Lesson: Architects and Engineers

Contributed by: Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado at Boulder

Photograph of an Olympic city, Sydney, with a view of the Opera House and skyscrapers in the background.
Architects and engineers collaborate to design and build infrastructure
Copyright © 2006 Microsoft Corporation, One Microsoft Way, Redmond, WA 98052-6399 USA. All rights reserved.


Students explore the interface between architecture and engineering. In the associated hands-on activity, students act as both architects and engineers by designing and building a small parking garage.

Engineering Connection

The responsibilities of engineers and architects often overlap. Both professions are integral to the design and construction of structures, such as buildings and bridges. Architects design the space to meet client needs, as well as the aesthetic appearance of the inside and exterior of the building. Engineers' main responsibility is to ensure the design is safe and meets all appropriate building codes. Engineers concern themselves with making buildings safe and functional by selecting structural materials, determining the structural members of the design, and specify the electrical, heating, ventilation, air conditioning and plumbing systems. One way that engineers and architects communicate their ideas to each another is through blueprints, or technical drawings.

Learning Objectives

After this lesson, students should be able to:

  • Explain the roles of an architect and an engineer.
  • Give an example of the differing responsibilities architects and engineers have in building design.
  • Explain that the development of steel was a key prerequisite for the construction of skyscrapers.

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Educational Standards

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The day of the Olympic soccer game has finally arrived! Your class has rented an eco-friendly bus to take you to the Olympic stadium. As you pull up to the drop off point, you are in awe of how many people are around the stadium. The parking structure is jammed full, with cars packed into all 10 levels. The parking structure is very modern looking — with all sorts of fancy touches and decorations. It is indeed impressive. You know that civil engineers help to make buildings, but are a bit curious about who else might be involved in the process. Who else do you think may be involved in the process of making buildings? Other types of engineers, architects, land use planners, construction workers, among others, are all involved in creating buildings.

The two main designers of a building are the architect and the engineer. This may seem a bit confusing at first, as the roles and responsibilities of engineers and architects are not clear cut and overlap a bit. Let's try to clear things up, starting off with things that we know.

What is an engineer? An engineer is a person who designs and builds things for the benefit of society. Engineers use math and science to design and build structures, equipment and processes.

What is an architect? An architect is a person who develops the creative designs for buildings or structures. So, the jobs of an engineer and architect, although similar, vary in some details.

How do architects and engineers work together? The architect is more concerned with the look of the structure, whereas the engineer is primarily concerned with the safety and functionality of the structure. The engineer figures out which materials to use and how to safely construct the building the architect has envisioned. Skyscrapers are a good example. Think of skyscrapers and how tall they are — what a massive feat to design and build such a tall structure.

A photograph of I-beams being installed for a structure that is under construction. Three construction workers are standing on the beams working.
Figure 1. Sturdy steel "I-beams" allow skyscrapers to be constructed.
Copyright © 2006 Microsoft Corporation, One Microsoft Way, Redmond, WA 98052-6399 USA. All rights reserved.

Has anyone ever been in a skyscraper? Skyscrapers did not exist until about 90 years ago. Before there were skyscrapers, the tallest buildings could only stand about 10 stories high. This was because the main material used in constructing structures was wood. Architects had plans and hopes for taller buildings, but the materials available at the time did not allow for buildings to hold the weight of buildings greater than about 10 stories tall. Engineers began to develop steel beams that are much stronger than wood and could be used in the construction of buildings and bridges. Today, we call these sturdy beams, I-beams (see Figure 1). The development of steel I-beams was precisely what architects needed in order to build taller buildings; as a result, skyscrapers began to shoot up high into the sky.

Clearly, modern cities — with their amazing skylines — are the result of a joint effort between engineers and architects. The height and beauty of buildings and other structure cannot be accomplished without the efforts of both types of engineering.

A photograph of architects pointing to (and discussing) a blueprint.
Figure 2. Architects discuss a blueprint.
Copyright © 2006 Microsoft Corporation, One Microsoft Way, Redmond, WA 98052-6399 USA. All rights reserved.

So, we know that architects wanted to make bigger, more elaborate buildings, and engineers helped them to figure out how to make it possible. It seems, then, that architects come up with an idea and then make a plan that engineers help them execute. The architect's plan has a special name – it's called a blueprint (see Figure 2). Has anyone seen a blueprint? What is the purpose of a blueprint? After the architect creates the blueprint (building plan), the engineer goes over the architect's design and decides what materials must be used to make bring the architect's design to completion and to make the building strong enough for use.

