Architectural Job Starter Kit

Bob Borson —  February 28, 2014 — 27 Comments

March is knocking on the door so that means one thing in an architectural office: the “summer interns” and freshly minted architectural graduates are … well, knocking on the door. So I thought I would put together an architectural job “starter kit” of all the things you should be paying attention to if you’re planning on getting a job at an architectural office.

I have almost always worked in small firms – except for that one time when I didn’t, which wasn’t a bad year but it cemented in my mind that my skill set is better suited for a small architectural firm. My experience demands that I champion the advantages of working in a small firm, it’s what I know and love. I’m working on something that will hopefully give you some insight into what it’s like to work in a large firm that I think will be pretty amazing. Firm culture plays a big role in any work experience you will have so trying to get a feel for what it will be like for you while you’re working there is almost as important as what you will be doing. If you’re a summer intern let’s be honest, you probably won’t be doing anything all that exciting unless you count sorting the materials and product library as exciting.

Here are my Top 5 Reasons to work in a Small Architectural Firm:

1. Opportunities
The small firm requires that each individual wear many hats – there are no specialists. In our office of 8 people, with the exception of the partners, everybody has the exact same set of responsibilities. You’ll perform your work under the guidance and supervision of one of the licensed architects but for the most part, you are responsible for thinking through the issues. You will get to do just about everything sooner rather than later – attend client meetings, contribute to the design, prepare construction drawings, organize and process bidding and negotiating information, and go to job sites. That last one almost deserves its own category.

2. Work Schedule
I know that putting “work schedule” on this list is an interesting decision and there exists the possibility that other people have had vastly different experiences than my own. In a small firm, you are very knowledgeable about the personal lives of your co-workers. Everybody knows just about everything there is to know about what you did last night, how your relationship is going, what you’re doing for dinner later … I mean everything. For this reason, It’s difficult for us (as management) to require our employees to work at a different set of requirements than we ourselves are prepared to work. I come in at 7:15am every morning so that I can leave by 5:30 every night to spend time with my wife and daughter, I don’t want to work evenings and weekends. As a result, I don’t require that the staff put in crazy hours either. We expect everyone to work hard and put in a full day, but we then want you to go home. In a big firm, you might not see your boss for days so what do they care if you’re working 16 hour days? Maybe that’s not fair but I don’t think I’m entirely off base either.

3. Exposure to the client
Small firms are built on personal relationships with their clients and since all the employees contribute to every phase of every project, clients are not isolated from the people who are actually doing the work. This means that as a younger person, you get to share in the excitement that an owner generally has over the development and construction of their new project.

4. Design Ownership
Working in a small firm gives you access to the design process almost immediately. I don’t think I can come up with a single project in our office where the design wasn’t shaped in some significant way by every single person who worked on the project. While it might be one of the more senior architects in the office who identifies the need for a solution, frequently it’s the younger architects on staff that get to develop the actual design solution.

5. Mentored for Personal Growth
Since everyone has to wear all the same hats, you will be exposed to all facets of the business. As a result, if and when you leave the firm, you’ll be better prepared to go out on your own if that’s something that interests you (believe me … it interests ALL young architects).

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Now that I’ve given you some things to consider when looking for your next architectural job, there are some other items you might need to fully prepare yourself for what’s to come. I have written 4 articles over the past few years as a response to all the emails I’ve received asking the same questions over and over so I have collected them all here for you to make things a bit easier. Each one has [what I think is] valuable information in it that will surely have an impact on your decision-making process.

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Architectural Interns

Architectural Interns

I’ve had a few summer internships in my day but almost all unilaterally sucked in one way or another. Not knowing anything other than I should try to get a job in an architectural office, I got whatever job I could. Read Architectural Interns to gain some unique insight into how an architecture student can rise to the top of a pile of resumes and get that coveted architectural intern position. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, … you’ll be prepared for what to expect should you actually become a summer intern in an architectural office

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Resume tips for Architects

Writing Your Resumé

What this post isn’t going to be a list of how to write a resume – according to Google, the search “resume+books” returned 218,000,000 hits so if your new to the whole “writing my resume for the first time” game, you should start there. In the article ‘Writing Your Resume‘ what I want to talk about is the “what not to do’s” and the other nuances within resumes – the information you can plant between the lines to tell the reader something extra about you.

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Architectural Portfolio - Bob Borson

Architectural Portfolio’s and their True Purpose 

At one point or another, every architecture student or graduate has a portfolio of their work that they have agonized over creating. I had one – maintained it for several years too – it was the tool I used to land my first AND second jobs. I was convinced for years of the importance of my portfolio – it represented me and my unquestionable “genius.” It wasn’t until years later that I realized how much it sucked.

Go Big or Go Small

Big or Small: What’s the Right Sized Firm for You?

