What’s it really like to practice as an architect? Where do you mostly work, and what do you actually do? Are you well paid? What kind of people are you surrounded by? Do you have to dress all in black like a mime artist?
Read on for an in-depth look at working hours and conditions in architecture. We’ll tell you what you expect on a daily basis from your workplace and work life, and help you decide whether architecture is the right career for you…
Working environment and conditions
In general, an architect’s working environment and conditions are quite comfortable. With the exception of making site visits you will be working indoors, in a modern office. You are likely to spend most of your time on a computer and won’t be required to do physical labor as construction workers are.
Unless you are self-employed, you will find yourself working alongside at least two or three other people – probably many more – but with a good deal of independence. Your working week will probably be a standard 40 hours, though you may be asked to do more at busy times. Most architects are paid a respectable salary when compared to other professionals such as teachers. Moreover, there are opportunities for travel, and the profession is highly regarded by the public.
However, architectural work can be stressful because of competing priorities and deadlines, and some architects feel they are not fairly compensated. Architects also take on legal responsibility for the safety of their buildings, which can be a psychological burden.
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Where do architects spend most of their time?
Architects spend most of their time at a desk, working at a computer. This could be in an office with others, or (increasingly, since early 2020!) alone at home. Architects also spend time in meetings with clients and other industry professionals, and visiting construction sites.
If you’re employed by a large practice that works on national or international projects, you might also be required to travel to other cities or countries.
Types of firm / practice / studio / office
First, a note on descriptions: the words firm, practice and studio are often used interchangeably to describe any company whose business is architecture, but firm may imply a larger organization while studio suggests a smaller one. A practice could be any size, while office simply refers to the main workspace of a practice.
What does it feel like to work at one of these places? It depends a lot on the size of the company. If you work for a large firm – maybe even a ‘big name’ like Foster and Partners – you will probably find yourself putting in longer hours, and feeling greater pressure, than if you work for a medium-sized practice or a small studio.
The trade-offs for this are the high profile of the organization (which could really make your CV stand out in future) and the excitement of lots of things happening at once. At a smaller company, you’ll know the names of all of your colleagues and have a more complete understanding of what the company is doing at any one time; the downside is that you might get bored more quickly, and find too few in-house opportunities for promotion.
Another option for an architect is to go it alone as a sole practitioner. Some people choose to do this permanently, if they enjoy this kind of independence, or temporarily, if they’re just starting out and can’t afford to hire anyone yet! You might like to read our article, A Guide to Architecture Firms, for more information on the kinds of places that architects work.
Beyond size, something else to consider about architecture companies is what they pick out as their selling point: efficiency, experience, or expertise. Practices that focus on efficiency highlight their ability to complete projects in less time, or at a lower cost, than their competitors, and they are likely to work on buildings like residential units that can easily be replicated.
Those that play up their experience have been in the game a long time, and are seen as a ‘safe pair of hands’, while companies who focus on expertise are likely to be specialists in a particular area such as public housing or the adaptive reuse of heritage buildings.
Who does an architect work with on a daily basis?
If you work in an office you will of course see your colleagues every day, but if you’re a sole practitioner you might have to make do with your own company (for some this is a nightmare, others a dream!). On a more occasional basis, you will meet with clients and other professionals such as engineers, plumbers, electricians, interior designers, landscape designers, planners, local government officers… the list goes on.
Specialist projects require the knowledge and skills of experts in niche fields you may never even have heard of. So although architects are primarily desk-based, it can actually be quite a sociable profession and one in which there are always chances to learn something new.
How many hours do architects work?
In theory, an architect’s working hours are Monday to Friday 09:00 to 17:00 (or whatever the local norm is; in the Middle East, for example, weekends are usually taken on Friday and Saturday). In practice, in the throes of a big project, you will probably be asked to work overtime either at the end of the day or on weekends.
Whether or not you can negotiate on this will depend on your company’s policies – and your boss!
On top of their core working hours, licensed architects are expected to devote 35 hours per year to CPD (continuing professional development), which doesn’t sound like much at first, but it’s almost the equivalent of a full working week.
Even if you practice as an architectural designer (i.e. without a full licence), it’s still a good idea to invest in CPD as it keeps you interested in your work and makes you more employable in the future.
Can architects work from home?
If there’s one thing that was proven by the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s that all sorts of jobs can be done online these days! Sole practitioners often work from home as a matter of course, as this saves money on office space.
If you’re employed by someone else, whether or not you can work from home depends less on whether it’s possible – the majority of tasks can obviously be done remotely these days thanks to programs like AutoCAD, Revit and Zoom – than whether your manager is supportive.
Certainly, when it comes to sharing ideas in the early stage of a project, there’s nothing like a group of creative minds sitting together around a table, pens in hand. And site visits really do need someone to be there and see the space in three dimensions.
We have a full article on this here.
How many vacation days do architects get?
In the UK, nearly all full-time workers (including architects) are entitled by law to 28 days of paid leave. In the US, however, there is no legal requirement for employers to offer paid leave. Although most do, the average is just 10 days. For further comparison: Australia offers four weeks, France offers five, and Germany offers 20-30 days. So ultimately, your holiday entitlement depends less on your job than your location.
