Fellow Mefi architects, am I nuts?
May 27, 2013 6:21 PM   Subscribe

I'm considering going into Architecture. Bad idea?

My background is in design and advertising. I've grown bored with graphic design, and superflous advertising industry.

I've always enjoyed building and designing three dimensional objects and spaces. Recently I helped a friend to conceptualize his new house. Enjoyed the process tremendously. And now I'm considering a M.Arch program.

I'm in my early thirties and I understand that becoming an architect is a long process. But I'm wondering if my age is an issue.

After, some cursory research I got the impression that Architecture is one of the worst possible professions to get into. Long hours with low pay for years, cyclical industry, and so on.

To architects out there — what got you into architecture? What is your day-to-day like? Was it a good career choice for you?

And the most important question: Am I nuts?

Thanks in advance!
posted by pakoothefakoo to Work & Money (12 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Any chance you could do it without incurring huge debt?
posted by amanda at 6:44 PM on May 27, 2013

Response by poster: I might be able to do that, yes.
posted by pakoothefakoo at 6:54 PM on May 27, 2013

Best answer: Conceptualization is the fun part, which is about1/16th of the job.

You're good at 3D imaging and manipulating computer programs, so that's a bonus. You're never too old.

The rest of the job entails:
1. Implementing code which is complex and sometimes ambiguous but hugely important.
2. Understanding materials, means and methods of construction (such as how to properly flash a window and which material to choose)
3. Being able to work well with others: owners, officials, engineers, interns, project architects, vendors and consultants.
4. Integrating the big idea with all the multitude of components and conflicting factors.
5. Sacrificing a home life because there's never enough time.
6. Being able to write clearly and succinctly.
7. Having enough knowledge to be sure when you're right and to learn when you're not.
8. It's about knowing how to solicit the necessary information from the client so you can better meet their needs.
9. It's juggling budgets.
10. It's usually about making less percentage than a Realtor's commission and facing huge potential liability coupled with long long hours and dead brain cells.

It's only a little bit about design; it's more about bringing together wildly divergent elements into a cohesive whole. It's about not getting sued and hoping the client pays the final invoice after the job is complete. It's about feeling satisfied that you had a part in making somebody else's dream/need become reality.
posted by mightshould at 7:10 PM on May 27, 2013 [4 favorites]

Best answer: You're a little nuts. Becoming an architect is a really long process, and it's not easy. However, there were several older students (your age) in my M.Arch program who seem very happy with their new careers.

To lay it out - the M.Arch is 3 years, and architecture school is no joke. Many people do all-nighters (I didn't and did well, so it's not required), the reviews are public and can go poorly, so you have to get a thick skin. Most architecture schools are very conceptual, which may be different from what you're imagining. More technical schools do exist, but you should be clear about the school's philosophy before you commit. People who are unhappy in architecture school are usually those who think it's too much of a time commitment, or those who are really turned off by conceptual academic BS type things and just want to do construction.

After school, the job market for entry-level architects is pretty bad. It's getting better though. I graduated in 2009, and am now gainfully employed and on-track but I've had about 5 jobs between then and now, only some of them paid. Accept the fact unpaid internships are a possibility, and know you'll either have to pass up the opportunity or suck it up. You're going to do a lot of very boring work in any office, but how bad your hours are depend very much on A) the office and B) how fast you work. You will being doing CAD and random photoshop and hunting down finish samples. This is actually important stuff, but it is very boring and very much NOT like what you did in school. People often give up at this stage, thinking they'll never get to design anything, or learn any real skills. If you stay the course, you'll move up and get more responsibility and interesting assignments.

Once you're beyond the entry level, you have to really accept the fact that actually being an architect is not very much like school at all. This can be a good thing if you didn't like school, and vs vsa. You do design, but with many more constraints. You spend lots of time explaining your ideas to people and trying to clear up miscommunications. You spend a lot of time trying to locate HVAC ducts, or fighting with the city about something dumb. These are not all bad things, but they're things you're going to have to do, so know about it now. And at the end of the day you actually build something, which is great.

Pay is variable - I feel OK about my salary right now, but you can definitely get paid more in other fields. Entry level pay is generally quite low (in the 30K range).

Hours can suck - My firm is pretty terrible about hours, but I've set some personal boundaries and it's working out ok. I work between 45-50 hours week, normally. There are crises where I have to stay very late (11pm), but they are increasingly rare. When I started, I was expected to do 60-80 hour weeks regularly for about 2 months straight. People have quit my firm because of this issue.

