Choosing a career is one of the biggest decisions you’ll ever make. Your future happiness, wealth and even health may depend on it – and if architecture is among your options, the stakes are especially high. Whereas, for most people, mid-life career changes are now possible and even common, the cost and time involved in becoming an architect mean you’ll probably want to stay in this field for as long as possible. So how do you know if it’s the right job for you?
This article will describe some tell-tale signs that you should – and shouldn’t – become an architect. It will also outline the realities of life in the field, so you can decide whether it sounds like a dream or a nightmare! Finally, it will look at the pros and cons of choosing a degree in engineering over one in architecture.
How do you know if you should be an architect?
Courses in architecture are not offered at high school level, so how do you know whether being an architect would suit you? Your personality and preferences offer the best guide. Bear in mind that architects are usually…
This is a biggie. If you don’t like coming up with new ideas, or drawing, or modelling, don’t become an architect! Related careers such as construction, planning and engineering (see the section titled ‘Should I be an architect or an engineer?’ below) can scratch the itch to build without requiring traditional artistic skills.
Passionate about buildings
OK, so you’re a creative person. But why not become a graphic designer, a fashion designer or a product designer? It sounds obvious, but a fascination with the built environment is essential for an architect. Do you organise your weekends and holidays around seeing interesting buildings and spaces? Do you read about architecture when you don’t have to?
If the answer is no, think about how you do spend your free time, and let that guide you towards a more suitable degree.
While creativity and passion are essential for an architect, they are by no means the only attributes you need. Architects also have to be good (or at least reasonable) with numbers and with people, as well as having the patience to do mundane work such as preparing plans and documents.
Good at solving problems
In a nutshell, the design process is a problem-solving exercise. What goes where? Why, how and when? If you’re the kind of person who is fired up by these kinds of logistical challenges, you’ll likely thrive as an architect. But if obstacles easily depress you or throw you off course, you may prefer more a predictable type of work.
You need staying power even to become an architect, never mind maintain a career as one. Training takes a minimum of seven years, followed by several more years working in fairly humdrum junior roles.
You’ll need strength of character to learn and move on from crits and negative client feedback. And since the field advances so rapidly, you’ll have to keep on learning for your whole career – though for many people, this is a major plus!
‘Architect’ isn’t really one job. You will be asked to work on a wide variety of tasks from week to week, day to day, or even hour to hour. But if you’re happy to adapt, using different skills and working in different locations as the job requires, the ever-changing nature of the job will also keep it interesting.
Good team players
It’s easy to imagine high-profile architects working as lone geniuses, but this is not how the field works in practice. Buildings come together as a result of team effort, so if you really want to work independently it may be wise to choose a different creative path (many writers and photographers, for example, genuinely spend lots of time alone).
Competent users of technology
While some parts of the design process (especially the early stages) still require hand drawings, most studio work today is done electronically. As well as architectural software such as Revit or SketchUp, you’ll need to be conversant with more generic design programs like PhotoShop and InDesign.
Feel like you just read a description of yourself? You would probably enjoy a career in architecture! So read on for some of the main points to consider about the job itself.
Points to consider
If you have the right character traits to be an architect, that’s an excellent start – but you’ll also need to consider the following work-related issues before signing up. These are not included to put you off, but to shine a light on some of the common complaints of architects and architecture students. Everyone’s circumstances are, of course, different.
Qualifying as an architect
It takes longer to qualify as an architect (seven or more years) than any other job. This is costly in itself, and it means you’ll enter the workforce later than most of your peers. Are you ready to delay getting a job, while simultaneously taking on large student debt? Because unfortunately, this is the harsh reality of qualifying as an architect today.
Architects’ work environment
Life as an architect can be stressful, and the hours notoriously long. It’s certainly not your average nine-to-five – more like eight-to-eight, on occasion! While people in their twenties are often resilient enough to cope with this, it may get harder once you have a family or just want to slow down a little in mid-life.
Architectural firms, especially high-profile ones, tend to be based in cities. Is urban life for you? If not, you will almost certainly need to work for a small practice or go it alone. One advantage of working for a large firm, of course, is that they have international offices and you could find yourself working in Beijing or Dubai a few years down the line.
Architects are often considered to be well paid, but in the present job market you may find you earn less than you expect. The average salary for an architect in the UK is between £40,000 and £50,000, whereas in the US its closer to $90,000, which is certainly respectable but not going to make you rich. Only partners and directors will ever take home salaries closer to £100,000.
Your honest preferences
On paper and screen, architecture is a glamorous career; in the real world, it can be rather more pedestrian. Ask yourself frankly what you’re daydreaming about: is it designing buildings or introducing yourself as an architect at parties? If it’s the latter, the hard graft of an architecture degree may come as a bit of a shock.
Eight reasons to become an architect
If you’ve made it through the previous section without running for the hills, here are eight great reasons to make architecture your life’s work.
1. Your personality, skills and interests are right for architecture.
Obviously, this is the number one reason for choosing architecture as a career: it feels ‘right’ for you in all kinds of practical ways.
2. You want to affect the world around you.
At its most satisfying, architecture allows you to make people’s lives better. Whether it’s a sustainable office building, a school that children love to attend or just someone’s dream home, society is improved when man-made spaces are well-designed.
