Calling All Architects
November 19, 2004 7:57 AM   Subscribe

What's it like being an architect? What are the fun tasks, the dull ones, and the tedious ones? As an architect in the US, is it hard to be artistically 'independent'; are most architects there doomed to designing cookie-cutter McMansions? Have you ever considered a different profession? If so, what? How does one go from an undergraduate to a full-fledged architect (i.e., what sort of schooling, certification and jobs do you need to become an architect in the US). Finally, what are some schools in the US for architectural training, or how do I go about finding them myself? Answers to any, some or all of these questions would be much appreciated.
posted by ar0n to Work & Money (17 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
As an architect in the US, is it hard to be artistically 'independent'; are most architects there doomed to designing cookie-cutter McMansions?

Keep in mind your locale will have a big impact on that. I’ve got several friends who are architects, almost all of whom have left the Boston area. New stuff here often needs to look like old stuff, something many architects find constricting. Many have gone out west, LA specifically, where it’s a bit easier to find work that’s more offbeat, and not as tied to a historical imperative.
posted by jalexei at 8:05 AM on November 19, 2004

I graduated high school in 2001, and have been working as a software developer ever since. For someone with just a high school diploma, I could do worse. I've got a good employer, and a decent salary, but the nature of the work itself is finally getting to me. I'd like something more fulfilling, and have been considering architecture as an alternative.

I could get a decent architectural training here in The Netherlands for cheap (about 1500 euros a year), but I'm not very happy here any more, so I'm considering uprooting and heading for the US (no political snark, please). I've got dual citizenship, so attending school wouldn't be a problem (apart from the finances and the not having a US high school diploma). I'm relatively young (very early twenties), so I guess now would be the best time to make decisions like this.

One final thing I'd like to know is whether it's possible to sustain a living as an architect (or a related profession) even if your artistic merit approaches nil. I've got plenty of interest in the arts, but I've never been very active in them, so I'm not aware of any talents or even skills I might have.
posted by ar0n at 8:16 AM on November 19, 2004

i have a friend who never worked to develop any artistic talent who very much enjoys his work as an architect. he started out doing the HVAC part of buildings. he is very involved, generally, in the overall aesthetics of the buildings he works on, but he works on all projects as part of a larger team.

i have another friend who is all about the art part of architecture. he does homes, largely interior architecture in lofts and other "buy some square feet, build to suit" condo-types places in the city, although he does singlefamily homes and commercial space as well. he has teams of carpenters &c, but doesn't work with other designers/architects in his work.

both went to school in texas
posted by crush-onastick at 8:26 AM on November 19, 2004

I'm not an architect, but my wife is. I watched her go all the way through college, etc... Anyway, my wife alternately likes being an architect and then hates it. She got into architecture because she loved to draw. Now all the drawing is done on computers of course and she finds that limiting. But, you don't need to be able to draw really well to be an architect anymore. Being an architect isn't all day dreaming about new configurations of glass and concrete, the majority of it, especially when you're starting out is more like, "where do the the heating ducts go" or "I need an electrical conduit somewhere". When you start working for a firm, you won't be masterminding buildings. You'll be taking someone elses idea and figuring out how to make it work. So, you'll be working with the boring details.

As far as school goes, think medical school hours but you only are going to making about $40,000 a year when you're done. But, in school you can be as creative as you want. So, you can kind of get that out of your system. Also, before you can design real buildings yourself and sign off on plans you'll generally need your masters, then spend a couple of years as an intern architect, and then pass the licensing exam.

Sorry, I don't mean to sound super negative, but, my wife has been bitching a lot about her job lately and I think it's rubbed off on me. You could do worse things for a living, that's for sure. And unlike my profession, web dude, when you finish a project there is a building sitting there and you can say "I built that".
posted by trbrts at 8:26 AM on November 19, 2004

One thing worth noting is that architects routinely score near the bottom of the heap when it comes to professional satisfaction. No, really. More architects hate their jobs, percentage-wise, than most fields.

It should be trivially easy to sustain yourself as an architect with no artistic merit. Strip malls & office parks baby! I'm serious. One major source of professional discontent in architecture is the fact that most buildings you do will have almost no artistic input from you. You'll spend eons in school learning about buildings-as-art, and then find that nobody actually cares. So if you don't wanna be an "artist" then you should have almost no problem.

Finally, note that architecture is not a very portable field. It's legal-intensive, so every country is going to have their own rules (many of which are specifically designed to limit the influence/effectiveness of foreign architects). You can't just roam about erecting buildings -- you'll need local firms as go-betweens and for the purposes of convenient legal fictions.

Personally, I'm "in architecture" as a design consultant. Not an architect. In the US there's an important legal distinction that I'll spare you -- but you definitely want to check out what the AIA has to say.

