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Trainee architects should be students, not lackeys

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Involving trainee architects in the actual design process is crucial if we are to nurture and encourage creativity and talent, argues Kunle Barker

It’s vital that newly qualified students gain experience in all aspects of architecture, but practices must facilitate students’ exposure to the more meaningful aspects of the job, otherwise they risk simply becoming the office lackey. 

It’s common in many industries to start at the bottom and work your way up the organisational structure. This rite of passage is engrained in our collective psyche as the best way to learn your craft and for employers to identify talent. Starting at the bottom will inevitably involve more menial tasks but there should be balance and students must be given the chance to engage with design, clients, and the architectural process. 

Practices need to ensure that students are not simply there to carry out the works that more senior architects don’t want to do. Involving junior architects in the actual design process is crucial if we are to nurture and encourage creativity and talent.

I let architectural assistants get involved in all aspects of the project, from design to dealing directly with clients

‘The quickest and most proficient way for architectural assistants to be of benefit in practice is through direct hands-on experience,’ says Amos Goldreich, director at Amos Goldreich Architecture. ‘This means giving them responsibility and being prepared for small setbacks. I let architectural assistants get involved in all aspects of the project, from design to dealing directly with clients and contractors.’ 

Without exception, the most successful people I know all have great people skills. Architects have to understand, translate and then communicate clients dreams and aspirations, it’s sometimes a long and arduous process but one that is necessary to achieve great architecture.

‘Learning how to manage clients, contractors and consultants both on a personal and professional level is vital,’ says Nicholas Holloway, director at AR-DE. ‘Shadowing can be a great way to gain these skills, but so can just listening to what is going on around you. Read the emails you are copied into, listen to the phone calls your boss is making and try to understand why they are handling situations in such a manner.’  

Being able to communicate effectively is not a skill learnt in front of a computer screen, loading data into BIM software; it’s learnt by interacting with clients and contractors. So it’s great to see many practices involving juniors in pitch, client and feasibility meetings. 

‘When I was a young Part 2, some of the most valuable experience I got was being taken along to meetings and being asked to take minutes,’ says Holloway. ‘It forced you to be engaged and attentive to all aspects of the meeting. My boss would review these minutes with me and explain why certain elements were important, how to phrase particular aspects and why certain ways of doing things could lead to trouble for both myself and the firm in the future.’

The best architects that I have worked with all have a great understanding and familiarity with building sites. Students must be given the chance to visit sites so that they understand their particular challenges. Too often there is a disconnect between paper and brick, with architects not understanding or appreciating what it actually takes to deliver a design. 

I was exposed to the good, the bad and the ugly of the build. This not only benefited my ability to design but also problem-solve in a collaborative way

These interactions are all learning experiences for architects that will inform the design process. Contractors are the conduit by which the architecture is delivered and that’s why the best architects have a good understanding of sites and the people on them.

‘As a trainee Part 1 in a small practice, I was fortunate enough to shadow a senior architect through the site works for a large two-year project,’ says Tina Patel, director at Formed Architects & Designers. ‘I was exposed to the good, the bad and the ugly of the build. This not only benefited my ability to design but also problem-solve in a collaborative way.’ 

Flexible working practices are of particular importance in the creative industries. Creativity does not tend to work to a timetable, so students need to be given freedom, space and encouragement. However, a close eye must be kept on working hours as whilst it’s understandable for staff to work long hours in the run-up to design submissions, it’s important for employers to guard against burnout in younger staff. 

Finally, the practice of unpaid internships should be ended. This disturbing work practice is harmful to the industry as it does not encourage the best and the brightest to become architects. Instead it simply gives an unfair advantage to the privileged few who can afford to work for free. That is not good for creativity and is certainly not good for architecture.

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