Becoming An Architect

Becoming an architect can be creative and fun. You get to draw and play around on software, making models, images, renders, and build amazing buildings. But the reality of being an architect is more than the glamour of pretty drawings and software. There are some things that no one tells you about.

I want to share with you the top 5 things I wish I knew before becoming an architect, that may or may not have influenced my career choice, and may help you if you’re not sure. To be clear, most of my work has occurred in Australia where we design and build a lot of new buildings, so I can only draw from that experience and perspective. I imagine working in places like the USA, Canada and even modern parts of Asia may be similar, but places like Europe could be very different, due to the historical nature of buildings and cities and the type of architectural work you might do.

01 | It Takes A Lot Of (Unpaid) Time And Effort To Become Good – The Learning Curve Is Long

Hopefully, if you’ve decided to study architecture, you already know that it takes a long time. In Australia and many other countries, you will need to study for a three-year undergraduate degree such as Bachelor of Architecture or Design, plus a two year Masters degree.

In the past, you used to have to do at least 1 year of work experience after your first three years and before continuing with your final two years. Today, you will often have to achieve a certain standard or minimum average grade to continue to a two year Master of Architecture. So you might want to find out what the requirements are for your particular university or institution, and make sure you hit that target!!

Once you have completed your two year Masters, you would have done five years of study, longer if you took a break or needed to go part-time. At this stage, you may have graduated but you’re not an architect, and you cannot call yourself an architect. In Australia, you need to become registered, which can take at least another two years of practical experience working in an office. For me, and for many other people I have spoken to, the process of graduating is just not enough. There is often a personal drive to become registered so you can call yourself an architect and feel like all that study was worthwhile.

Five years of study is a long time when other people are out in the workforce earning full-time wages either straight out of school or after a three-year degree – so there is a financial sacrifice as a student. You lose the opportunity to work and you have five years of tuition to pay. To be honest, in my experience, architecture does not pay as well as many other professions, especially for graduates and especially for the amount of blood, sweat and tears you put into it.

You need to choose architecture for the love of it, not the money…

Like all creative industries, in architecture, you will rarely just work the hours you are expected. While the industry is getting better, I hear recent graduates telling me how they have worked back late to finish a set of drawings, because it takes them longer as they are still learning and, well, deadlines. Or they’ve worked multiple weekends in a row for free on competitions or presentations because that’s the fun design stuff that graduates don’t often work on. And as a graduate who loves architecture, why would you want to do anything else?

It takes time, years, even decades for architects to master their craft and become good. An accountant may complete a tax return in a matter of days or weeks, and they have completed that process. After a few times, they become really good and within a year or two of completing dozens of tax returns, they have mastered that process.

An architect, however, usually takes at least a year to complete a project, more likely two or more if you include the design, approval, documentation and construction processes, even on a small house.

This is what I mean when I say the learning curve is long. Most architects will need to complete 4, 5 or more whole projects to understand the process and how things work. This can take years or even decades and is why many practising architects do not reach their peak or produce their best work until their forties or fifties.

This leads me to my next point…

02 | University Does Not Prepare You For Practice

Most universities have a big focus on design studios, which is great. It’s an important part of architecture. We need great designs to enhance our cities and societies. There should be more great design than there is!!!

However, in practice, the reality is that the concept and early design process is just a small percentage, say 10 or 15%, maybe 20% at the very, very most of a project and what goes on in architectural practice.

So what else goes on and who is doing that work? Much of what architects do includes design and presentation as well as documentation, construction and contract administration, project management and dealing with clients, fees, budgets, programs and deadlines. For the most part, senior architects will be doing the design, face-to-face work and on-site administration. Documentation is about 40-50% of what we do and what most graduates will spend a lot of time on.

In my first week in my first job as a student after completing my third year of study, I was thrown onto a building site and told I was in charge of contract administration. I had no idea what that meant (we did not learn about the professional practice until the fourth year) or what the heck I had to do. I learned…fast.

When I returned to my fourth year of study, the experiences of my peers were completely different. I worked for a small firm and was exposed to everything and expected to know a lot I did not. Others worked in large firms doing support work, like documenting bathrooms and car parks, or putting together presentations of other people’s design work. At worst, the student architect ended up doing work that no one wanted to do like filing, making coffee and keeping the samples room clean. That’s bad, and if you end up not doing any architectural work, I’d try to speak to your boss and change things, or consider moving on.

Either way, university study does not fully prepare you for practice and the reality of running a business or a project…

It can’t because it’s mostly theory, and it’s very different to experience these things on a real project. As a student, if you work in a big firm, you will likely spend a lot of time documenting and detailing. In a smaller firm, you may be expected to jump between projects and tasks depending on what is needed. The reality is, it is unlikely you will be taking the lead on the design of a project for many, many years. If you do, enjoy it!!!!

