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Let’s admit it – telling someone you are an architect is pretty cool because whether or not they understand what that means or what the job entails. Regardless of the accuracy of information those people bring to the conversation, being an architect does sound pretty cool … but for those of us who have been at it a while, being an architect has its challenges and is definitely not for everyone. Welcome to episode 93: The Top 10 Reasons NOT to Be an Architect.
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Today we are following up on Episode 92 – The Top 10 Reasons to be an Architect where the topic was the top 10 reasons why someone should be an architect and following it up with the top 10 Reasons why you shouldn’t become an architect. Just like last time, I will tell you that this was a foundational post and along with just a few others, it put my site on the map. The fact that it is a post about not being an architect and it is so popular is actually something that I hate. This post is the #5 post on my site all time and the only comfort I take in it being #5 is that the Top 10 Reasons is #4.
The attention that this “Not to be” post received when I wrote really bothered me because I felt like I was responsible for putting people off from pursuing their desire to be an architect. In fact, for the first few years, the “not to be” post received more visitors and it was only about 5 years ago that its popularity fell behind its more positive counterpart. About a month after I wrote the original post, I wrote “Evil Top Ten List – I hate you” as a sort of therapy.
Just like the last episode, we are going to go through my original list and determine if my list is still applicable – meaning did I hit the mark, did I miss the mark, is it still a valid viewpoint, or did I just completely blow it. What I find interesting is that we will spend more time talking about my list than I gave myself originally to write it (which was 30 minutes).
My site was only 35 days old at the time and the list went as viral as an architectural post can as of this recording, it is the 5th most viewed article on my site and is closing in on a million page views just by itself. If there is one moment I can look back and single out the moment when everything changed, it was February 23, 2010 … the day I decided to write the “Top Ten Reasons NOT to be an Architect” and nothing has been the same for me ever since. So we are dusting it off and looking at my reasons with 12 more years of experience and deciding if my original list and the reasons I outlined for including them still hold true.
The gene pool that is your social life will not have a lot of diversity. jump to 05:56
Architects are friends with other architects. This is either because they are the only other people you see because they spend so much time working and get close to their coworkers, or your interests align closely so you run into the same people (because architects don’t stop being architects at 5:00 pm). I know of about 10 married couples where both are architects. I don’t know any lawyers married to lawyers, or doctors married to doctors – certainly not to the extent that architects marry one another. Really, why is this?
Like-minded professionals tend to hang out with people who do what they do, but the real disconnect seems to be centered around hobbies, and alternate path to developing friends who do different things during their working hours.
The pay and benefits are not as good as they could be. jump to 10:22
I have not tracked this information but rather based on what I know from colleagues working at other architectural firms. A majority of architectural firms do not offer comprehensive benefits packages that would be considered standard in other professional industries. I am talking about 401K programs, dental and vision insurance, availability to get long-term disability, flex spending accounts, etc. I have already written about the pay structure for architects (you can find it here). I am one of the lucky ones because I work at one of the rare (rare like finding a live platypus in your toilet kind of rare) firms that offers almost all of these things and we only have 6 full-time employees. The fact that we do it here is evidence that other firms can do it as well if they made it a priority. There are occasions when my wife comes home and I imagine how things could be different if I worked in a “real” industry that cared about its employees over the long haul. Maybe that should be a post – do architectural firms really care about their employees? As an industry, we seem to value the experience that comes from someone who has moved around- we just don’t want to foot the bill while training someone else’s future employee.
At the time, including this on my list was 100% a reflection of where I was working – which was a small firm that did not offer all the same benefits that larger firms typically offer. I don’t believe that this is still the case as more and more small firms provide similar or comparable
The hours you work are long and undervalued. jump to 13:56
The time you spend working on a project, in many regards, is proportional to the quality of the end product. It is very difficult to separate out the desire to create something with the business of how much time you have to create it. As a result, architects tend to work late hours developing scheme after scheme to evaluate possible solutions. Most of the time, so much fee is burned up during schematic design and design development, typically when the people with the highest billing rates contribute, that the production period of the project is compressed down into a calendar deadline, not a fee-based allotment of time. The difference is that the company doesn’t pay you more for working an 8 hour day versus a 16 hour day – but they do pay rent on the space you occupy, the computer you use, the software on that computer, etc. If there is 200 hours of time allocated to produce construction drawings (at your billing rate) and you work 8 hour days – that 25 workdays of time. If you work 16 hour days, that’s slightly more than 2 weeks and all the overhead associated with a person working in your position has just essentially been cut in half. Great for them, sucks for you -it’s hazing for adults.
