Business travel sounds glamorous on paper. Flying first class. Finding the sign with your name on it at the arrivals gate. Being taken out to dinner in the best restaurants. Getting home and telling stories that begin, ‘When I was in Tokyo / Lisbon / Buenos Aires…‘
But is this a reality for most architects? How much do architects really get to travel, and for what reasons? Is it mostly a good or bad thing to be away from the office? What can you do if you want to travel more – or less? This article will tell you all you need to know about travelling as an architect.
Is architecture a good career if you want to travel?
Architecture is certainly not a bad career if you want to travel, especially if you work for a national or international practice. The size of your firm is one of the best predictors of your travel opportunities: if it operates nationally, you’re likely be sent around the country at one time or another; if it operates internationally, you may even get to travel the world.
Architects are not quite up there with EFL teachers or photojournalists in terms of global mobility, but you’ll probably work away from the office more than most of your peers.
Why do architects need to travel?
The most common reason that architects need to travel is to attend meetings, whether with clients or other industry professionals. Of course, attending off-site meetings is something that lots of people do, whether they make government policy or sell camping equipment. But architects have two workplaces (office/construction site) before meetings are even taken into account, so you might find you’re on the move quite a bit.
If you’re working on a project that’s a long way from your office, the hours can really stack up – especially as you become more senior, and have more responsibility for overseeing projects as they progress. Some supervisors and consultants relish the variety offered by off-site work, while others come to resent the to-ing and fro-ing; it really depends on the kind of lifestyle you want.
How much do architects travel per year?
There is no fixed answer to this question. A number of factors have to be taken into consideration, such as the size of your firm, the number of projects it works on at any given time, your level of seniority and your particular skills. You’re more likely to have travel opportunities at larger firms that work on multiple projects at once, and if you’re higher up the food chain with a desirable skill set.
However, this is not to say that you can forget about travelling in your early career. Sometimes, what employers are looking for is someone who is enthusiastic and who can make themselves available. This is where younger, less experienced architects without family or other commitments may have an advantage over their more senior colleagues.
Although the question of how much architects travel must be answered on a case-by-case basis, realistically no architect is likely to spend more than six months a year travelling. This would be considered the upper limit by most, and most architects travel far, far less! It is simply too costly for the employer, too exhausting for the employee, and increasingly hard to justify because of technological advances and the environmental impact of travelling.
How often do architects get to work on buildings abroad?
As above, it depends very much on your company. Working for an international firm dramatically increases your chances of being sent overseas. If you speak another language fluently, you might also choose to base yourself more permanently in a country where it is spoken.
However, bear in mind that your qualifications from one place will not automatically allow you to work in another; for example, the requirements for architects vary between American states, and an architect who qualified in the US would be required to take the RIBA Part III exam before practicing in the UK.
If working overseas is particularly important to you, work on your language skills as early as possible (ideally, as a student). And when it comes to applying for jobs, research potential companies thoroughly: where are their offices and the bulk of their building projects? If you work for a small-town firm, don’t expect to be jetting off to Singapore twice a year.
Can you be an architect without travelling?
Fifty years ago, it wouldn’t have been possible to work as an architect without travelling. There just wasn’t any technology that allowed for remote site visits, or even remote meetings of more than two people! Today, however – as the Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated – more and more of an architect’s job can be done online.
While there’s no substitute for being at a site in person and experiencing the space first hand (and arguably no substitute for the face-to-face time that builds strong relationships), CAD, BIM and communications software have made travel less of a necessity.
If you really don’t want to travel, there are ways to keep it to a minimum. Be clear with your employer about why you don’t want to do this, and highlight what you can offer by staying in the office. (On the other hand, if you do want to travel, make sure your boss knows this, too!) But consider the question in a different light: can you be a good architect without ever travelling?
Travel, as the saying goes, broadens the mind, and that includes your creative repertoire as an architect. Unless you’ve got a rock-solid excuse, like you’re the parent of a tiny baby or you literally faint when you walk into an airport, why not seize the opportunity?