But keep in mind that, when all is said and done, you're likely to spend years in school and years as an underpaid intern, in order to make less than a technical writer.

Architecture is the sort of job you should take if you cannot imagine yourself doing anything else. If it's not an absolute imperative, I would say you shouldn't do it.
posted by aramaic at 8:42 AM on November 19, 2004

sorry in advance (not directly answering the question) but what trbrts says about architecture -- the majority of it, especially when you're starting out is more like, "where do the the heating ducts go" or "I need an electrical conduit somewhere" -- applies equally well to software. if you stick with software development, and are good enough, you will get the chance to interesting, new and creative work. the "good enough" bit may be depressing, but i would guess it applies equally to architecture. there must be many who do ducts for life.
posted by andrew cooke at 8:43 AM on November 19, 2004

OK, so I am an apprentice architect - basically that means I have gone through some sort of accredited design program but have not taken the Architecture Registration Examination (ARE). In the US there are a two paths to becoming a registered architect (that is when you can call yourself an architect): enroll in a 4 or 5 year bachelor's program and then a 2-3 year accredited master's program or go through a 5 year Bachelors of Architecture (an accredited 5 year program). After you receive an accredited degree (whether a bArch or a Masters) you have to go though the Intern Development Program (IDP) which lays out how many hours in different areas you must meet. The minimum is around 3 years but everyone takes longer - sometimes way longer. This is your apprenticeship to the profession. After you are all set up with IDP, you can take the ARE. Once that happens, you can apply to whatever state you live in and become a registered architect. Congratulations! You too can build McMansions. Most states have reciprical agreements but some states (like California and New York) have more stringent requirements so you might have to jump thru more tests.

OK, so that was boring, you are probably wondering what I do all day. Well, that depends. What architecture really is all about is being organized, solving problems, and coordinating many different competing ideas, people, and requirements. The secret about architecture is that you really don't need to draw, or really need math - these skills definitely help, but there are so many different paths under the name Architecture, that people find their place.

What about school, you ask? Well, medical school was mentioned as a similar experience, and that is pretty true. You will spend hours upon hours refining and thinking about your projects, and then at the end of the term, outsiders get to come in and rip it apart all in the name of the critique. You learn to have a pretty tough exterior, and/or an ego to protect yourself. Everyone cuts themselves seriously enough to warrant a hospital visit during design school - using knifes at 4am is recipe for disaster.

Why do people put themselves through that? Well, people who go through design school become perfectionists and are taught that there is always room for improvement. And the course load is that tough. Plus there is a huge amount of peer pressure to excel and create - which is great - until your up till 5am every day for weeks.

So if I painted a negative picture, then that shouldn't obscure the positives of being an architect. You get to build things, most of it is OK, but every now and again things click and It Is Good. You sit at the confluence of engineering, art, sociology, theology, culture, and history. This all makes things really interesting.

I work in NYC and make what I think is OK money. I went to a State school in the Midwest and got just as good of an education as an Ivy. Plus I worked 2 years during my 6 years of school because that was part of the program. So not only was my education cheap (relatively) but I have a leg up on any Ivy Leaguer. Now, Ivy league schools are very good at what they do, and even better at getting connections. But is it worth the US$40,000 a year - that is up to you. Before you get set to come to the US, look at universities all around the EU and the US and ask lots of questions.

Any school that has an accredited degree is going to set you up for a productive career, but each school has its own specialty. Some US colleges, and what I have come to know about them, in no particular order:
IIT: still a bastion of Mies, somewhat dated curricula
University of Cincinnati: 1st rate school in 3rd rate university, Co-Op program (you get to work during school), solid school
Yale: Old standby, old boys club, Stern at the helm hasn't hurt the education, what you expect from an Ivy
Harvard: same as Yale but less experimental, but more famous guest professors
SCI-ARC: 1990's gem of a school known more for its professors that students, but students seem to come out with a pretty good grasp on the theoretical
UCLA: recent shake ups, but solid school
Berkeley: past its heyday, but good urbanism program
U Penn: Solid, if staid Ivy, what you expect from an Ivy
WashU: Solid, if more technical school
MIT: more focused on technical side, but students are pretty well rounded
Columbia: There is a shake-up happening (new dean) but the students seem OK even if I don't really meet many
Cooper Union: art based school, 5 year BArch

