This blog post is part of the #Architalks series, curated by Pro Blogger Bob Borson AIA (from Life of an Architect). The topic for November is “My First Project…”
After making a very long list of projects and thinking about what kinds of slick images I could impress everyone with, I kind of had an epiphany while doing this exercise.
All of these projects require an explanation or a background story. But rather than discuss my role on a specific project, I think it’s more valuable to use this as an opportunity to discuss my role in the profession as a Young (unlicensed) Architect with an architecture degree.
One of the biggest problems with the profession is the disconnect between academia and reality. I think architecture students often have unrealistic expectations about what their roles are in the profession—given their lack of experience and knowledge of the real world.
I know I certainly did.
I recently had a conversation with a confused architecture student, who asked me several questions about my architecture career. I spoke about getting my license, recently leaving my job to pursue personal architecture projects, and having my own clients.
At one point, I said:
“I started this architecture journey 15 years ago. And for the past 3 years, I have been working 80 hours week. I’m starting to feel like it’s beginning to come together, and I’m just getting started.”
The student explained that he didn’t know if he was committed enough or loved it enough to work for years doing construction drawings in an office, before he could get to this point in his career.
So in a very real way, I explained to him what the Young Architect’s role in the profession is during the first 5-10 years after architecture school.
Office Boy (The First 2 Years)
I started working in an architecture office before I could properly use CAD or had any education at all. During these years, I called myself “The Architects Whipping Boy!”
My main job was to help keep the office running. I filed papers, made blueprints with toxic chemicals (because my boss preferred them over black lines), and drove around town (running all types of errands for the office). Once I became proficient in CAD, I measured many houses and drew them up in CAD, and I provided drafting support by picking up redlines.
Looking back, I really lacked a lot of experience to be much value to the office. Sure, I was learning to draft, and I consistently got better and faster during this time. But unless something was very straightforward and clearly spelled out, I just didn’t have the experience to do a whole lot in the office.
The office made a huge investment in me by taking the time to help me get up to speed. I guess I was pretty eager to learn, and I was spending time outside the office getting better with CAD and trying to understand what architecture is.
During these years, I worked full-time and attended community college at night studying “Drafting”. This was the very beginning of my education and professional career.
Drafting Construction Drawings
Construction drawings are really what makes the world go round. Crafting construction drawings is an art, and the Architect is the Artist.
I realized very early in my career that my skills as a draftsperson could make money, whether or not I had a college degree or architecture license. Since day one, I had a deep appreciation for a set of construction drawings. For years, I drew hundreds of sets of construction drawings. I was constantly learning to be more proficient at doing them and was reading other people’s drawings to see what I could learn from them.
For a long time, 90% of my value to the profession was the fact that I could help them with their construction drawings. This is what made me attractive to employers; everything else was gravy.
I wonder why many architecture students frown upon working for offices that provide production work on construction drawings. Wait, I do know why. It’s because they have been in academia for way too long—making big executive decisions as a “star architect” on imaginary buildings in an imaginary world. Meanwhile, the institution that they’re paying lots of money to pats them on the back and tells them they are on their way to becoming the next Frank Lloyd Wright, with dollar bills in their eyes.
The role of a Young Architect in the profession is to learn everything they can about putting construction drawings together, making a project happen, and getting things done. You learn this through tons of experience, but just a little bit of education.
Measuring Buildings (AKA Creating Existing Conditions)
In my early years, I measured and drew what feels like millions of square feet.
Measuring Buildings became a really valuable education for me. It is almost like working backwards from a built structure and bringing it back into the computer and onto paper.
The history of the building really starts to unfold in this process by measuring and drawing it. There is soo much you can learn about construction, design, and architecture history by measuring buildings.
In my early years, another intern and I measured so many houses together that we were able to recognize similar patterns. And then we brainstormed the most efficient ways to get it done and drastically cut down the time it took to measure a house. Someday, I will share all of that knowledge in a blogpost.
I really liked measuring houses. I still do—if I have the time and a good helper. It’s a great way to become very intimate with a project before you start any preliminary design work.
In most of my small-firm jobs, my role was really “Architectural Technician.” Typically, the offices were run by a Boss, who brought in the projects and interacted with the clients. In the back of the office, the Boss met with his staff, who then figured out how to get the work done.
Architectural Technician support means drafting, running errands, getting permits, building models, or anything else that gets the work done or makes the boss look good.
Learning how to become the best Architectural Technician possible is truly the role of a Young Architect, until they have their own clients and can afford to hire their own Architectural Technicians.
I have always been deeply passionate about the artistic and academic sides of architecture. It took some work, but I also cultivated a love for the very pragmatic business side of architecture, which is mostly concerned about time and money.
I always just wanted to learn more and be valuable to the office. I knew that in the big picture, my end goal wasn’t being an Architectural Technician. I also knew that the best Architectural Technician I could be was how I would move into the next phase of my career, and it would make me more valuable to the firm.
Unlike most professions, I don’t believe Architecture is a 9-5 profession.
Almost all jobs I’ve had have required me to work overtime at some point. It’s almost a given.
The role of an architect is to deliver a result or make something happen. Unlike many other jobs, they provide a service between business hours. And unlike other professions, I continue thinking about the project while I walk my dog and live my life outside the 9-5 parameters.
In my last job, I frequently put the time in on nights and weekends. And in my job before that, they needed me to work overtime to meet a deadline every 3 or 4 months.
I personally have no issues with working overtime, as long as it’s under 2 conditions:
- It's not consistently every week
- I’m compensated (or at least feel compensated) accordingly in some way.
Overtime is a hot topic in this profession; many firms try to establish an office culture around working overtime. Those types of firms certainly aren’t for me, but I don’t see a problem with them, as long as their employees are ok with it and are being compensated in some way.
If they aren’t, I recommend finding another job, which is more congruent with their lifestyle.
Tips for an Unlicensed Young Architect during the Early Years
Here are a few things for you to consider during your early architecture career:
- For me, all job advancement took place when I changed jobs. Since I mostly worked for small firms, it was almost impossible for me to get promoted within the firm, basically because there was nowhere to go. And most small firms are operating on shoestring budgets, so they couldn’t afford to pay me much more money.
- For a very long time, I made money by Drafting and being an Architectural Technician on projects. It is your life force. Embrace it. Learn from it.
- Never work more overtime than you’re comfortable with. Excessive (and regularly uncompensated) overtime is not OK.
- In the real world, Experience can be seen as more important than Education. Contrary to popular belief from academia, Architecture firms are in business to make money. The role of the Young Architect is supporting that.
- If you’re miserable or not learning, then change jobs. Your role is to learn. I have quit firms because I couldn’t connect with the work or with who my supervisor was. Learning is the most important thing. If it is painful to show up for a job every day, then find a new one.
Architecture is an amazing profession. An architect’s role changes and evolves over time as they grow. The early years are really important to the education of an architect and to the value they provide the profession.