physics you are good; having addition, subtraction, multiplication and sometimes division skills are encouraged. Aspiring architects should challenge themselves with as much math as they can handle (plus the class one further than they can handle). Math teaches and develops analytical problem solving skills, at our core architects are problem solvers. We use what we experience from history, art, physics, life, architecture and yes math to influence our solutions to our problems projects.

Would-be architects should understand the principles and concepts of math – mostly geometry, trigonometry and basic physics. It is not necessary to be a math genius (we all have calculators) nor is it necessary to master or memorize complex load calculations and diagrams, etc. That’s what reference materials are for. Ultimately do not be swayed if you are not strong in math. It’s a body of knowledge that can be learned and should not be a source of stress.

Math is important to my daily tasks as an Architect. It mostly involves simple calculations, but for me, it is necessary to be able to do them quickly in my head. And they are mostly simple equations, but it definitely helps if you can do them in your head and on the fly. (and this makes you look very capable). The basics building blocks are dimensions and conversions involving feet, inches, meters, and centimeters; all of these back and forth to one another. It is all very simple math, but it is, in my opinion, essential to being an Architect. As an owner, there are more complex mathematical issues, but those are not so much off the cuff and have spreadsheets and formulas to guide them.

For day-to-day work in the office, an architect only needs a comprehension in basic math skills and some trigonometry. Honestly nothing more than good high school level math skills

So despite the fact that I am now planning on receiving hate mail from math professors everywhere, all the comments received from my architectural compatriots around the country seem to basically say the same thing. Math is a good skill to have but nothing that should get in the way of you becoming an architect. It’s okay that you struggle with math, just persevere and do what needs to be done and you can look back over your shoulder at math for the rest of your long and illustrious career as an architect.

Cheers,

Pinar Unalmis says

but what about physics, would we need good physics to be able to do architecture. Im taking high level IB physics and was thinking of dropping out because its too hard, do you think that it would matter wether or not i take physics in high school?

mphyo says

but how would u design a rectangular garden, alongside the wall of a house (the house-wall bounds one side), to achieve a maximum area possible, given 200 ft of fence?

Bob Borson says

I would design it so that it would be incredible

Carlos Rios says

I’m currently actually doing my research project on architecture. And what I’ve seen from my research is the highest level of math many colleges require is calculus. But very few take this route. Instead, architects can take college algebra and trigonometry in order to get the necessary credits. Depending on which school an architect students goes to, math will not be the biggest emphasis. Instead of focusing largely on the concepts in engineering, these schools will emphasize heavily on drawing and architecture theory more.

Bob Borson says

there you go – thanks Carlos

Amine Announ says

is there any mathematicien and architect at the same time ?

i believe that it was one but i completlty forget his name , he was a mathematicien in the topology and architect …

Steven Cook says

thank god, I’m good a basic math like Adding, Subtracting, multiplication and division including basic trigonometry and geometry but I I’m an idiot when it comes to calculus and algebra.

Isais Lawrence says

Ohhh, this takes a lot of stress of my head, I am not the best in math, but knowing that most of the math is geometry, makes me happy, I liked geometry, but going into calc, different story. I plan to become an architect when I graduate this year, and hopefully go to USC, I went to a USC Architecture camp and loved it

This helped a lot to stay focused on my dreams, but I will still need to do my best in math. Rhino software is also addicting to me. I allowa me to put my drawings in 3d .Thanks for this

Bob Borson says

Glad to help out – sounds like you are prepared for your first year of architecture school!

BRD says

Hey so uhm it’s about less than a month away before the start of my college life and I’m taking BS Architecture, and I’m not very good at math, and this comforted me. Of course I’m not going to take it easy–I’ll work hard, but thank you. Seriously. Also, you don’t happen to know what to expect from a college interview for this course, do you? I still haven’t had mine, and I’m not entirely sure of what I should expect. A drawing exam? Mentally calculating simple arithmetic (I can’t even do this, honestly)? Basically, help? Please?

Bob Borson says

Hi BRD –

Maybe someone else a little closer to the academic process can help you out here – I don’t know anything about a college interview and what happens on them (I haven’t even heard of them until now)

David J Gill says

The hard-core calculus we had to do as part of required structures courses struck me as being a monumental waste of effort that gave few of us much that was useful about structural design.

Math is a language and those with the unique skills to be truly conversant in math (including all structural engineers) can follow how the values that are the input in a calculation vary and how that changes the structure. I couldn’t see any of that and I don’t think the professor teaching the course cared if we learned and understood the work on that level or not. So I came out of that class with little knowledge at all about structures. It was like I couldn’t see the structural forest because off all the calculation trees in the way.

I actually think a kind of typological understanding of types of structures and their uses and characteristics would have been extremely useful. But if you are a professor of structural design and you speak the language of math, that idea seems bonkers.