I have had a lot of architectural jobs in my career and the project types AND firm size have run the gamut. While there were clear and obvious benefits to be found at firms both large and small, determining which size firm is right for you is not as easy – or apparent – as you might think. In the article ‘Big or Small: What’s the Right Sized Firm for You? I take a look at what size firm might be right for based on your interests and – more importantly – your skill set.

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Happy job hunting!

Bob AIA signature

even better

  • Jenny

    Bob, I’d be interested to hear what you recommend for 5-10 year experienced, recently licensed architect who doesn’t maintain a traditional, school-type portfolio. How do you present your work before an interview and in an interview? Drawing sets? Work samples? What exactly is a work sample? How do you fit both pictures and details into a one page summary of a project (what I assume as a work sample)? I think information about this subject is lacking (since I’m in this situation) and it’s hard to know how to present yourself other than a resume and cover letter. What would you be looking for?

    (Background – I’ve had three professional jobs and the last two came from referrals and networking, which is why I never had to update a portfolio. But I’m in a new town and starting all over…)

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      All the jobs I’ve had once I had a few years under my belt were referrals – I didn’t have to cold call anybody. When I did go in for an interview, my resume listed the projects I’d worked on and what my role was on those projects. To supplement the “presentation” aspect of the interview, I brought in drawing sets to show the fruits of my labor. That really was about it for me and I’ve never had a job interview where I didn’t receive an offer. It has more to do with asking the right people for a job and coming across as someone they would like to add to their staff, because let’s be honest, nobody is going to look at a set of working drawings and hire you because your windows details were so amazing.

  • Jess Hopkin

    I’ve recently been doing unpaid work experience, as I’m about to go into the last year of my bachelors degree. I worked with one firm that had around 15 people, and I’m doing continual work experience with a firm that is one person and that’s it. They are definitely very different experiences

    • Andrew

      I think that’s still good that you are doing work experience whilst still studying, sure its not paid work but at least you are gaining some sort of experience.

      • Jess Hopkin

        I do have a paid job too, so it’s very full on, but it does mean I have a couple of names behind me when I go job hunting

        • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

          I think it sucks that someone would “employ” you without paying you. Those people suck.

          If you work for me – in any capacity – I am going to pay you for your time. While it might not make you rich, it’s not an abuse either.

          • Jess Hopkin

            I was only working for them for short periods of time, I did 1 week with the 15 person firm and I do the odd day here and there with the other. If I was doing more it would be more of an issue

  • Brandon Tyler Carr

    really awesome post! i’ve litterally just started looking for firms to work at, this week. are there any tips you could give, to better ones chances at sinking that first internship/job? :D

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      The only other article I’ve written that would be worth a read (that I didn’t include here) is “Winning Interview Techniques for Architect” which you can find here: http://bit.ly/9CW2uU

      Good luck!

      • Brandon Tyler Carr

        thank you!

  • Rachel Burton

    Bob, as a student I had a few jobs in large firms and by great good luck I got my first full time job in a very small firm (just me and the Architect). I learned so much because I got to see everything that happened in the office. I loved it!

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Are you still in that small firm? I like to keep things positive and so I stayed away from talking about the downsides of working in a small firm. Work flow in a very small office is far more “volatile”

      • Barry Maguire

        The best small practice I worked in was like a family, of sorts, and within every family you’ve got arguments and relationships go up and down but ultimately It worked. Just like a family I had to leave the nest when the time came and worked for bigger and bigger practices. I’ve realised that my answers are not in the bigger practices so I will be returning to a smaller practice soon and I’m looking forward to it and now I’m well equipped with the additional skills I developed in the larger firms.

  • Ann

    Having never been interested in “corporate” architecture firms of hundreds of people, the first office I worked for out of college was a 3-person office. I learned more in 1-month there than I had learned over years in college. So right on Bob. While my many of my glamour firm seeking former classmates ended up spending a year or two designing public restrooms and emergency stairwells, I was integral part of a 3-person team doing exactly what you stated here. Continuing on in my career, I gained positions at other small firms because of my diverse skill set. And the experience I gained with all of those hats is why, when the market down turned, I was able to make it on my own. And, at the age of 47, I have been a sole-practitioner for 4+ years now. I do not make the money I would in a big firm, but the trade off is well worth it.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      There are certainly positives to a large firm, I don’t want people to get the wrong idea about what I’m saying. My skill set is better suited for a small firm because I have boredom issues – having a lot of variety in my day is one of the only things that keeps me sane, focused and excited. The flip side is that I don’t get to work on really big projects, which at times seem very exciting to me.

      I would think – based on absolutely no information – that there is some sort of correlation between people who go out on their own (sole practitioner) after having worked in a small firm.

