03.03

Expectation and Worth

Welcome to my final bit of unsolicited advice! We’ve finally reached the end of this little bunch of information, so I hope some of it has been useful. This last segment is going to be a mix of some factual information and a more personal interpretation. The idea is to make you, dear reader, start to think about these things early on, as it will soon become apparent that us architects tend to discuss these things ad nauseam.

They are important aspects of developing your own professional career but not something we tend to be taught. To be honest, I don’t feel it is something that can be taught so much as decided individually. From what I can tell a lot of newer students have already started thinking about these things since you all have blogs and podcasts and design companies already! But if not, maybe this will help. Today we are looking at what you’re worth, and what’s expected of you.

What’s expected of you (us)

As architects, we are considered professionals. This means we have to act, well, professional. This could be a rather subjective criterium, but fortunately, the kind folks at the ARB have put together a nice list of things we have to follow in order to be upstanding members of the profession. You may have come across the bulletins the ARB posts every month about architects being fined or, in particularly severe cases, removed from the register. This is a result of those architects not following the ARB Code of Conduct. The full thing can easily be found on google, but to save you precious seconds, here are the basics:

1. Be honest and act with integrity

2. Be competent

3. Promote your services honestly and responsibly

4. Manage your business competently

5. Consider the wider impact of your work

6. Carry out your work faithfully and conscientiously

7. Be trustworthy and look after your clients’ money properly

8. Have appropriate insurance arrangements

9. Maintain the reputation of architects

10. Deal with disputes or complaints appropriately

11. Co-operate with regulatory requirements and investigations

12. Have respect for others

Do all of that, and you will be a perfect model architect. If you join the RIBA, they have their own Code of Conduct, but it is pretty much the same, just laid out differently.

As you can see, the majority of the Code is common sense. Be sensible, conscientious, and obey the law, and you have already met most of the requirements. However, once you get to practice you may start to notice that sometimes things get glossed over slightly. You may begin to feel that your practice does not fully consider the wider impact of their work, or they may agree to do work for someone which is technically illegal. Probably the most common example of this is when a client in a listed building wants to carry out work even though they have not been granted listed building consent.

Many architects will warn the client but ultimately agree to the work on the grounds of “trying to mitigate the damage” or “if we don’t do it someone else will anyway”. Potentially valiant goals but ultimately this is illegal. I mention this because we younger architects have to decide whether we are going to carry on with business as usual, or try and change things for the better. Throughout my education, I heard architects complaining about low fees, or lack of respect for architects, or having to give more and more control of a project away to other consultants. This may be true, but if we want things to change we have to act correspondingly.

We, new architects, need to think about whether we are willing to work for a practice that agrees to perform sub-par work or do lots of work for free hoping it could lead to a paid commission. These are all things that are covered by the Code of Conduct, and yet lots of practices ignore them. If they didn’t we probably would not be in the current situation of practices under-bidding for work or fighting over free competitions on the off-chance that we get to work on an exciting new project.

We have to maintain the reputation of architects. If we all refused to enter free competitions, nobody would expect us to do it anymore. Cambridge recently pulled a tender bid after lots of architects complained that no fees would be paid if the project did not pass the feasibility stage. This is great! We are expected to be professional. I think that “professionalism” is a spectrum, not a singular point. Lots of new young architects are exploring new ways to use their degrees, often in ways that are not expected and rarely in a way that falls under the Code of Conduct. They are still architects. We all are, and we can all change what is expected of us, for the better.

What are you worth?

Finally, I am going to discuss the arguably most subjective part of my little list of 10 useful things. This links into what is expected of us as architects, but in a way is much more important. At some point during your architectural career (if you haven’t already) you or someone you know is going to complain that architects do not earn enough money. Given that anybody starting an architecture course now is likely to end up with a student loan bill of around £60,000 by the time they finish their Part 3, which accrues interest at a ridiculous rate, I would say this is a fair complaint. We may not have to actually pay the loan off (contrary to what Student Loans try to claim) but it is still not a pleasant concept to have over our head.

According to the RIBA Business Benchmarking Report, as of November 2019, the median salary of a newly qualified architect is £34,000. Salaries in London are higher than outside of London, but obviously, the cost of living here is higher. At present, almost 40% of my salary goes towards rent and bills, and I live with my partner in an arguably relatively cheap flat. If we stick with it, after 5 years of being a registered architect we might move up to around £40,000. Considering the time, effort, and money required to get to this point, it is understandable that everybody is disappointed with how much most architects earn.

This is exacerbated by the public conception that we all make bucketloads of cash when really architecture is still a profession for the privileged few. Over the last year alone there have been multiple reports about how underrepresented BAME members of the profession are, and how difficult it can be for them to complete their studies. For this reason, among many others, it is important to begin thinking about what you are worth. I don’t know the answer, but I do know it’s more than everyone thinks at the moment.

