October 24, 2021

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It Is What You Do

Becoming an Architect; Part 2: Surely there are easier ways to make money? | Features

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Graduation from Bartlett in 1999

In case you missed it: Becoming an Architect; Part 1: My Destiny

I moved back up north to be with my first proper boyfriend and started my first proper job. In the first week, I would sit at my assigned spot and enthusiastically say “Good morning” to everyone – no one said a word. The Partner, who I sat next to, grumbled “Morning” – I always felt he wanted to be more effusive but couldn’t as that was not the culture of the office.

Months later, I discovered that the seat I was using had previously been used by an employee who had killed himself by laying his head on a train track. No wonder the office atmosphere felt so bleak when I arrived. Over time, the office atmosphere eventually lifted. The work that the office produced was fantastic and still is, I really enjoyed my Part 3 project. In the UK, you get a case study to work on, and eventually, you pass and become a licensed architect, which I did. But to be honest, it felt a bit anti-climatic, and I can’t even remember if I got a pay rise. If I did, it must have been about £1,000.

Many of the buildings around Manchester University were extremely well designed, and I was lucky enough to change practice later on and become involved in more projects with one of the practices that produced such high-quality work around the campus. Even today, they continue to create fantastic architecture, not just within the higher education sector, but they’ve successfully diversified into other sectors such as hospitality, residential, and particularly workspace interiors. Their main office was in London, but I joined them at their recently opened Manchester studio, and I can remember being as happy as when I first started at architecture school.

Manchester University

I worked on some high-profile projects and eventually moved down to London again in 2004, as I thought that this was the best strategy to further my career; work in a larger office and push myself in the rat race that is London life.

The challenges I encountered are standard for any architectural practice: demanding clients, good and bad co-consultants & coworkers, mediocre pay when compared with university peers who studied law, medicine, and engineering. None of this will be a surprise to all you architects out there reading this.

So here I was in 2004, 4 years post-qualified, working with one of the best architectural practices in London – not just in terms of design but live/work balance, excellent leaders, progressive work policies, a healthy succession plan – all the things I thought I wanted. Everything on my career wish list was ticked. 

I worked on some high-profile projects and eventually moved down to London again in 2004, as I thought that this was the best strategy to further my career; work in a larger office and push myself in the rat race that is London life.

I was a project architect, leading a small team with a great client, who was demanding yet polite; very British. There was no office bullying – I don’t think that was a thing yet, and all the co-consultants were great. My strategy within a work environment has, and always will be, very simple: go to work, work hard, and be nice to people. And when I say ‘people,’ I mean everyone, not just the boss, even the lady that comes and empties your trash can at 9 PM when you’re still in the office. 

I worry that there’s a generation a few rungs below me whose work ‘strategies’ are far more complex, so they can climb the slippery corporate career pole quicker and more stealthily. To me though, that just looks exhausting.

First visit to America: bike ride across the Golden Gate Bridge

About three-quarters of the way through the job which I was the project architect on, I couldn’t understand why I was waking up every morning at 3 AM with massive anxiety and not being able to go back to sleep. So, for the following day, I’d set off to work, slightly exhausted due to lack of sleep, deal with the day’s events, return home and polish off a bottle of wine to relax and numb out any residual anxiety. And the cycle of waking up at 3 AM became just that, a continuous cycle.

Over time, this was unsustainable, and I spoke to my boss, and they put me on a smaller, less stressful job. But by this time, the damage had been done. I had proved to myself that I was incapable of running a team and seeing a job through to completion. The depression crept in slowly, and I was prescribed Mirtazapine (which incidentally makes you as big as a bus – how is that going to improve your happiness?).

Then I had to face up to this earth-shattering reality that the career I had such high hopes for over 15 years; My Dream, my Shangri-La, the thing that I had studied so hard for and sacrificed so much, was not what I’d hoped it would be. Was it because of me, or was it the architectural profession? Or a bit of both? 

