We are often faced with the question about what kind of architects we want to be. This question implies that there is only one right answer, that there is a big goal we need to define and pursue to be successful. The problem is, defining career goals can be difficult and they tend to change as we get more experienced.
A certain unease and tension can form if you find yourself not knowing what your career goals are. This was certainly true for me, after graduation I had no idea what direction I wanted to go. It seemed that there were so many paths for me to choose from, each requiring different set of skills. I realised that when defining ambitious goals the passion for pursuing them can run out especially in the face of adversities.
But what if we took the focus away from big goals and looked instead on the process of becoming successful? Cultivating good habits is one way to achieve success without getting stuck on long term goals.
By focusing on developing healthy habits the focus is shifted from the end result to the process, from ‘what is out there to get’- the goals, to a ‘what can I do’ – the habits. The habits cultivate development of transferable skills which will allow to succeed over time, even if you ‘fail’ on any given project or a goal in the eyes of people around.
No matter what your end goal might be, climbing the corporate ladder or owning your own firm, this blog highlights nine habits that I have found to be essential in pursuing career in architecture
1. Be Honest and Reliable
Honesty is the best policy when it comes to profession of architecture, this principle is in fact written into the RIBA code of conduct. When it comes to your new job, being honest, in the long run, makes you reliable individual in the eyes of your colleagues. The more reliable you appear, the more responsibility and the better experience you’ll get.
As much as possible try to keep your word, if you have promised to deliver that drawing by a certain time, make sure you do, and to an adequate standard. Sticking to your promises will build you a solid reputation.
Be careful with job completion time estimates, it is better to under promise and to over deliver than the opposite. Try to avoid giving optimistic timeliness, even with tight deadlines. Instead, seek to understand the minimum amount of work necessary to deliver what is asked of you. For example, do you actually need update 3 detailed drawings, if only 1 simple hand sketch will suffice to explain client the new first floor layout?
Being honest in work context means being the best version of your professional self. It means keeping your emotions in check, and not being pain in the ass to work with. Within reason, practice being authentic as it takes enormous amounts of energy to sustain a façade or to act smarter or more knowledgeable than you really are.
2. Be a Team Player
When I first started working at an architecture office, one of the hardest things for me was to learn to work with other people. In architecture school we are taught to compete with one another, to produce better work than our peers. In the real world, the success of any given project depends on effective team work.
To be good at working with other people, you don’t have to be extroverted or indulge in self-promotion, in fact, great teams consist of all kinds of personalities. There is abundance of literature written on the topic of being successful team player, including being aware of your own strengths and limitations, having a genuine commitment to success of the project, active participation, ability to adapt to changes quickly, clear communication with other team members and others.
However, personally, the biggest hurdle for was my own ego. Being ambitious and competitive are useful traits to have in architecture, but they can also negatively your ability to to become a good team player. If you are anything like me, keep an eye on your egotistic tendencies – wanting to be right all the time, sense of entitlement or specialises, arrogance, and complaining.
3. Work on your Communication Skills
Architects are sometimes compared to movie directors. Rather than doing all work themselves they orchestrate others to fulfil their vision. Similarly, the success of architecture project depended on how well others will understand and implement architects’ intentions. This makes communication a vital part of design.
Without clear and confident communication real world architecture is not possible so become good at it. Start practising on your written, verbal, and phone communication. Make a habit of learning from the way your senior personnel, especially the principals talk to other people. How do they communicate with your colleagues, the design team, the client and the contractor? What is their tone, the facial expressions, the style of speech, what do they not say, do they use direct or vague language and with whom?
In office communication is extremely important, make sure you always understand what is asked of you first the first time, to minimise back and forth and ask questions in a clear and concise manner without waffling too much. If possible, compile several small questions to ask at once to minimise disturbance to your colleagues.
4. Think Like a Business Owner Not Employee
You might have no desire to ever establish your own company or become a principal, nevertheless you might find it useful to have a mentality of a business owner rather than that of an employee. But it is important to think as an owner as it will make you more proactive.
Your default position might be based around the question ‘what should I do next?’. There is nothing wrong with this question, in fact you were hired to do exactly this, to follow the instructions of your director. However, imagine now if your new question is ‘what should be done next?’. When you shift your attitude from asking for work to seeking work you are relieving your superiors from having to hold your hand. You essentially become autonomous employee that does his or her thinking on its own.
With this mentality, you no longer see yourself as worker in the firm but as an integrated part of the firm, you care about its people, the culture, and the projects. With this mindset you can start taking on more initiative and be much more useful to your company.
5. Ask Right Questions to the Right People
As a rule of thumb, direct your questions to the lowest rank employee that can answer them competently. For example, questions regarding the use of software and filing system can be answered by architectural assistants, as they don’t require much knowledge. Reserve more complex questions to more experienced colleagues. Doing this will make the lower rank employees feel good about providing you with the right answer to your question and the higher rank employees will be spared the unnecessary interruption.
Figure out who knows what things best, and which people are likely to give you an answer to the question they don’t fully know the answer to, just to seem clever to others. People like that can give you an incomplete answer, and you might have to go back to a more experienced person for clarification. In a small office, It can be awkward to direct the same question to another person if the individual that gave you a wrong answer is around, as it undermines their credibility.
As a rule of thumb try to solve the problem yourself before asking for help. There is cost associated with interrupting work of your colleagues- it takes time and energy for them to be able to switch from their task to answer your question and then get back to their original task. On the other hand, there will be times when you’ll get stuck with the assignment or a task at hand that will require input from others. It will be counterproductive for you to carry on without asking for help. Knowing the difference between the two is vital.
