Answers to your architecture questions

Published 03.02.2021

Dr. Naim Jabbour

by Dr. Naim Jabbour

Associate Professor, Architecture


Naim N. Jabbour, assistant professor of architectural technology at Penn College, recently fielded a series of commonly asked questions – profound and playful, serious and silly – in a video aimed at those considering a future in the field.

His responses explain STEM and sustainability, detail the requisite commitment and long hours involved in architectural study, preview the variety of projects comprising an architect’s workload, and reveal his favorite building in a world full of stellar examples. (Hint: It’s closer than you think.)

Is architecture a STEM field?

Actually, in 2019, Congress passed a bill that officially made architecture a STEM field. And for the folks out there, STEM is science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Are architects good at Jenga?

Hmm, well we might think we are. We’d like to assume that we are. In theory, we should be. As architects, we’re really good at specific things. So the assumption is that Jenga might be one of those … and it might be, but it really all depends!

Is architecture hard?

It’s really not hard; it’s really complex. It takes a lot of time and a lot of work. There’s a lot of effort that goes into it, in and out. There’s a lot of late nights because the work that we ask our students to do requires lots of thinking and iteration. So I wouldn’t say it’s hard; I would say it takes a lot of commitment and you need to have the time to actually do the work.

What do architects design?

That’s a really common question and there are a lot of misconceptions about it. A lot of people think that we design homes and buildings like high-rise towers or something. We actually design all sorts of buildings. So if you’ve been in a stadium or if you went to a school, if you’ve been to a hospital, if you’ve been to church … we design all sorts of places from single-family homes to 20-story, high-rise buildings, but we also do non-buildings. We design boats and movie sets. We design furniture. Some of the coolest furniture in these modern homes that you visit is really designed by architects. So we do both buildings and non-buildings, residential and commercial, and everything in between. It’s a really wide spectrum of what we do.

What are the pathways to become an architect?

This is a bit of a complicated question because there are a lot of pathways. The first and easiest answer is education. If you go to school to basically pursue the field, that is one of the first avenues that we pursue as architects. But back in the day, there wasn’t really an educational component. People did it by experience, by training and by internships. But now in the U.S. and globally, you have to actually go through an educational platform. Either a five-year program or a four-year nontraditional program, followed by a master’s degree. And either one of these paths allows you to become a licensed architect.

What is sustainable architecture and what are examples of sustainable design?

Very good question. Sustainable architecture is designing buildings that minimize the impact on the environment. Think of a building that sits harmoniously within its complex systems and a building that uses low energy and recycled materials. A building that uses sunlight, for instance, for daylight, uses the heat of the sun for heating or uses wind for ventilation and cooling. These are all examples of sustainable buildings. Sustainable buildings don’t have to look foreign or unique. They look like any other building. They’re just high-performance buildings that freely minimize the impact on the environment. And that’s a really popular trend nowadays in our market

What is your favorite building in the world and why?

That’s a tough one because I have favorite architects. I have many favorite buildings for many reasons. I personally gravitate toward modern architecture. One of my favorite buildings is right in our backyard in western Pennsylvania. The building is designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, one of the great American architects, and the building is called Fallingwater. It’s a beautiful three-and-a-half hour drive from our campus here at Penn College. And it’s an amazing building. When Frank Lloyd Wright designed it, he intended it to be one with nature. So the way the building sits in the landscape and the way the water actually meanders through the building and outside of it, creating this beautiful waterfall. It just makes it an amazing and exceptional feat of architecture. I would say that it’s probably my favorite building, right here in our beautiful state.

Is architecture art?

And that is the million-dollar question. It’s really interesting: Architecture is a mix of both art and engineering. And that’s what makes it really complex as a discipline, because we need to think as artists and sculptors, because we sculpt space and we mold space, but we also need to make sure the building is actually working. Nobody wants to be in a building that’s going to leak or be loud, or is going to fail structurally. So, we have to actually consider all the aspects of it. We need to tap into both sides of our brain, the left and the right. So, yes, it is an art form. It’s a form of sculpture of space, but it’s also a feat of engineering because we need to make sure that it actually works.

Is architecture a good major?

That’s a really good question. If you are asking me, I’m pretty biased about it. But if you had asked me when I was in school on any given day on any given week, I’d give you probably three or four answers. Yes, it’s good on Monday, it really sucks on Wednesday and I’m really happy to have it done on Friday. So it really depends. It’s a great major. There’s lots of avenues you can pursue. Like I said, you can be a furniture designer, you can be a movie-set designer, you can be a building designer, you can be a sustainability guru. So there’s a lot of avenues. You don’t have to sit behind a desk. You don’t have to be on the computer all day. You can be one that goes to sites and visit locations. You can be communicating with the different owners and the stakeholders. It’s a great major because it’s very satisfying. It’s one of the few things in life where you actually get to do something, try it out and learn from it. You get to walk outside, go touch your building, feel the space and experience how great it is or how bad of a job you did. It looked good on paper, but not in reality. It’s very gratifying, very fulfilling, very frustrating when you can’t get your design across. Definitely, I think it’s a great major. But again, like I said, it’s very complex.

What is your dream destination for taking in world-class architecture?

Another great question. I have so many destinations because I can go between classical locations like Italy, or romantic locations like Paris, but I would say my favorite destination combines old-world architecture and cutting edge, modern, innovative, sustainable design. I would say Copenhagen, Denmark. I visited Copenhagen in October of last year and it’s an exceptional city. The way the city is laid out, the walkability, the canals, the new architecture, the old architecture and how everything is integrated together makes it a really unique city. Some of the best work in our field of architecture in terms of sustainability and design is happening right now in Denmark and specifically Copenhagen. They’re at the forefront. So, I recommend if you want to visit a city to experience old, new, and modern and unique and innovative, Copenhagen is a great place to go. Also, the food is amazing. It has some of the best restaurants and amazing culinary cuisine. And the shopping is really awesome, so you’d enjoy that.

Does architecture pay well?

Architects, we love things. We love to shop. We love to decorate our homes. So, yes, you are going to need money to do all the things you want to do. And architecture does pay well, especially with experience. The more experience you rack under your professional experience, you’re going to be able to actually climb the pay scale. You’re going to start exactly where every graduate starts, usually at the bottom of the ladder. With ample amount of experience and skill, you are going to do really well. What’s really awesome about architecture is that depending where you work, in big cities with big firms and companies, you’re going to make some really good money and bonuses, and live really well. And that’s really what’s important, that you have a good career that pays well and is fulfilling to you.

Are architects in demand?

Yes. Architects are really in demand. The forecast from the Bureau of Labor Statistics is that we’re going to grow as a field. We’re going to grow as a profession similarly to other fields. So that’s really good. You’re going to have a career at the end of your undergraduate degree. What’s really important to think about is, as the population grows across the world, we need new homes, new office buildings, new schools, new hospitals, new cities, and new communities. That’s where we come into play. Architects will design these communities. We will design these structures. We are in high demand because we need to be there to provide these shelters and these places of work and these entertainment venues for people to actually enjoy.

Those were really amazing questions. There’s always a lot of questions to ask about architecture. And I think those really addressed some of the main things in architecture.