The University of Melbourne and Architeam Cooperative recently carried out a study on the effect of architects on renovations to houses. They found that homes designed by an architect doubled in price over roughly 10 years, while non-architect designed homes increase in price by about 170% (instead of 200%). Every Australian dollar spent on an architect resulted in the property gaining $11.40 in value over 10 years. This shows that without architects, people would make less money! Yet clients (especially private ones) do not understand this and waste time trying to cut fees early on, only to encounter costly issues when they reach the site.

Jason Boyle recently wrote a couple of articles on LinkedIn entitled “The Broke Architect?”, where he analysed findings from informal polls he carried out last year. The verdict was, unsurprisingly, that architects don’t charge enough. He laid things out far better than I did, so I would recommend reading them.

Despite all this, despite the fact lots of people don’t understand the value we provide and the fact the only way to make be rich in architecture is to “be born rich or marry rich” as Philip Johnson said (or to be a partner in a large practice), things are looking up. It is becoming more and more common for architects to branch out and do something unique with their degree, from designing artistic jellies as installations for major brands to simple development.

There are also people playing with the format of an architecture practice, like RESI and HOKO Design, who are simplifying things for private clients and demonstrating that you can automate and rationalise processes. Like I said at the end of the previous segment, we all need to decide what we are willing to accept. It is much less common to have to work all-nighters for no pay than it used to be (though sadly it still happens), largely because younger architects refuse to accept that they should simply because their bosses did. There is growing evidence of the benefit of employing an architect, and more people are design-conscious. The trick is going to be continuing to demonstrate our relevance, which, unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your viewpoint) probably starts with us younger members of the profession.

I know this last segment is a bit more conceptual than the others, but it is becoming apparent that it is an important part of our education, yet there is no set answer. Since the abolition of the RIBA pay scales, we have to figure out what we are worth by ourselves. Many older architects bemoan this fact, but I find it exciting. Lots of architects are proving how amazing our qualifications can be, regardless of the sector we end up working in. It is only a matter of time and persistence before these changes across the board.

I hope some of my rambling, broad strokes advice has been useful to somebody, and I am indebted to Sana for letting me write them. If for some bizarre reason any of you think I could share more, let me or Sana know.

24.02

Planning & Contracts

Hello again all. Today we are progressing further beyond the basic technical skills that often seem to be avoided while we are studying and into the realms of more legislative aspects of being an architect. These will not be particularly relevant while at university per se and will be covered in more depth once you start working in practice and study for your Part 3. However, they are things that lots of us do not begin to learn about until we join a practice but are still important aspects to consider when designing a building. The idea behind my bringing them up here is to introduce their basic tenets so that you can begin to understand some of the constraints we architects eventually are bound by. For starters, planning, and how to do it:.

Planning

In general, planning constraints are not something we tend to worry about while doing our Part 1 and 2 studies. Arguably there is no reason for us to do so. However, this tends to trivialise the planning process, which can lead to some surprise once joining a practice. Given that planning is a very large, complex beast that we study in detail during our Part 3s and which is best learned in practice, I will try and lay out some broad principles so things don’t come as a total surprise to anyone.

  • Planning permission in England and Wales is largely governed by the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 (Scotland and Northern Ireland have different legislation).
  • Most construction requires consent in some form. To apply for consent, you submit an application using the planning portal, which is a centralised website that processes the first stages of any application for any area in England and Wales. This involves filling out an application form and uploading relevant documents, which at a minimum will involve a site plan and some existing and proposed drawings. In general, there are four scales of application:
    • Smaller works (such as small extensions to a house) do not need formal approval, but can be carried out under “permitted development”
    • “Minor applications”, which are anything under 10 dwellings, with a site area under 1/2 a hectare, or a total floorspace of under 1,000sqm. These usually have to be decided on within 8 weeks of submission
    • “Major applications”, which are anything bigger than a minor application or that involve mineral extraction or waste development. These have a target decision time of 13 weeks.
    • Particularly large applications (Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects, such as energy and transport) are dealt with under Development Consent Orders. These are a whole separate beast and can take years to resolve.
  • Applications are rarely as simple as you expect. While the minimum for any application will just be drawings of the proposal, it is becoming increasingly common, even in smaller more “quiet” areas, for extra information to be provided. For example, converting a house into a few flats could require environmental assessments, flood risk analysis, studies of any impact to daylight or sunlight in neighbouring houses, or any other reports prepared by other consultants. The various site analyses, sun path diagrams, constraints and opportunities diagrams etc that we compile during university projects give some idea of what these extra bits of information can be like. Things get even more complicated when dealing with listed buildings or conservation areas. As a result, any project could involve teams in the double digits if the local authority’s requirements are particularly onerous, even if the project only involves a single architect. At a minimum, this means that many of the projects we design at university could take months or even years to reach the stage where they are ready to submit for planning. 
  • Very few applications gain approval in the basic time frame. While each application type has a statutory decision timeframe, in reality, most applications are extended through mutual agreement between the planning officers and the design team. Particularly complex applications can take years to decide, as you can easily discover by picking up any piece of architectural press. Again, this shows how our wonderful university schemes will likely be much more complex to pull off than we tend to envision.

