Wednesday, May 6, 2009

What does it take to be an architect?

I recently got an email from a reader who asked the following:

I randomly found your blog by searching for the Pros and Cons of being an architect. I am interested in becoming an architect, I'm just not sure whether or not I will be good at it. I have no experience, no clue as to where to go to school or even have the courage to pursue it. Your blog has given me some insight to what it's like, but I am curious as to how you became interested in pursuing architecture. Did you know at a young age that you wanted to be an architect?  Have any advice that would help me figure out if I would do well in architecture?

Where do I begin?  Well, the first place to go would be my very first post on WAD, which gives you the basics of the tangible requirements to becoming an architect.  I also think this link does a good job of going more in-depth as to what your options are regarding schooling and what the schooling means for your professional career.  She also has a link here describing what the ARE (the licensing test for architects) is like these days--it's changed since I took it a few years ago. It's a good site overall, by the way.

Other than that, though, how do I describe what it takes to be an architect?  Let's start with this little fact: while I've known I wanted to be an architect since I was twelve, it's not required.  When I was about eleven or twelve, my dad ordered some house plans from Southern Living and hired a contractor friend from high school to build the house after he bought a parcel of land.  As I watched the house go from CMU and concrete foundation to wood studs to finished product, I pored over the blueprints and tried to figure out why the architect did what he did.  Why is the kitchen so small and the bedrooms so big?  The triple-height living area was so elegant, but did he realize that it was going to get so freaking hot up there?  I found Dad's amendments to the plans intriguing; he trimmed and chamfered a few of the outdoor decks so that he didn't have to cut down so many trees on the site, and he sank the living room.  Most impressive was how he had the contractor put a phone line in the master bathroom, as he used to say that he only got important calls when he was on the can.  (I have found this observation to be true.)  But having said that, my husband didn't think about ever being an architect until he was out of the Army and doodling around in suburban St. Louis and met someone who knew someone who was having a house built.  Guy saw the house while it was under construction, looked at the plans, and thought, "Huh, I could do that."  And he can do it; he does it very well.

Something everyone should know about becoming an architect, especially in terms of school: you do not half-ass architecture school.  I've only ever met one person who was able to do architecture and something else: a guy in my grad school who pursued his M.Arch and a degree in Sports & Entertainment Management.  I was amazed by people who could do school and hold a part-time architecture jobs at the same time.  We have interns that do that now or have done it in the near past, and it continues to blow my mind.  In general, though, if you go to school to be an architect, that's what you're doing.  Very few people can do architecture school and a sport/Greek organization/rap career.  Yes, I had a high school intern think he was going to do that;his goal was to be a rapper and rap/music producer and have architecture as a "career to fall back on."  Listen, punkin: in order to actually make a living at architecture, you're gonna have to give a lot of focus and energy to it, especially early on.  Architecture has a long learning curve.  I tried to do stand-up and improv as well as write a book when I first started out in this field, and I just didn't have the energy.  It takes a lot of energy to learn and retain skills every single day.  Be willing to put the time into it.

The good news though is that there's room for just about every kind of personality in architecture.  People who are detail-oriented and introverted have a place as the technical gurus who know how to put a building together inside and out and can almost quote building code from memory.  People who are more "big-picture" or extroverted may be great at master planning or marketing and getting work.  Folks with an eye for design can take a building from ho-hum to holy-moly-that's-gorgeous, and folks who aren't great at making things purrrty can just make them work.  I have a tendency to be a real rule follower, but I'm also friendly and a good problem-solver; my skills are in code research and space planning, and I'm good to be on a project from start to finish as I have no problem relating to clients as well as contractors.  I'm also [deep breath] one of eight people on the planet who is practically unable to procrastinate.

Regardless of what kind of person you are, you do need a few general skills to be a good architect.  You need to be able to task switch and be able to flow with changes.  Some days you'll work on two to four differernt tasks on a project or even that many projects.  Owners are always changing their minds, jurisdictions are always adopting new codes and procedures, projects are forever going on hold or schedules get accelerated.  I wouldn't go so far as to say that you should like or love change, because those who love change get really annoyed with having to work on the same project for more than a few months (which most projects in architecture do).  Being able to subvert any tendencies to procrastinate is also important, as is being able to prioritize tasks and get stuff done.  Other people rely on you getting things done in order to get their jobs done, and they need to you to have your stuff done and done right so that their stuff is done on time and right.

Like many other professions, architecture requires that you be a good communicator.  Sadly, like other professions, there's very little training for this.  Take a class, get good role models, whatever: just get good at speaking clearly but without hostility and writing clear emails.  Architecture also requires that you be able to handle criticism without internalizing it or taking it personally, which is easier said than done.

Flexibility, communication skills, commitment to learning; those are the main things I can think of.  I know I have some architects who read this blog; what would you add?


Small Town said...

Great summation! The only term I would add (and I use it constantly to sum up what we do) is "problem-solver". From a general practitioner standpoint, an architect must choreograph the tasks and goals of many people, schedule, costs, codes, functionality, all the while keeping the big-picture in everyone's focus AND making sure the myriad small hurdles and details get resolved.

Jon said...

Don't ever turn off the desire to learn. Everyday I learn something at the office and I have been out of arch school for almost 10 years.

Mile High Pixie said...

Well put, Small Town and Jon!

Wilderness Gina said...

Arch-e-torture Skool? Answer one question. Can you live on delivered food, exist w/o a shower for days at a time, and sleep sitting up with your head on a drawing board with heavy metal/ progressive jazz/ alternative going on some inconsiderate ass's boom box (or equivalent)? If the answer is yes, you, too can go to arch-e-torture skool! Enjoy!

Anonymous said...

You forgot to add "the ability to make decisions." Yes, sometimes the owner has to make the choices, but a lot of it is up to you as well. Maybe it should be "The ability to make your decisions and help the others make theirs."

(One way or another your struct engineer should not have to deal with *ALL* of the columns on a project moving 4 days before 90% DD)

Anonymous said...

Thank you all so much for this, I'm trying to pursue architecture and well this cleared up a few of the unanswered questions I had

Tooly N'uh'Tendance said...

I always wanted to design homes or buildings, i think i would be great at it. But a lot of people says architectural drafting am design is the way to go...can someone help me out with what i should do far as pursuing my career?