This definitely comes across that I was in a bad mood when I wrote it – there is a clear bias that most of the fee is burned up during the fun design portion of the project when principals are working on a project and there is less fee available as the project moves to the grunts in the back. Essentially 80% of the fee is burned up doing 20% of the work.
… but that doesn’t mean I’m wrong.
We also spent some time talking through the math of working overtime (which doesn’t cost the firm any more money) versus allocating a certain amount of time-based on the fee regardless of the calendar. We also discussed how this sort of behavior is good for career advancement but operating as this elevated level of expectation does come at a physical and potentially an emotional cost that should be considered.
Your ideals don’t really matter. jump to 20:25
Your clients hire you to give them a product that they want, not necessarily what you want. We basically go to school to learn how to learn – architecture isn’t a trade. As a result, you should be equipped to design projects that aren’t in the style of architecture that you would like to do for yourself. Most projects are developed for profit and despite the fact that good design equals good solutions which translates into a form of measured success, everybody wants more for less. There will be times when you are told to do something that you know is terrible and the absolute wrong thing to do. Based on your need for the work, or the force of your personality, you will make concessions that will make you want to die.
This was a rough one … I’m not sure why I decided to make this so brutal. Most of my issues come from the fact that I chose the word “ideal” which makes this an absolute gut punch. My opinion on this matter has somewhat softened over time but I don’t think I am in the wrong place. Hyperbole is not my friend in this instance but you have to recognize that architecture is a service industry and unless you are a superstar, you are getting hired to provide a service to someone else and what they want will be the driving force of the end result. The transition from your schooling where you get to basically do whatever you want to the actual profession is quite shocking and most of the time catches people unprepared for this reality.
If your ideals are important to you, you will lose work. jump to 27:58
Because architects are opinionated, they will argue for points that the client has clearly stated that they do not want. You are probably thinking that a clearly stated result while demonstrating the error in the alternative, will win out. It doesn’t always work that way. I have been fired by a client while trying to fire them because I didn’t want my name associated with their project. They didn’t know that I was trying to get both the husband and wife into the office so we could give them the drawings, wish them luck, and then kick their sorry butts out the door. So while I was trying to schedule a meeting with both of them, the husband got mad that we “weren’t listening” when the wife said she could handle the meeting without her husband. We really needed them both in this particular meeting.
Hot on the heels of saying your ideals don’t matter, I came up with what clearly suggests that I was in a bad mood when I put this list together. For several of our clients, a major consideration for working with us is based upon our mores and values – the things that we believe in and hold true to the work we create. There are times – and depending on your position, it could be often – that you will lose out on work because you believe what you believe and that is out of alignment with the client. Because the practice of architecture relies so heavily on personal connections between architect and client, being able to connect and relate are potentially more important than what other professionals have to contend with.
The story I told about the one time in my career that I was fired by a client, mostly because I kept insisting that both the husband and the wife needed to come in for a meeting where WE were planning on firing them, and I got fired for bothering the husband who didn’t want to come in and I kept insisting that he attend can be found here: Ceiling Heights and Scoreboard.
Not all architects have “fun” jobs. jump to 34:43
Maybe glamorous is a better word than fun. I am sure that 95% of the time you spent in your design studios at school was about design and not about construction detailing or project management, or communication, shop drawings, billing, etc. Very few architects 10 years down the road into their careers are “designers”, most are project architects. The role of project architect can be very rewarding but there will be aspects to that job that you never imagined could be so tedious and boring. The only analogy I can currently think of to describe it is building a car so you can drive down the street. A lot of work goes into creating buildings and very little of that time is spent on design.
This is super generic because not all teachers, firemen, grocery stores clerks, etc. have fun jobs. When I wrote this, I was focusing on the act of design, and when I was in a small office, pretty much everyone wanted to still be a designer even though only about 30% had any sort of design responsibility at any level. Now that I have moved on to a larger firm, I have been pleasantly surprised to learn that there are more people who enjoy the other aspects of architecture beyond design and thoroughly enjoy their role as a project architect or project manager, construction administration – whatever. What I originally viewed as less than fun was to singular to my own experience and honestly, just wrong.
The house you live in will depress you. jump to 39:25
This is an easy one because what I know is far from what I can afford. I have lived in 5 houses during a 15 year stretch and have spent almost as much time fantasizing all the things I could do to make them better as I have fantasized about winning the lottery. The good news is that the light at the end of the really unimaginably long tunnel is your future ability to change that situation. It just takes patience.
Every architect walking the planet understands what I mean by this statement … and I felt it is even worse when you design houses for a living. You can’t come to my house without me thinking that you are judging my professional abilities based on what you find. It also doesn’t help that I work on houses that have a price point that far exceeds my own ability to pay and what I know is not reflected in my own house. It is, at best, disheartening.