As already mentioned, I have provided the very basic information about planning to give a taste of how big a role it plays in getting any building built. My reasoning is that I was surprised during my year out by how many applications my practice submitted that I never saw progress during my time there, as I’m sure many people have. This can at first seem disheartening, as every project seems to take forever.

I am not saying this to encourage people to try and create university projects that would gain planning consent (indeed, often in practice gaining consent can result in simply designing a building that is identical to everything else in the area as this is all the local authority is willing to accept, which would lead to very boring university projects) but rather to demonstrate the dichotomy between practice and study and provide the beginnings of an understanding of the situation. While are university we are unconstrained by legislation, and everyone should make the most of the opportunity to explore their own way of designing, before the real world gets in the way of being able to create an antarctic seed bank or a mining colony on the asteroid Ceres (both real projects developed by my peers). Speaking of being very basic and providing information about something that is rarely relevant in university:

Contracts

person writing on paper

Contracts are one of those wonderful things that we never have to think about for ages and then suddenly become incredibly important. A significant proportion of my Part 3 exams was focused on contracts in one form or another, yet until I started the course I had had very little interaction with them, even at my practice. As I am not a lawyer nor in any way an expert, I am going to cover the very basic aspects of contracts, why they are important to us architects, and where to go if for some reason you want to learn more about them before you reach your Part 3.

  • Simply put, a contract is an agreement between two or more parties, wherein one party agrees to provide something to the other one. For our purposes, the “thing” is usually a service of some kind, such as architectural design services, the service provided by a contractor to build a house, etc.
  • The purpose of a contract is to distribute any risk between the parties involved. In an ideal world (the one recommended by multiple government reports over the last 30+ years) the risk would be placed with the party most able to handle it. In reality, usually everyone simply tries to shove risk away from themselves. This is what has lead to the proliferation of bespoke contracts on many projects, as clients try to make architects (or contractors/consultants/anybody else) take as much risk as possible.
  • For a contract to exist, it requires three things (a quick google search throws up results ranging from 3 to 7 components, but these 3 are the basics and the ones covered in a Part 3 course):
    • An offer: one party must express an interest in entering into a contract with the other. This can be written or verbal.
    • Acceptance: upon receiving an offer, the other party must agree to it. Again, this can be written or verbal, but it must be an agreement. If one party disagrees, they must negotiate until they both agree.
    • Consideration: both parties must provide something to the contract. This is usually where money comes into the picture, i.e. Bob agrees to pay £100 for Sally to paint him a picture. Bob’s consideration is £100, Sally’s is a picture. In your contract with your employer, your salary or wages is their consideration, while your agreement to perform work for them is your consideration.
    • (There is a sneaky fourth key point to a contract, which is the intent to create a legal arrangement. Given that contracts between professionals tend (should) involve written contracts, this bit is usually assumed)
  • The most common contracts that we architects will have to deal with are our appointment with a client, and the construction contract used once we get around to building something. Both of these have lots of standard forms, written by very smart cookies to make things as fair as possible. An excellent book covering the many construction contract options is Which Contract? the most recent version by Sarah Lupton and Manos Stellakis. To be honest, any book written by Sarah Lupton will be invaluable if you want to learn anything about a construction contract.

That’s basically it for contracts, as far as I am willing to write anyway. At their heart, they are very simple, but since we never learn anything about them at university they can be scary and confusing. Another excellent resource to learn more about them is the Architect’s Legal Pocket Book by Matthew Cousins – again a book that is useful in all manner of ways. I know contracts are a bit dull, and the more scary construction ones can be hundreds of pages long, but I thought it worth mentioning a little about them here to try and make them a tad less intimidating. Much like planning, when you get stuck in things can get very complicated and full of edge cases, but hopefully, these little introductions give you an idea of what sort of legal stuff we need to deal with as architects. 

One final piece of advice about contracts – try and talk to architects about them early. If you are at university, talk to your tutors about any interesting experiences they have had dealing with a contract (there will always be at least one story about how a client ignored something or the contract was never signed, or never even chosen in the first place). If you are in practice, ask to see the contract being used on your project(s), and discuss how it has affected things with the project architect.

The trick, as with everything in architecture, is to be curious. You’ll soon find out how things start to fit together.

17.02

Teamwork and Detailing

Welcome back to my little column of unsolicited studying advice. Today is Act 3 and we are looking at two more topics, this time a little more outside the basic university requirements: how to work in a team and detailing a building.

How to work in a team

In 8 years of studying to become an architect, I cannot recall a single time I heard someone get excited by the prospect of group work. Instead, most people tended to sigh and moan and generally have a good old gripe. In my opinion, this is silly. Working in a team means, theoretically, that you get to do less work! Ok, maybe not in terms of hours spent, but in terms of topics covered this ‘should’ be the case. A group project gives you the opportunity to make the most of everyone’s individual skill sets to create a piece of work that is far better than something you could produce by yourself.