My strategy within a work environment has, and always will be, very simple: go to work, work hard, and be nice to people. And when I say ‘people,’ I mean everyone, not just the boss, even the lady that comes and empties your trash can at 9 PM when you’re still in the office.

I remember thinking, if I’m not happy here at this company, where can I find that elusive happiness or at least contentment without mass anxiety? As a wiser man, I now know happiness is created within and not really by your external environment, not much anyway. By this point, I had worked in about nine different architectural practices, and this was by far the best one. I still think it is – they eventually became one of my best clients in my later career!

After this soul-searching realization, I called up a few architectural recruitment agencies and said that I wanted to sell architecture jobs to people and become a recruitment consultant. Having gone through so much recent uncertainty and trauma with my own career, it turns out, unsurprisingly I suppose, that I was really good at recognizing talent and helping people find their dream job within the design world. And it’s always a buzz helping people.

Related: Archinect Tips: Employment Edition

Meeting and interviewing hundreds of architects and designers over the last decade and a half has been enriching, rewarding, and eye-opening. Some people still love architecture and couldn’t think of doing anything else, I get that. There’s a small handful though (roughly about 10%, maybe more) who don’t like it and either push through unhappily to pay the bills or have the good sense to try something else, which is scary for some people, especially after 8 years of studying.

I feel lucky now because I’m still in the architecture and design ‘bubble.’ I love working with and helping architects, and designers. And as I said in my last article, these are people who literally want to change the world into a better place. How fabulous is that?

I still love walking around a completed building, or better still, a half-completed building (please keep me away from the muddy areas though ;)) I still enjoy being a guest critic and seeing toast pinned up on a wall and a rigorous discourse explaining what it means, accompanied by a time-lapse video showing the toast’s decay and how this could be interpreted and utilized to benefit society in some way.

I couldn’t understand why I was waking up every morning at 3 AM with massive anxiety and not being able to go back to sleep.

I know that thousands of people feel they have chosen the wrong profession, particularly in the UK with the early pressure to decide what A-levels to take and without the freedom and advantage of various modular learning that you have here in the USA. So, I don’t want to be too hard on the architectural profession per se. But I want to try and explain the disparity and disconnect between expectation and reality, maybe even academia and practice, that I have felt over the last couple of decades.

Some articles I’ve read have said that maybe it’s not the career; it stems from the dream perpetuated by architecture schools who mold you into thinking you will be some famous architect one day. I don’t think, for me, that was true. Sure, I would have loved to become recognized for my style and design skill, but I realized early on I wasn’t a ‘natural’ designer. That didn’t bother me. I was happy to design a fairly mundane space if I had to.

As we know, the education and profession are greatly removed from one another. My old architecture schools were not interested in fire safety or practical issues, but I know that there are different schools that are concerned, so it’s important to research which schools are going to fit with your style of learning before you pick one. I was competitive, so I just wanted to go to ‘the best.’

Digital Palais Ideal (Bartlett Project)

I think a turning point in the UK for the profession was in the 80s when Margaret Thatcher’s government decommissioned the necessity for an architect to design a building, to promote and pursue her policies on free enterprise and capitalism. From that point, anyone could design a building. An architect became an expensive luxury and sometimes still is, hence the decrease of design fees, the reduction of the architect’s power and control, and that control and power moving over to the main contractor. You may as well get a less expensive surveyor to design a building now, or even go straight to the contractor to do it. It can definitely simplify the process and make it cheaper.

Then I had to face up to this earth-shattering reality that the career I had such high hopes for over 15 years […] was not what I’d hoped it would be. Was it because of me, or was it the architectural profession? Or a bit of both?

One of the biggest shocks for me, when I got my architecture license, was the sheer complexity and inefficiency in getting a building completed. The teams involved; the structural engineer, the mechanical engineer, the main contractor, the sub-contractors, the AV specialist, the planning consultant (a UK health & safety representative for all parts of construction, whose position is now redundant), the party-wall specialist, the project manager and who else….who did I forget? Oh yes, the architect.

