Architecture in the Real World … sorta

February 23, 2015 — 42 Comments

Pull up a chair, order your favorite drink, and let me tell you about architecture in the “real ” world. I thought I would try to make this an upbeat article but as I sit down to write it, I’m not so sure how successful a job I am going to do (good thing we’re drinking here, right?)

One of the things having a web site like mine affords you is a peek behind the curtain – curtains in just about every nook and cranny of the planet. Emails come in from all walks of life; young, old, experienced, inexperienced, idealistic, disenfranchised, and on and on. One of the most common themes of these emails is that architecture school is nothing like working in the real world. Most of them start off with giving me a paragraph or two of their background, starting at the beginning (kind of like a 12 step program):

1. I loved playing with Lego’s as a child (variation 1b is “I used to sketch up house plans as a child.”)

2. I wanted to become an architect and design buildings even before I knew architect’s existed

3. My parents thought I should go into a different major, but I really wanted to be an architect, so I went to architecture school.

4. I was still in architecture school as everyone else graduated.

5. I spent so much time working on my projects that I lost contact with the outside world.

6. I finally graduated after [“fill in the blank” – more than 5] years of school.

7. I finally got a job.

8. I don’t really design buildings.

9. I don’t really design much of anything except flashing details.

10. I don’t really leave the office.

11. I sit at my desk and draw on the computer all day.

12. I wonder … am I really an architect?

Does this sound familiar to you? I hope not, although I can’t deny that this is a very real possibility for some people. I always struggle to answer the emails that come in that follow this formula because the truth of it is that this hasn’t been my experience at all.

The reality of being an architect is that a vast majority of the time spent – for a vast majority of the people who practice architecture, involve doing something that doesn’t even come close to resembling design – but  – since I am an upbeat and positive guy, I like to think attitude plays a role in whether or not you view this as misery or something else altogether. Not everything – or any job other than “Lottery Winner” – is awesome all the time. Something as simple as your attitude towards things goes a long way to how you approach your business.

Let’s talk about taking the Architectural Registration Exam. It is widely regarded as one of the most grueling professional exams in existence, and few people look forward to the process of studying and taking those tests – I know I wasn’t looking forward to them. A strange thing happened when I finally decided to buckle down and start that process – I DID kind of like it. Don’t get me wrong, I was apprehensive about the process and concerned that I wasn’t prepared or equipped with the knowledge it would take to find success. I changed how I looked at the tests and as a result, I found my preparation and test taking to be rather easy. All of the information I was studying was information that I needed to know if I wanted to be an architect. This was all stuff that I should know, this is what I was planning on doing for the rest of my career so if I didn’t like studying about it now, how was I going to make it work for the next 40 years?

architectural binders

Architecture in the real world is about a process and collaboration, but for the majority of people who enter the profession, the only exposure they have received is from their time in college. I am here to say that architecture school is great, but it doesn’t really portray the experience most will be exposed to once they graduate and get a job. In college, everything revolves around the studio – all other classes are really just filling time between one studio class and the next studio class. At least it was at my college. I can barely remember some of the classes I took during the 6 years I was in school, but I remember every studio class and every studio project. (and believe me, some of those projects are worth forgetting). If I had to put a number to it, I would say that 100% of tasks and time I spent in studio at best represents about 10-15% of my time now.

I would imagine that if you are in high school, or about to graduate from college, this all sounds pretty bad. Surprisingly, you would be incorrect. I love to design, but I really enjoy getting my projects built – I like the fact that they exist. Architecture in the real world is just that … REAL. All of the things I spend my time on are important, and all represent a step along the way towards a finished product. Professionally, there is no greater feeling than seeing a project you worked on come into existence. I had a summer job when I was still in school where I did the drawings for a renovation of a house – this was a small project. I did not design any part of this project but I did do about 75% of the construction drawings. To this day, some 28 years later, I look at this house every time I drive by it. I look at the little overhang on the side of the house where the enlarged bathroom cantilevered out from the existing house by about 16″ and I think “I did that.”

I don’t tell anyone else that I did it but … It’s a nothing little thing, not special in any way, but it’s still there almost 30 years later and I get a tiny little thrill every time I see it.

But that’s just me, so I asked some of the people in my office to answer the question: “Architecture in the real world is ___________” to see what sort of responses I would receive. Since our demographics and experience levels are far and wide, I thought it would be interesting to see how 5 people in the same environment would answer the question.

