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A Day in the Life of a Architect

Most people enter architecture with a vision, a desire to build, and a pre-discovered engineering ability; unfortunately, most architects don’t get to exercise any of these skills until many years after entering the profession. Beginning architects research zoning, building codes, and legal filings, draft plans from others’ designs, and build models at the side of a more experienced architect. The accomplished architect doesn’t spend as much time as he would like designing, either; he spends it on the phone, in meetings, and consulting closely with his clients. Of the people we surveyed, each was surprised by the amount of time they had to spend “selling” or “explaining” their ideas. The most financially successful architects seemed to be the ones best at communicating their unique vision. Becoming an architect is a long process; spending years as a draftsman or researcher leads those without patience to grow frustrated and dissatisfied with their choice of career. Even after the grueling “weeding out” period, surviving as a working architect is difficult. Most architecture firms employ five or fewer people, and the work firms do is mostly commercial or pre-planned residential housing with strict budget and practical limitations. Only a select few architects get to “design” in the way that most budding architects imagine they will. Perpetual revision of plans based on client needs, contractor inefficiency, and budget strictures are daily features of the architect’s life. Plans and priorities have to be reevaluated daily and revised accordingly. One architect said, “Practically every plan you draft will look something like what you build, but don’t count on it.” A successful architect needs talent, practical, interpersonal, and organizational skills, and most of all, patience.

Paying Your Dues

The requirements for becoming an architect are stringent because, like an attorney or a physician, an architect must take all legal responsibility for his work. A prospective architect must complete an academic degree specifically focused on architecture. This can be a five-year Bachelor of Architecture program, an affiliated two-year Master of Architecture program, or, for those whose undergraduate degrees were in a field unassociated with architecture, a three- to four-year Master of Architecture program (one architect we surveyed received a bachelor’s degree in Animal Behavior). Nearly all states require three years of practice in the field as a junior associate, draftsman, or researcher before you are eligible for accreditation. Aspiring architects must also have an accredited sponsor. Last, each candidate must pass all sections of the Architect Registration Exam (ARE), a rigorous multipart test. Greater emphasis is now placed by employers on those applicants who have mastered computer assisted design (CAD) programs, which promise to become required knowledge for any architect as technology continues to develop.

Present and Future

Architecture reflects the times and people the architect emerges from; the cultural signature of man has been found on every structure built by humans. Greek societies focused on aesthetic and mathematical harmonies, as displayed in their architecture, such as the Parthenon. Renaissance Italy created ornate public buildings and palaces reflecting the country’s wealth. Modern architecture as a profession seems to be heading in two directions at once. First, advancements in the technology of computer aids should improve the productivity and creative capabilities of architects. Some believe this computerized “evening” of the tables (small and large firms alike will use the same software) will lead to a great democratization of architecture, with many more architects being able to handle and coordinate massive construction projects. Others believe that since job prospects are driven by local construction cycles, the future of architecture is tied to the future of local economies. In the future, architects must be willing to relocate for periods of time to find work, must become involved in electronic communications where design and theory meet, and will work under less generous conditions than currently enjoyed by the profession.

Quality of Life

PRESENT AND FUTURE

In the first two years, prospective architects work as interns or research assistants to established architects, with salaries in the low $20,000 range. Duties include researching zoning regulations, working with subcontractors (electricians, plumbers, etc.), and drafting plans, either manually or with computer assistance. Long hours and little responsibility characterize these first few years, when many study for the ARE. Nearly 25 percent leave the profession.

FIVE YEARS OUT

Responsibility and areas of control have increased. Finally, candidates get a chance to design parts of a building (a bathroom, a closet). Others are given areas of responsibility (lighting, heating, air conditioning), and work with partners or senior associates learning the practical end of turning plans into production. These five-year survivors get their first taste of client contact and, in many cases, become the primary contacts on smaller jobs. Most work with contractors and inspect work to make sure it matches up with plans. Some are involved in planning and pitching new contracts, depending on their interpersonal skills. Hours increase with responsibility, and another 20 percent decide to leave the occupation, based on either frustration with the slow degree of advancement or difficulty with the ARE. Those who remain become accredited between years three and seven.

TEN YEARS OUT

Those who last ten years in this profession are competent designers and coordinators, able to recruit business, successfully communicate with clients, and distinguish themselves professionally. Architects at this stage of their careers are more involved in designing and creative planning, and less involved in implementation, construction, and detail work. They’ve become supervisors and teachers to newer entrants to the profession. Some reenter academia either to pursue graduate work or teach basic architectural studies. But self-employed architects always remember that they have only as much work as their clients give them: Recruiting business and self-promotion are an integral part of the successful ten-year-surviving architect’s life.