You will live with terrible decisions. jump to 42:07
The nature of architecture includes and sometimes requires experimentation. As a result, you will make decisions that are really bad and you will have to live with knowing that your terrible idea is ruining people’s lives all day, every day. The good news is that buildings seem to be disposable now and it will only be a matter of time before your mistake is corrected by someone else. Oh yeah – the projects you do that are good will also be disposable and shortly torn down to make way for yet another branch bank.
While I believe this to be true, and am going to acknowledge ” … that your terrible idea is ruining people’s lives all day, every day” might be a bit excessive. I will also concede that my level of “terrible” is so relative that almost every occurrence would not ever be noticed by someone other than me. Along with most other architects, I tend to evaluate my projects with a critical eye and focus on the misses and lost opportunities rather than celebrate each project as the success the client undoubtedly feels. Even on my most successful projects, I think more about the negatives than the positives and I don’t think I am unique in this regard.
Architecture requires a lot of work and dedication. jump to 45:27
Architects go to school for a long time, take a lot of demanding tests, and have to work for years to gain the experience to call themselves an “architect”. There are a lot of other jobs that if you were to put in the same level of time and singularly minded dedication, you would be much further along in your development. Please note that I didn’t say that you would be making more money because we have already rung that bell. This is about putting your time in and paying your dues to develop the skill to practice architecture. I’d like to think that most architects are pretty bright individuals and if they wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer they could have. If you want to be a lawyer, go get a 4-year degree, then 3 years of law school, graduate, and take a test. 7 years and you are in! It took me 6 years and 207-degree hours to get my Bachelors degree in Architecture and I studied abroad during that time. I worked for 6 years before taking the Architectural Registration Exam (passed them all on the first try btw) and was rewarded with a healthy raise of $0. Point is, you had better really want to be an architect – I did and I knew it when I was 5 years old. Then again, 5-year-olds don’t know much yet so re-evaluate from time to time.
This statement is still true but there has been considerable effort by the industry to make this road a little less grueling to hoe. You can now get experience while working in school, you don’t have to wait until you’ve met all your work experience requirements before starting the exam, and there are less exams now then there were when I originally wrote this post. I actually have a young woman who works with me that has all her experience done and passed her last test just two weeks after her 25th birthday – which is remarkable by any standard but does show that it can be done.
You probably won’t be a “designer”. jump to 49:49
In my class, everyone thought they were the next super-designer. I mean every single person. The truth is, almost none of them are now. I get to spend a lot of my time designing (in my office of eight) but I spend a lot more time doing other things. There is one person in our office that comes closest to meeting the definition of “designer” but even she does more than that. I spent time working at RTKL in the mid-’90s and there were about 120 people in that office. Out of those 120, probably (and seemingly) 108 were being developed as project architects and they rarely talked to a client. If they were lucky, maybe they talked to a contractor but it took years to get to that level. The remaining 12 were the designers. Those 12 were made up of 5 who designed things that actually got built and the other 7 designed things that sold the work that the previously mentioned 5 designed. I was one of the 12 and I thought it was a terrible job. I never did see anything get built in person. I didn’t have to worry about how it was going to be detailed – that was someone else’s job. Eventually, they started putting me in front of clients because I am pretty good at talking in front of a lot of people and can think well enough on my feet to avoid saying something that will get us in trouble. At any rate, aspiring to be a designer isn’t as great as you might think it is.
This really should not be on the list – but that is an observation from someone looking backward at their career arc. When most people make the decision to follow this path and go to school to study architecture, most believe it is design that will be the most rewarding and it isn’t until they had a few laps around the block that they learn enough about the other roles available to them that might cause them to pivot from their original beliefs. While I see value in pointing this out, especially to people beginning this journey, being a designer doesn’t really matter for most people.
Would you rather? jump to 54:46
Would you rather be criticized or ignored?
There is a knee-jerk reaction that is going to tell you what the answer would be … but upon reflection, I don’t think this is as obvious as you think. I am going to clarify that either selection is not non-stop, it has more to do with when you elicit a reaction. I can’t really explain my answer here because it would give too much away – this is one you have to listen to if you want to know my infallible logic.
EP 093: The Top 10 Reasons NOT to be an Architect
Going back through this list was interesting for a few reasons, but the most interesting for me was to discover the extent to which my personal circumstances influenced my opinions. While I still believe that this list is generic enough to represent just about any professional career, there are a few items that are of particular importance to the practice of architecture (just look for the passing grades to know which ones). I’m not happy that out of the ten items on my list, three received failing grades, but at least I had the opportunity to reflect upon those items from my original list and recognize them for not being accurate. Despite preparing this original list 12 years ago, I still thoroughly enjoy what I do for a living and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone else who was interested in pursuing architecture as a career.