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The coach: Architects’ biggest career concerns in 2017

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Careers expert Matthew Turner looks back at readers’ emails over the last year, and finds a profession uneasy about its increasingly marginalised status in the construction process

Have you found that many architects have been stressed about their careers in 2017?

Matthew turner

Judging by the emails I receive, yes. Typically, many at the early stages and in mid-career find office life mundane, and politics more dominant, than they would wish for. Others are finding it hard to sustain their interest, or regard the options they see ahead as traditional architects as unattractive.  

Why do you think this is?

If you think about it, by choosing a vocational course when just a teenager, many architects leapfrog over the existential questioning phase most go through in their twenties. Those who study French literature, or physics, for example, at some point tend to have had to examine what they are good at and what they want to do, whereas architects in their early career are cocooned by the comforting notion that ‘a profession’ awaits them. 

But a teenager’s understanding of work is very different from a 40-year-old’s – and that is before considering the impact of changes in the workplace and job stability that are taking place. As a rule, I find many architects lack the self-awareness that other professionals have.

So what do you think are the main strengths and weaknesses of architects?

Architects tend to be idealists and enthusiasts, and love to think alternately at the big and small scale. This is a great strength, and very much valued in other industries at a strategic level. 

The trouble is that the opportunities to fully flex this muscle are only occasional in the construction sector, where other factors such as regulatory, financial or organisational considerations compete for attention. While some architects thrive within these constraints, many never get over the shock that life is more complex than a studio project. 

An observation I once heard at a university that was setting up a combined planning and architecture course has always stuck in my mind. They found that the most able and inquisitive students with grand aspirations to make cities applied to do architecture, while those who chose planning were seeking a steady public sector job. It was ironic, they felt, that those with the latter background would ultimately have the most influence on our urban environment. What architects end up doing is sometimes not aligned with their core motivations.

What frustrates architects most about their careers? 

It will come as no surprise that low earnings and how to improve them was the concern I observed most in the emails I received in 2017.

This year I have had a steady stream of clients coming to me because their partners, who work in other professions, have told them they can’t believe how little they earn as qualified professionals. 

From what I see, frustration boils down to value, in a number of senses. The perception of what is valued, what value is offered, and what that value commands. Architects value things that are often not particularly recognised by others, and vice versa. 

Many architects get drawn into such things as perfecting a detail, or composing the most elegant plan, but the trouble is your average client just assumes that that all comes with the service. Clients often are motivated by other interests, which many architects either don’t prioritise or don’t find interesting. 

So when architects have little regard, for example, to the competing demands within a client’s organisation, or underestimate the power of design risk from a funder’s point of view, the value of their service is harder to see, and is a contributing factor to their marginalisation, and in the end, lower fees.

I have been working with a number of clients who are exploring new horizons beyond a traditional architectural career

What opportunities are there to earn more?

While some can make it in architecture, this year I have been working with a number of clients who are exploring new horizons beyond a traditional architectural career.

Increasing earnings quite often drives architects to seek out other options, but many are also motivated by seeking how they could apply their skills elsewhere. 

Some muse on solving wider problems than designing buildings, and there are many avenues in this direction. Consultancies exist which offer integrated problem solving (for example IDEO, which offers design thinking solutions for issues as diverse as urban farming to running hospital departments). 

There are also opportunities within multidisciplinary teams that focus on the kind of projects where the built environment is only one aspect. It is worth noting that to make the transition to this sector requires a degree of skilful career management.

Another way in which individuals often make a career change is to climb into a different part of the construction and development industry ‘tree’. There are many opportunities on the client side, and the person who can manage architects has great value in many sectors. 

Of course these jobs can primarily be about project management and have little direct design function, but the hybrid of project manager and architect is a potent one, and when an organisation has vision, these roles can be incredibly creative, and in many ways those occupying them can be considered the author of schemes in the modern construction industry. For instance, 2017 has seen the launch of Public Practice, a welcome initiative to bring a design approach into local authorities. Roles exist in the public and private sector, from regeneration, to the estates strategy lead for a university, to the in-house layout designer for a specialist kitchen company.  

Some architects may dismiss these options as ‘not architecture’, but these kinds of roles can offer strategy, autonomy – and a higher salary.

How about the options out there for practices to be more entrepreneurial?

Architects spend their careers becoming expert at a wide range of aspects of the property market, yet I am surprised how few architecture firms cross the table to become developers themselves, stepping beyond design interests to extract the value from that knowledge. 

Practices may well dip their toe in by developing their own property or office building, but rarely do they scale up. Perhaps the seemingly limited interest of architects in the spreadsheet world of business and development economics is due to a perception that you need money to be a developer. But it is worth bearing in mind that the vast majority of commercial developers aren’t using their own money. 

Of course, the prospect of going commercial is anathema to many architects. I often come across architects who are driven by a sense of improving the world, but are crestfallen because their ideas never seem to come to fruition. 

This is where recognising that the art of collaboration and practising modesty can develop into a rich seam of work opportunities. 

Architects can really make a difference, but this is by helping to solve the problems of others, not starting from problems that they themselves wish to solve. 

This year’s RIBA Stirling Prize winner is a case in point. dRMM’s Hastings Pier has been described as a ‘non-building’. More a space for the public to use, its function and form has been conceived of by the public, not by the architect. The architects’ main value to this project wasn’t designing a beautiful aesthetic result, but playing a part in marshalling, organising, guiding and supporting a community group to develop a fundable project, enabling a successful funding application. Many such opportunities to make things happen are out there for architects, and are a wonderful way to scratch an architect’s itch to make a difference.

What single thing can an architect do to be fulfilled?

Clearly as individuals we can’t put the world to rights, and we can’t all have stellar careers. 

But at the end of 2017, I am thinking that, if there is a single maxim that holds for practices as well as individual architects, it is this: those who make themselves useful get the most opportunities, and are more likely to be fulfilled. So my advice is this: prioritise recognising, capturing, and realising the value that your client or end-user wants.

AJ coach Matthew Turner is an architect and careers consultant who runs the Building on Architecture consultancy. To contact him with your questions, tweet @TheAJcoach or email him in confidence at hello@buildingonarchitecture.com

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Excellent advice Matthew, and it should be disseminated in all practices and architectural educational institutions. The profession and education curriculum needs to respond the industry within which it sits. Technological advancements and innovation provide so many opportunities for architects to be designers and clients themselves. Not necessarily wanting to pour over financial spreadsheets is understandable and if so then practices should just bring that specialism in-house and be prepared to listen to advice and direction given?

    Lanre, Architect & Senior Product Innovation Manager @ L&Q

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