Then there was all the contract stuff. One of the main focuses for my license exam was the traditional JCT contract (Joint Contracts Tribunal, UK), but I think most contracts in the UK are probably now D&B (Design and Build), giving most of the power to the contractor. This makes sense and is probably similar to the contracts used here in the US. (Perhaps someone can enlighten me in the comments?) It does seem efficient for the company that is actually going to construct the building to have full control. But as we know, the design quality and the aesthetic of the building then take a back seat, and the power of the architect is pushed back. And yet the architect usually still has the responsibility of tying the whole thing together with all the consultants, planners, clients, stakeholders, end-users, main contractors, etc. All this responsibility with none of the power, and a smaller salary to match, comparatively. 

The house my dad built and we lived in

If creating a building needs all this input from so many different people with different opinions, different agendas, and usually large egos (think how male-dominant the construction industry is?), why don’t we have a Minister for Architecture in the UK or the USA? If you dig deep enough, the reasons are usually about money. I know there’s one for Federal Government buildings, but I mean for the whole nation, or at least State by State.

Because few western government leaders have not made many election policies about architecture isn’t that it isn’t vital, it’s that few members of the public care. I googled Minister for Architecture in the UK, and the last one was Brandon Lewis in 2015. That’s six years ago – and no one since! 

More recently, the only government intervention I can recall about US architecture is one of Donald Trump’s last dying cries of implementing classical architecture in all federal buildings across the nation. WTF? Thank God Joe Biden rescinded them pretty much as soon as he entered office. But what has been done since then? 

Related on Archinect: Biden repeals Trump’s classical architecture order, so what happens now?

I was about 30 when I could see the chaos and over-saturation of a dated, frustrating profession with an overly long but delicious education. As I mentioned, a minimum of 8 years here in the USA and 7 years in the UK. Professional bodies here in the USA include: AIA, AIAS, ACSA, NCARB, NAAB, NOMA, ALA, RIBE-USA, SARA, and I’m assuming 51 AIA Chapters for each State? And probably many more I’ve missed out. There are over 800 US institutions offering over 1,800 programs in architecture nationwide. In comparison with the medical profession, the USA only has institutions offering 154 MD programs. Isn’t saving lives more important than buildings?

The UK’s architectural professional bodies include the ARB, RIBA, The Building Centre, Architecture & Design Scotland, Building Trust International, CIAT, Glasgow Institute of Architects, Manchester Society of Architects, many societies for localized regions like Nottingham & Derby Society of Architects, Royal Society of Architects in Wales, and again, many more I’ve probably missed out. There are 50 schools of architecture and 33 medical schools. We have a shortage of good doctors in the UK at the moment and an oversaturation of poorly paid architects.

We have a shortage of good doctors in the UK at the moment and an oversaturation of poorly paid architects.

Yes, I was exactly 30 when I thought “F*** this, there must be easier and more enjoyable ways to make money!” And there were. And I enjoyed them.

As I finished the research on this article, I had a look at ‘Best Jobs 2021’, US News. I couldn’t see Architect anywhere, surely a mistake I thought. I then looked in ‘Best Construction Jobs’: Construction Manager at number 1. Plumber, Electrician, Solar Photovoltaic Installer (#4). I eventually find Architect at number 6 in ‘The Best 8 Engineering Jobs.’ Architecture also ranked fifth in a study done in 2012 in a list of jobs most linked to suicide. That is nearly 10 years ago, so I’m optimistic things have improved.

There is a slight relief for me knowing that I wasn’t an isolated case being disappointed in the profession. From a global perspective, too, the majority of my experience was based in the UK, but I did return to architecture briefly in 2008, in Australia – same shit, different country. Interviewing architects here in the USA, it seems a similar story, too. Although you’ll be glad to hear, you guys get paid a lot more. God Bless America!

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