Things I Wish I Knew About Practice

About six years ago I started working at an architecture practice as a Part 2 at a big London practice. Since then I have started and finished Part 3, worked on a variety of projects and typologies on a variety of scales- everything from bespoke joinery drawings at 1:2 to master planning; from threshold details and door schedules to running large chunks of mixed-use projects of a scale that paralyse me into inaction if I try to think about them all at once.

Eleanor working from home

I am still at that Part 2 job, now as a project architect with an odd (and totally independent) sideline in architectural journalism and writing. Things are going ok. Six years ago though I was a bundle of nerves with both too much, and not enough, confidence in my ability to do the job I had just been hired for. A few things I wish someone had told me:

Congratulations! You’ve finished a significantly challenging degree (be it Part 1 or Part 2). Breathe. What comes next looks different, both to what you have been doing, and most likely to what you are expecting.

Architecture is a career that builds slowly, you won’t be an overnight success. This is a good thing; this is not the sort of job you want people with no experience to be superb at. If it was that easy you wouldn’t be spending the better part of ten years training to do it.

You will be exhausted for the first month or so. Permit yourself to feel it. It’s a huge change- a new job, new tasks, possibly new software, maybe a new city or a new home. I spent the first few weeks going to bed early and napping at weekends. Two or three months in I had a social life and side interests again- give it time.

You are now (probably) the most junior member of a team. This is likely not what university has prepared you for. Studio culture usually encourages competition with your peers and discourages collaboration. Collaboration will be key to your success as an architect. Learn how to work with others well, take a genuine interest in your colleagues and don’t try to pretend you are above them or the tasks you are set.

Working in Practice

Being new means your boss needs to work out what you’re capable of; and being a junior in an architect’s office usually means drawing door schedules, ceiling plans or something in Photoshop. This isn’t a bad thing. Try to find something interesting in every task. Architecture isn’t just about, say, the composition of the facade – it’s about collating the input of tens of specialists to allow for the fabrication of what had been an abstract concept.

This sounds superbly ephemeral and glamorous, but in practice a lot of time this looks like coordinating drainage, allowing for concrete tolerances and checking building regulations. However, the decidedly non-glamorous bits are where you learn how a building goes together and are generally how you get good at this job. This doesn’t mean you aren’t allowed to get bored, it does mean you have to do the boring thing well anyway.

You will be surrounded by people who have been doing this for years. If you’re in a physical office, sit with one earbud out and listen to what’s going on around you- you will learn a lot.

Ask questions. No one is expecting you to know exactly what to do. I ask ‘stupid’ questions (no such thing) all the time, I hope I never stop. If a Part 1 or 2 new to the office joined my team and didn’t ask questions I’d assume they were overconfident and not doing the right thing. If your team lead is busy or not very happy about being peppered with questions keep a list next to you and email/ talk through it once a day/ twice a week… whatever works for you and your team.

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If your team lead is grouchy it’s probably not your fault, more likely they are worried about making their child’s school pick up in time, the outcomes of the planning meeting they just came out of or whether that client will pay their invoice this month.

Your career isn’t really on your boss’ mind. This sounds harsh but I doubt their career is at the forefront of your mind either. You have moved from an educational environment where you are paying an organisation to nurture your talent and improve your career prospects to a place where someone pays you to do something they need doing.

This doesn’t mean a good office won’t help train you and good team leaders won’t take an interest in your career or give you good advice, but you need to take responsibility for your progression now. Be proactive, speak up, look for places you can help or value, seek out opportunity.

Communicate with your team lead. They are busy and won’t have as much time for you as they would wish. Tell them if you’re struggling (this is not failure)- maybe you just need something explained differently or maybe they assumed knowledge you didn’t have. Also, tell them if you can do more- they will be thrilled.

Self-Value

Sometimes it will be necessary, but if you are working excessively late every day something is wrong because you are not completing the work you are being paid to do in the time you are being paid to do it in. Maybe you have too much work, maybe you are not managing your time well, maybe you think it looks impressive. Try and address it. Some practices have a big overtime culture, if that is the case and you are happy with it, fine, you are choosing to be there.

Personally, I would not choose to stay in a practice that required excessive overtime as I have too many other things I want to fill my evenings and weekends with and I don’t work well tired. I try to make sure no one has work they are expecting from me unfinished or emails unanswered though; I don’t want to be the reason someone else is working late.

It is crucial that you have a life, hobbies, interests and friends that are not architectural. Have a read of a previous :scale article discussing expectation and worth.

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Some days will be battles and that is totally normal. If your job is a constant war though, address it. The majority of architecture practices are filled with lovely people doing their best; some are a little toxic. From here on in you are responsible for choosing whether where you are is where you want to be. Be brave, speak up and raise issues but if a practice isn’t willing to adjust their culture decide if it’s for you. Your jobs will shape you. Look at the people around you, if you don’t want to be like them consider moving.

Don’t allow yourself to become a victim to circumstance, there is always another choice you can make even if it doesn’t feel like it at that moment. Take a step back, get a good night’s sleep, speak to someone you trust at some distance from the situation. Don’t make big decisions when tired or angry.

I love architecture and the vast majority of days I love my job, it doesn’t mean I don’t have gripes. This is not a race, there is no such thing as perfect, and a lot of the time success looks like perseverance and hard work. You will make mistakes but it is not the mistakes that will define you, but how you respond to them. Good luck; enjoy rising to the challenge!

Written by Eleanor Jolliffe

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