Morgan Newman – Architect, 8 years experience

Architecture in the real world is more collaborative and more complex than I thought. It’s not better or worse just way different. I don’t think I would be nearly as challenged if architecture stopped at what it was in school

Michael Malone – Architect and Partner, 33 years experience

Architecture in the real world is more rewarding because of the clients. It means having the element of the end-user to consider when you are designing and making buildings.  In school you were working to please yourself or your professors so the aesthetic and functional choices were made by folks with a design orientation.  This does not prepare you for the fact the folks who hire you, your clients, don’t share the same taste, the same priorities or the same sensibilities.  What is wonderful is the fun you have making them feel like they were part of the solution and having them take ownership of the design and its outcome. That is the profession’s greatest reward.

Tyler Shafer – Associate, 6 Months Experience

Having worked in a firm before graduating I think my expectations were more realistic than when I initially started school (STARCHITECT!).

In the “REAL WORLD”  architecture practice is very much like school but with a different focus. School focused heavily on design, while the firm focuses on design/construction and a plethora of other things, namely the business of an architecture firm. Architecture in the “REAL WORLD” is continuing education. Occasionally, the unforeseen run for toilet paper.

Ryan Thomason – Associate, 2 years experience

Architecture outside the academic setting is more dependent on adequate communication than I thought. The majority of my efforts go to the question: “does this drawing/model accurately convey my intent?”

Nick Thorn – Associate, 4 years experience

Architecture in the real world is more rewarding than it was in college. It’s difficult to describe the sense of pride I get when walking through a completed project with the client. The countless redesigns, late nights, and stressful deadlines are all worth it for a happy client in their new building.

So this is one of those articles where the input of others really matters because we all have different experiences.

Bob-AIA scale figure

This was the 6th post in a series of posts called “ArchiTalks”. There are a few other architects who maintain blogs who were given todays topic “A Day in the Life of …” with very loose instructions as to what they are to talk about. We have all agreed to publish our responses on the same day – that way none of our articles will influence somebody else (as if!)

If you would like to see how other architects responded to this topic, just follow the links below. As the links get sent to me, I will come back and add them to the list.

Marica McKeel – Studio MM
Architecture in the Real World

Matthew Stanfield – FiELD9: architecture
Welcome to the Architecture of the Real

Lee Calisti, AIA – Think Architect
Architecture in the Real World

Lora Teagarden – L² Design, LLC
Architecture: It’s a human thing

Meghana Joshi – IRA Consultants, LLC
Architecture in the Real World

Michael Riscica – Young Architect
Architecture in the Real World


Architecture in the Real World

Tara Imani – Tara Imani Designs, LLC
Architecture in the Real World

Brian Paletz – The Emerging Architect
Architecture in the Real World

Jeff Echols – Architect Of The Internet
What is the Real World: Architecture in the Real World

Mark R. LePage – Entrepreneur Architect
The HGTV Affect

Nicholas Renard – dig Architecture
Keep on Architect’n in the Real World

Andrew Hawkins, AIA – Hawkins Architecture, Inc.
Here in the Real World

Jeremiah Russell, AIA – ROGUE Architecture
architecture in the real world: #architalks

Michele Grace Hottel – Michele Grace Hottel, Architect
Architecture in the Real World

Jonathan Brown – Proto-Architecture
Architecture in the Real World

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  • JL

    My school never prepare me for the business side of running an office. Hiring, firing, accounting, billing etc……Never prepare me on people skills. Never show us the do and dont with clients. Never show us there are many many type of architectural work out there beside designing. All very important thing in the real world.

  • Haha! 12 step program #LMAO

    #1 Just like you, I love playing with legos as a child.

    #4 And I am still in architecture school (my batchmates are already licensed architects, most of them work for somone else).

    #7 I got a job in my 4th year in college and I’m still working since then (but this time, I work for myself)

    #8 I design mostly residential interiors and houses.

    #9 Sometimes, I only draw construction drawings in CAD.

    #10 Me too.

    #11 Yep. Me too.

    #12 Well, I’m an undergrad, but I can do the same sh*t every other architect does (at least from my country).

    But I haven’t given up on my dreams of becoming a licensed architect and building my own design empire yet. I’ll be going back to school this year and hopefully graduate (I’ve said this for the past 5 years). =)

  • I’m with you Bob. I like designing, but I really like making things happen. If someone’s going to do big things, it’s going to take a lot of work in planning, organizing, and coordinating; and that’s worth it to me. I don’t even mind moving a closet and having to update 16 drawings and issue an ASI (at least that’s how I feel on the days I have had enough sleep lol.) I just view it as all being part of the process. I actually find working hard to be really rewarding. It seems like a lot of people complain that the architecture profession isn’t just drawing pretty pictures like in school. But I think anything worth doing takes a lot of work, and I feel like if I’m going to spend a lot of effort like that, I want to spend my efforts doing something bad-ass like designing and building buildings 😀

    I also have an interest in psychology, and I read this book called “Flow” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi where he talks about how people are feel most fulfilled tackling challenging tasks, not “relaxing” and doing nothing. I’m sure you’re busy, but I think you would dig it if you checked it out. It seem’s right inline with what you said in your post.