Unfortunately, this does not always happen. I am going to break down the way I have seen team projects tend to go in the past, and then point out a more idealised alternative. Hopefully, this will all make sense and seem worthwhile to you.

The Typical Process

Step 1: the tutor announces that the next project will be group work. This could be a group research project, a full semester-long project to design a building, a short hackathon type design challenge over a few days, or anything in between. Queue groans.

Step 2: everyone separates off into groups or, occasionally, are assigned groups by staff. This tends to result in friends grouping with friends (understandably) and often has a knock-on effect of pairing together like-minded teammates.

Step 3: the newly formed groups sit around discussing what they need to do until they hit on an idea nobody hates. This can take minutes or days.

Step 4: the group separates out work largely based on who volunteers to do what. In this instance, volunteering can often mean you ‘demand to do the one single thing they like and refuses to entertain the notion of anybody else doing it’.

Step 4a: Someone ends up with all the bit-pieces nobody else wanted to do. Depending on who ends up in this position, this can lead to resentment.

Step 5: everyone splits up, whether in the studio or not, and works on their own little part of the project. Communication at this stage varies drastically between teams.

Step 6: the group meets up again to discuss what everyone has done. At least one person has gone off on a tangent and done something else/not done what they agreed to do/done the exact same thing as another person because that person was assigned the task this person secretly wanted. Everyone talks about what has been produced and what needs to be produced, and who is going to start collating things together (if that is required). 

Step 7: Repeat steps 5 and 6 until either the project is deemed finished by all team members or the deadline arrives.

Step 8: if everyone finishes on time, do a final once-over of everything to check what can be tweaked/improved upon. More likely, as the deadline is tomorrow, everyone panic and rush to finish individual bits and send them to the poor sod given responsibility for making sure everything fits together.

Do you see any issues in the above? I do. I’m sure there are some lucky people reading this thinking “that sounds terrible, my group work never went like that”. Unfortunately in my experience (and clearly in the experience of many others, else Step 1 would not exist) a lot of teamwork seems to end up going this way. I think this is likely due to the fact that as a rule we architects tend to have something of an ego. We have to have some self-worth, else we wouldn’t believe that what we are doing is something anybody else would be interested in. 

This is further exacerbated by the propensity of our architecture courses to focus on the design studio as a solitary endeavour. Most of our work over 5 years of study is done on our own, yet very few buildings are designed by a single person. Even a sole-practitioner creating a house extension will have to work with a builder and an engineer at some point in the process. Yet at university we are trained to have unfettered dreams, creating fantastical structures entirely by ourselves. This obviously has merit in some areas, but in training us to work in practice it is wholly flawed. As such, the above process should ideally work somewhat differently.

The Ideal Process

Step 1: the group project is announced. 

Step 2: ideally, groups would be assigned by tutors and contain a range of interests and abilities. Instead of everyone who regularly gets high marks working together, encourage them to share their knowledge with those who may have to work harder to achieve high marks. Since this is not something we students can necessarily decide, short of insisting our tutors do this, try and form groups with people you wouldn’t normally spend time with different skills and ideas. This more accurately reflects the work environment. You don’t always get to work with your buddies.

Step 2a: if one is not appointed by your tutor (though if I’m being honest they should be) appoint a team leader. In practice, this would be the project architect or a partner/director, but in university team projects there is rarely a leader. Having a leader is vital to successful teamwork. They can make executive decisions if everyone is refusing to agree on something, and they can act as a central point to make sure everyone is carrying out the tasks they get assigned. This can be achieved in a variety of ways, whether by voting, volunteering, drawing names out of a hat, or any other way that makes sense. What is most important is that everyone agrees to the principle that one team member is ostensibly “in charge”, even if their main role is to simply speed things up and reduce disagreements.

Step 3: unfortunately this step is largely the same. Coming up with a great creative idea simply can take a long time. However, to try and be more efficient, everyone can be sent away for a few hours to do some preliminary research and ideas, then come back and present to the group. This will avoid lots of unnecessary “I have this idea” followed by everyone vaguely agreeing before someone says something everyone likes better. This can then be followed up by a group session, perhaps with a big piece of paper for everyone to scribble on so that everyone can begin making connections between ideas. Ultimately this is a key place where a team leader is essential: if time is of the essence they need to be able to make a decision about what design/subject/idea to focus on.

Step 4: work is distributed as fairly as possible, based on each individual’s interests and skills. Again, having a team leader helps as they can assign roles to reduce squabbling. If everyone is given a task, it is much more difficult for someone to claim that another person “stole” their bit of the project. This is particularly useful if any team members refuse to volunteer for anything until the end, only to request doing something completely made up or that has already been assigned to someone else. When doing this, it is essential that each member’s task is a SMART goal (I.e. specific, measurable, actionable, realistic, and time-specific). This makes it very clear what everyone will be doing, rather than one person doing research and another doing renders.

Step 4A: as part of allocating work, a house style should be agreed upon. Teamwork should look coherent and consistent, which is difficult to achieve if everyone simply works in their own way. This is the perfect opportunity for everyone to share their graphical and design tips and tricks with one another to build each other up and improve everyone’s work. It would also be a good idea to assign one person who has a particularly good eye, to check everyone’s work and make any tweaks to ensure consistency.