      • Ann

        Absolutely, the broad range of skills better suits one to work on their own, and the flexibility to accept a broader range of projects, I too have boredom issues, and working on my own affords me the option to work on a project or aspect of a project that has my focus at any given time, which overall make my production more efficient.

    • kerry hogue

      when I first started at a large firm, I had four summers of internship and 2 years after graduation behind me. I learned more in the first six months than I had before. Not sure what firms your classmates went to, but they sure were not glamorous. The exposure you get at a large firm, with the type of projects they do, are tremendous. Complex elevator systems with high rise and low rise banks, curtainwall systems, sophisticated mechanical systems, moment frames, shearwalls, transfer columns, the list goes on. Large project skills are nice to have and our staff are technologically advanced with knowledge on systems and materials that small projects do not afford. But, yes, a large firm is not for everyone, that is a given. Everyone has to seek their own satisfiers and that is the great thing about architecture. no one size fits all.
      And no, school teaches you zero about being an architect. it teaches you to solve problems.

      • Ann

        Agreed. Once I listened to what fit felt right for me, I could proactively move toward it. I really enjoy the personal contact I have with my Clients/Owners, contractors and tradespeople.

  • Ollin Trujillo

    Great read as usual and good for you on #2. Most of the offices I’ve worked at go from 9 to 6 pm (which always seems to bleed into 7 or 8 pm) and I’ve never understood how the folks with kids and spouses do it. School gets out at 3 pm the building department closes at 430 sharp and the contractors work from like 7 to 4.. I agree that family and having a personal life comes first. It is just a job after all.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      A big part of the reason I get to work early is because the contractors are already working and I don’t want to have any missed overlap time.

      One of the nice things about almost every small firm I’ve worked for has been work hour flexibility. We are all grown-ups and have a job that needs to get done so if I need to take my daughter to a Dr.’s appointment and need to be gone part of the day – it’s not an issue. It is incumbent on me to cover my responsibilities regardless of when they happen.

  • Mark Bischak

    At 6′-4″ and 260 pounds, this firm is large enough.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      At 6′-4″ you’d be the second tallest guy in the office. Michael is 6′-8″ but you do have a few pounds on him.

  • Doug Kuchta

    Great article and great advice. I only wish I had this 8-9 years ago when I started in the profession. I fell into the world of small firms. The largest firm I have worked for was 28 people and I only lasted 7 months.
    I feel once you go small you don’t go back… that doesn’t sound right..

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      … that doesn’t sound right but it’s even worse for me to say “I know what you mean.”

  • Kerry Hogue

    Hi Bob — In my experience, your conceptions about working at a large firm are not reality. We hire a number of interns each year. Aside from the requisite orientation to learn how awesome we are, the interns get assigned right from the start on actual projects. We plan for them to get a variety of exposure from design, working drawings and construction administration. We want to make sure that the interns understand what architecture is (let’s face it: architectural schools don’t do that) and how their work contributes to the success of the project, and therefore the success of the firm. Each intern is assigned a person to show them the ropes, to be a resource for them. Our goal is to make sure that the interns get the right exposure and advances their future professional career. A large percentage of our interns come back for the next year. Our interns are our main source of recruiting for new employees after graduation. We do not have them sort materials. We have others to do that.
    From a technology standpoint, we are an industry leader in Revit. that is our main BIM platform. All interns become masters in its use. It is amazing our quickly the young pick up this stuff.
    we all have a large base of education and learning programs that provide additional exposure and opportunity.
    a large firm is also not a sweat shop. We have regular work hours just like every other firm. We also do not have bosses. We have leaders that provide guidance and support and mentorship. Yes a lot of our employees travel. That is the nature of our business working on larger projects in other locations.
    working in a large office can provide solid growth potential. We have many on staff with 20 plus experience that started here straight from graduation. We hire people that are interested in a career and not just a job.
    I worked for a number of small firms, both as an intern and after graduation. Since I have been here 35 years, I am obviously biased.
    Irrespective of whether an intern works for a large or small firm, it should be a great experience for them and a jump start in their careers, giving them an advantage over their competition ( aka classmates) that do partake in an internship program.

    • Doug Kuchta

      I may have spoken to soon. This is a great counter perspective on firm size. I think we would all agree this is a very generalized article and everyone should find what their passion and skill set is. I would also note working at a smaller firm may limit the type of work you are exposed to.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Like all things on my site, they are taken from my perspective and experience so while I won’t disagree with you (because I can’t) my one year with a local firm wasn’t anything like what you described. It’s a big reason I decided big firms aren’t for me … maybe I’ve made a horrible mistake!

      Because I know there is variety in all things, I have someone who works at a large firm putting together a post for me as we speak (type) that will point out the positives of working in a big firm. I know there are many just from the single most obvious fact that large firms have more resources than small firms (and I don’t just mean money, I’m talking knowledge base more than anything else)