What are the disadvantages of travelling?
Though travelling in general is great for all the reasons given above, the reality of travelling for work can be decidedly un-glamorous. You might be required to represent your firm, looking bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, when all you want to do is sleep after a long flight. Your family might prefer you not to go – or you might find you miss them too much! You might be sent somewhere you have no interest in going, and culture shock is very real. But on balance, there are still a lot more reasons to say yes than no to travel.
Why choose to travel?
Everyone – or nearly everyone – loves to travel, but how might it particularly benefit you as an architect? Here are five ways . . .
There’s nothing like being in a new place to fire up the imagination. Sure, you can look at photos of the world’s most exciting architecture in books and online, but nothing compares to walking around, in, on, and through. You can take your time to study how a building really feels, and as you move through a new city there are so many more, everyday details to notice and get excited by. Don’t forget your sketchbook!
Learning new skills
Different countries, even different cities, have very different ways of doing things. Whether it’s a language, a cultural practice or a practical skill, you’re sure to come home with more than a case full of souvenirs. This is great on a personal level, but a broad skill set is also something that’s highly valued by employers.
Rewiring your brain
Studies have shown that being bi- or multilingual doesn’t only mean you have multiple systems for communicating, but also for thinking. The same might be said of spending long periods in two or more cultures. Before you travel, it can feel like the way things are done at home are just the way things are done. The more places and cultures you understand, the more your mind is opened – and this can only be a good thing for creativity.
Any job can feel repetitive with time – but how can you get bored if you’re always seeing new things? Though it’s a cliché to say that ‘no two days are the same’ in one’s job, when you travel a lot it really is true! If you want to stay interested, stay mobile.
Fortunately or unfortunately, the world of work is often about who you know as much as what you know. That doesn’t mean you have to be born into privilege, but that you have to build and maintain good relationships with other people in the architectural field. And travel is a great way to make contacts with people beyond your everyday work setting.
How to travel as an architect
There are various ways you can incorporate travel into your life as an architect. The main ones are:
The most common way to travel is for your company to send you to another city, state or country for operational reasons (e.g. meetings, site visits). A major upside of this is that your expenses, such as travel tickets and hotels, will be paid for. A downside, however, is that you’re on company time and your opportunities for sightseeing will be limited.
Transferring to a new office
If you work for a national firm, you may have the option to transfer to an office elsewhere in the country. If your firm operates internationally, you could even consider a transfer abroad. This is somewhat dependent on your ability to speak the language used in your office of choice, but there are plenty of countries that do business either solely or mostly in English.
Applying for jobs overseas
If you don’t have the option to transfer within your existing company, you can always look for a new job altogether. One thing to bear in mind, though, is that simultaneously moving to a new country and a new work culture is a lot to handle psychologically.
These days, more and more people are working nomadically, which is to say they don’t have one fixed base. Technology has made this possible in many fields, including architecture, but it’s not for everyone. You’ll have to pack up your life every couple of years, months or even weeks – but the variety and independence that come with nomadic working are huge advantages.
It’s unlikely you’ll be able to do your compulsory internships (i.e. those required for graduation and licensure) overseas, because the requirements for architects differ from country to country. However, early-career internships abroad are definitely possible. Many of the larger architectural firms advertise these and encourage international applications to attract the best talent. Also, there’s nothing to stop you choosing to do your compulsory internships within your home country, but away from your home city.
You can also travel on your own time – as many creative professionals are apt to do. This can be expensive, but you’re the master of your own itinerary. You are free to do and see whatever inspires you!
Though some architects have good reasons to avoid travelling, for most people it’s considered a perk of the job. Whether for meetings, visits or pleasure, getting away from the familiar is great on both a personal and professional level.
Even if your first job is in a local practice, seeing the same four people day in, day out, if you’ve got the travel bug there are ways to make it happen: trips, transfers, internships and more. Now where did you leave your passport…?