Do You Want To Be An Architect?

Posted on August 30, 2012

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[Image Source: Dublin Architects]

[Image Source: Dublin Architects]

I received an email recently asking advice on whether or not to pursue a career in architecture. I’ve previously written posts on what architects do and what architecture school is like (part 1, part 2), but I haven’t written anything about the choice to become an architect.

What Do You Want to Do With Your Life?

First of all is the oh so minor decision of deciding as a teenager what you’re going to spend the rest of your waking life doing. Our culture tends to put an ungodly amount of pressure on young people to make this decision early (before you graduate high school) and frown on anything that doesn’t involve a four year degree.

Don’t be afraid to take a year or two off after you graduate high school. If you don’t know what profession you want to go into, don’t just jump into one. Take your time and get some General Education classes out of the way at your local community college (but only if you know they’ll transfer to most schools). Travel (if you have the means). It’s much better to have a late start to your career than to have to start over after you find out you hate what you’ve been doing for X amount of years. Plus, do you realize how much it costs to go to college? Spending even one extra year in college because you changed your major can add many more years to your loan repayments.

The best advice I can give to anyone who’s starting to think about what field they want to study in college and then make a career in said field is to go with what you love. A lot of people dislike their jobs and it’s pretty rare to have a job that you genuinely enjoy doing all the time.

It’s  like that scene from Office Space. Your guidance counselor asks you what you would do if you had a million dollars. Whatever you answer is the career you’re supposed to take. Now it’s not so simple in reality, but I think that exercise could at least help you narrow down your interests. For instance, if I had a million dollars, I’d be doing a lot of traveling and I probably wouldn’t be working in an architecture firm, but I would still be designing and working on my own home and probably doing projects for friends and family. A career in architecture is a different thing than being your own client, but if there are aspects of your career that would do for free, then you will be much happier overall even though you have to do other things you may not like. You can always try to choose a field that you think will have great job security that pays really well, but if it bores the crap out of you then every day will feel like torture.

Maybe Architecture…

Even with the things that drive me crazy about the profession of architecture, I still find myself drawn to it. Why do I own more architecture books than all my other books combined? Why do I spend so much of my free time on architecture related websites and designing and building my own personal projects? It’s just something I love to do.

Almost every architect I know would welcome a job shadow. Do this early in your career search, whether for architecture or any other career. There is no better way to find out what a certain career is like than to see what someone’s daily activities are and to be able to pick their brain about their profession. Do this with more than one architect. Architecture firms can vary greatly in the types of work they do and an architect’s given responsibilities will be different based on this. Try to shadow at least one small (1-10), medium (10-50) and large (50 & up) architecture firm. Also keep in mind that there are a lot of different personalities out there. Just because one architect you met was miserable and jaded and only had terrible work doesn’t mean that’s the norm. Seek out people and firms that match your own interests.

Living the High Life as Mr (or Mrs) Architect.

Contrary to what a lot of people think, and what the “profession” puts in front of people’s faces, architecture is mostly a very unglamourous job. There are occasions when architects get to work on really cool projects with good clients that turn out great and provide lots of great images to put on websites and in magazines, but they are few and far between. That’s not to say that’s the case for everyone. Some architects seem to have a knack for getting those great showpiece projects and others become famous enough that they don’t need to do the less flashy work to make money. Good architects learn to do the less glamorous stuff quickly and really well so when they get to the fun projects, they can savour them a bit.

Being an architect is not easy. It’s a long road to become a licensed architect. The schooling is long and grueling and you’ll have years of “internships”  after you graduate making much less than similarly educated people. After you pass the difficult 7-part licensing exam and reach the title of licensed architect you’ll still have bad projects and get sued by clients, but we chose architecture because it’s what interests us.

The good news is that being an architect is still a job to be proud of (regardless of what any contractors tell you). Architects have a very unique education and skill set. We’re able to take on complex problems and create elegant solutions. When an architect does his job well, he can greatly impact the lives everyone who comes into contact with his work in a positive way. People admire architects for their creativity and vision. I could go on, but Jody Brown has a great list of architect’s qualities more elegantly written here.

The Outlook

Here’s the part where I get negative for a while. Architecture has long been an important and well respected profession, but it has failed to maintain it’s image and relevance in the modern era. Not only have we lost face with our primary source of income, the general public, but we’ve been unable to adapt to modern building practices. I’ll leave it to much more qualified people to discuss exactly where architecture went wrong and how to fix it, because frankly I don’t have much of an idea myself. The fact remains that the profession of architecture is in a state of flux.

Part of the profession’s current problems come from within, but the larger part is the economy in general. It’s no secret that a lot of industries have been hit hard by the recession and you’d be hard pressed to find any more affected than the construction industry. Right now is a bad time to go into pretty much any profession, but architecture boasts some of the highest employment rates (around 10% for graduates). The problem is that when there’s no money, architecture (and construction in general) is one of the first things to be cut, and as we wait for the economy to come back, architecture will be one of the last things to recover.

When the job market is so bad, it’s hard to recommend architecture for anyone. You can’t really say that architecture is a bad profession to go into because of this since it is hard to predict where any profession will be in 10 years, but if architecture is something that truly interests you, then you should take that chance. If you have a passion for something, it will show through in what you pursue and make you stand out against those who are only in it for the paycheck.

As always, Bob Borson has already covered the tale of the architect and the architecture salary conundrum. Now that you’ve read my take, I would highly recommend reading his posts to help flesh out your understanding even more. Good luck out there and as always, feel free to leave a comment or contact me if you have anything to add to the conversation.