Journey of an Architect is a blog started by Tim Ung to document his journey to design 30 projects by the age of 30 (May 2020). His posts focus on his design process, thoughts, struggles, and successes throughout his journey.

10 Lessons Learned from a Young Architect

10 Lessons Learned from a Young Architect

When I was still a student in architecture school, I remember having daydreams about my future life as a young Architect. In these daydreams, I would be working closely with the principals at the firm where I’d be employed, working late into every night and weekend, and having little to no social life outside of architecture. My diet would remain as a college student’s diet and consist of instant noodles and/or rice with a can of beans. People at my firm would scold me for asking questions about the project that I’m working on and I’d never get to a point of starting my own practice. I’d also be so afraid of taking the Architecture Registration Examinations (ARE) that I’d forgo getting licensed as an Architect.

To me, this was the ideal lifestyle for a young aspiring “successful” Architect and a part of me was looking forward to living this dream and another part of me was afraid. Do I really want to work every day from early morning to midnight? Will I only socialize with Architects and designers? Can I only afford to eat instant noodles and rice with beans? Even after working this hard to make it through architecture school, will I decide to never finish the process of getting licensed?

Now, as a young Architect, I think back to those daydreams and I realize that I created an image of a successful Architect’s lifestyle based on rumors, myths, and the way that our media portrays Architects. They’re depicted as creatures of the night who dress in monochromatic colors and traverse through the world with a facial expression of deep thought. Always ready to criticize everything around them and working late into the night to produce extravagant designs worth billions of dollars.

Then, there’s the image of the young Architect that students create based on rumors from their friends and friends of friends. Typically, the young Architect is thought of as an eager designer who enters an architecture firm and is full of ideas that will change the world. They’re placed in front of a computer with AutoCAD, a set of drawings with redlines, and repetitive tasks to produce bathroom elevations and tile patterns. Even after 6 years of studying, they’re paid less than other professions with 4 year degrees, struggling to pay off student loans, rent, utilities, and to buy nutritious foods. It’s easy to believe that these young Architects wouldn’t be able to complete all of their requirements for their Architect’s license.

Reflecting on my current life as a young Architect, I’ve realized that my preconception of being an Architect was incorrect. The image of an Architect that I had in my mind was something of the past and is quickly changing in today’s technological world. In fact, there are so many things that I’ve learned from my journey as an Architect that I wish I could’ve told myself in school. Here are 10 lessons I’ve learned from my life as a young Architect!

1. Live your life outside of your comfort zone

When I first started working at the architecture firm where I’m employed, I took on a supportive role where I helped different teams produce conceptual designs, schematic designs, design development documents, and construction documents. In the beginning, I was eager to learn how to put all of these important documents together and eventually, my days were filled with drafting work.

Every day started to become predictable and I found comfort in knowing what every day would entail. I had very little anxiety and stress because I was accepting my role as a draftsman. Soon, I found that I wasn’t learning as much as I was in the beginning of the drafting process. To be honest, my days started to become boring because I was doing the same things over and over again.

So I had a meeting with the managing principal at the firm and asked for more responsibilities. This led to lots of additional work and higher roles at the office, which allowed me to continue learning at an exponential rate and learn everything that I needed to pass my exams and finish my experience hours to be a licensed Architect in New York. I also started experiencing a healthier level of stress and anxiety with the additional responsibilities.

By asking for more responsibilities and moving out of my comfort zone, my life felt as if it had more purpose and meaning. I’ve found that I enjoy having challenges and engaging discussions instead of repeating similar tasks and conversations over and over again.

2. Learn to cook healthy food – you’ve got the time and money

After graduating from architecture school and transitioning into the profession, I noticed that my bad eating habits still remained. Although I wasn’t a fan of instant noodles, I’ve always enjoyed eating rice with a can of beans because it was affordable. With more time on my hands, I started watching documentaries on food and listening to podcasts that talk about the benefits of eating nutritious meals.

Soon, I started to add fruits and vegetables to my diet, stopped going to restaurants on a regular basis, and only purchased fresh protein. Once I reached a point where my refrigerator was filled with only fresh produce, meats, fish, and fruit smoothies, I started noticing that my focus and concentration improved.

My preconception was that eating healthy required a larger budget and it wouldn’t be feasible with all of my bills and my income. However, transitioning from eating fast food to cooking meals at home has led to a healthier life, relationships with others who I invite to cook with me, and saving additional income every month. An added benefit is that cooking has become a destressing activity that allows me to clear my mind and enjoy a home cooked meal!

3. Never be afraid to ask questions

In school, I was always eager to sit next to my friends in the computer lab, share stories, and learn new computer programs or ways of developing graphics and renderings. We were so wide eyed and open to asking one another questions about our projects and we were able to make so much progress in a shorter amount of time.

