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The Coach: ‘Very little of my work involves designing’

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Careers expert Matthew Turner advises an architect who only spends a few hours a year developing designs they are proud of

Ater a number of years as an architect, I’ve realised that the only parts of the project where design work actually matters are the first few moves we make at feasibility stage. From then on, the huge effort and skill I put into a project are invariably whittled down during planning or cost-saving exercises and the construction phase, and we end up delivering mediocre buildings. I give so much to my work, but developing an actual design I am proud of represents a fleeting few hours in my working year. Is this really being an architect?

Matthew turner

This is an incredibly demotivating position to be in, and I am not surprised you are despondent. Your very honest email gives the sense you view day-to-day practice as an attritional process, sapping your enthusiasm and commitment to a profession you previously never questioned, which is core to you and your identity. Alongside the relatively low pay and long hours, the question can quickly arise: have I invested too much in my job? Is architecture completely wrong for me?

This internal dialogue is frequently expressed by architects coming to me. Yet there is a solution to this that isn’t giving up on architecture; it is more evolution than revolution, and the answer is in your mindset.

Most projects require design considerations to be equal to, and blended with, finance, community, user and constructional realities

Over our long and luxurious education, we build up an expectation that design is the nexus of all projects, around which everything else should rightfully adjust. This world view is incredibly deep-set, and imbues much of the architectural narrative that surrounds us, from the completed project photos devoid of people to the scant mention of clients and users. This reinforces the architectural result as the paramount focus. 

Design’s centrality may be the reality for some projects, but this is definitely not the case for the vast majority of the regular architectural workload. Some architects don’t subscribe to this narrative and can be incredibly invigorated. They recognise and accept that, fundamentally, most projects require design considerations to be equal to, and blended with, finance, community, user and constructional realities. Of these four factors, the last is the sole area many architects tend to feel comfortable with. I am not saying the design is inferior; quite the opposite – excellent design should be the outcome, but almost as a by-product, not the aim. 

Architects who can grasp that design’s role is to serve and not direct have switched from a mindset of frustrated and victimised designer. Those that do this tend to be more open-minded and useful, and way more likely see a step-change in their career prospects. 

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)

  • Daniel Lacey

    Design on a project should never end. Limitations will always exist, whether it be gravity, geography or an overly opinionated planning officer. It is how you approach and overcome these limitations which make you a great designer.

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