Architectural Studio – 4 Questions

May 8, 2014 — 30 Comments

A large percentage of the articles I write on this site are the result of receiving the same sorts of questions over and over again. Rather than send out a half-baked, off the top of my head response, I take the time to “craft” a post that tries to answer the question at a level of detail and specificity to actually be of some value. Today is that sort of post and the topic surrounds architecture majors and studio life in college.

If you want to hear me reading this post, just hit play and you can follow along down below ~ I don’t follow the wording exactly, there are “bonus” comments that I made as I was reading it out loud. 

Architecture Studio - University of Texas at Austin

1. I’ve heard that architecture majors “have no social life” is that true?
Not true – I had a terrific social life. Part of this is a response to what your definition of “no social life” means. I might not have been as full throttle as my Communications or Business major friends, or been able to take advantage of every social opportunity that came my way, but I certainly thought I had plenty of time to enjoy recreational activities. I also had a lot of fun when I was in studio – something that few of my friends could say when they were working on their homework. There was a lot of social activities going on within the school of architecture itself and I’d say that 90% of the people I still talk with from my school days are from the architecture program.

2. How many hours a week would you say that you spent in the studio?
I spent a lot of time in the studio, but I’m not sure that my experience 20 years ago is relevant anymore considering just how much things have changed within college architecture studios. As part of my degree, I had class time that occurred in the studio for 15 hours a week (three 5 hour classes). The additional time I spent probably averaged around another 25+ hours – of which I’m pretty sure included at least 1 full day (8 hours) each weekend up at studio. These days, many students work from home or their apartments since the work is done digitally. Also, where I spent a ridiculous amount of time building basswood models, most of the students I talk to these days send their digital files to a laser cutter and have the pieces of their model cut for them. Two years ago I sent out a request to architecture students asking them to send in pictures of their desks (Architecture Student Work Desks) and I was simply floored that most of the images I received were from people’s apartment.

3. I’m mainly interested in designing houses rather than buildings and/ or structures, do they require you to build all of those or did you have a choice of what you wanted to design?
When I was in school, I designed a grand total of two houses … and they were so terrible that looking back at them now I have decided that there is ZERO percent chance that they will ever see the light of day ever again. In fact, I’m thinking about destroying any evidence that they ever existed on the slight chance that the future ‘Bob Borson Architectural Historical Foundation‘ might accidentally find them. When you’re in school, you don’t get to decide the project type you will be working on – that gets determined by your professor. Sometimes the professor will make the curriculum available so that students will have an idea of the objectives and projects of that studio, but the truth of the matter is that is doesn’t matter. The actual building type you work on is irrelevant while in school – you go to college to learn how to learn, this time is about learning how to think, process information and solve problems.

4. What exactly is it about the assignments that make it hard?
The hardest part of any design assignment is almost always coming up with the inspiration and the “big idea”. We could always tell that the jury members didn’t think a project was very good if they were talking about the small stuff rather than your concept and how successful you were in executing your idea into some working architectural manifestation. The other thing that students (and some professionals) struggle with is the time management associated with communicating your ideas. It’s not enough to pin something up on the wall that is a couple of scribbles on trace paper while you talk through your concept – the physical work needs to reflect the mental work and the actual work needs to reflect them both.


I have written about the architectural studio before, and if this topic is even remotely interesting to you, they are all worth reading. They will change your life! *

*probably not

Design Studio - Top 10 Things You Should Know

Design Studio – The Top 10 Things You Should Know

These are things you will probably have to figure out for yourself but I wish someone had told me some of these things when I was still spending 35 bazillion hours a week up at studio.


Surviving Architectural School

Surviving Architectural School

Despite the urban legends that you’ve heard about that person who stayed awake for 6 straight days to finish his project, Architecture school is terrific. Here are a few tips that can help make your experience in architecture studio that much better and more rewarding


Architectural Portfolio's and Their True Purpose

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 … and most people get it wrong. Do you know the true purpose of an architectural portfolio? 


