I have good friend Enoch Sears sitting in and writing today’s post. I get a lot of questions from people who want to be architects, love architecture but feel that they aren’t creative enough to work in this field. Don’t worry about that, there is a role for you and today, Enoch talks about a few of those possibilities.
What is it like to be an Architect? (It’s Probably Not What You Think)
“One day Alice came to a fork in the road and saw a Cheshire cat in a tree. Which road do I take? she asked. Where do you want to go? was his response. I don’t know, Alice answered. Then, said
the cat, it doesn’t matter.”
- Alice In Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
The cat’s advice is good for (aspiring) architects as well. Figuring out where you want to go is more than half the battle. If you, or someone you know, is considering the field of architecture as a career, here is some information they should read. Trust me … I’m an Architect.
Every architect has experienced it: the awkward pause I get after someone hears what I do for a living. “I’m an architect,” I respond.
I try to figure out what the other person is thinking, but never do. I wonder: “Do they think I make lots of money? Do they think I must be incredibly artistic and talented? Or do they think … “I should have guessed, they’re wearing those funky glasses.”
Instead I hear, “Oh, so you like, uh, design buildings?”.
“Uh, yes, I design buildings,” I respond, uncomfortably shifting my weight from left to right. I’ve found this is normally the best response, but what I’m really thinking is – “Sheesh, I’ve never designed a building in my entire career!” but more about that later.
I’ve tried other approaches, but this response seems to keep the conversation rolling.
So What Exactly Does an Architect Do?
Ask different architects the details of his or her daily job duties and you’ll get a different answer every time. What an architect does on a daily basis depends on where they live (big city or small town), what kind of firm they work for, and a myriad of other factors.
Before deciding to be an architect, figure out what your ideal work day would be like, then look for a match below. Here are a few job descriptions for architects:
Design architect at a large firm – Large firms have entire teams that are focused only on the initial design of a project. If you work at a large firm, you will be living in a large metropolitan area like New York, Houston, Los Angeles, etc. If this is your ideal job, living in a small town is out. It will be commuting and busy streets for you. Design architects are involved in the artistic side of the process: sketching freehand, making initial computer generated images of the projects, and putting together presentations for clients. These architects have strong artistic abilities and a lot of their day is spent on right-brained (creative visualization) activities. If you love creating beautiful images from scratch, can draw well, and are talented with Adobe Photoshop, SketchUp, and 3d Studio VIZ, you will enjoy being on a design team and you should try to work at a large firm. There will still be late nights getting ready for client presentations and competition deadlines, but what is a late night when you are doing something you love? One disadvantage of being on a design team is that you will not be involved in the later phases of a project. You won’t be involved in the drawing of building plans, nor how the project is constructed. Design teams usually consist of a few senior members who are skilled in traditional drawing (pen and pencil) and younger members who are skilled with the latest digital tools. Note that competition for these jobs is stiff since this is what most architects like to do. To compete in this arena you’ll need a strong portfolio showing your artistic skills. However, if you would rather be involved in all aspects of a projects, this job may not be for you.
Production architect at a large firm – Large firms have architects and interns that work exclusively on the production of building plans or “blueprints” (architects call these “construction drawings”). These plans are what the contractor will use to build the building. Young, unlicensed architects on a production team (up to 10 years experience) spend their day correcting or modifying building plans with CAD or BIM software. This job involves long stretches sitting down doing the same thing over and over (drawing screws in a piece of wood for instance). Some architects don’t like this, others do. Working on a production team gives architects the ability to understand how a building is built and how the details fit together. These architects do not design buildings and they do not create the sexy images of buildings that we often associate with architects – that is the design team mentioned above, remember? If you are hungry to participate in the design of a building and draw pretty pictures, this job may not be for you. On the other hand, if you are technically minded (left-brained) you might find a nice niche here!
