The Tools of an Architect

February 8, 2016 — 35 Comments

Architects are lucky. Once you get past the few architects that complain disproportionately loud for the entire profession, you will discover that just about anyone can be an architect and have a role to play in the design and building process. Not everyone will be a designer, and not everyone will be a project manager. Some architects will stand in front of clients and communicate a vision, and other architects will stay in the office and make sure the details are watertight. The roles and responsibilities are so varied that if you want to be an architect but think you have some glaring shortcoming – I’m here to tell you that you are wrong.

Today’s post is the 17th entry in the #ArchiTalks series, a monthly writing event that I created back in July of 2014. The idea behind this series is to take a singular word of phrase and distribute it to a group of architectural bloggers, and let them take it in whatever direction they interpret. The intent is to highlight diversity within the profession, and to highlight that point, I have pasted a section from the email I send every month to the people who make up the #Architalk participants. It reads:

I want to encourage everyone to invite other architects who maintain blogs to participate in the #ArchiTalks series. If you know of someone, please invite them, or if you want, tell me about them and I will do the ask. We (I) really want to take advantage of the fact that we are a diverse group of architectural practitioners, and highlight the fact that despite the fact that we all have similar educations, there are many beliefs and directions our profession allows us to travel. Diversity is so important so let’s actively try to demonstrate that fact by increasing our circle of participants. 

Since so much of what I do as an architect is already on display, I thought I would really take a bit and think about the things that I really use as a part of doing my job. I did not include some of the obvious things like my desk phone – every job has those things and I don’t use mine any differently than any other person. The items on this list are notall-inclusive, but these are the most important items day in and day out.

In no particular order, my list of must have architectural tools include:


Sketch Pens by Dallas Architect Bob Borson

Sketch Pens and Trace Paper

I don’t spend much any time drafting on the computer any more outside of the times I prepare the construction drawings for my own playhouse or when I’m preparing documents for my own house. As a result, I sketch a lot. Sometimes the sketches represent design studies, sometimes they are teaching sketches to help illustrate a concept or explain how a construction assembly comes together. Either way, I would be lost without my trace paper and sketch pens.

Using Microsoft Outlook to keep track of my day


I know what you’re thinking – “You left your desk phone off your list because everybody uses it, so why is ‘Outlook’ on here?” I would be lost without my calendar. I use it to keep track of my time and my obligations. It used to be pretty easy to know what I was supposed to be doing and where I was supposed to be … that has changed in the last few years. Between all the work obligations, meetings with clients, weekly job site visits, committees and advisory boards I volunteer on … I can’t mentally keep all these things in place so I need a little help (other than my wife reminding me where I’m supposed to be and when).

Architectural Resources map

Reference Books

It is a fundamental truth that Architects have an unhealthy attraction to books. I think I fall somewhere on the “barely unhealthy” end of that scale and even at that, I have dedicated bookcases both in my house AND at the office for my books. How I decided to break them in to these two groups is this – if I’ve read them cover to cover and they are NOT a reference manual – they get to stay at my house. The rest come with me up to the office so that everyone can have access to them.

An Architect's Library

So this is “My” bookcase at the office. There are a lot of really good books and manuals in there (click picture to enlarge). I am that guy who writes his names in the books because I’ve had several walk off over the years.

Bob Borson's Architectural Desk

Big Ass Desk (Take 2)

It’s no secret that I think having a “Big Ass Desk” is an important tool. While my current desk isn’t as big as my last one (which I still miss almost every day) it’s still pretty big. It is a double work station and I literally use almost every square inch of it every day. This is another image that needs to be enlarged to truly appreciate – because my desk is typically a disaster, even though I know where everything is. It’s only when I clean things up do I lose track of them. I think I work better when everything is all in front of me and only when I am done with it does it get put away.

  1. MeasureMaster Calculator – after more than 10 years, mine is starting to die on me and I have to be careful that the buttons I push actually get registered – but I still love it. I have the MeasureMaster app on my phone (which is great when I’m out in the field) but when I’m in the office, I like the actual calculator.
  2. Schedules and Paperwork – boring and more boring
  3. Binders – I actually have them in two areas but this particular grouping are for 3 particular active jobs that I need to share with the guy who site in the next bay over. For the record, I prefer D-ring 3″ binders in black. NOT 4″ D-ring binders which suck.
  4. Trace Paper – love me some white trace paper. I used to use yellow because it seemed more “architectural” but the white allows me to scan my sketches and manipulate them further should the need arise.
  5. Sketch pens (If I don’t have, like, 30 ready to go at any moment I start to get worried). I think I will always consider myself a “Sharpie” man, I have started to use Flair pens a bit more often these days.
  6. Awards and Recognition – sometimes it’s nice to be reminded that what you do is appreciated by your peers. I don’t feel bad for having a glory wall
  7. Desktop Phone – it’s a phone … who cares?
  8. Laptop – I have a client who likes to text, and I hate to text. So now, I keep my laptop open and next to me while I’m working so I can respond to text messages on my computer rather than my phone.
  9. Computer – sadly, I have become the guy who was the poorest performing computer in the office. Everyone else has mega-horsepower machines, the kind needed for running Revit. I don’t have the same needs so now I look forward to receiving other people’s hand-me-down systems.
  10. Sketchbook – I’ve literally got hundreds of these things; so many in fact, that I don’t have buy any for years.
  11. Frosty Beverage – by “beverage” I mean water. To be honest, I wish it was a slurpee, but I’m not 11 years old anymore.
  12. Periodicals – most of which I haven’t read
  13. Headphones – two pairs because I tend to damage them while I’m traveling.
  14. Pictures of my Daughter Kate
  15. Samples – typically kept under my desk but on occasion, I need to take advantage of the white surface on my desk so that I can evaluate the colors a bit more clearly.
  16. Shoulder Bag – same one I’ve had for years. I’m amazed at how well it has held up over the years. Upon inspection, you would be hard pressed to prove that it isn’t brand new – which is shocking – because I use it every day. This bag has also traveled with me every time I’ve gotten on a plane for the last 10 years … and that includes vacations.