Step 5: everyone goes and works on their tasks, with clearly defined roles and soft deadlines.

Step 6: work is reviewed regularly as a team in a structured manner, assessing how everyone is getting on with their individual tasks and how they are approaching the ultimate goal. Work is re-allocated as and when it becomes necessary. 

Step 7: Repeat steps 5 and 6 until a self-imposed hard deadline, ideally a few days before the final submission date.

Step 8: the entire team goes over the final product and carries out any last-minute amendments.

I have a feeling that this topic has turned into my longest subject to date, but it is also one of the more complicated ones. Teamwork is something we are rarely specifically taught, and as such, it is difficult to summarise briefly. It also requires knowledge in many of the other areas I have and will cover, in particular the ability to use your tools correctly and manage your time well. This is an area where utilising some sort of shared calendar system could be particularly beneficial. In general, from my experience, the key stumbling blocks in teamwork has always been the lack of a clear leader, the insistence of some members in doing their own thing, and the lack of self-imposed deadlines. With these three things sorted, the rest should (I would hope) be easier to achieve.

Detailing buildings 

The second half of Act 3 is quite different from my previous topics, being far more prescriptive. It is also a particularly detailed topic (no pun intended) and as such I will try to refer more to other sources and keep things brief. This should suffice for most purposes, especially at university.

The first point to make about detailing buildings while at university is that usually, tutors are more interested in seeing that you have made your best effort than that everything is completely correct. Given the general preference for bespoke solutions in architecture (though Modern Methods of Construction are slowly becoming more commonplace) it is unlikely that you will know how to detail everything off the bat. As such, it is best to focus on learning some basic principles and knowing where to go for advice when you get stuck.

  • First things first: think about how you would build it. Most of the time when detailing something you can figure out what to draw by stepping through in your mind how someone might actually go about building it on site. For example, roof tiles get laid last. They are laid on top of the roof structure (whether rafters or joists), which sit on a wall plate that sits on the structure of the walls. This is a particularly simplified description (for example, the insulation has to go somewhere) but should serve to illustrate my point. Thinking about your building in this way will give you the basics for your details.
  • Follow the water. At some point, you will want to stop water from getting into your building. This is usually achieved with a vapour barrier. To figure out where this goes, think about which parts of your building need to stay dry. In the example above, you could theoretically put your vapour barrier under the roof structure, but since this is usually constructed of wood this would not be particularly useful. A similar and equally important consideration is:
  • What needs to be warm? Somewhere your building needs insulating. Usually, this goes within the structure, such as between the leaves of a cavity wall or within the structure of a roof. This is a particularly key thing to consider when detailing junctions, such as a wall to floor joint, as you need to come up with a way to avoid cold-bridging. This usually comes down to figuring out how to wrap insulation around the junction in some way.
  • Know which resources are available. The first 3 points are rough rules of thumb to get you 90% of the way there. To make your detail as perfect as can be you will need to look elsewhere. Some particularly useful resources are:

Resources

This website has lots of useful information, but its founder Emma Walshaw has also produced a series of books filled with technical details. She is also working on a virtual detail library. These provide excellent examples to work from.

While this one is quite dense and finding what you need may take some time, it goes through everything from the substructure up to building services and how they all link together. It is filled with example details and even provides information on calculating U-Values and things such as CDM regulations. These may not be relevant at every stage in your education, but will definitely be useful at some point.

Manufacturers’ websites and representatives. Many manufacturers have example details of their product in-situ which can be altered and tweaked slightly to meet your needs. Velux have dwg files of their roof lights in a variety of roof types, and Kingspan provide descriptions of wall and roof buildups to achieve certain U-values with their products. This can save you a lot of time and effort, and if the manufacturer’s website does not have what you need, they tend to have very helpful employees who will happily assist you in figuring out how to detail something if you ask nicely.

Finally, don’t be afraid to ask your tutors, peers, or any practicing architects you know. In the summer a 3rd year I had met during my Part 2 asked me to look at his details for his Technology submission as he was not sure if his junctions were correct. While I did not necessarily know exactly how to achieve what he was after, by this point I obviously had more detailing experience than he did and was happy to help. His details were 90% of the way there, I simply helped tidy them up and make them more realistic. Most of being able to do detailing is common sense, the rest just requires you to find out how different materials tend to be connected together which you will slowly pick up with practice.

10.02

Presenting & Time Management

Hey guys, it’s me again. I’m back to offer my utterly unsolicited advice about some key areas in which our architecture education often seems to be found lacking. I introduced myself last time, so read my previous article if you want to learn about me. I also spoke about arguably the most immediately important things we need to learn but aren’t necessarily taught, and how to deal with that. The topics were drawing and using computers, if you still haven’t read it yet (go read it).

This time around I am going to jump straight into the next two skills which both rely on and aid the previous two: how to present, and how to manage your time.