Mental Health Awareness for the Architecture Student

Mental Health Awareness for the Architecture Student

For some students, college will be the time when some might struggle to cope with the stresses associated with college life, for architecture students, there is another layer of stress and rigor placed upon them, some times with unfortunate results. This was a guest post iby Ulysses Valiente, an author and recent graduate with a Bachelor’s degree in Architectural Science from Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada


Hopefully this post and the additional ones I have included here at the end will prove to be of some value. I wish this sort of information had been available to me when I was trying to figure things out for myself when I was in school … although I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have listened.


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  • Jess Hopkin

    I wish we only had to do the recommended amount of work. We are told to spend 10 hours for every 10 units of study per week. I have a 20 unit design course, 10 unit construction tech and 10 unit ecology course this semester for 3rd year. I reckon I spend at least 40 hours a week on design alone.

    • It is a lot of work, and you might be making more work of it. Not everyone gets from A to B so quickly, and not everyone continues to push their work to find a level of refinement that’s necessary. I can’t imagine having some prescriptive formula in place that tells you how long your work will take you to complete.

  • Travis Schneider

    I’ve just finished my third year as an undergrad, and I’ve discovered that the biggest issue with my design process is how I gauge the success of my drawings and models. The challenge is to not use them to confirm your preconceived notions about your project (aka the vision in your head), but rather to use them to observe and discover things that need improvement, going forward. Showing your work to your studiomates and asking for their critique is helpful in this regard, since their point of view is relatively objective.

    If you’re a pragmatic and detail-oriented designer like me, it’s quite easy to bury yourself in the process of making every little thing work, to the detriment of the project’s overall progress, concept, and impact. I study at UT Austin, and the faculty here loves to see minimalism and a clear hierarchy of importance in students’ projects. My work is always too complex, with me treating every nook and cranny as equally special. I can’t say whether or not that’s a good way to design, but my reviewers have been trying to knock it out of me for years now, and I still haven’t really figured out how to simplify.

    • Don’t worry about figuring it out while your in school – this is the time you just absorb, process, and formulate. As you get a little older, figuring out a bit more about yourself and what’s important to you, you’ll figure out and settle in to what makes you tick and your architecture will eventually reflect that. It’s a process of discovery and while some people get there sooner than others, nobody has it figured out while they’re in school.

  • Pingback: Spring 2014 Final: Architecture Crit | Lisa in Arch()

  • Timely post, Bob. As I read through points 3 & 4, I realized I can use them next week. I’m participating in “career day” at a high school in Northeast Ohio where I’m to talk about the profession of architecture. In my presentation, I’ve laid out the process of becoming an architect and what it entails. As I put the presentation together, it occurred to me that everything boiled down to one central concept – Architecture is about communication of ideas; whether it’s through drawings, models, written word, or verbal interaction – you have to be a decent communicator to be a decent architect. I will probably mention this article (and your website) to the crowd, so you may get some hits from that area of Ohio late next week!

  • Have you seen the Archiculture documentary? (Trailer and more info at It was a documentation of some of the aspects of architecture studio by grad students at Pratt University. They made the documentary to help generate discussion about the structure architecture studios, and the University of Minnesota just participated in a screening where we talked about some relevant issues of design studio at our particular university.