  • A-Four Architecture

    Architecture is a fascinating profession in that the challenges are different every day. Unfortunately, I think there are very few, if any, architecture programs that truly prepare students to face and address these challenges. Design is a component that forms about 5% of the tasks at hand even for a job captain or principal and yet is accorded about 95% of the focus in most programs. In reality, architecture involves problem solving, diplomacy, strategic marketing, communication of complex ideas, processing data and restrictions and a myriad of other tasks. These should be addressed in school and if someone only wants to be a “starcitect” and design only cutting edging architectural objects with limitless budgets, their chance for happiness in the profession is slim to none and it would be better if they made that discovery earlier on in the process so they would not waste money and precious years. On the other hand the realities of real world practice are numerous and we are probably driving practical minded problem solvers out of the profession in school because they see Blobitecture (or whatever the flavor of the year is) to be a pointless intellectualized pursuit. Architecture schools could be more fun and more useful if they took on the mantle of the real world: solving difficult problems with real budgets to meat code and address a clients requirements. Limits and obstacles can drive design to greater heights than pure academic flights of fancy can ever achieve.

  • clive

    After hammering away at the little or pretend big buildings of my architectural degree, I found the real world quite different; well, not so much, as I studied part time. I found the academic subjects very beneficial, although compared to my friends in economics, philosophy and history, not very rigorous. Becuase I saw real architects at work every day, I knew that the luxury of ‘pure’ design was a fantasy, but I could understand it; although its teaching should have been more structured and informed by research ant theory (not ‘art’ theory, but theory about people and buildings); therefore more intellectual and academic and less tendentious.
    Designing giant retail centres I wanted to know about how crowds flowed, how people perceived and used the building as part of a mass of humanity and could still be an individual; I wanted to know what was best for placement of certain utilities, and had to go on common practice; which might have been good, but was there a better way that some researcher could tell me? Answer: “no”. It comes down to lots of architecture is craft that you learn over time, taking in clients’ and users’ knowledge and needs, listening, then making endless decisions about a zillion tiny things to benefit shoppers, builders, centre management, tenants, deliveries, parking, where to park big bussess so they are convenient but not obtrusive…it goes on and on; but is all deeply and intensly satisfying.

  • gatcheson

    In school we deal with BIG ideals that shape massive buildings and entire sites, but immediately after school the design scale drops down to the nearly microscopic: trying to figure out how a roof parapet, toilet room, pop-out bay, or some other piece contributes to the overall design. Those things seem small in comparison, but they are still architecture and establish a credible foundation for larger scale. In the same way, reviewing door submittals is not glamorous but helps move a project forward.

    I think you nailed it talking about attitude, which takes small tasks from being drone work to making an important contribution. Sometimes a built-in desk (or whatever) is an entire project, so instead of chafing that one ‘just’ got to do a piece, surprise me with a great design that ties together the rest of the space.

    • You can’t possibly know how happy this comment makes me. I felt that this point was lost in my post and I couldn’t really find a way to work it back in and feature this as one of the main points of the article. Design – and it’s problem solving aspects – can not be overlooked during the vast majority of the architectural process. It’s not just the folks who decide what the building will look like that makes a successful project, it’s the people who detail the handrails and light coves, the flashing details and transition details. That where the really great buildings are created.

      • gatcheson

        Because somebody is going to have to live with that detail. You never know what someone is going to obsess over, so everything has to be right.

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  • Meghana Joshi

    Loved reading your post, and YES! The first year of internship was spent mostly relearning the process I just learned in college- in a whole different way. I feel college prepared me to be a Starchitect, but real world is preparing me to be a real architect (after I am done with the remaining six AREs that is!)

    • well, at least you’re prepared to be a starkitect! This process never ends as there are always new things to fold into your skill set – at least, you hope you will continue learning new things (studying for the ARE will be helpful in that regard!)

  • AlmostJane

    Thought-provoking post. Correlated to my own career as an educator as well. During my first couple of years teaching I often found myself thinking – “This is all SO different from college. Why weren’t we at least given a heads-up about THIS particular little knot back then?” But there really are some things you can only learn about once you get out there in the Real World. PS – loved the replies from other architects you added at the end. I’m shopping around for one myself right now and hope I’m able to find someone who embodies all these views. That real world architectural challenges keep it interesting. That having clients in the mix [and solving problems for real people] is what makes the work satisfying. That being a good architect means that you never stop learning. That effective communication is a key element in doing good work. Have a great week.

    • I watched an interview once – nothing special about who – and it was a guy talking about having a child. He said that he read all sorts of books on parenting but few were written from the male perspective. He thought after his child was born that there were all sorts of things that were new to him and he frequently thought “I should write a book for men that “really” tells it how it is …”. After he had started with the first few chapters he realized that the only person who find this book useful was him, and he already knew everything that would be put in the book.

