The Hands-On Approach to Design at the Notre Dame School of Architecture

Author: Randi McQueen

Committing to study architecture is oddly similar to committing to a long-term relationship. It requires devotion, passion, and a lot of hard work and dedication. It is a time-consuming major, but if you truly love it, then the work is enjoyable.


While choosing to study architecture at any university is no menial task, the Notre Dame School of Architecture in particular takes a unique approach to teaching this rewarding profession. While other schools focus on using computer programs such as CAD and Sketch-up, Notre Dame teaches the skills of hand drafting and freehand sketching before teaching students computer programs. It is not until the fourth year of study that architecture students at Notre Dame begin to use their drawing and constructing skills and apply them to design programs digitally.

Although this approach may seem antiquated to some, learning how to draft by hand actually makes using computer programs easier. Similar to athletes practicing skills over and over again to form muscle memory, students who draw have an easier time studying concepts and committing them to memory.

Each project is drafted by hand and then rendered with watercolor both sophomore and junior years, during the formative years of design. After returning from a year abroad in Rome, a requirement for all Notre Dame architecture students, computer programs are taught during the fourth year of study to supplement the hand drafting.  The idea behind using the computer programs is that students will be able to quickly apply previously learned concepts and ideas so they can spend less time tediously copying or retracing drawings and more time improving their designs.

Additionally, every final project in the five-year undergraduate program is two-dimensional. Students do not create 3-dimensional models of their work like some other architecture programs nationwide. However, fourth year students have the opportunity to choose a concentration in either Furniture Design or Building Arts. In these courses, students interested in model-making have the chance to delve more into this particular art.


During the watercolor rendering process, student projects come to life. Before taking Design I during their second year, students learn the techniques of watercolor rendering during Graphics II second semester. Through a series of projects, students are guided by fifth-year architecture student TAs and taught how to paint in ways which give depth to their works, such as adding shade and shadow. By their second year, students are well-versed in the technical aspects of drafting and watercolor so they can confidently apply these skills to their original designs.

In a sea of job applicants who only know how to design using technology, Notre Dame graduates have the ability to create beautifully hand-drafted and watercolor-rendered drawings to show off to clients. The possession of these skills along with the extensive Notre Dame alumni network give graduates an edge over others in the application pool by their fifth year.