    I know studio can be hard to get used to, especially as an undergrad, because you are thrown into very time consuming projects. If you have good time management skills, you can definitely keep a balance of social life and school, but it can get difficult when you also have a job, other classes, and spend 40+ hours a week in studio. I think it’s also tricky because we are so aware of the work habits of our peers. I think this encourages poor time management choices including pulling an all-nighter (or several) leading up to the review, or always doing digital renderings at the last minute because models seem more important. I’m sure this varies by studio but that’s what I’ve noticed in mine

  • AlmostJane

    I can’t relate to being an architecture student. But I am now BEYOND CURIOUS about the houses you designed in college [and are about to consign to Oblivion]. Please consider sharing them. But ONLY if the sharing will not endanger your currently-respected position & future earning ability. :>)

    • it would absolutely jeopardize my standing in the architectural community. Technically it was three house, the first two were my freshman year and we had to design a condo on top of Casa Mila and a house at Sea Ranch (the MLTW development at Sea Ranch California). Charles Moore was a professor at Univ. of Texas at Austin while I was there and he was one of our jurors … as bad as my house was, Charles Moore at least told me that if he were to do another house there, he would do what I did (which was a complete lie).

      The other house was done in my final studio and doesn’t actually suck, it’s just not very house-like. That’s the one I forgot about. Sea Ranch and the Casa Mila house … never existed, I don’t know what you’re talking about

  • Ken Brogno

    I would just like to add a couple of comments:
    1. Social life. Part of being an architect is the ability to wear many hats. Being able to communicate with others in a variety of ways and maintaining social relationships is key to excelling in this field. Not just with clients, but colleagues as well.
    4. At least for me part of what makes design problems a challenge is the ability to imagine the end product or end goals at the genesis stages. The end product or end goals may change as the process develops, but if you don’t have a decently clear idea of where you want to go at the beginning of the process, chances are that you won’t be satisfied with results either through out the process, and/or at the finish line.

  • just george

    Having the unfortunate experience of being an old guy I’m fully aware of the tendency to exaggerate past experiences which after a while begin to sound like laments or PTSD…so my wife says. My advice to millenniums; skip the architectural schools, travel as much as possible for as long as possible, expand your horizons and learn something that will stay with you for the rest of your life. Preferably do it while you’re still somewhat naïve and not mired in debt and commitments. Then if you still think you have something to show the world, maybe consider a design/art school verses architectural school…which by the way is not so linear and provincial.

    • interesting perspective – although it also sounds a bit nostalgic. I’m all for traveling, I spent 6 months in Europe when I was 22 years old and it absolutely changed my life. But that having been said, If you want to become an architect, good luck doing so without having a degree in architecture – it’s a mandatory step in the process of becoming licensed.

      • just george

        no, no, not nostalgic, but a futurist always…from day one. What I was trying to express, maybe poorly, is that there are alternatives for the creative, viable and lucrative ones. I have nothing against architectural schools, they’re nice places to visit. My traveling enlightenment started when I ran away from home and hitched across the country…I’m still doing that, the only difference is too much baggage.

  • aMa Architecture Inc

    Ah, the college architectural studio life, I loved it so much I cried when it was time move out and get a job. Such a rich environment for intellectual creative discussions, learning to work together, making life long friends/colleagues, finding your strength, maybe finding your direction and the social life. At U of M School of Architecture the building had an inner courtyard with a volley ball net, so playing at 3am was a regular occurrence. One had only need to dribble the volley ball while walking through the studio and a line players would follow behind. I spent the large majority of my college life in studio, even if it was studying for other subjects.

    • studio was the center of my college experience of that there is no doubt. It wasn’t always fun, it was rarely easy, I still have some bad memories of bad projects and professors I didn’t connect with but one the whole, I learned as much about who I am and what I am capable of as I did architecture.

      Volleyball sounds fun – we had a courtyard as well but no volleyball net. [sad face]

      • aMa Architecture Inc

        Once we spirited in a keg too. Last year I ran into my most intimidating professor at a neighborhood gallery opening. When I told a few of the neighbors about him, they all responded with “What? Peter is the nicest, most easy going person” Peter was the star professor and we hung on his every word. As a student, like many, I had the fear of being deemed “not good enough”. Peter gave me a B+ and he really is a nice. easy going guy.