Many types of engineers also work on other systems within a building, such as elevators, lighting, heating, ventilation, air-conditioning, plumbing and much more. It requires a lot of engineering teamwork to design, construct and finally prepare a building for daily use. From selecting appropriate furniture to energy efficient window coverings to sound proofing carpet, there are a lot of details that go into building design.

Lesson Background and Concepts for Teachers

An architect and engineer both participate in designing and building a structure, whether it is a house or a skyscraper. An architect designs and draws up plans for buildings, bridges, and other structures. The goal of an architect's design is to satisfy the customer's requirements, making the appearance of the structure to the customer's liking and performing quality work.

Civil, architectural and structural engineers have the responsibility of applying an architect's design and carrying it through to construction. The goal of these engineers is to satisfy the customer's requirements and make the design functional and safe. Other engineers that may be involved in building design are electrical engineers for the lighting systems, mechanical engineers for the elevator, and plumbing engineers for the plumbing system, among others.

A photograph of a scaled drawing.
Figure 3. A scaled-drawing.
Copyright © 2006 Microsoft Corporation, One Microsoft Way, Redmond, WA 98052-6399 USA. All rights reserved.

The key difference between an architect and an engineer is that an architect focuses more on the artistry and design of the building, while the engineer focuses more on the technical and structural side. While the architect is concerned with making the building aesthetically pleasing, an engineer makes sure that the building is functional and safe. (There is, of course, a lot of overlap, but these definitions should give students a general idea.) Architects design a structure by considering the customer's needs and requirements. Engineers design the structure according to the architect's design, including electrical drawings, structural layout and plumbing. To develop and present their designs, both architects and engineers use technical drawings called blueprints. A blueprint is the detailed drawing presented by an architect or engineer that outlines their design. Blueprints can be hand-drawn or drawn on a computer using a computer aided drawing program, such as AutoCAD® or SolidWorks®.

In designing any structure, an architect has to plan out his/her ideas by making a scaled drawing (see Figure 3). Before an engineer can approve an architect's design, they have to analyze the design and select materials that can safely uphold the structure. An engineer takes the blueprint presented by an architect and determines whether or not it is possible to build, and what are the best materials to use. Different materials have different advantages, such as greater strength or greater flexibility. One advantage of wood, for example, is that it provides a lot of strength but can also be cut down to size with ease. Steel, however, is better for tall buildings because it is stronger than wood and can be made into long beams. There are a lot of decisions that go into every minor detail of designing and building structures. In order to design safe structures that will last for many decades, engineers must stay current on the properties of materials, know about design flaws and research new engineering technology.


Architect: A person whose profession is designing and drawing plans for buildings, bridges and houses, as well as many other structures.

Blueprint: A detailed plan of a design, usually to scale.

Computer-aided design: Design software used in architecture and engineering to create precision drawings; also known as CAD.

Engineer: A person who uses math and science to design and create things for the benefit of humanity and our world.

Associated Activities

  • Park It! - Students design and build a model parking garage within a set budget.

Lesson Closure

It is getting close to game time and your class decides to head into the stadium to grab your seats before the action starts! As you walk into Olympic stadium, you are still thinking about what you just learned about architects and engineers. You know that there are lots of different sites for the different Olympic events: the soccer field, the gymnasium, the swimming facility, and many more. Some of these buildings look really neat and must have taken a lot of work from both architects and engineers! Let's see if you can remember the difference between the roles of an architect and an engineer. Who can tell me what architects do? (Answer: An architect focuses more on the artistry and design of the building.) Great! And what do engineers do? (Answer: The engineer focuses more on the technical and structural side.) Can someone give an example of how engineers and architects have different responsibilities in designing a building? (Possible Answers: Architects decide where windows and lighting should be, where doorways and stairs should be located, where built in bookshelves and counters should be, etc. Engineers concern themselves with making buildings safe and functional by selecting structural materials, deciding where the structural members of the design need to go, and designing the electrical, heating, ventilation, air conditioning and plumbing systems.)

I have one more question for you. Who remembers what very important thing had to happen before architects and engineers could build tall skyscrapers? That's right! Steel, which is stronger than wood, had to be invented. This is a great example of how an engineering development allows architects to realize their vision of amazingly tall buildings.