Now here's the annoying part - you're not an architect until you've passed the (7 part) ARE exam and completed IDP intern hours. Not being an architect means you can't sign drawings, so you basically have to work for someone else or just do very limited interiors work. You have to take the ARE on your own time, often at your own cost (sometimes reimbursed by your office). Study materials are about $2,000 (or bootlegged). IDP is the internship program where you must log hours in certain areas under the supervision of an architect licensed in the jurisdiction you're working in - 5,600 hours total. Google both the ARE and IDP and see what you're getting into. I have not begun taking the ARE but have completed about 70% of my IDP hours. IDP is supposed to take 3 years but typically takes about 5-7 (including passing the ARE).

Personally, I really enjoy what I do. I get paid to DRAW things, and then people build them. It's amazing! I feel like I've learned a ton since graduating, and am excited to continue. I'm a little daunted by the exams, but I'll get around to them. I think, though, you really have to keep an open mind about what architecture is to you. In school it'll be swoopy things that are very conceptual; entry level it'll be helping to get something built; later on, maybe you detail something in a cool way or manage a project especially well. Again, I know several older students in my program who are currently happily employed and doing very well. Honestly, the younger students have had less success than the older ones. Maybe a motivation thing?

Reasons NOT to do it: Expensive. Minimize debt as much as possible. HOWEVER, know that schools very much have reputations and where you go will matter. There are schools in my area that people just roll their eyes at and immediately discard the resumes. The market is still unstable. I wouldn't say it's weak anymore, but it's NOT a stable field. You're going to get laid off at some point, even if you're great.
posted by annie o at 7:15 PM on May 27, 2013 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Oh, I forgot: the reason I got into architecture was to make buildings better meet user's needs and because I'm good at "design". I didn't realize how many hours I'd be agonizing over things like ADA bathrooms, building codes, redrawing the same damn stair again because someone else decided to change something...basically all the grunt work that goes into every job.

Would I do it again? I'm not sure. The pay sucks. The stress is high. It's immensely satisfying at times. Other fields such as engineering pay consistently higher wages..... it's hard to say.
posted by mightshould at 7:24 PM on May 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I have a background in marketing and graphic design. I went through the M.Arch program when I decided to change careers. I graduated in 2006, in my early 30s. I went into the most overheated job market for architects possible. I got a job at a largish firm and learned a ton of stuff and, yeah, that entry level stuff is both a grind and necessary. People will think you are younger than you are because you are an entry-level intern. But, because you are a mature person, you won't really care that much. I did have some frustration with not being given enough responsibility (especially in those areas where I had a lot of prior experience such as graphics and presentations). I feel like the field of architecture is all about having a very broad set of knowledge that is quite shallow. Of course, you can get a very deep knowledge of certain things but ultimately, you have to know a little bit about everything having to do with the built environment and know how to work with specialists in various fields in an effective way.

I lost my job in 2009 when my firm laid off over 1/3 of their staff. I spent the next year trying to find work and exploring a whole different career path. I know lots of interns* who are constantly looking for anything else to do besides architecture. I finally lucked in to some freelance work, working for a single designer doing residential work. I really do love working for her and the scale of the projects is nice. My per hour rate is pretty good but my problem is getting enough hours. I worked part-time for her in 2010 & 2011, three days a week. I had a baby and split my time between child-care and working. She was really flexible with my schedule and we had a good amount of projects. 2012 got really slow and I got some of my own projects. Things may be ramping up again and I've been looking for office work.

During this time, I've been taking exams and getting those out of the way. However, I'm far short of my required hours (none of my time with the designer count as she is not licensed) and will likely need a year in an office to get those done. By that time, the "rolling clock" will have wiped out my first exam and I'll need to re-take it. Some states allow you to take exams before your hours are complete and others don't.

The main drawback is the low pay. You work awfully hard and the positions which pay well are hard to come by and tend to be in firms with a certain kind of clientele. The richer the clients, the richer your firm will be. Working for developers can be lucrative but there are drawbacks there as well. There are every kind of architecture office out there at all kinds of scales. I like that I started in a big office because it exposed me to a wide range of projects and they had a very methodical way of working through projects. It set me up to be organized and gave me a nice foundation. Smaller offices might have older software, ancient computers and not be very modern in their approach. I can take some of the things I learned at the large firm and apply them anywhere.

I think the reasons people warn others away from architecture is that the promise of the field is really hard to come by. Designing and imagining and working with clients are the fun parts. Getting the projects realized can be drudgery and hard work requiring long hours. You kind of have to gut through the beginning stages before you can start to call the shots, though. It just is what it is. And I took on a lot of debt which, of course, I regret now.

At my large firm, we had vendors/product managers come in to give lunchtime presentations. They want you to understand and spec their product in the next project you do. So, we'd get a catered deli-type lunch and watch a PowerPoint about roofing membranes or vandal-resistant paint or high-efficiency lighting fixtures. And then I'd watch the interiors group get wine and cheese presentations about fabric and tile and often get really great discounts from vendors for furniture, tile, bathroom & kitchen fixtures -- stuff you want! Anyway, at the time it just underscored that the architecture work often felt like a slog and that possibly everyone else was having more fun.

