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Truth Hurts: 10 Facts Of Life They Don’t Teach You In Architecture School

1. Sleep remains a beautiful, precious, and rare commodity.

It’s 4 am, the last deadline of your degree is fast approaching, and your vision is getting blurrier by the second… Still, after pinning up your drawings for the final time, at least you won’t haven’t to suffer through any more soul-crushing all-nighters, right? Well, that may well depend on where you work.

Believe it or not, if you land a job in a large commercial firm, your life may just be that little bit easier: studios with plenty of staff can better shift resources to meet the demands of a major deadline. However, if you sign up with a small practice, be prepared to stock up on coffee and Red Bull. It is likely that you will have to stretch your time and energy thinly, working on a number of smaller commissions. The rewards can be great, but—just as in school—sleeping and eating will remain fleeting highlights of your working week. Savor them!

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2. You will be a jack-of-all-trades, master of… hopefully at least one.

Okay, so you’ve got design nailed. Now, become a master at project management, marketing, networking, business, economics, law, and while you’re at it, learn how to draw a real construction detail! There’s an old saying that goes something like this: “Architects know a little about almost everything and an engineer knows a lot about almost nothing.” If it’s true, then I envy those engineers.

Do your best with every aspect of the job, but try to hone your greatest strength as well. If you are interested in sustainable design, research it to death so you are a certifiable expert; if you are a smooth operator with Rhino, learn every modeling trick in the book. Once you have a specialism, you will soon find yourself indispensable to your firm.

 

3. It’s not what you know…

We spend years accumulating all manner of knowledge in relation to architecture, from history to technology, socio-economics to law. But what you may not realize is that none of these will be the key to career progression. No, the path to success is building your relationships with people: clients, colleagues who will support you in the studio, and your bosses, who have the capability to give you the experience you need… and a sweet reference when your next employer comes calling.

So, when a client changes their mind for the thousandth time, or your boss gives you yet another hilariously impossible deadline, stay cool, smile through those gritted teeth, and do the best you can for them—it will come back to reward you in the end.

 

4. Words are as powerful as drawings.

My tutor once said, “If your drawing is good enough, it should communicate the idea behind your design without any need for words, spoken or written.” Now, this was an insightful comment on the potential power of one, beautifully detailed section drawing to convey the concept behind my dystopian, pseudo-industrial metropolis (yes, we’ve all been there). However, once you join the legions of firms bidding for that game-changing commission, you will need to hone those linguistic skills to a tee. A confident pitch or a succinct written piece could persuade a key client to appoint you. So, if you are strong in these areas, step forward: winning words are priceless!

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5. Money talks.

Perhaps that should be "shouts"… In architecture school, emphasis is placed—rightly—on the power of high quality materials and detailing to achieve beautifully functional and atmospheric spaces. In the real world though, you may find that your clients have other priorities. For developers of large-scale projects, the profit margin is at the forefront of every decision made. The term "value engineering" will become increasingly familiar, and often misused, as you are ordered to cut corners in an effort to cut costs. Whatever happens though, make every effort to persuade your client that quality adds value—don’t give up on good design, even if it seems that they have!

 

6. You will (probably) not earn big bucks.

A common misconception remains among many that once qualified, your seven years of mind-boggling hard work will be rewarded by a gold-plated salary as you walk over the threshold to begin work as a Professional. Now, I’m not saying that you’ll be destitute, but compared to those professions with a marathon of training similar to our own, the pickings are slim.

You must hold on to that oft-stated romantic ideal: do it because you love it, not for the dough. Of course, if you happen to create a brand of sculptural modernism that gets you commissions like those of, say, Santiago Calatrava… then you should do just fine.

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7. Regulations will haunt your waking hours.

In university, your concerns may revolve primarily around questions such as “How far can I stretch that cantilever?” and “Can I 3D print this parametric globule of architectural wonderment?” However, at work you are likely find yourself preoccupied with issues pertaining to the maximum distance to the nearest fire exit, the required R-value for your insulation, and the minimum energy performance you’ll need to gain those extra LEED points. Yes, in the current climate we’re all swimming in a veritable ocean of regulations, but remember: don’t let these shackle your creativity. The rules are important, but if you are inventive, you can comply with them without compromising your inspirational concepts.

 

8. You will learn to love business management.

When you are powering through the night, completing your detailed model and epic renderings to perfection, savor every moment. As you move up through the ranks in practice, you will soon find you are drawing and modeling less and less. Your daily schedule will begin to fill with management mayhem: juggling meetings with clients and consultants, delegating jobs to your colleagues, writing up fee bids, and attending all manner of events in an effort to win further commissions. Learn to love these tasks as part of your architectural calling. If you’re lucky, you may just find time to sketch a concept on a cocktail napkin, Libeskind-style.

 

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9. You will learn more on site than anywhere else.

Don’t get me wrong: I thoroughly enjoyed my time in the studio at university, dreaming up the next architectural "moment" for the backstreets of Madrid, and designing that kooky "inhabited wall" in Edinburgh. In reality, though, I might have been better off frequenting the less exotic but infinitely more insightful of locations… a bog-standard building site. Watching contractors at work will soon teach you how much—or how little—you understand about the realities of construction, and this will ultimately affect your approach to detailing in a fundamental way. So get out there and study the bricks and mortar first-hand.

 

10. Ten two letter words: "If it is to be, it is up to me."

In school, the utter panic that comes with that big deadline approaching can often conceal the truth of the situation: You are in the wonderful position of having complete authorship over your submission, and the destiny of the project is entirely in your hands. Enjoy it while it lasts—in practice, you may find your creative ambition is at the whim of tight-fisted clients and whip-cracking practice directors.

If you feel your inspiration draining away though, make sure to plug the hole: find something outside of work you feel passionate about and run with it. Squeeze in a design competition entry (even if you don’t win, it will likely provide some fantastic portfolio material), hone your architectural photography skills, or start a blog and vent your frustrations with dry-witted glee. Therapy for architects comes in many forms!