      The takeaway here is that you frequently (typically) can’t prepare someone for what’s to come – you can only prepare them to be able to process the moment and hopefully they will react in a thoughtful and considered manner.

  • Virginia

    Architecture in the real world is tough business and hard, really hard work. A continuous process of reinvention… Nice one, btw!

    • Thanks Virginia!

      “Reinvention” is a good word to describe the process

  • Gene

    I agree that Architecture in the real world is real; because as a profession it is a much wider and deeper profession than many others. Being an Architect requires many different skills to get from idea to a REAL functioning building. I don’t know how many different roles (wide) there are. Principle, business development, office manager, designer, project architect, job captain, detailer, draftsman (now CAD man), construction reviewer, teacher, etc. Within each of these there are many levels. The size of the office will determine how many of these hats you will need to be able to wear. Most people will gravitate to what they like and are skilled at, and rise or fall within that area based on talent, drive, experience.
    Having taught Design for several years primarily 5th Year Thesis I can say Architecture School has not that much to do with the real world. If it did you would never get out of school. School helps you to find your strengths, and to enable you to think, and to “LEARN”. The last ability will determine how you do as an Architect. It is called school not job training. Schools tend to be structured around design because without a design (idea) the other parts of the profession wouldn’t exist. However, the design will permeate the whole process; if it doesn’t we are just building stuff. Unfortunately many schools don’t make it clear that that few will be doing design, and that there is more to being an Architect than being a “Designer”.

    • Learning how to input knowledge, interpret and repurpose that knowledge, is the objective of most educators. The problems I am solving now don’t even resemble the items I studied when I was in school. I think most people (myself included) will come out of school not really any closer to knowing what they are good at and what they should be doing. The learning process never ends, it just becomes a bit more specialized and refined.

      • Gene

        I think I was like many graduates how come out of school believing they are the greatest thing since sliced bread; only to discover that they didn’t even know how to turn on the oven much less knowing how to read the recipe for making bread

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  • Simon

    Love the paragraph about the ARE. Taking one Friday, and these dark circles under my eyes are representative of the amount of information I have gained over the last month and a half. Having been out of school a little over 4 yrs now (only 3 of which having been employed in architecture), I completely agree with you approach to the exam. Great post, Bob.

    • Good luck on Friday! Taking the ARE (for most) is simply a matter of preparation. Most people I know demonize the exam for how long and difficult it is but the reality is that it is all information that you should probably know anyways.

  • Lora

    Another good one, Bob. I’d be interested to see, if “studio-style design” makes up 10-15% of your time, what your percentages for other pieces of architecture would equal up to.

    • I have a feeling that if I added everything up, it would total something like 125%

      Maybe I should pay attention and put together a list of the other “85%”

      • Lora

        I figured you’d be over the 100% range, but it would still be worth seeing! I know we already did a “day in the life” but some of us chose atypical days. Seeing a general average would still be interesting.

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  • Kerry Hogue

    What everyone needs to remember is that architecture school is primarily a lesson in problem solving. After graduation and into the real world, you have to remember that the profession and all the various activities, responsibilities, project types, and everything else, is an exercise in problem solving.
    good post Bob. Like you I was exceptional as well, graduating from a five year program in six.

    • Clive

      Problem solving is easy…its finding the right problem to solve that’s the challenge…but I don’t think buildings can be reduced to ‘solutions’ as though people are just a set of ‘problems’. I prefer to think of buildings as providing an opportunity to benefit a community, an investor, some people and have them feel great for using, being in or around a building I’ve been involved with.

      • Gene

        I agree. One only needs to turn on the TV to see people, usually politicians, arguing over different solutions to the wrong problem. In terms of architecture a project is meant to solve a clients needs which are not necessarily problems, but issues. Even on a small project there are normally several issues like budget, site access, zoning, time, utilities, topography which have to be solved. I can guarantee that the project does not come with a sheet of instructions; so as an Architect you need to be able to sort out and prioritize the issues. Often the project you get handed is something akin to a tangled water hose (small house) or a tangled fishing line (big multi use building). Your problem is to find which is the issue to be solved first. This is not easy, and many times you don’t discover what that issues is until coming up against it after spend much time and energy solving other issues. Then you need to be able to backtrack quickly solving that issue, and discovering solving the other issues tend to fall into place. School should teach one to step back and look at the whole, and not go for the obvious such as pulling on the end of the end sticking out of a mess. This will make (guaranteed) the problem even harder to resolve. Hold it up, look at it from all sides, shake it and see if anything becomes clear as to which issue to solve first.

    • Like my Dad always said, you go to school to learn how to learn …

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