As soon as I started working at the architecture firm, I thought that I had to know how to do everything on my own; from designing a building to creating a comprehensive set of construction documents. So I didn’t ask too many questions at first and I was struggling with some of my projects. However, I remembered asking many of my mentors for one piece of advice that they would share with young Architects and all of them said, “Never be afraid to ask questions”.

During my first week at the firm, I spent some time searching for answers online and I was able to solve some of the issues that I encountered. Once I got to a point where I couldn’t figure out a solution to a problem, I would ask someone in the team for help. Without hesitation, they would come over to my desk, pull up a chair, and figure out a solution with me.

Remember, architecture is a team oriented profession and Architects are like conductors for an orchestra who coordinate a large team. We’re used to people asking us to clarify our designs or for help on a particular detail. By asking questions, we save each other time, money, and headaches down the road. So never be afraid to ask questions.

4. The Architecture Registration Exams are easy – registering to take them is the hard part

Before I graduated architecture school, I set a goal to complete the AREs within 3 years so that I could get licensed in New York State. I researched the state’s requirements and found that the required amount of work experience was 3 years after graduating with a Masters degree in Architecture. With this goal in mind, I decided to work and gain experience for 1 year and started studying in my second year of professional practice.

As soon as I started studying for the AREs, I realized that the content wasn’t difficult to learn. In fact, the fearful rumors that many Architects spread about the exams made them out to be so difficult that no one should ever take an ARE. Although my studying and preparation work seemed to be going well, there was a part of me that was still afraid to fill out the testing form and pay the fee.

After spending about a week thinking about registering for one of the exams, I finally clicked the submit button. A month later, I sat for my first ARE and left with an hour remaining on the vignette portion. A week later, my score was in and I passed the exam! So I decided to register for the remaining exams and completed all of them within a year.

My fears of the ARE were predicated on the rumors that we spread as students, but in reality, the hardest part was registering for the exam. Once you know that you’ll be sitting for one of the AREs, studying and preparing becomes an easy task and registering for the next one is easy.

5. Take your time and review your completed work

In the beginning of my professional career, I was eager to design and detail the projects in the architecture office. So I would work quickly and efficiently to develop a Revit model of the building and develop construction documents with all of the necessary drawings. As the drawing set continued to build, the project manager would decide to change materials or dimensions, which would need to be applied to all of our details.

After making these changes, the team and I would print a set and sit together to review our up-to-date drawings to catch any errors. We would find details with updated notes and others with the old notes. Although it’s difficult to find errors in the same set of drawings that you look at over and over again, it’s important to do your best to catch every error.

Today, whenever any universal change is made on a project, I’ll go through the entire set and make the modification to all applicable details before moving onto the next update. If a project seems to be constantly changing, get involved with the project manager and try to understand why these changes are continuing to occur. Is it because the project manager keeps changing her/his mind? Or is the client indecisive? Voice any concerns that you have and think of ways that will help your team and you avoid making these kinds of errors on projects.

6. Create opportunities for yourself

After spending some time in professional practice, I’ve found that there are some architecture firms who are continuing to design and develop documents in a traditional way. For example, some firms haven’t made the transition from AutoCAD to Revit, hand rendering to computer renderings, or adopting technologies like laser cutters or 3D printers for model making.

As young Architects, we have so many skills and familiarities with today’s technological advances that we could easily apply at our architecture firms. Although firm leaders might be reluctant at first, develop a case study that includes some financial implications and opportunities that you can propose to leaders at your firm. In many cases, you’ll be given new opportunities to lead some efforts at your firm.

Recently, my team and I investigated several new technologies that we could apply to our architecture projects at the firm. We put together a case study for software called Sefaira, reached out to the developer, and gave the software a 1 week trial run. After completing the trial, we presented our case study to a partner at the firm and we purchased a license for the team. Now, we’re implementing this software on our projects to work towards energy efficient buildings.

7. Communicate ideas clearly

During my first team meeting for a project that we were designing, each of us came up with some design sketches to present to the president of the company. Being new to professional practice, I had a very radical proposal for the building and I presented my sketch after the other team member. So the president had two options to discuss; one that was radical, and one that was conservative and economical.

After the presentation, there were questions about the designs and for some reason, I found myself intimidated by the project manager and president. Perhaps it’s because I was still new to the firm, but I felt as if I was inexperienced when compared to them. So I hesitated and my answers to their design questions were confusing.

Today, I know that I’m a part of a team and I’ll gather my thoughts before every meeting. As soon as we begin talking about our designs and I’m asked a question, I’ll take a second to think about the best way to answer the question, and I’ll give my answer. In many cases, I also ask a clarifying question to ensure that I understand the person correctly and then I’ll give my answer.

No one in your architecture firm wants you to fail. We’re in it together. So believe in yourself and your knowledge and feel free to tell your team that you honestly don’t know the answer, but you’ll figure it out and get back to them.