3. You want to do a job whose results you can actually see.
In common with other creative jobs, architects get to see the fruit of their labours very clearly. But unlike a poem or a play, buildings remain a constant part of people’s landscape over several decades. That’s quite a legacy!
4. You want a job for life that won’t get boring.
Having invested so much in their training, most architects stick with the field for many years, if not their whole working lives. And the good thing is, with ever-evolving social needs and technology, you’ll never be able to rest on your laurels or get bored.
5. You have a wide range of interests.
Of course, you will need to bring together your skills in art and science, but the best architects are interested in and inspired by everything. You may be surprised how often you are able to connect your work with a book you’ve read or a sculpture you love.
6. You’re a people person.
Yes, that’s right! Interpersonal skills tend to be overlooked in the architectural field, but they can separate a mediocre practitioner from an exceptional one. The design process requires diplomatic communication and negotiation, so if you have a way with people you’ll find the rest of your job comes much easier.
7. You pay attention to the world around you and to details.
No matter what kind of design interests you, attention is a key skill – both to external inputs and to the details of your own projects. If you’re the kind of person who notices things that others miss, the complexity of designing buildings will probably satisfy you in the long term.
8. You want to be respected.
Though it’s hard to admit, we all want the respect of others in society and architects tend to command it in the same way that doctors, teachers and lawyers do. It’s an easy shorthand for intelligence and conscientiousness, and having gone through such arduous training, why shouldn’t you go ahead and celebrate that?
Eight reasons NOT to become an architect
If you ticked all or some of the boxes above, you’re probably on the right path. But here are eight reasons why you really shouldn’t be an architect.
1. You want to be rich.
With a starting salary of around £20,000 / $47,000 and maximum earnings of around £100,000 / $130,000, you’re never going to be a millionaire. On the other hand, the average architect’s salary of £40,000 to £50,000 and $80,000 to $100,000 will give you a comfortable life in most parts of the world.
2. You like to have a lot of free time.
You will probably be asked to work long hours, especially early in your career, and for little or no extra money. Hobbies and even friendships can easily fall by the wayside, so decide whether you’re prepared to accept this. Thankfully, in more progressive firms bosses are starting to recognise the value of a healthy work-life balance.
3. You can’t handle criticism.
Crits are an essential part of an architecture education. Constructive criticism helps you improve but it can be hard to take; 25% of architecture students report suffering from mental health problems related to their studies (though long hours and heavy debt, as well as crits, doubtless influence this statistic).
And don’t expect the criticism to stop once you enter the world of work – bosses, colleagues and clients may also reject ideas you’re convinced are brilliant.
4. You don’t like being competitive.
There is no getting away from the fact that competition is fierce within architecture, both for university places and for jobs. You’ll need to big yourself up to get ahead. Many building contracts are also awarded on the basis of competitions, so if you don’t like putting yourself out there, consider whether this culture might impact your mental health.
5. You want to be creative every day.
While you are probably attracted to the creative side of the job, most days you probably won’t be terribly creative. Make sure you don’t mind sitting at a computer and in meetings as well as coming up with ideas.
6. You love the idea of saying you’re an architect.
Becoming an architect is difficult, time-consuming and expensive. It can’t be taken lightly – so while it’s fine to dream of the pride you’ll feel on the day you finally qualify, make sure your main motivation is that you love to build.
7. Your parents / teachers / friends think it would suit you.
The people in your life may be well-meaning, but you are the only one who really knows what will make you happy. Without a strong drive, it’s impossible to make it as an architect. So take advice from those closest to you, but remember the final decision should be yours and yours alone.
8. You’re only excited by the mathematical aspects of building design.
If this sounds like you, check out the next section of this article!
Should I be an architect or an engineer?
Perhaps you’re interested in buildings and structures, but you can’t choose between studying architecture and engineering. What’s are the main differences between these two subjects?
First, engineering focuses on the technical rather than creative side of building design. Engineers learn about materials and processes that make buildings safe, while architects also engage with appearance and ‘feel’.
Second, most engineers don’t require a licence, whereas all architects do, and third, engineering degrees take considerably less time than architecture degrees (three or four years compared to seven or more).
Fourth, perhaps rather unfairly, the average engineer earns slightly more than the average architect. And finally, engineering students tend to have more career options on graduation than architecture students.
If you are really struggling to choose between architecture and engineering, bear in mind that degrees exist that combine the two, for example in the UK; the five-year MEng Structural Engineering with Architecture at the University of Edinburgh, or the four-year MEng Engineering and Architectural Design at the Bartlett. And in the US, it is sometimes possible to major in architecture and take a minor in engineering, or vice versa.
Being an architect is hard. The training is long, costly and challenging, and the job itself can be stressful and feel poorly compensated for the number of hours worked. However, for someone who lives to create, who has discipline and who wants to literally change the world, a career in architecture can be a dream come true.
Before you decide, try to spend time at a firm to get a feel for the real work that you might be doing. Ask if you can shadow someone who’s prepared to be honest about the job, warts and all. And if that isn’t enough to put you off, here’s wishing you a long and enjoyable career as an architect!