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7 Things No One Told Me About Being an Architect

Being an architect is hard work. Here are 7 things that no one told me about being an architect when I graduated, bright eyed, from design school.

Architecture school was fun, right? Long nights filled with Red Bull, Doritos, and a steady stream of tears cascading from the eyes of sleep-deprived coeds, highlighted by early morning design critiques where seasoned architecture professionals systematically unraveled every bit of work you’d been pouring over for the entire semester.

Amongst those chilling and permanently damaging experiencing was a foundation of design and construction knowledge that was to act as the backbone of your architecture career. But, there are some things college never really tells you about what it truly means to be an architect. It isn’t all black turtlenecks, concept sketches, and foam core models.

This is a short list of things no one ever told me about being an architect - things that can only be fully understood after you spend time coming to terms with the professional reality of designing, permitting, and value engineering.

1 | Dress Code Hero

That suit your mom bought you as an early graduation gift for your post-college send-off into the weird, wild world of architecture? Throw it away. Like a jerk, I showed up to the first architecture job interview I ever had covered head to toe in Men’s Warehouse’s finest (cheapest) three piece suit. After a few confused looks and half a chuckle I didn’t so much as tuck in my shirt from then on.

Unless you’re pitching design ideas to the President of the United States, leave the suit at home. Most firms will, at most, require a button up shirt and a clean pair of pants.

2 | You Don’t Need To Keep Learning Computer Software

Wrong again. While a sizable chunk of your education might have been spent wrestling with the must-know pieces of design and production software, there’s still plenty more to know once you start your career.

All firms operate just a little bit differently, and regardless of how your current skills might align with your first or second employer, it would be in your best interest to keep up with changing trends in software technology. If you never learned Revit in college - first, shame on you - and second, you’re going to have to learn it eventually so you’d better plan on moonlighting now.

3 | Less Money, Mo’ Problems

Those first few years fresh out of design school are as lean as they come. If you expect to get paid like a lawyer or doctor (even though you, arguably, have an equally impressive an nuanced set of skills), expect to be disappointed. The world sees architects as glorified art school dropouts, and mere luxuries self-imposed on a built world that doesn’t really need their deft eye and attention to craft.

This isn’t to say you’ll be taking a number for sloppy joes at the local gospel mission, but prepare to be underwhelmed by the fruits of your labor. Yes, architects can make a lot of money, but if that’s the reason you’re in this racket, I’m sorry to say you don’t stand a chance.

4 | Permits. Oh God, The Permits

Turns out in order to get permission to build something - anything - you need to sift through a murky and uncommunicative layer of bureaucracy that’s likely to cause you more stress and unease than any other aspect of your job. Of course, this depends on where you’re practicing, but I can only imagine this is a truth that holds universal whether you’re trying to build a skyscraper in Manhattan or a horse shed in Omaha.

Permits are a massive roadblock along the design-build path to nirvana. It’s a good idea to get familiar with the process of submitting for and obtaining them now, because it will likely end up accounting for a massive pie piece of your workload.

5 | Price to Sell

Every project has a budget. Most projects have a budget so tight a broken toilet could be enough to send the whole thing into a frenzy. Designing in school is about conjuring outlandish ideas and seeing if you can somehow cram a functional program into them and still say something profound about...whatever it is you find interesting.

Design in practice is about balancing the integrity of the architecture against a real world budget that is constantly changing and likely out of line with the realities of the vision. Get used to lowering client’s expectations early, because trying to do it later will not only piss them off, it could hurt your reputation.

6 | Don’t be a Typecast

If you aren’t careful - or if you’re really good at doing one particular thing - it’s very possible for you to be cornered into doing the same exact task or project type over and over again until you become disgruntled and either quit your job or the profession entirely.

You can, however, position yourself as someone who has interest and talent in doing all kinds of things. I’ve found this is the best way to explore architecture practice, but it’s not an easy trajectory to pursue. Find a job that encourages diversity and collaboration within all kinds of projects and tasks and you’ll be a better (and happier) architect because of it.

7 | Where’d My Pen Go?

I can’t explain it. I won’t even try. But for some reason, like clockwork, every time I’ve cracked open a fresh red pen it will be missing from my desk in a matter of days, usually hours. It’s like there’s some kind of invisible pen monster that can only survive by slurping down red ink, and they’ve specifically targeted my desk as a feeding ground.

Or, architect’s just have incredibly sticky fingers.