Jonnel says

Math competency is really all that’s required in my bachelors. Basic knowledge and understanding of physics, trigonometry, geometry with a sprinkling of algebra and calculus is all it is. No heavy formulas as they all have references, they even give it as a reference on exams for structures. The most math I’ve done was in our professional studies when we had to decide finances and budget for a fictional firm that we own. That’s more on the business side of things of Architecture really.

Now that I am in my Masters all I can see in the next 2 years in terms of maths are area calculation, volumes and detailed measurements for details on a project. It’s a good skill to have really to be quiet honest as math teaches you logic and pragmatism in my design process. And it’s not a waste of time according to some other comment.

Jeff says

There’s ABSOLULTEY NO maths in Australian Architectural education. None, at all. From undergrad through to Masters. It’s totally unnecessary, in fact the only prerequisite to get in is Advanced English.

I find it really hard to believe that you guys are wasting valuable face to face time on Calculus when you could be working on instilling good design process etc.

Oh and I sucked at maths haha, didnt even do it in final yeas of High School

Clive Walters says

Sad for Australian architecture! Maths is a thinking discipline, not a calculation tool. But good at maths? Well, you need to be able to talk to and understand how your engineers think, for a start. Not to replicate it, but to understand. What does ‘good at maths’ mean? Able to do Fourier transforms in your head? I think not. But you’ve got to appreciate how useful numbers are and how to make them useful.

ArchGirl99 says

Although I don’t think you need to be good at math to do the work of an architect my Bachelors of Architecture degree required both Calculus 1 and 2. Calculus 2 was a prerequisite for the Physics 2 which was a prerequisite for one of my required structures classes. I know more than a few people who changed majors because they couldn’t pass calculus. Trigonometry is the most needed to pass the ARE Structures. While the reality is my everyday math is geometry, fraction and basic arithmetic.

David P says

Good article Bob, I think you have to be “competent” in math and be able to exercise that competency in your mind on a moments notice. I don’t mean you have to know calculus or other forms of “higher math” but certainly the level of algebraic functions one associates with certain functions; like structures class formulas and so on and know the basic rules of math. The best class I had that has helped me more than any other was analytical geometry. I use that almost daily certainly weekly when reviewing site plans or topo surveys both at my present job and as a commissioner on our planning and zoning commission. I think that over all myth in our profession may not be a total myth as described in some of the comments here but rather a reality exaggerated. I t may be derived from historical contexts where architects used to be the engineers of their buildings or structures. “Back in the day” one had to have a good grasp of math theory. Over the years that has evolved and lingered. As far as math curricula going away I hope not… if you don’t have a basic understanding of certain trigonometric functions how can one intelligently talk to a surveyor or a Civil Engineer, a financier of your projects, the owner and how TIFFs may affect your project, amortization and so on…? I haven’t even talked about basic understanding of structures either…All math oriented…While we have advanced computers and hand held instruments they are simply tools. If you cant comprehend what your input information may be and the associated reasoning, how can one understand the answers and what to do with it all? We still need math…its fundamental not only to our profession but I would argue even more so in our everyday lives….Ever seen a millennial try to figure out a or understand a spread sheet on a contractors estimate…..let alone his own check book…”Whats a check book” he says…Ok, so your on line statement then…. “Oh yeah”…Yeah my son…Great discussion!

gatcheson says

I think “good at math” is a comfort level with the basic computations architects have to do constantly. I know a guy who asks job candidates to add 3/8 and 3/16 in their head as part of the interview, which is driving at the same issue as Stephen’s wall sections image. People who are good at math often continue into higher level math, so I remember a pleasure in seeing calculus come to life in distributed beam loading diagrams in school, but it has no actual utility to an architect.

AlmostJane says

So where do you think this “must-be-good-at-math” myth comes from? I’d done very well through grade school, but then slipped to mostly Cs in high school algebra and geometry [never took trig, physics or calculus]. And was definitely discouraged me from considering architecture by my high school guidance counselor for this very reason. Although one of my parents’ best friends, a graphic designer, had told them I should be an architect after seeing a picture of our house I’d done at age five, complete with trees, fencing, flower beds, sidewalks, our garage across the street, even the swing set and breakwall in our backyard, which happened to be 12 feet away from the southern shore of Lake Ontario. I don’t know what he saw in it, or even that he was right, but it did plant an idea in my head when my Mom told me what he’d said years later when I was in high school.

Evan Troxel says

It comes from a misconception by most of the general public about what our profession does, and is an especially prolific myth spread by unknowing high school guidance counselors.

David J Gill says

Yes, I guess the general public thinks architects are sort of like engineers. I’ve had a few interesting conversations with well informed, savvy non-architects who were also mostly in the dark about what architects do. I usually explain that the two key things that architects do is design a building to meet a client’s function needs (which can be very complex in something like a hospital…or any large institution) and ensure a buildings meets zoning, building code and other regulatory requirements.

If you can calculate percentages and you can figure out where to look up how to do a bit of math…that’s all you need.