Paid vacation time is often at the discretion of individual employers. ‘Nice’ ones might offer more the statutory minimum, perhaps in exchange for high-quality or extra work at other times, while ‘nasty’ ones might try to bleed you dry!
Before you sign an employment contract, make sure you’re clear about your entitlement. And remember, there are lots of other perks beside vacation days such as pensions, insurance, interest-free bicycle/ticket loans, funded CPD and more.
Still not sure whether architecture is your dream job? Check out these (very) frequently asked questions…
Is architecture a good career?
Perhaps we’re biased – but how about a big fat YES? Our article Why We Love Architecture gives a list of reasons why architecture is a great career, but in sum: it’s creative, it’s useful, it’s varied, and it’s a job for life (if you want it to be).
You’ll get to do plenty of independent work and maybe even to travel. You can choose whether to work for yourself or for a firm. You’ll meet people who get as excited as you do about how the light falls in Louis Kahn’s National Assembly in Dhaka. That sort of thing.
What do architects do?
In short, architects design buildings (though they may design infrastructure as well). They meet with clients, come up with initial concepts, refine and develop these, and perhaps oversee construction and later evaluate the project.
In conjunction with other experts, they work out the best materials to use, how much everything will cost, and how long building will take. They make drawings and models using CAD and BIM software, and they might also be required to write reports and give presentations. Our article What Does an Architect Do? has more information.
How do I become an architect?
Here’s the bad news: it takes a long time and costs a lot of money! In both the UK and US, qualification takes a minimum of seven years (a combination of university study and industry experience) and will leave you with a significant amount of student debt.
Licensure is not even automatic after graduation; you have to pass an additional exam and then apply for full registration. Some architecture graduates opt to work without a license as ‘architectural designers’; this means they take on no legal responsibilities, but also that they can’t call themselves an architect in spite of all that study.
In the US, it is possible to ‘convert’ to a Master’s degree in architecture after a Bachelor’s degree in another subject, but in the UK this is not an option. So what exactly is the good news? You graduate with an incredible range of skills, and there’s an exciting, challenging, lifelong career ahead of you.
More information on this here.
Do architects work inside or outside?
The majority of an architect’s job is done inside, at a desk or in a meeting room. The only time you’ll really need to work outside is when you visit a construction site.
Do architects have flexible hours?
Most architects work usual office hours, i.e. Monday to Friday from 09:00 to 17:00. However, there is often flexibility in this regard. You may be able to start earlier or later at quieter times of year; to work part-time or job share; or even (if you work for yourself) to pick and choose your own hours as you go.
But it’s also worth noting that a lot of architectural firms ask employees to work occasional overtime, including evenings and weekends, and especially in the middle of an important project.
Where do architects get paid the most?
An international comparison carried out in 2020 found that the UAE offers architects the highest salaries, closely followed by Hong Kong, the US, Switzerland and Singapore. However, another suggests Switzerland tops the chart, with the US, the UK, Australia and Canada just behind.
Within the UK, architects based in London and Scotland take home the biggest pay packets; our Guide to UK Architectural Salaries has more details. Meanwhile, in our Guide to US Architectural Salaries, states are ranked according to average pay with New York, Massachusetts and Texas coming out on top, though high-paying jobs can also be found in Georgia and Florida.
Unsurprisingly, overall, architects tend to command higher salaries in urban than in rural areas.
How much does an architect make?
In the UK, RIBA (2020) estimates that in the first five years of their careers, architects earn up to £37,248 per annum, rising to £45,000 after five years of practice. Associates take home up to £53,760, while partners and directors can command as much as £80,000.
In the US, Career Explorer suggests an architect’s salary ranges from around $41,000 (for entry-level positions) to $114,000 (for senior partners).
Do architects travel a lot?
Architects travel more than many other professionals, though exactly how much depends on the reach of your firm. If you work for a national company, you could be sent to other cities; if you’re at an international firm, you might even get the opportunity to go overseas.
At the very least, you’ll be able to get away from your desk from time to time to make site visits. For more on this topic, see our article Do Architects Travel?
What do architects use?
For detailed articles about the tools architects need, you might like to consult the section of our website called Studio Tools which discusses drawing equipment, computer/tablet hardware and software, books, and much more. It might seem like you need to buy a lot of new stuff but keep in mind the biggest and most expensive items, like light box tables and professional software, are usually provided by your employer or university.
What do architects wear?
This tends to be dictated by your employer; some offices are very relaxed, allowing casual trousers and tee-shirts, while others may implement a more formal dress code. If you work for yourself, of course, your style choices are your own.
Though the stereotypical architect is dressed head-to-toe in black – with bright, oversized jewelry for women – this is only a stereotype! Mainly, you just need to look neat and presentable; your work is more important than your outfits. See our article What do Architects Wear? for more information.
Your work can’t speak for itself.
Good work is simply not enough and needs to be supported via careful curation and considered formatting.
Working in architecture is intellectually challenging but physically comfortable, in spite of occasional long hours. The job is mostly desk-based, though you will make site visits and may have opportunities to travel further.
You can expect to be paid a reasonable salary (though less than engineers doing similar work) and granted a lot of independence; you even have the option of working for yourself, if being part of a firm doesn’t suit you.
Though the training is arduous, we think it’s worth it for both the variety and long-term security – and no, you don’t have to dress like a stagehand every day!