So, yeah, I don't want to be a downer. I went into it because I thought it might be a way to travel more and I was really compelled by social justice type architecture. It has given an interesting focus to my travels but it has not created travel opportunities (other than study abroad in grad school which was awesome). I really enjoyed going back to school as an adult -- so much more interesting and satisfying. I did pull some all-nighters but, because I am a grown-up, I was better able to tell when that kind of effort was required and when it wasn't. If this economy wasn't so silly, I think I'd try to move into something else and I may still do that. What I figured out is that I really like solving problems and there are lots of interesting problems to solve in architecture. And I also really figured out that above all, I want to work with good people. So, I'm focusing on those things. We'll see where it all goes.

*You will be an "intern" until you get your license. It's an embarrassing part of the profession. If you come out of engineering school, you are called an "engineer" and later, when you get your professional license, you are called a "Professional Engineer." You can't call yourself an architect until you have your license. You can practice in the field for 40 years and still be an "intern." I know that some people say "designer" or "architectural designer" but the former feels a little less than and the latter is frowned upon and can interfere with your eligibility to be licensed. Nobody other than architects get that "intern" is just the name of the game. When I accidentally let slip to my friends that "they're hiring interns!" they are all aghast that I'm going to be taking on unpaid work. Then I explain the whole thing and they regard me suspiciously. Sigh. It will motivate you to get your damn license, I suppose.
posted by amanda at 8:28 PM on May 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm also still an intern.

Dittoing mightshould for the most part, especially a about laboring over code and ADA. When you start, you're not "designing". You spend a lot of time implementing someone else's design, which basically means that you're making sure every little detail meets their (often unspoken) expectations. Of course, there's some level design at every level.

There is a lot more boring work than you think.

The pay doesn't suck (for me at least). I make about 50k / year after 6 years. I started at 38k / year. I was unemployed for 2 years during the worst part of the recession, but that wasn't bad.

I don't work horrible hours; the 80 hour weeks are about a twice-a-year occurrence. But I worked about 75 hours this week.
posted by Llamadog-dad at 8:51 PM on May 27, 2013

I've heard it's absolutely one of the worst fields you can go into in terms of job prospects (you can easily find such information with a Google search). My understanding is that one big factor is that a lot of architectural works is offshored now.
posted by Dansaman at 9:00 PM on May 27, 2013

I have two friends (married to each other) who are both architects. They finished their degrees with very high grades fifteen years ago. She has managed to get hired for three projects total ever. He was hired by an architecture firm for five years, but then they went bust and he hasn't managed to get work directly in architecture since. He now works in something that has some tangential relationship to architecture (I forget what) where he gets to use the skills he trained for like for three hours once every six months, and otherwise does administration. They've lived hand-to-mouth the whole time, and usually are on food stamps and other social benefits to manage to feed their kids.

The really sad thing is that they have very strong feelings about design and building aesthetics/regulations/environmental stuff and so they are pretty miserable about the sorts of apartments and houses their restricted financial state leaves them living in.
posted by lollusc at 9:37 PM on May 27, 2013

Best answer: My father in law recently retired from a lifelong career as an architect. He'd spent almost all of it working for the same large firm, and he did fine financially, but everything I've heard from him about his work suggests he was more salesman and manager than designer. His firm did a lot of large-scale contracting for industry and government; he worked on automotive manufacturing plants, water treatment plants, marinas, chemical refineries, highway rest stops. The only residential work I ever heard him talk about (aside from having designed one of his own houses decades ago) was a spate of code reviews done for a rapidly expanding affluent suburb, just before the current recession got going. I heard him take a lot of calls, and they were never about design decisions; they were about getting and delivering documents, navigating government bureaucracies and getting work done despite union restrictions.

As with many creative vocations, it seems that there's rarely a shortage of people willing to do the fun parts, so the fun parts are the hardest parts to get paid to do.
posted by jon1270 at 4:38 AM on May 28, 2013

US Department of Labor predicts there will be a higher than average growth in architecture jobs in this decade.

My best friend is an architect, he works endless hours, can't use his vacation time because his office is always too busy, and has never made much money.

His sister is also an architect, she ended up working for the National Park Service and was in charge of a major architectural landmark until she retired. Great pay, reasonable hours, good retirement.
posted by mareli at 5:59 AM on May 28, 2013

Response by poster: Good stuff. Thank you for taking the time to share your experience y'all.
posted by pakoothefakoo at 7:51 PM on May 29, 2013

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