How to present your work

Thesis Presentations – Spring 2017 | School of Architecture & Urban Planning

Presenting anything is tough. You have to stand up in front of a bunch of people, sometimes people you’ve only just met, and convince them that your ideas are good. It is also an incredibly useful skill, not just in architecture but in life. If you can convincingly, calmly, and concisely get across your ideas many things will be easier for you. Public speaking of any kind will feel more natural, pitching potential ideas to your boss or clients will be less intimidating, and if you have a more entrepreneurial spirit like Sana and many other recent graduates it can even help you on the road to setting up your own business. Unfortunately, it is also terrifying and a lot of schools seem to have no interest in mitigating this aspect of our education.

The architectural crit/review/presentation/insert-school-specific-jargon-here is seen by many as a somewhat antiquated system of assessing work, while others defend it as setting us up for the real world when we have to deal with difficult clients. Personally, I think this normalises the idea that it is ok for a client to be abusive and dismissive to their architect, which is hardly helpful to a profession that already has something of an image problem.

The crit developed in early architecture schools as a natural expression of the master/apprentice teaching system and has continued through to the present day. Traditionally seen as somewhat adversarial, everybody at least knows a story of a student’s work being ripped up by a passionate tutor or critic. Despite this, we tend to be thrown to the wolves and expected to figure out how to present by ourselves. While everyone ultimately discovers their preferred method of presenting, here are a few tips I found useful or know were beneficial to my peers:

As much as possible, let your work speak for itself.

Despite the multitude of writing around architecture, it is ultimately a visual profession and we love a good picture. If your work is well thought out and well presented (from a visual standpoint) you have already won half the battle. While I can’t help with what exactly constitutes this as architecture is very subjective and every project is different, I can say with certainty that the more impressive and solid your idea is, the easier your presentation will be.

During my Part 2 course, one of my peers actually did not present at all, literally leaving his work to speak for him while he headed home. Admittedly he was a particularly strong student, but according to his friends, he managed to do the same thing during his Part 1. From what I could see, the trick was a strong, innovative visual set up (he almost never stuck with straightforward A1 boards) and confidence in his work, which leads me neatly onto…

Be confident in your work

If you cannot back up design decisions or sound as though you are not happy with your design, your tutors and any visiting critics will be able to tell and will call you out on it.

This is particularly important: in an early interim crit in my final year, a tutor from another unit felt I was being particularly negative about the existing situation of the site I had chosen. Despite my best efforts in later crits, this viewpoint remained with the tutor and was brought up again in my final presentation. A momentary weakness resulted in a lasting flaw in my project. Being confident shows that you believe in your design and that others should too – confidence is infectious, but so is negativity.

Prepare as much as you can before the actual presentation.

This will vary from person to person – some people write a speech and practice it to make sure they fit exactly into the time allotted, some make lists of key points they want to hit, others just try to memorise as much as they can about their project and any queries brought up previously. What matters is that you take the time after finishing your work to go over it with fresh eyes and make sure that when you speak you are covering everything important in as concise a way as possible.

In order to prepare properly, you need time to do so, which leads to my final point: don’t leave everything to the last minute. I have noticed over the last 8 years that as a species architects are absolutely awful at keeping track of their time, whether they be a student or a practice director. The majority of students still have work to finish on the morning of/evening before their pin-up, which leaves precious little time to sleep and approach the presentation with plenty of energy and a sunny disposition. While it can be tempting to work up to the wire, and we love an all-nighter, resting before your crit will definitely make you feel less stressed before and during your presentation.

How to manage your time

MacBook Air near brown wooden desktop organizer

If there is one thing architects are notorious for, it’s poor time management. More specifically, architects are famous for working crazy hours to get a project finished by the deadline, but this is ultimately a product of poor time management. This is something that tends to start at university and can often carry through into practice. While many universities try to limit this attitude by closing studios and advocating rest, and lots of practices now are beginning to take a zero overtime approach, it is still a persistent mindset. 

I am hardly qualified to analyse why all-nighters are still so common, but it is clear that it leads to poor health (mental and physical) and can often not even result in a higher mark. Many studies now claim that we can only work for a set amount of hours before our productivity begins to decline rapidly. It is also clear that all-nighters are not mandatory to succeed – I have never worked through the night and I managed to qualify just fine.

As a result, I tended to keep an eye on what my peers were doing which seemed to result in them working all hours and rushing to finish their submissions in the final hours before the crit. Once again this is an area we are expected to figure out for ourselves with little guidance from tutors, and the key is to find what works for you. However, I feel I can offer a few words of advice in this area:

Plan your time up to the deadline.

Plan your time up to the deadline. The way you do this is largely up to you, whether you prefer a meticulous gant-chart, an itemised list, or copious post-its strewn around your room. What matters is that as early in a project as possible you find out when you need to finish and what you need to produce, and work backwards from there.