8. Set long, medium, and short term goals – in that order

As soon as I graduated from architecture school, I took a week to develop a long, medium, and short term goal. By coming up with a long term goal, you can set your sights on your ultimate vision for your life. Do you want to own your own architecture practice? Do you want to help the world by starting a not for profit like Habitat for Humanity? What causes are you most interested in helping? Then, you set a medium term goal that’s aligned with your long term goal and a short term goal that is aligned with the medium term goal.

My long term goal is to have a design practice of my own in which a research wing is a strong component of the company. I say design practice because I have an interest in both architecture and product design. So to get to this ultimate goal, I’ve started the Journey of an Architect blog to document my medium term goal of completing 30 design projects by the age of 30. My short term goals are to complete each project, develop a network of friends and potential clients, and to mentor students who can potentially be a future employee.

9. You’re independent. Lead your life at your own pace

Once I entered the profession, I was so excited and eager to learn as much as I could and help the firm. As I started working, I found that some of my colleagues were either as passionate as I was about becoming a licensed Architect and learning at an exponential rate and others have accepted their role as a draftsman, designer, etc. and view architecture as their job to pay bills and support other hobbies. Either of these approaches to working as an Architect is okay and whichever direction you might be leaning to is fine.

I knew that I viewed my life as an Architect as a lifelong passion and my goals are above and beyond other Architects. So whenever I work on any projects at the firm, I do my best to develop designs and documents at my own pace. I don’t wait for tasks or to-do lists from project managers and I’ll ask questions to help me understand all of the different aspects of a project. I’ve also become a mentor for many students at the local universities and joined organizations at both a local and national level to help build a stronger community for Architects.

Once you’re in the profession, know what you want and go after it. Don’t wait for someone else to dictate your life or write a plan for you to follow. In order to feel fulfilled, you have to be the one to determine your future.

10. You will never know everything

Like many young Architects, I thought that after a few years of working as an Architect that I would learn everything there is to know about architecture. However, as I started working in the profession, I realized that architecture is such a broad field that it’s impossible to learn everything in a lifetime. It ranges from design to drawing documents, writing contracts to managing company finances, and getting private clients or working with a developer.

With so many areas to focus on as an Architect, I’ve realized that having a broad understanding of everything an Architect has to know and focusing on the particular areas of interest will help me grow as an Architect. The field of architecture changes with every project, but the fundamentals will always be the same. So don’t try to learn everything about architecture. Learn the fundamentals and understand how it contributes to every project.

Conclusion

Reflecting on what I thought architecture would be like while I was still a student and how my career turned out, I’ve realized that I’ve had a very fortunate journey as an Architect. Although I was afraid of entering the profession because of the rumors and stories that we often share as students, I’m happy with my decision to follow my passion, ignore the fear, and become my own image of an Architect.


Architalks #22

This post is part of the ArchiTalks blog series hosted by Architect Bob Borson owner of the blog, Life of an Architect  where a topic is chosen for fellow bloggers to interpret and write about. This month's topic was "Then and Now". Check out some of the other posts from this series below!

Bob Borson - Life of an Architect (@bobborson)

Then and Now - Architectural Design or Accounting

Matthew Stanfield - FiELD9: architecture (@FiELD9arch)

Where it All Went Right

Marica McKeel - Studio MM (@ArchitectMM)

From Then to Now...Residential Architect

Jeff Echols - Architect Of The Internet (@Jeff_Echols)

Well, How Did I get Here

Mark R. LePage - EntreArchitect (@EntreArchitect)

The Biggest Surprise of My Life as an Architect

Lora Teagarden - L² Design, LLC (@L2DesignLLC)

Then & Now...and the middle

Jeremiah Russell, AIA - ROGUE Architecture (@rogue_architect)

then and now: #architalks

Eric T. Faulkner - Rock Talk (@wishingrockhome)

Then-Now: A Schematic Story

Stephen Ramos - BUILDINGS ARE COOL (@sramos_BAC)

Big Ass Buildings

brady ernst - Soapbox Architect (@bradyernstAIA)

Pens & Fizzy Drinks: Or How to Set Measureable Career Goals

Brian Paletz - The Emerging Architect (@bpaletz)

How did I get here?

Michael LaValley - Evolving Architect (@archivalley)

Reflection on My Wonderful, Unexpected Career

Jarod Hall - di'velept (@divelept)

The Joys of Being an Architect

Anthony Richardson - That Architecture Student (@thatarchstudent)

Then and Now

Nisha Kandiah - TCDS (@SKRIBBLES_INC)

Then & Now: Still Chasing the Dream

Jim Mehaffey - Yeoman Architect (@jamesmehaffey)

The Reluctant Code Guru

Mark Stephens - Mark Stephens Architects (@architectmark)

#Architects 22 - Then and now


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