Principal at a Large firm – a principal or partner has reached the top of a large firm. Principals are well paid ($100-200k) because they have vast amounts of experience (20+ years) as well as profitable relationships and connections (e.g. they bring in new work) . They frequently pull in 6 figure plus salaries and are involved in the design and planning of projects. A very small percentage of practicing architects are principals at large firms. If you make the right choices in your career you can get here by your 50′s. Don’t expect it to be sooner. If you want the quick win, be a lawyer.
Contract Administration – some architects work exclusively on projects that are in the process of being built. They answer questions the builder may have about the construction drawings (‘the drawings’). Their time is spent talking to the builder (10%), researching the drawings (10%), visiting the job site (50%) and coordinating corrections to the drawings (30% – yes mistakes happen). If you enjoy being outside, going to meetings and are cool under pressure (criticism), you may want to go into contract administration. Note that many architects involved in contract administration sit in front of a computer all day. If you truly want to spend your days out-of-doors, go work for a contractor. Architects that work in contract administration are usually senior architects that have been around 20+ years because this job requires deep experience.
Spec (specifications) Writer – some architects spend their days compiling thick books of ‘project specifications’. These are not drawings, but physical descriptions of the quality standards and materials that should be used to build a project. For instance, the specifications tell the builder what paint to use when painting steel outdoors, and the quality of steel used to frame a wall. These architects spend their days researching building materials and editing large Word documents. If you enjoy reading and writing technical manuals, then you may want to consider being a spec writer! Note that spec writing is not an entry-level position, most spec writers are mid-to-late career professionals. These architects don’t draw at all, so if you don’t like to draw or aren’t artistic, you can still be a great spec writer.
Architect at a mid-size to small firm – architects at mid-size to small firms may not have the opportunity to work on large skyscrapers or monumental projects, but because these firms are smaller, these architects get more opportunities to be involved in every aspect of a project. Most upper level architects (20+ years) do a little of everything. They may do a little design, meet with clients, and manage junior architects. I’m pretty sure this is what Bob does.
Sole practitioner or firm owner – many people get into architecture because they dream of owning their own firm or ‘being their own boss’. The rewards and flexibility of starting your own architecture firm are enticing to many, but it is difficult, if not impossible, if you do not have a spouse with a healthy income. Sole practitioners and small firm owners work long hours and deal with tight finances. Typical salaries for solo architects (10+ years experience) lie between $60k and $70k a year, so if you want to get rich quick, think before you jump (p.s. I write about the challenges of starting an architecture firm at BusinessofArchitecture.com). If on the other hand you love wearing a lot of hats, don’t mind the responsibility and value flexibility, this can be a rewarding path.
Interns (0-5 years experience) – I can’t leave out the intern. Before you can reach any of the above positions you need to pass 3-5 years of internship doing (mostly) menial tasks 8 hours a day sitting in front of a computer. The only interns who do building design (the pretty pictures people think of when they think ‘architect’) all day work at large firms as part of a design team (see design architect at a large firm above). Interns at smaller firms might do some creative work, but most of their day is spent drafting on a computer.
It’s impossible to cover all the possible architect job descriptions, but this is a healthy start. If you are considering the career, go talk to some local architects and see if you can shadow one for a day or two. What you learn now will pay dividends later.
It is important to decide what you like doing best so that you can steer your career in that direction. Some architects design houses. Some design schools. Each is a very different experience. Some architects sit at a desk all day. Some architects are outside all day visiting construction sites. Some architects draw all day. Some architects never draw. And some architects do a little of everything. So if we meet on the street someday and you ask me what I do, when I respond “I’m an architect”, maybe you’ll understand.
About Enoch Sears and BusinessofArchitecture.com
Enoch Sears, AIA, started BusinessofArchitecture.com as a resource for architects who are seeking information about marketing for architects and web design for architects. He is a practicing architect in California and author of the book “Social Media for Architects”. On BusinessofArchitecture.com he interviews architects and shares their successes for others to follow. Find Enoch on Twitter @BusinessofArch.