Drawing of the design for the Beijing Olympic stadium.  The stadium looks like a "bird's nest" of metal.
Figure 4. An example of engineers and architects working together to make the architect's design come to life.
Copyright © Beijing Municipal Commission of Urban Planning, http://www.bjghw.gov.cn/forNationalStadium/indexeng.asp


Pre-Lesson Assessment

Discussion Questions: Solicit, integrate, and summarize student responses.

Does anyone know what an engineer does? (Answer: An engineer is a person who designs and builds things for the benefit of society. Engineers use math and science to design and build structures, equipment and processes.) Who can explain what an architect does? (Answer: An architect is a person who develops the creative designs for buildings or structures.) Can someone think of when these two professions would work together? (Answer: in the design and construction of a skyscraper, an Olympic stadium or any structure) Besides civil engineers, what other types of engineers are involved in making a structure? (Answer: electrical engineers, land-development engineers, lighting engineers, mechanical engineers, etc.)

Post-Introduction Assessment

Olympic Design: As a class, choose one Olympic building or site, and then make a list of different tasks that are performed in designing that structure. Some of these tasks include:

  • Figuring out the correct sizing of doorways, the number of bathrooms, where to put the light switches, which roofing material to use, etc. Try to figure out if these tasks are part of the architect or the engineer's drawing/design. (Answers: doorways – architect; bathrooms – architect; light switches – engineer; roofing material – engineer.)

As students call out components, write the different parts in two columns – one under "architects" and the other under "engineers." Ask the students to help you decide which column the different parts of the building should go under. Ask the students if they remember what had to be developed in order for tall, complicated buildings to be built. (Answer: steel) Remind the students that building a structure can be quite complicated, so it is extremely important that architects and engineers exercise good teamwork to meet the needs and desires of the customer.

Special Structures Discussion: Discuss as a class:

  • What are some different structures that architects and engineers designed and built together? (Answer: Almost any structure — including bridges, schools, homes and businesses — is the result of architects and engineers working together. If you are doing this activity as part of the Olympic Engineering Unit, use examples from the Beijing Olympics.)

Lesson Summary Assessment

Drawing: Have the students draw their Olympic hotel and make a "blueprint" of their room. The blueprint should include doorways and parts of the room, not furniture or accessories unless they are built into the hotel. Have the students label parts designed by an engineer (light switches, plumbing, etc.). You will likely need to draw an example blueprint on the board, and it would also be helpful to explain what is meant by "top view" of a room or building.

Lesson Extension Activities

Have students research a structure and try to find blueprints of the building. Alternatively, have students visit a library and check out a book of building blueprints in which they are interested.

Have students research skyscrapers and discover other engineering accomplishments that were crucial to the development of skyscrapers (i.e., elevators, computer information monitors, telephones, etc.).


Beijing Municipal Commission of Urban Planning, "Presentation of Competation for the Architecture Design of National Stadium (2008 Olympic Main Stadium)," 2002. www.bjghw.gov.cn/web/static/catalogs/catalog_itl/itl.html Accessed November 2, 2006

Bellis, Mary. About, Inc., About.com, "The History of Skyscrapers," 2006. http://inventors.about.com/library/inventors/blskyscapers.htm Accessed November 2, 2006

Penn State, Department of Architectural Engineering, F.A.Q. for Prospective Students. www.engr.psu.edu/ae/advising/prospective_faq.asp Accesed November 2, 2006

Rangaswamy, Aswin, P.E. Structural Engineers Association of Southern California, "FAQ," 2006. http://www.seaint.org/SEAOSC/public/faq.htm Accessed November 2, 2006

Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, "Architectural Engineering," October 31, 2006. www.wikipedia.org Accessed November 2, 2006

Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, "Skyscraper," www.wikipedia.org Accessed November 2, 2006

Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, "Blueprint," www.wikipedia.org Accessed November 2, 2006


Sara Stemler; Melissa Straten; Katherine Beggs; Denali Lander; Abigail Watrous; Janet Yowell


© 2006 by Regents of the University of Colorado.

Supporting Program

Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado at Boulder


The contents of this digital library curriculum were developed under a grant from the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE), U.S. Department of Education and National Science Foundation GK-12 grant no. 0338326. However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the Department of Education or National Science Foundation, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

Last modified: July 6, 2017