If your brief stipulates what sort of outputs you need to provide, figure out how long each thing will take. For example, I am god-awful at creating models and honestly hate it, but during my Part II my tutor loved them and convinced me to create relatively large models of my final projects. As I knew I did not like making models and definitely did not like having to change them, I made sure to get my design as finalised as possible before leaving myself a healthy chunk of time to complete the models themselves.

A sub-set of planning your time to the deadline is to set your own mini-deadlines. These can break up the mammoth task of “design a building” into more manageable chunks, and will also mean that you can check off completed segments as you go along. Instead of aiming to finish all your work at the end of the project, aim to get the broad strokes of the design finished and then work your way through each element, for example completing a set of design development diagrams and then moving onto site analysis.

A great way to do this (which I admittedly was actually taught by my tutor) is to set up your final portfolio at the very beginning of the project. You can then slowly add to it and develop the layout and content as you go so that by the end of the project everything is neatly finished, rather than working in a huge chunk on “the design” and then figuring out how you are going to represent everything you have done. (edit: Sana here. I cannot agree more, if I could I’d shout this advice to every single architecture student cos this is gold folks)

Use the right method for the job.

As I discussed previously, computers are great but not every piece of software is suited for every task. In the early stage of your project it can be tempting to jump straight into your favourite modelling software (I was definitely guilty of this once I started to enjoy using Revit), but this can really restrain your idea development and eat into valuable time, especially if you have an idea for how you want your project to look but don’t know how to achieve it in the software you are using. This also applies to later stages in your project when you start looking at outputs.

Many of my peers produced amazingly detailed models in Rhino for their final projects, but to get their final renders they had to use up every available PC in the studio overnight and hope that it turned out as they wanted. In contrast, by that stage, I was able to leverage Autodesk’s cloud rendering provision with my student license of Revit and churn out potential renders while still being able to work. This gave me far greater freedom in establishing my views, at the sacrifice of the granularity of a strong render plugin like V-Ray. However, it meant I was not reliant on spare computers to render on, and my ability to keep working was never compromised.

Reassess your plan regularly.

Once you have set out your plan and begun working on your project, things will constantly come up to throw things off-course. Your dissertation may take longer than you expected, you may get ill, your tutor may get exasperated and tell you to start from scratch. All these (and many more) events will throw a spanner in the works and mess up your timeline. It is therefore vital that you regularly check where you stand and compare it with where you expected to be by this point. If you do this it is much less likely that you will wake up to find you have one week before your submission in which you have to produce a complete set of plans, elevations, sections, and renders.

Finally and possibly most importantly, establish some boundaries and priorities with yourself. It is entirely possible to accurately plan out your entire work schedule and still end up working through the night because you haven’t kept track of the time, or you enjoy it, or you haven’t accurately followed your plan. If you really love working for 48 hours straight and never see any negative side effects, great. You might be superman, but great.

However, given the rise in (or at least perceived rise in) reports of poor mental health among architecture students, and the continuation of new graduates being expected to work 60-80 hour weeks with no extra pay, the only way to change things is to decide if working in this manner is actually worth it. Personally, I would far rather get a decent night’s sleep and tackle things fresh and revitalised nice and early than work solidly for 50 hours and then pass into a coma for a day or two. 

Catch you all next week for some more lessons in architecture!

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03.02

Drawing and Tech

Hi everyone! My name is Ben, I am a (very) recently registered architect. I can finally call myself an architect after years of study. And yet, after all that time, three universities, multiple jobs, and chats with other students from various places, I still feel there are some things (in this case, drawing and computers) that we just aren’t taught at architecture school. Sure, a few things finally got covered during my Part 3 course, but on average that’s usually 6 or 7 years after we first start our architectural journey.

Originally my intention was to write a book about some key things I (and others I’ve spoken to) didn’t get taught at university but wish we were. The book never happened since my Part 3 took priority. However, I reached out to Sana about discussing some key things lots of us seem to not be taught, or not taught in the amount of depth we would like, and provide some pointers (mostly involving other people better at these things than me) in the hopes of sparing some poor souls the same bafflement experienced by many of us.

The following topics were chosen based on my own experience as well as those of my colleagues and fellow students, since if there’s one thing we architects like to do, it seems to be to complain about our education! The first two cover two key skills for us architects: how to draw and how to use a computer to design.

Drawing Skills

I am fairly certain I am not alone in saying that despite studying architecture I am not particularly good at drawing. I can communicate a design concept with a very rough sketch, I can do a half decent diagram and maybe on a good day I can even parti with the best of them. In comparison, I know of other architects capable of putting together beautiful hand-drawn renderings. I had a friend in undergrad who could draw photorealistic portraits with ease, while I ultimately had to be happy with depicting humans as slightly tapering upside down exclamation marks.

When I began my studies, we were forbidden to use computers to produce our work for the entirety of 1st year. From conversations I have gathered this is not particularly unusual – it prevents us from becoming overly reliant on computers and encourages more relaxed, artistic expression. Sketching allows for ideas to flow naturally from brain to paper, without restricting them due to the constraints of a computer program.

