Dwelling on Math in Architecture…

Life of an Architect’s Bob Borson asked for a little blurb to the question about being good at Math, architects being good at math, to be specific. Here’s $0.02 that I sent his way.


“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.”


This I proclaim with the day I dropped out of calculus in mind. If you can spare a few moments, there are some important life lessons in the journey that started with that decision.


Calculus Woes

The vice principal was disappointed to hear the news. I had made a 47 on the first test of the semester. I had also just volunteered to be the annual staff photographer. Mr. Parnell said “I just wish you would have talked to me before you made that decision.” It was hard to hear but mind was made…It wouldn’t stand after doing so well in AP geometry and trigonometry and pretty fair in algebra all the way to advanced math. It wouldn’t stand that this, the last class, the highest level, not counting advanced placement (AP) calculus, in the progression…It wouldn’t stand that this would wreck my math record, my B+ average.


He went on to explain his reasons, but this many years later, what stands out more are experiences and related regrets that try to sneak in. When I look back on that conversation, what resonates is how his taking a moment to discuss that decision changed my life and my entire attitude toward math.


You see, Mr, Parnell understood my time management concerns with the annual staff duties and explained that the calculus was going to play a part in every picture I took, with the lens refractions and focus planes and like that. He understood that I didn’t want the 47 to drag my GPA. I guess what he couldn’t understand was the physical discomfort at that the class, in the classroom, with the teacher and all factors involved with testing on that subject matter. I guess I would have become a better smarter person had I stuck it out and suffered through that class.


It is certain, had I went on to pass calculus my senior year, I would have stayed out of more trouble that I won’t get into here…nothing serious, just typical high schoolers having too much fun (and not studying math). It is also certain that I could have deferred that fun to the summer, when instead, I was going to the University of Memphis (U of M) after work for calculus in order to meet admissions standards at Mississippi State School of Architecture (MSU S/ARC now CAD).


Math of Life

Now, back to that little part about “regrets that try to sneak in”. I am a strong believer in having no regret. Reason being is that regret can get in the way of learning something from a difficult situation. This is not learning about paraboloids, quadratic equations, prime numbers or balancing equations while lining up your equal signs down the work on the problem. I mean learning the math of life. I mentioned the difficult teacher in high school calculus. We had a tough time while I was in the class but once I dropped, It was like we were friends again. She also taught advanced math, by the way. I suppose she couldn’t understand how something that was so clear to her was alien to me. But that is how it was…nothing personal. Fast forward, when I took the class at the U of M, the professor there was a neat guy that had a way of explaining the concepts behind calculus that got through my thick head. By the end of the semester, we had also become fierce racquet ball adversaries.


What does any of that have to do with the importance of Math in architecture…? DO Architects have to be good at math?

You should be at least good enough at math to find this funny.

You should be at least good enough at math to find this funny.

Well here is how I see it… Math and your education in math runs right at the top of priorities in the development of your career. ESPECIALLY if you want to be an architect. It is a skill you will benefit from directly as well as realize valuable fringe benefits. Becoming a great problem solver is only one. Problem solving is valuable in most professions, disciplines, trades. This is true especially in situations full of superfluous information, like those pesky long word problems. This is really where architects need to excel. Wade through the fog of information, look for pertinent factors, test your theorem (or is it theory?) always CHECK your work and ALWAYS provide an answer. Sure you might not have a clue. YES it might be wrong if it is math but not answering is worse than getting it wrong, it hasn’t a chance of either being right, or showing the instructor , teacher or professor (Partner, consultant, or even CLIENT) what you do not know so they my have you know. So it is prime time you sharpen that pencil, fire up that math brain, nimble your calculator fingers and solve away. There is a world full of problems that need your solution.