Choosing To Practice

Studying architecture takes a lot of time and energy – it takes constant effort and anything from 5 years of study to 7,8 or even 10 years or more if you take some time out and decide to become registered. Not to mention the money required to pay for your study, and the full-time wage you miss out on while you’re studying.

It’s a big commitment, and yet, many students don’t understand what the practice of architecture includes until they’ve invested all that time, energy and money, graduated and it’s too late to turn back.

01 – Practice Size And Your Role

The first thing you need to understand is the practice size and your role within it.

If you work for a large, global practice with hundreds of staff, then I’m going to be honest here… as a graduate, you will start at the bottom. You’re pretty much going to be a nobody, you’re going to be given the crappy jobs that no one else wants to do, and you’re going to have to do your time. In a large practice, there is going to be a clear hierarchy and you will be at the bottom of it.

Saying that you will have the opportunity to meet a lot of different people, work on some big and pretty exciting projects, and likely be exposed to a business that hopefully has good systems and processes in place to teach you good ways of how to do things. With a lot of staff, hopefully, they have the operation of the business sorted and clear examples of how to do things. It can be an opportunity to learn a lot if you keep your eyes open, ask questions and get interested.

Whether you enter a large firm as a graduate or a more senior member of staff, you can often be pigeon-holed into a particular role such as a documenter or draftsperson, a contract administrator or a site architect. It can be often difficult to break out of a defined role, so you may need to be prepared to speak up and ask for other opportunities  or move elsewhere.

On the flipside, when you work for a small practice, you will work on smaller projects and often be thrown in at the deep end. You will need to be flexible and adaptable and open to a big learning curve and often a lot of stress. You may be working between multiple projects at different scales and with different roles on each. You might be documenting one project, and working on site for another.

Even in a small practice, with a handful of people, you are unlikely to be doing much designing for the early part of your career.

A small practice is great for being exposed to the whole process of architecture. However, it can often be very stressful because there’s a lot of work and not so many people to jump in. They may not have great systems and processes in place, because they are too busy practicing architecture to spend time on this.

02 – Typology

It’s important to understand the types of projects you would be working on in a particular practice, as well as their scale and size.

Different types of projects include master plans for universities and schools, residential or retail developments. You could be working on high-rise or multi-storey commercial or residential buildings, hotels, shopping centres, universities or schools, hospitals, galleries, or public and cultural buildings such as galleries, theatres, sports stadiums, airports or bespoke houses. At the same time, you could be working on less glamorous industrial sheds, abattoirs, factories or housing developments. Every type of building in society needs to be designed and documented, and someone has to do it.

You might want to find out the types of projects that a practice works on before you start working. However, be careful not to get stuck in the idea of only doing very glamorous projects such as hotels or restaurants. All projects are about problem-solving and providing the very best environment and outcome for the users. Some of the most interesting people I met and projects I worked on include projects for the army, air traffic control, police and the courts, and electricity providers.

Unglamorous projects are often shunned by many but can be fascinating, complex and challenging.

03 – Project Size And Scale

The project and building typology will often influence the project size, scale and length of the project. Bigger projects usually take longer.

At architecture school, the longest you will work on a project is maybe a full semester or 12-16 weeks. In the case of a thesis or senior subject, you might work on something for two semesters.

In practice, projects take years. Even a small house can take a year or two from the first meeting with the client, to design, obtain council approval, document and construct. Larger projects can take years and years to complete, with phases where design work may halt for activities such as council approval or selling the development.

Larger projects mean you will be working in a large team, which means you will be given a specific role within that project. There will usually be a clear hierarchy, a small group of designers and a lot of documenters working under them. On really big projects you are likely to be working on a very small part of the project such as car parking, or preparing a particular package such as tiling or stairs, which could take weeks or months. In one case, I have heard of two people working full-time on one section drawing for nearly a year for a large airport redevelopment.

Smaller projects such as a house might mean you are working with 1 or 2 other, more senior architects. These projects will move faster, and this means you are more likely to be involved in the entire process and responsible for documenting and possibly some contract administration during the construction process. On smaller projects, you are more likely to be working across several projects at different stages at any one time.

To learn more, review the article titled “8 Architecture Project Stages From Concept To Construction.”

04 – The Money

There are two aspects to money – the project budget and the pay.

At the end of the day, the client and their budget will always dictate the final design. You’re going to need to learn to design within budget and work with consultants, quantity surveyors and builders to manage this throughout the entire process.

There’s no way around this one, but generally, architecture does not pay that well for the time, effort and energy put in. if you’re in it for the money, it’s probably not the right reason to be in it or the right career.

If you stay in a firm and work your way up to a senior associate or director, the salary can be quite good. If you learn about business and run your practice well, you can make a good profit. But most importantly, if you choose to become a master of your craft, and learn your value as a member of a team and a business, and also learn to negotiate and not accept less than you are worth, you can also be paid very fairly. Architecture can also provide a stepping stone for many different avenues, career paths and opportunities.

05 – Running Your Own Business Is Hard

If you think you will be able to spend all your time designing if you run your practice, think again. Running a business is work.

It requires you to market your services, find potential clients, prepare fee proposals and win them over before you can even begin designing. Then you have to make sure you’re not spending too much time and making a profit, hire and oversee staff, do the accounting and book-keeping, calculate expenses and pay bills. You need to create systems, processes and templates. Once you’ve won a project, you have to keep marketing and repeat the process over again to bring in the next client for when the current project ends. Then you can start the architecture.

Running your practice requires an understanding of how architectural projects are run as well as how businesses are run. Unfortunately, architecture school does not prepare you for either of these. If you want to start your architecture practice, you’ll ideally want to spend a few years working for someone else to understand the process of architecture projects. And, you’ll need to learn a bit about business on the side, so you don’t go in cold.

In the early years of practice, you might be doing your jobs on the side as you work full-time somewhere else. You also might have to be prepared to take on any job that comes your way, to pay the bills, and/ or to gain some credibility and a name for yourself.

Final Words

If you’re not sure if architecture is your thing, then try to get some work experience during the holidays or some part-time work while you’re studying to start to understand what the practice of architecture involves.

Architecture can be challenging and rewarding, and it is a continual opportunity to learn and grow.

If you go into it with the attitude of a perpetual student on a quest to learn and enjoy the process, you will be well placed to succeed. If you find the things you’re interested in and focus on them, it can be a very enjoyable experience. In other words, find what you love and keep following that. Don’t be afraid to let go of the things you don’t enjoy and don’t be afraid to try something new. You might be surprised.

Until next time…

Liz at ArchiMash