While this seems reasonable, in my experience the architects who can create fantastic hand-drawn sketches are in the minority. Despite being forbidden, it seems in general, we are not taught to draw properly. I know that in some schools outside the UK students are still required to be able to create drawings that would not look out of place in Palladio’s 4 Books. Admittedly this rigid rote learning is rarely seen as the modern way, but there must be a middle ground. 

Many employers still request strong sketching skills from applicants, in fact :scale posted an article recently reflecting on its importance. Everyone clearly knows this, yet it is not taught in a structured manner in most (all?) schools. My drawing education at university consisted of a few sessions demonstrating how to convert an elevation into a 1-point perspective drawing, while I received no formal education in drawing prior to university, even in art class. To this end, I have over the years developed some tips to deal with my own shortcomings in this area, as well as some excellent resources that give far better advice than I am qualified to give. So, in no particular order:

Don’t worry about it. Despite my miniature tirade above and the inevitable envy of seeing a colleague drafting a beautiful perspective of a project, it’s not the end of the world if you can’t do it too. We architects wear far too many hats, it’s ok if one is a little wonky. As long as you can draw legibly and with confidence to communicate with colleagues and, importantly, clients, the quality of the drawing is not massively important. Everyone loves that Renzo Piano sketched the Shard on a napkin but ultimately that’s all it is – a sketch on a napkin to communicate an idea.

Practice. Like everything, drawing takes practice. More specifically, pick a type of drawing and practice it. The only times in my life I have seen a marked improvement in my drawing is when I chose a specific subject (in my case, people) and drew them repeatedly. I followed YouTube tutorials once a week but what matters is reducing things down to sensible sizes and focusing on honing that skill.

If you wish your ‘people’ looked more proportional, try practicing poses in quick succession (I found Quick Poses particularly useful for this). If you wish your perspective was better, draw a street over and over. If you feel you take too long on a diagram, try sitting in a cafe and drawing people as they walk past. Nothing prompts action like a limited window of time you have no control over!

Listen to the experts (I.e not me). The beautiful thing about the internet is how many people on it want to teach you things. There are many architects and architecture adjacent people with guides and tips on how to draw better, and if paper is more your thing, there are hundreds of books too!

Some of my personal favourites are the book 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School (the series of tips on overlapping lines, drawing them confidently without fuzzing, and basic shading technique, helped sharpen up my sketches immediately) and David Drazil’s website. He makes architectural drawings full time and his tips on composition, perspective types, and using construction lines to make sure your drawing looks just right are simple and effective.

Sketch Like an Architect

Using Digital Software

While drawing is a very useful tool for communicating, and there is an undeniable sense of achievement in creating a beautiful drawing, in practice these days most of our work is done on a PC. Some practices like the one I work in still have drawing boards, but they tend to be used for early concepts by directors, and by the time we young blood are in their place it is likely drawing boards will be firmly lodged in the past. Unfortunately, if drawing is ignored at university, proper use of computers is downright shunned. From what I’ve seen this seems to be improving, likely because students keep griping that nobody shows us how to use Revit and practices complain that we don’t know how to. 

However, since change in this profession seems to be very slow then all at once, it still seems necessary to cover this.

From my experience, keeping us away from computers in 1st year had the knock-on effect of making them seem magic once we were able to use them. In 2nd year most of my peers used computers for almost everything, despite not knowing the strengths of different programs. With the proliferation of 3D printers and the like in university fablabs, this has spread even to those of us who love making models. This means we often have to start learning multiple programs from scratch while also learning to design buildings.

It is also very easy to hamper our designs by insisting on working on them in a particular program because it’s what we know or we are determined to learn to use it. Something designed by hand will look very different to something designed entirely in Revit. Which leads me to my first point about computers:

Just because it’s there doesn’t mean you have to use it. Many of my peers chose not to use computers much, or even not at all, and chose to focus on hand drawing or models. This can really make your work stand out if everyone else is using CAD for everything. 

Chat with other students and share tips and knowledge about software. Over the course of my studies I was taught very useful things about Photoshop, Illustrator, and Rhino by other students, and I taught similar tips in return. Architecture is very competitive and it is easy to fall into the mentality of “everyone for themselves”, but in practice teamwork is very important – helping each other out at university (and with things like this blog) makes us all better. 

If your university does not teach you much about software, make full use of the internet. Lots of universities have subscriptions to online teaching resources like Lynda/LinkedIn Learning, which is full of excellent tutorials by experienced professionals. I learned to use Revit almost entirely from a Lynda tutorial. 

Finally, try to focus on a few programs at any given time. There are a plethora of programs architects use, and lots of job listings seem to expect us to know how to use every single one. In practice this is not feasible – each program does many things, often the same things in different ways. Learning how to use a program properly, effectively, and to its full potential can take a long time, especially with the more complex ones.

It can be tempting to try to use every program for one project, but this wastes precious time and energy on learning the program when you could be designing. There will always be more time to learn other software, and university is arguably the best time, but it is better to be particularly skilled at two or three than barely proficient at ten. 

Catch me next week for even more tips, can you guess what they will be?

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