The Truth About Being an Architect

What it‘s really like to design buildings for a living

Adriane R
Adriane R
Jun 14, 2020 · 7 min read
View of skyscrapers, from the ground, looking up.
Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

I’ve been working in the Architecture field for over 15 years now, and I’ve stayed on a pretty traditional route to get here. I was an architecture major in college, I have worked for mostly medium and large firms in large cities, and about 7 years ago, I passed all my exams to become licensed.

Though it’s normal for me, one question I’m constantly asked — on dating apps, when I’m out at bars, or when I meet a friend of a friend — is what it’s like to be an Architect.

My 30-second elevator pitch is that being an Architect is kind of like being the quarterback of a design team — we generally call the shots, but there’s a whole team of people who are making their own decisions and execute their portion of the project.

And I get it. It’s a bit of an unusual job. It’s something that little kids want to be when they grow up because they like to draw. So what’s it really like to be an Architect? What do we do all day? How much money do we make? Here are the answers to some commonly asked questions about my job, and some myths that need to be debunked.

Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

A couple of quick definitions to get out of the way:

  • architect (not capitalized) = person working in the Architecture field, not necessarily licensed
  • Architect (capitalized) = person licensed to practice Architecture
  • practice area = what type of building is being designed. Some common practice areas are residential, multi-family housing, education, civic projects, healthcare, senior living, and hospitality design.

There aren’t that many of us

Part of the intrigue surrounding our job is that there aren’t a lot of Architects floating around out there. There are about 100,000 licensed Architects in the United States (one-fifth of those are in California) and 40,000 candidates who are working toward licensure.

We work a lot of hours

If you knew anyone who was studying Architecture in college, chances are you rarely saw them. In school, each student is given a dedicated studio space, and you work, study, build models, and sometimes sleep there.

Maybe an upside is we get our 10,000 hours of practice out of the way pretty quickly.

This extreme work ethic tends to subside a little once we start working at office jobs, but there are definitely project deadlines that require more hours than a regular 9–5 schedule. Producing drawings takes a long time, and sometimes there’s are things that complicate the process, like researching a really interesting element you want to design.

We’re not necessarily good at drawing

Yes, some architects are amazing sketchers and artists, but sadly, the ability to draw is not a requirement of the job like it was 50 or 100 years ago.

Most architects have some fundamental hand drawing knowledge, but use computers to model buildings in 3D and do all 2D drafting.

We are really good problem solvers

No project ever goes perfectly. Sometimes we design a beautiful building, and the owner tells us they need to cut their budget in half. Sometimes a code reviewer, who has total and sole authority to issue a building permit, doesn’t interpret a line of building code the way that every other reviewer has in the past.

We are constantly remaining flexible, scrambling to find solutions, and solving problems in ways that stay true to the design of the project and the owner’s budget.

We live for the days when we get to design

Some days, when the stars all align, you get to spend your whole day designing. This could be something large in scale (like what the overall form of the building will look like) or something really small (how the cabinets will fit best in this space).

There’s often a lot of time spent designing complicated things in order to make them look effortless. For example, we might spend a few hours coordinating how a sprinkler line is run through a prominent space, for the sole purpose of having them blend in. For some building components, it’s a win if nobody ever notices them.

For a lot of architects, design time is the best. It’s what we learned to do in school, and allows us to flex our creativity.

Sometimes we get to take field trips

A lot of architects love the construction side of the process, too. After the design phase is finished and construction begins, we take periodic trips to the job site. Our responsibility here is to observe the general progress of the project and to see that the contractor is building the project as it was drawn.

First of all, it’s fun to get out of the office. It can also be very rewarding to see your ideas come to life, especially since some projects are in the design phase for years.

Visiting projects on-site can also help you learn from your mistakes. You may notice the detail you drew was unnecessarily complicated or discover an industry-standard trick for building something efficiently.

Photo by Claudio Hirschberger on Unsplash

The long path to licensure

The current version of the exam covers six divisions, which focus on a few main areas:

  • your knowledge of general building codes and building health related to the welfare and safety of the occupants
  • what the legal and industry-standard roles of the architect are, as well as how management roles traditionally work in a firm

One thing that surprises a lot of people is that you don’t actually need a license to work at an architecture firm. Legally, there only needs to be one licensed Architect per firm, and oftentimes the firm’s principal or owner is the one who stamps the drawings.

It’s still a male-dominated field, but it’s changing

Currently, only 17% of licensed Architects are female, but the ratio of women to men in Architecture school is nearing half, so we’re hopeful the number of licensed female Architects will rise in the future.

As with many other professions, as a woman, there have absolutely been times when I’ve experienced microaggressions. People have talked over me, addressed men in the room instead of me, and assumed I’m not licensed because of my gender.

We work with a lot of people with different interests

The Owner is the person or company that is funding the building. They secure the land for the project and pay the architect and the contractor. Once the project is complete, they either occupy or rent out the building or sell it altogether.

Contractors are hired by the owner to construct the building. Typically, the contractor and architect do not have any contracts with each other, but rather they are both hired by and working for the Owner. There are some industry-standard ways that the contractor is allowed to ask clarification questions of the architect and ways the architect approves all of the building components the contractor is planning to use.

The Architect hires consultants under their umbrella to round out the expertise of the design team, including structural engineers, mechanical engineers, and electrical engineers. The architects and engineers work closely together to produce a cohesive set of documents, including drawings and written specifications, to describe how the building will be constructed and how it will meet code.

Diagram of contracts between Owner and Contractor and Owner and Architect — Image by Author

A large part of our jobs is project management

Remember my quarterback analogy from the beginning?

Given the amount of information that we have to process and all the parties involved in the decision-making processes, management is a huge part of our everyday job. In addition to the owner and contractor, there are all the colleagues from your own office that you are working with. Scheduling, creating task lists, answering questions, and recording meeting minutes are some of the behind-the-scenes tasks that a lot of people don’t associate with Architecture.

Just like everyone else who works in an office, we spend a ton of time on the phone and in meetings.

Photo by Scott Blake on Unsplash

We’re not all rich

Hardly any of us are, actually.

The American Institute of Architects has a salary calculator showing compensation based on several factors: job title, years of experience, and region of the country. One of my old bosses endlessly pointed out that these numbers are voluntary and self-reported. He was using that as an argument so say that I was not being underpaid at my job, but he was correct in that these numbers might not accurately reflect how all architects are compensated.

Typically, entry-level positions start at around $40–50k per year, and leadership and ownership positions can pay $100k plus.

Also, expect variations in salary based on the size of the firm where you work and the practice area. For example, an architect working in high-end residential design might make more money than someone working with non-profit clients to design low-income housing.

These are the answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about working as an Architect. The field of Architecture is so vast, and there are so many factors (practice area, size of the projects you design, project budget) that contribute to each architect’s experience in the field being different from one another.

Sihouette of people standing at a construction site with a crane in the background.
Photo by Shivendu Shukla on Unsplash

Further Reading:

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Adriane R

Written by

Adriane R

Architect • fan of coffee and comedy • trying to keep my houseplants alive

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +724K followers.

Adriane R

Written by

Adriane R

Architect • fan of coffee and comedy • trying to keep my houseplants alive

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +724K followers.

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