For me, it took me the first five to ten years of working in practice to even begin to understand the intricacies and complexities of a project process and what it meant to be an architect. Twenty years on I am still learning about the processes of architecture and design every day.

University gives you foundation knowledge, but will never really be able to prepare you for the reality of practice.

Be prepared to be a lifelong student…

03 | Architects And Architecture Are Often Not Valued

One of my biggest frustrations as an architect and a designer in Australia was that our society does not value architecture and what architects do.

You can see that by how quickly we choose to demolish buildings compared to other parts of the world. We reshape the characteristics and qualities of our cities with little thought for what we are creating, the longevity of our work and the impact on the city, the urban realm, or society. We demolish trees and vegetation, throw up pre-cast concrete industrial sheds and develop acres and acres of suburbs of poor quality houses that all look the same.

The average Australian does not value architects, architecture, creativity, design and high-quality environments. In the suburbs and their own homes, they are rarely prepared to pay a designer to create amazing spaces for them to live their unique lives. Instead, they are happy with a generic McMansion that looks the same as their neighbours. The focus for the average Australian is on quantity and how much house you can get for your dollar, rather than the quality of the spaces and experiences they create.  They would rather pay a builder to build as much as possible than an architect to create deliberate, considered spaces. They just do not see the value in what a set of drawings can become versus a big 3 car garage, 4 bedroom house in the suburbs.

It is possible to create great homes for the few who really value this and many architects successfully do this. However, most architects in Australia will end up working on large scale developments or public buildings rather than private residential houses. This is where you are most likely to make the most difference and impact society. Regardless of the projects you work on, you always have to deal with clients, budgets and deadlines…

04 | Projects Are Driven By Clients And Money, Not Always Great Design

At university, you will most likely have to deal with existing sites, project briefs and some constraints, but there is often the freedom to explore new ideas and push boundaries. In reality, you have clients, councils, legislation, budgets and strict timelines. In other words, constraints. Unfortunately, like most things in society architecture is a business and most of our clients are running a business, or have economic budgets and constraints around their projects.

From an architects perspective, to make a profit a project has a certain number of hours that it can be worked on for a fee. Once the hours and the fee run out, the project is making a loss. Any wages that need to be paid for additional work are a loss. This means the process of design and documentation must be as efficient as possible. There is not the luxury of long design processes and conceptual exploration of multiple options, playing around with things like collage, pretty renders and presentations. Smart decisions must be made quickly, or there is financial pressure for the remainder of the project.

From a client perspective, projects must come in on budget. You may present an amazing and unique concept, but if the project goes too far and comes in over budget, the design will quickly be slashed, often without consideration of the overall impact or the ability to control the alternative design. If you have to redesign with no extra fee, that affects the profitability of your firm. It is far better to design to a clear brief and within a budget the first time. This gives you more control over a better design and outcome.

Then you have clients that have fixed, pre-conceived ideas about what their project outcome will be. Or those who want to just do what has been done before because it is safe and known. They may love a new design ideas but are just not prepared to commit to it for a whole range of reasons. Sometimes you really have to advocate to create a good design, and at times even retain the essence of what was a good design. But this is absolutely possible when you learn to work with a client, and truly understand their needs, wants, desires, fears and constraints, and educate and move through the design journey with their ongoing involvement.

05 | There Is Diverse Opportunity

The beauty of architecture is that it provides a lot of different opportunities that you may not consider when you choose it as a profession.

There are diverse opportunities and variety for a career that starts in architecture…

From my personal experience, I know architects who have practices architecture and then gone on to become artists and create building installations, write for architectural magazines, be an architectural photographer, be a recruitment consultant in architecture and design, be a  gallery curator, design stage sets, be a project manager, work for architects, builders, or clients, or become an educator, academic or researcher.

For me, I spent my early years practising as an architect, then moved into project management, teaching, and now I’m creating this online platform with everything I’ve learned and know. Every 6 to 7 years, I stop and think about a career change and consider what else I would do. I need variety, as many creative people seem to. At one stage I started studying  law and business. But for me, these were a little too far away from creativity. There is still no other traditional profession or career that I would prefer.

Right now, knowing what I know, where the world has moved to and having the opportunity to go back twenty years, I would say I probably would not study architecture.  I would have studied fine art and combined it with online marketing. Hindsight is a great thing. And I’m kind of doing that here with you, anyway. Who knows where I’ll be in another twenty years, and what opportunities the industry and the world present.

What Next?

Some of this may sound a little negative, but that is not the intention. It’s important to know the pros and cons and the reality of what you’re getting into.

Architecture is hard work. Like anything, it can be both challenging and rewarding. What is most exciting is that every day is different to the last, and there are so many different opportunities and paths you can take.

Again, this is just my perspective, from my own experiences and from talking to other architects over the years. Continue to talk to people at various points in their study as well as in practice to help understand the options you have. Most importantly, make sure you find the part of architecture you love, and for now, follow that.

Until next time…

Liz at ArchiMash