6. Have a Thick Skin
Practising architecture comes with tremendous levels of stress, due to responsibility and risk architects have to take upon themselves. This means that your colleagues can be working under serious pressure which can make them stressed. People who are stressed out can become extremely irritable, and they can fire a harsh comment about the quality of your work without a warning.
A big part of having thick skin is in ability to not get easily upset or offended. This skill comes with experience, the more exposure to negative feedback you get, the more desensitised you will become towards it. Before such time it helps to practice detaching yourself from negative comments and seeing constructive feedback in them. This can be done in couple of ways, first, restate initial criticism towards your work with a more positive and less personal manner.
A comment like: ‘These drawing suck, we talked about adjusting the size of these fucking windows a million times and you didn’t even start doing it !!!’ Can be adjusted to something like: ‘These drawings need a little bit of improvement, as we touched on previously the window sizes on these, otherwise complete elevations, have to be slightly adjusted before we can issued them’.
Second approach involves being empathetic towards the person expressing criticism, by trying to understand what things in this person’s life makes them irritable. Try to imagine questions like: Does this person have an important deadline to meet? Are her children well? Is she being treated badly by their superiors? If you try to see your colleagues through their own perspective, you’ll start feeling empathy towards them and you’ll come a long way of brushing off the negative feelings.
7. Learn Technical Standards and Understanding of Regulations
One downside of architecture education in UK is that there is little teaching of statutory procedures, technical standards and contracts. For some reason universities have adopted mentality that it is up to students to learn these things in their workplace. This means that graduates must essentially learn all of these things on their own.
Taking tame familiarising yourself with technical standards and understanding building regulations will put you ahead of your peers especially at the beginning of your career.
If you are based in UK, it’s worth getting to know RIBA plan of work. It consists of 8 Stages and is essentially a road map that helps architects to deliver projects from start to finish. The plan of work can seem quite confusing at the beginning, to simplify matters I tend to think of the whole process in four stages:
Concept design, options appraisal (giving client different design options to consider) and brief (what client wants) development.
Stage– Final design of the building.
Drawings and Tender Drawings/ Documentation
Detailed technical drawings and details. These drawings must be building regulations compliant – in terms of space standards, ventilation, environment etc.
Finalised detailed drawings from which the building will be build.
Getting to know each of these stages is a must, Architect in Practice is an excellent starting point, it is a comprehensive guide to all aspects of professional practice in the UK and explanation of RIBA work stages.
8. Improve knowledge and specialise
In university architecture students are often led to believe that they can design anything. In reality, there is an enormous amount of regulatory and technical expertise needed to design any buildings well.
In architecture the need to specialise is not seen as a necessity, which is not the case in other professional disciplines. For example, there are different types of lawyers, a criminal defence lawyer will have a different set of skills and experience compared to a divorce lawyer. Similarly, psychiatrist will treat patients with symptoms different to the ones needing gynaecologist and so on.
It doesn’t mean that a single architect can’t be good at delivering different types of buildings. In fact, working on wide variety of buildings was perceived as a norm in the past. These days it is no longer so, competition in architecture is fierce and there are more regulations than ever before. Acquisition of specialised set of skills will set you apart from competition, without specialisation there is a danger of you becoming jack of all trades, master of none.
The choice of what to specialise in can be in connection to a particular building types like cinemas, hospitals, housing etc., or being competent with specific types of construction, CLT, concrete, traditional timber and so on. It is possible to become a certified conservation or passive house architect. There are many opportunities to work in a front end of the projects, for example, working with clients or making visualisations. The choice is broad and its possible to be great in any of the categories, unfortunately it is impossible to be good in all of them so take a pick!
9. Have a Life Outside Architecture
For many architects their job is their passion (or perhaps an obsession). After graduation it can feel like professional job is a relief compared to a number of work hours spent in the studio. With this attitude it is easy to stay late at work, to finish tasks which there was no capacity to do during day time.
Even if you manage to work without overtime, in the time that is left after work, it might be very difficult to motivate oneself to do enough socialising, exercising, and having quality relationships.
To make architecture a sustainable profession, it is important to learn the habit of integration of the three big things in life:
Love – (relationships, socialising)
Health – (exercise, sports)
Wealth – (main job, side incomes)
These things need to be in equilibrium for a happy and fulfilled life, it is up to you to figure out how much time to spend on each category to be happy. Without all three parts being in balance there is a risk for a burn out.
10. What is your end goal? (three why’s)
‘He who has a why to live can bear almost any how’. Friedrich Nietzsche
The work of every famous architect has its own flavour. What is yours?What is your cause, your purpose, or a belief that will set you apart from your peers? What is the underlying philosophy that will make people gravitate towards your work and not someone else’s? If you decide to get a new job why would a company hire you? Fundamental value questions like these are difficult and can be answered in many ways.
An interesting exercise can be borrowed from Simon Sinek to begin grapple with the value questions in a deeper way. Watch his TED talk in which he explains how truly successful companies like Apple connect with people. In this video Sinek explains that these types of companies managed to clearly answer the why, how, and what questions, unlike their competition which only answers the how and what questions.
The same approach can be used to define a vision of a single architect or a small studio. Let’s apply the contrasting analogy Sinek uses in his TED talk to architecture.
A. Bad example
If you ask an architect- what do you do? A typical response might look something like this: I design great buildings (what), they are beautifully and intelligently composed around the big idea (how). This response covers the what and how, but not why question, it doesn’t communicate the fundamental value of the architect.
B. Good example
But how would the answer be different if another architect would answer the why question. The answer could be: Everything I do, I believe in making the world a better place (why), I believe in making our world a sustainable place (how). The way I make the world sustainable is by designing beautiful carbon neutral buildings. I just happen to design houses (what). This is a much stronger message which draws its routes beyond the realm of architecture, and is likely to connect to many like-minded individuals.