OK, and I want to add to what was said above: of my graduating class of around 60, about 1/2 are not doing architecture at this point. I'll leave that to you to draw your own conclusions. I can't really think of anything else I would do (I mean what the hell do you do with a business degree?) so it takes a lot of drive to stay in the field. Email me if you have any more questions.
posted by plemeljr at 8:54 AM on November 19, 2004 [3 favorites]

trbrts, I'm interested in learning about the negative aspects too, so I appreciate it. I'm not terribly interested in being a superstar-architect (I can't stand Rem Koolhaas, for instance). I am interested in the art of architecture, but usability concerns me more (somewhat related: How Buildings Learn is fascinating) What I would like (in whatever profession) is some measure of independence, and some more variety than software development generally affords (in my limited experience). If that means I'll be designing family homes for the next 40 years, so be it. But I'd like to be able to do it my way (or mostly my way), and that's where I think would be the largest frustration, external or internal.

andrew: I recognize what you're saying, but what bothers me about software development is its (generally) closed and highly ephemeral nature. If I design a building that ends up getting built, it's almost guaranteed to last, on average, for at least a decade -- if not more. It gets used by the public in a far more intimate way than any software application can. That's not saying I want a public testament to my ego, but I'd like some public good to come out of the work I do. Not increased profit margins. That's what I find lacking in (corporate) software development.

Thanks people, this is all very informative. I won't have access to an internet connection until Monday, so this thread will be over by then. Thanks to anyone who may answer between now and then, too.
posted by ar0n at 9:08 AM on November 19, 2004

Lots of architect angst in this thread.
posted by zsazsa at 9:20 AM on November 19, 2004

My dad was an architect in upstate NY during the late 70s,80s, and 90s (he passed away in 1997) and his career ran the gamut from restoring a camp in the Adirondacks and a church and the more "fun" architectural things to the less fun, but ultimately more lucrative consulting with larger firms (telephone companies in particular) on signage/roofing/switching systems, etc.*

I do not doubt that he found his career ultimately rewarding, but I can say that I witnessed a LOT of hard work (especially as he ran his own firm), a lot of disappointments and financial bumps, and a lot of uncertainty and long hours.

But, you can go off in many different directions if you entered architecture school. (FYI, I did my undergrad in a new media program and am now in grad school for historic preservation, which, of course, has a lot to do with architecture, but does not make me an architect). As someone said above "you sit at the confluence of engineering, art, sociology, theology, culture, and history." You may find, upon entering school, that you are more interested in architectural history or planning, or building materials engineering, etc. etc.

So that's the opinion of someone who has skirted around the perimeters of architecture for her whole life...

*Side note: I had the thrilling job one summer of scanning in photos of EVERY Bell-Atlantic sign and EVERY Bell-Atlantic building roof in New York.
posted by stefnet at 9:20 AM on November 19, 2004

Re: my previous post: it starts out discussing the now-dead link, but it turns into some serious discussion on the ups and downs of studying for and being an architect.
posted by zsazsa at 9:23 AM on November 19, 2004

ar0n - can't help you there. i went into software partly because they actually produced something, instead of doing vague, ephemeral reseach in astronomy...! (and i sympathise with you - if i had to do something else with my life than what i chose at the time, it would be architecture).
posted by andrew cooke at 9:37 AM on November 19, 2004

Expect to not get paid very much. Architects are often very cynical because they are well educated, but they don't make much and their artistic visions are most often bruised and brushed aside in favor of the client's ideas, which is generaly how much square footage they can get for the price. And everything is autocad, very few get to make models/draw/watercolor.

Just browse the archinect forums for a few weeks to get an idea.
posted by four panels at 10:28 AM on November 19, 2004

I'm also a not-quite-yet-an-architect. Aramaic and plemeljr make good points, and I'll stand behind pretty much everything they said and just add a couple things.

I decided to go into architecture initially because I liked drawing, and I've always liked looking at buildings. But, I made that decision when I was 15, and there really wasn't a whole lot of thought behind it. Lucky for me, I've been pleasantly surprised with the field since, and I haven't been discouraged by lack of creative input or ridiculous hours since then. However, drawing and looking at buildings are fairly minor parts of my job, and will be for quite some time. Seven years out of school, I'm still figuring out where ducts go, but I actually kind of enjoy that. To me, designing a building is kind of a game, and all the requirements that need to be met to make it work are just the rules you need to play by. I don't think design is as much fun if you're working in a vacuum without restrictions--overcoming the restrictions and still producing a good product are what keep me going. Drawing ability still counts, but more in the sense that you're able to convey ideas graphically than being able to produce a pretty picture. Even before the advent of CAD programs, architects worked with any number of drafting tools to produce their drawings, and working plans certainly aren't drawn freehand.