Ryan Thomason - Most Valuable Resource

Collaborator (MMBA Staff member – Ryan Thomason)

I wrote a post almost 4 years ago titled “An Architect’s tool bag” and in it I listed the tools I thought I needed in order to most effectively do my job. There are some similarities between those two lists but there is one glaring item I left off that list.Maybe it’s a sign of my evolving maturity, but I certainly recognize that I wouldn’t be where I am if it were not for the people I have had the fortune to have around me. For the last three years, the person I have relied on the most is Ryan Thomason. He has been the guy behind all the drawings and I rely on him in a very substantial way. I’ve been on the road a lot the last few years and I would bet that 90% of my calls in to our office are to Ryan. I text him on the weekends, I ask him to track down emails for me, I ask him to to organize our project data so that I can stand in front of the clients and present it. There’s no way to sufficiently convey just how often Ryan makes me look good.

If you working an office where there is a team atmosphere and like me, fail to acknowledge and recognize all the people that make our projects a reality, I think you are doing a great disservice to your team.

Bob-AIA scale figure

There are a bunch of other architects participating in today’s topic of “Tools” and to reiterate my sentiments from the beginning of today’s article, the intent of #Architalks is to highlight diversity within the profession so if you don’t see something here that you recognize, just click any of the links below to read another perspective.

Michael LaValley – Evolving Architect (@archivalley)
Why An Architect’s Voice Is Their Most Important Tool

Marica McKeel – Studio MM (@ArchitectMM)
3 Tools to Get Our Clients Engaged and Involved

Jeff Echols – Architect Of The Internet (@Jeff_Echols)
The Best Tool In Your Toolbox

Lee Calisti, AIA – Think Architect (@LeeCalisti)

Lora Teagarden – L² Design, LLC (@L2DesignLLC)
The Tools That Help Make #AREsketches

Jeremiah Russell, AIA – ROGUE Architecture (@rogue_architect)
tools #architalks

Jes Stafford – MODwelling (@modarchitect)
One Essential Tool

Eric T. Faulkner – Rock Talk (@wishingrockhome)
Architools – Mind Over Matter

Rosa Sheng – Equity by Design (@EquityxDesign)
10 Power Tools to Kickstart Equity

Michele Grace Hottel – Michele Grace Hottel, Architect (@mghottel)
#ArchiTalks 17 “Tool”

Meghana Joshi – IRA Consultants, LLC (@MeghanaIRA)
Tools of an Architect #Architalks 17

Amy Kalar – ArchiMom (@AmyKalar)
ArchiTalks #17: Three Tools for Change

Brian Paletz – The Emerging Architect (@bpaletz)
Can we talk?

Eric Wittman – intern[life] (@rico_w)
it’s ok, i have a [pen]

Brinn Miracle – Architangent (@simplybrinn)
Synergy: The Value of Architects

Emily Grandstaff-Rice – Emily Grandstaff-Rice FAIA (@egrfaia)
Tools for Learning

Jarod Hall – di’velept (@divelept)
Something Old and Something New

Greg Croft – Sage Leaf Group (@croft_gregory)

Jeffrey A Pelletier – Board & Vellum (@boardandvellum)
Helpful tools found within an Architecture blog

Aaron Bowman – Product & Process (@PP_Podcast)
Sharpen Your Tools

Kyu Young Kim – Palo Alto Design Studio (@sokokyu)
Super Tool

Jared W. Smith – Architect OWL (@ArchitectOWL)
Construction: An Architect’s Learning Tool

Keith Palma – Architect’s Trace (@cogitatedesign)
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even better stuff from Life of an Architect

  • Loved the phrase “unhealthy attraction to books!” I didn’t realize just how many I had until I started packing them up recently. Lifting boxes upon boxes has me saying to myself “Why do I have so many of these things?” However trying to trash any of them proved ill-fated and I just kept on boxing them up. Wonderful post Bob!