MarkArel says

Math is what kept me from studying architecture when I left high school. I was told if I want to do it, I had better be really good at math, there’s a lot of it. After 23 years of working retail, I went back to school to study architecture and while I don’t like math much more than I did, it’s not like I can’t do it, or at least use a calculator or computer to do it. At least I can manage my time better now than as a spotty faced 18 year old, who probably wouldn’t have stuck it out.

stevemouzon says

Bob, I was great at math in high school and assumed it would help me in architecture school, but didn’t find it to be a big factor. In recent years, I’ve grown increasingly enamored with buildings and places that can be designed using simple rules of thumb and more and more uncomfortable with stuff that has to be highly engineered, partially because the latter sort has so much less margin for error but more because the former sort tend to be far more lovable than the highly engineered stuff.

ToTheMoonNeil says

The more math you know the easier some things become but it certainly isn’t required that anyone be good at math. It is also useful to keep a spreadsheet full of handy calculations. I just plug in variables and out pops the number I need… that being said, blindly putting numbers into a spreadsheet without understanding what they mean can be negligent so it is good to know general principals about vectors and scalars and the relationships of units of measurements in equations. (ex. Building area and building height modification equations)

Stephen says

I’ve always been a bit of a math wiz. I had an excellent math teacher, in high school, that convinced me to take math all the way through Calculus. Did I need that? No. I feel like the most complicated math I do on a daily basis is determining stair riser dimensions on “non-typical” floor to floor heights. At the end of the day, a stair fabricator is going to send us shop drawings on those stairs anyways. And then there’s this stuff.

GibaGroup says

Count me among those intimidated by the math. Although I realized after reading your post, it isn’t the math at all. It’s the ability to think in dimensions and visualize 3D space that keeps us out on the sidelines. We can’t do that. If we could, we’d join the party. Thanks for the dose of math confidence, Bob, but I don’t think we really want flat thinkers designing spaces.

Bob Borson says

I’m not advocating that the math courses go away – I think tat the very least they serve as “weed-out” material to separate people who can do the coursework and those who can not.

David J Gill says

It’s certainly true that a lot of college course work for a degree is general education and the standards for a professional degree are about weeding out those who aren’t capable or ambitious. The first two years of design studio accomplish that weeding out…mostly by allowing students to determine for themselves if they have the skills and commitment to be an architect.

David Conley says

I hate math – always have, always will, simply because I have never been good at it. And because I have never cared for, and have always “feared” math, that is the main reason why, in the past, I have never gone back to college to get my degree. Alas, now that I am back in college, that “fear” (or hatred) now looms over me. At this point in my college career, I have a 4.0 GPA. Once I take my math courses, I can expect to see that GPA drop – and that is even a bigger fear! But, I’ll keep pushing on, and I will take my math courses to get my degree – just not this semester!!

Bob Borson says

fear is the bigger of the two issues I would think. When I bludgeoned my way through the required math courses I had in college, it wasn’t until I got a bit older (when I was studying for the ARE) that all the math stuff just sort of clicked in place. It wasn’t as easy as some of the other subjects, but I had demonized it over the years only to discover that as a late 20’s professional, the math just wasn’t that big a deal. I hated it when I was younger but now it was simply an obstacle in my way that I decided to remove.

kryzstoff says

The reason advanced mathematics and structural computations still exist within the study of Architecture, is purely and simply a throwback to the dark days before electronics and computers. As it keeps countless lecturers in those courses employed, they will work hard to keep it there in perpetuity.

Bob Borson says

Interesting take – while I agree that the day to day math responsibilities aren’t very taxing, I’m not sure that it’s the lecturers of those course that are the people who set the curriculum – besides, they could most likely just go over to the engineering building and teach the exact same course.

Kerry Hogue says

while in school I asked a prof why we had to take calculus and physics when in all probability we would never use it in architecture. His response struck a cord: it makes you think non-linearly and look at problem solving processes (or something along those lines – not an exact quote). Now I got it. it made sense and still does. Architecture is about learning how to look at problems and solve them. Anything to aid in the thought process is a plus in my book.

kryzstoff says

A nice thought, but mathematics is far from the only, or the best tool for that objective — puzzles and spatial arrangement games are a proven technique, and they can go well beyond the scope of 2 dimensional numbers on paper.

Kerry Hogue says

math is part of what we do. When my sons were in some grade, which is beyond my ability to count to years at this point, but in elementary school, they had an assignment to report how “math at work”. so I helped them prepare the exhibits to use: construction documents with dimension strings (they have to add up), job cost budget worksheets showing labor cost, overhead, profit, etc., area tabulation worksheets, stuff like that.

and I jettisoned my college work books, note books, many years ago, weeding out in preparation of one of the moves we made. sometimes you get rid of stuff that at the time has no value only to wish later you still had it. not sure my college notebooks are in that category or not. can’t say I have looked for them and gone, gee, wish I still had those. Advance maturity either brings nostalgia or ambivalence, or bit of both.

Bob Borson says

I would tend to agree with everything you’ve said here – including the nostalgia AND the ambivalence … sometimes I wonder if things start to tilt decidedly in one particular age as we get older (at least for me that seems to be the case)