If your main concern is independence of work, you'll most likely be unsatified in your career as an architect for about 15 years, if not longer. If you have rich friends that will pay you to build whatever you want for them, you'll be on your way a little quicker. Otherwise, you'll first be working for other firms until you're able to go out on your own; then you'll be working for clients. If you plan on making any money as an architect, you'll need to keep your clients happy, meaning that you pretty much build what they want. Some clients you'll really sync up with designwise, but quite often you'll disagree over various issues in terms of both aesthetics and (probably more importantly) cost. You might not want to build McMansions, but the reason that there's so many of them is because that's what people actually want. Sad, but true.

It seems to me that a lot of people become interested in architecture because of the heroic characters of people like Frank Lloyd Wright or Frank Gehry, or from reading the Fountainhead. It ends up being disappointing when that's not what you end up doing, but that's like going into physics planning on becoming as famous as Einstein. I think the reason most of the posts so far (including mine) have been so negative so far is that we're trying to counteract that notion. Finally, most of your time is not spent dreaming stuff up--you're dealing with the realities of construction (both in planning and in the field), trying to pass your work through whatever governing body oversees your jurisdiction, and meeting with clients and consultants. I'm also available via email, and I hope Dick Paris eventually shows up in here.

On preview: I draw quite a bit, but I'm in residential design (i.e. McMansions), so it's actually cost-effective in the early stages of a project.
posted by LionIndex at 10:58 AM on November 19, 2004

I've been out of architecture school for about 8 years, and you can add me to the list of people who are keeping an eye out for a better career. Don't get me wrong, architecture can be a lot of fun- especially if you enjoy problem solving, but there’s simply too many downsides.

1) The profession is a slave to the economy. Most of the time- there's enough work to go around, but every 10-20 years there's a glut in construction spending, and a lot of people find themselves unemployable. We've layed-off about 1/3 of our staff the past year. In otherwords, if you're planning on being the bread-winner in a family, count on some sleepless nights for at least 3 or 4 cycles in your career.

2) The profession may be over-saturated. I'd say about 75% of the workload in a standard architectural office is involved with the very time intensive and very inefficient process of creating construction documents. With better, more automated CAD software and the potential of overseas outsourcing (see below link), I’m not sure we’ll need the same quantity of “warm bodies” involved with creating a building. Sure, we’ll always need architects who can sit down face to face with a client and hash out a design, but I think the profession overall is trending “leaner and meaner”.
posted by tfmm at 11:03 AM on November 19, 2004

These comments are very resonant - my ex is an architect (in Canada) and the description of schooling and what one goes through as a junior architect is very very similar to her own experiences. To amplify a couple of points as I perceive them:

-- the schooling (she has an M.Arch) is very intensive in terms of hours but I would not compare it to medical school - many of those hours were enjoyable, creative hours.

-- heating ducts, window details, bathrooms - yes those are the daily grind of the junior architect. Architecture probably has a higher percentage of job dissatisfaction because the perception of the profession is so different than the practice, and that draws in artistic romantics (e.g., my ex) and not artistic technicians

-- the worst part of the job for her was seeing her designs, or designs she had worked on, being stripped of all their beauty by bottom-line economics. Many of the ugly boxes you see around start as beautiful boxes. Enter the client. Exit the beauty.

-- I am not sure about the U.S., but in Canada architecture qualification is regional - that is, provincial. Each province has different standards in order for a registered (post-intern, post-exam) architect to practice. For example, in British Columbia you would need hours and training in seismic issues, while in Quebec there might be more ice and snow load considerations. **If** its the same in the states, then consider which part of the country you might wish to emigrate to, or you would have to re-qualify....

-- finally, her experience is that it is an extremely male-dominated, chauvinist profession, both at then emplyment end (most senior architects are men) but also at the client end (most rich clients/developers are men), and the building/structural engineers are mainly men (and you all know what engineers can be like). Hence she has experienced a lot of sexism in her career.

-- oh, and really finally, one of the most creative but undervalued and viable paths in architecture appears to be residences (new and reno). You can pretty well design it top to bottom, be in charge of the project yourself, work with clients who are emotionally engaged in he project, and build beautiful small spaces which work. It seems to be generally considered a bit uncool to do houses but I don't quite understand why - maybe it is less lucrative. Smalll city architect on the north California coast building beautiful houses must be better than big city architect routing ducts.
posted by Rumple at 12:21 PM on November 19, 2004

I can't add much at the moment (late in Paris and on a plane tomorrow to US) and I think a lot of good information has been written by everyone in this thread. I will add quickly: out of ten expectations you have about architecture and architects, at least ten will be wrong. (Including the strong math skills myth. ;-)

I knew from age five or so that I was going to be an architect and nothing came up that made me stray from that path. I am currently self-under-employed (although more employed now than not with a new home project). If you have more specific questions that are generated from this thread, feel free to email me (perhaps we can add the Q&A here for the record).
posted by Dick Paris at 2:19 PM on November 19, 2004

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