    • Thanks Eric. I am a little sad to admit that when I made the last house move, I had to get rid of about 1/3rd of my books – I just didn’t have the room (and that’s also part of the reasons I have my own bookshelf up at my office). I’m only a little sad about getting rid of so many books because not all books are worth hanging on to … they weren’t very good. It made my library appear more impressive but in the end, I don’t really want to hang on to books that aren’t worth rereading.

      Cheers (ps – I’ll have to try that Pilot Bravo – I’ve never heard of it or seen one)

  • Bob, I also have an ‘unhealthy attraction to books,’ haha. I see you have “Drawing Ideas” up there. Very good book I just purchased myself.

    I love the way you took the photo of your overall desk and broke down everything that’s there. It speaks volumes about how you think through your writing in a good way. You’re not creating content solely based on what you think people want to hear or what’s flashy, you’re helping others understand how you actually function every day as Architect.

    I totally agree with recognizing those around you. Architecture doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Even if you’re a sole proprietor, you have to rely on others at some point along the journey to get anything of substance built in this world. We’re not Atlas, and we certainly don’t carry all of the weight of the world ourselves.

    • Hi Michael – If I am being honest, I didn’t intentionally break down my desk in the manner that I illustrated (meaning, it was not a conscious decision). It wasn’t until I made that graphic did I realize how that work out … the living embodiment of form follows function.

      I have always made an effort to recognize the efforts of others and made a decision years ago that I wouldn’t use the word “I” when talking about a project of process. I find it somewhat distasteful when I hear others saying”I” instead of “we”.

      • Not everyone makes that distinction. Do you think it’s because of the way an architecture education often focuses on individuals and their projects? I wonder if some of that “I’m on my own” mentality can turn to vanity for architects – especially if it’s programmed at an early stage in their career.

        • I don’t know if it’s a hateful act, or an ego-driven “all eyes on me” sort of thing. Someone could successfully argue that when speaking to a group in the first person, it’s more authoritative to say “I”. Personally, I think it comes from a position of weakness or lack of confidence when someone feels compelled to assign all credit to themselves.

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  • The first paragraph in this post is the best thing I’ve read with respect to this profession in a long time. I think I need to find ways to appropriately repeat the several messages in it.

    I wish Ryan was for hire. I need someone like that. I can’t even articulate the value in a person like that. I hope I was that guy at my last firm (I aimed for it), but now on my own I’m hesitant to ever hire anyone because my expectations are to find that one woman or man that could accept that role. I just couldn’t hire a woman if she had that type of beard though…sorry EOE.

    As for Flair pens, I have a few, but Sharpie is my first love too. I’ve been using a Pilot Precise V5 rolling ball pen at the recommendation of an amazing comic book artist (not Cormac). The jury is still out after a year or so.

    • The jury has been out for a year?!? You are one tough customer. I typically know before I run out of ink on the first pen.

  • Gene

    You forgot to mention a good chair. I still have back pains from “leaning” over a drafting table and sitting on a hard stool.

    • good chairs are certainly nice – the most important part of the car for me is the armrest. Since I use it to place my elbow and pivot my arm – if I can’t adjust it, the chair will literally wreck my back.

      “Hard stools” sound terrible no matter the context.

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  • Lora

    Flair pen, eh? Just pictured you doing jazz hands wearing a button-bedazzled vest.

    • Why would anybody picture something like that? If anything, you should have pictured me standing on the prow of a mountaintop, white hair flowing in the breeze, and a lion obediently sitting at my feet.

      • Gene

        You forgot to also note you would be wearing a T-shirt emblazed with “ARCHITECTS DO IT WITH A FLAIR!”.

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  • Benny

    I ran out of 2mm lead for my compass and got a LOOK when I went to buy more – Store had to order them in. Thanks for the Measure Master app hint!

    • Calculated Industries makes the app if you go looking.

      I’m not surprised about the 2mm lead … I think I have some around here somewhere, it’s bound to be 20 years old by now. (I didn’t use my compass much even when I was hand drafting every day)

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  • Michele Grace Hottel

    Great Tools Bob!!! I think I have a bit of desk envy but I don’t have big-ass desk envy…

    • That would be your loss then … there is something intoxicating about being able to spread all your work out around you. I like a tidy space but I would find it extremely difficult to go back to half of what I currently have.

      • Michele Grace Hottel

        I like the desk part!!! I guess a big ass chair was what I was more worried about!

        • well, that’s not something that I would focus on – either for myself or someone else. It’s all about the desk.

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  • Meghana Joshi

    I have to try Measure Master app- never used it. I still use a regular calculator. Nice list of tools Bob.. I use CAD for drawings, but still use my trace and pencils + sharpies to sketch my idea out first.

    • If I had to do some drafting, I would most certainly go back to AutoCAD. It represents the point in space where I was last required my make my way producing drawings. I know that I should keep developing my skill set and Revit is on my desktop – but I wonder how efficient I would become since I there is no cause for me to use it with any regularity.

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