  • Tim Barber

    The hardest part about most projects I had in the first two years was trying to figure out what the project was about. I walked in my first class first year ready to design buildings. The professor walked in at 8AM and said ” I want you to design a beautiful cube. Bring it back here at 8 o’clock tonight”. Whaaaaaat? I also remember ” I want you to take an element and transform it into another element. Have it done by Friday”. Ahhhhhh, such good memories. It wasn’t until years after I got out of Virginia Tech that I finally understood what they were trying to teach me. They teach you how to solve problems. In our profession it is typically spatial problems, but architects can transition to solve a lot of different problems because of the thought processes we are taught. An invaluable education! You also learn to be confident and stand up for yourself. Either that or you learn how to transfer to another major. Insecure students don’t last in architecture. After 5 years of architecture you graduate with the false assumption that sleep is optional! My best memories is going down to our favorite pizza place at about 5PM, getting large pizzas and many pitchers of beer discussing architecture and studio until the wee hours of the night!

    • I feel the same way and have come to similar conclusions. Maybe this is the “old guard” way of thinking while the current generation considers it “hazing”.

      • Tim Barber

        If the current generation thinks what we went through was “Hazing”, their parents should be ashamed! I have always told my kids, Life isn’t fair, Be self confident, and other peoples opinions and comments are just that, their opinions and comments. The opinion that matters most is your own. If people don’t understand that last comment and confuse it with arrogance, they just don’t understand. I know YOU understand.

        • I didn’t think of it as hazing at the time – it just was what it was and everybody did it. I have told people that of the time I spent in studio, 10% of that time was designing and 90% was trying to communicate that design through the creation of models and drawings. I could have spent less time “communicating” but I didn’t want to present anything less that my best.

  • Mark Wilson

    Bob—social life: Yea, you’re gonna spend a lot of time in the studio. But when you see people you were in studio with 20 years from now, will it be a bro-shake and hug, or a heartfelt hug and a conversation neither wants to stop that carries to dinner, drinks, or both. True friends who share a special bond for the rest of their lives.

    • Absolutely right (although those relationships are also developed during war-time situations as well). When I heard that so many people work outside of studio, I was genuinely saddened. I think at least half of the value (education) I received from my time in studio wasn’t just the work I did, it was the work that EVERYONE did. We all participated, gave each other crits, and had discussions (appropriate or not) that were frequently of more value than the work we were preparing.

      I do miss studio…

      • Mark Wilson

        I was also disappointed with that. Isn’t that where we begin to understand the term “collaboration”. And in a greater sense, where we begin to learn the importance of the ability to work with others, rather than by ourselves. Best, Mark

  • bungalowdweller

    My kid is just finishing her second year of a 5 year program and so far she’s been physically cutting all her models.

    • good for her! Let me know if that stays the same as she advances into upper level studios. I hope she is enjoying her time in studio, looking back, I think I loved it.

      • bungalowdweller

        She loves the studio more than anything else! And as for the cuts. . .it’s still a rite of passage in her program. She’s suffered one major one so far.

  • Kerry Hogue

    Hi Bob — ahh, design studio. I feel sorry for the students of today sending their models to be laser cut. They miss out on the irreplaceable experience of cutting the holy crap out of your finger with that brand new really sharp exacto blade, bleeding all over your work and having to start over on some of it, and trying to put a band aide on your finger in a spot that won’t stem to flow of red ooze. Those poor souls are having to suffer the indignity of a lost part of the architecture student. Oh, and did anybody happen to have a box of band aides in the studio? More than likely a piece of paper towel with tape dots sufficed.

    • I’m quite sure the quantity of self-inflicted knife wounds has decreased significantly over the past several years. I somehow managed to avoid any serious damage but I do seem to recall one fellow that keep super glue in his desk for repairing “substantial” injuries. Somehow the idea that going to the hospital to get stitches was a waste of precious model building time.

      • One of my profs. at art school was cutting a mat board on the floor of his studio, and the knife slipped and he sliced the tip of his finger off. As he looked at his finger in shock, his dog wandered over and ate the tip of his finger…