How to Become an Architect

Its even harder than you think.

I go to a number of networking events in and around Edinburgh, some are better than others, Bizini is my personal favourite right now. It provides a variety of different business people with the opportunity to meet one another and network over a nice meal. I met a woman at a recent event who told me that her nephew was about to enter his final year at school and was seriously considering Architecture as a career; was it a difficult course to get into, she wanted to know?


Never mind getting in, I told her, its getting out the other end, thats the problem.

The title of Architect and the word Architecture are protected by law in this and many other countries. In the UK, the Architects Act 1997 states that a person cannot call themselves an Architect "in the course of business" unless their name is on a list maintained by the Architects Registration Boards (ARB). To get your name onto that list, you must pass three examinations, known as Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3. It was once possible to sit these exams as part of an apprenticeship program, training while working for a qualified Architect. This is not a popular approach nowadays, I have never met anyone who has qualified this way. To become an Architect in the UK, and in most developed countries, there are a number of steps that take at least seven years to complete, but often take longer. This how-to guide is based on my own experience of studying and qualifying thought the University system

School Subjects:

Most University Architecture courses will require applicants to sit an interview, some even conduct written exams. The purpose of these interviews is to view a portfolio prepared by the student. This portfolio will often contain art work or other creative projects by the student. The interviewer will want to know why the student wants to become an Architect and whether their view of the profession matches reality. Depending on where you wish to study, there will be different criteria. Some schools of Architecture have an art bias, others lean more towards the technical approach. My own portfolio was full of technical drawing, photographs of woodwork projects and freehand sketches. I don't think any of these were particularly good but I got offered places at two different universities. I eventually chose Dundee and some of my classmates had portfolios of very good paintings and drawings, there was a mixture of students with both art and technical backgrounds. In the long run, I wish I had studied art at school and that I had concentrated more on freehand drawing.

The Studio:

Most University courses revolve around lecture theatres, not so for Architecture. If you are studying to be an Architect you will spend most of your time in a studio. These vary but most will be large, well lit, rooms with desks and drawing boards. You will work in close proximity to other students for long hours. Lifetime friendships are made in the studio, my best mate met his wife there. The studio is where you will work on design projects during each term or semester. Many people will work from home as well but most schools prefer, and even demand, their students be present in the studio during the day so they can benefit from tutorials. These are given by staff who will go around the studios and usually have responsibility for a number of students. As part of the design process you will have to produce drawings and models showing how you will address each design project. When you reach the point where your design is really good, or if you are about to run out of time, which ever happens first, you must prepare finished drawings and models for presentation. This almost inevitably calls for an all-nighter.

The All-Nighter:

This is something that unites Architects world-wide, we all did one at some time. You have 48 hours to go before a design must be submitted, you haven't got any finished drawings or models. What do you do? you don't sleep, thats what. Many architects I know are now coffee connoisseurs as a direct result of having to stay awake for nights at a time. The result of all this effort is then displayed on the studio walls, the tables and drawing boards cleared away, and a critique is held.

The Crit:

A critique, or crit as it is more widely know, is a face to face examination of you design work by a number of tutors. You will start by explaining how you interpreted the brief, examined the site, researched the precedents and then boiled down all this information to produce the final building design. It is at this point the tutors jump in by asking probing questions, demanding to know why you didn't consider alternative approaches or pointing out the inadequacy of some aspects of your design. The crit can be a brutal process, I have seen people cry as a result to the interrogation their design received. The important thing it to learn from the process and not to give up because quite a few people give up.



The Drop-Out Rate:


When I started University in 1998 there were 81 people in my class, when I finally graduated in 2004 there were only 16 of those original 81 in my class. Four more graduated the next year, having repeated a year for various reasons. That meant a drop-out rate of just over 75%, I thought that was unusual, that my class were particularly bad. By comparison to other years at my University, my class was above average but not by much. I have met a lot of Architects from around the world in the years since graduating and its much the same story with them. These three forums should give you some idea of the scale of the problem. Its difficult to pinpoint why people leave the course before graduation, I know many of my former classmates did so for a wide variety of reasons; sickness, failing exams, family crisis, transfer to other degree, change of heart and getting fed up with the length of time involved. One of the biggest changes to the make up of my university class occurred when people returned form the year out.The Year Out:Usually after three years study, you will be awarded a degree. This allows you to bypass the first Architecture examination, the Part 1. Provided your university is suitably accredited, you pass the Part 1 by virtue of gaining the degree. At this point you are required to go out into the big bad world and find a job in an Architects office for 12 months. This is known in the trade as the Year Out. You can work for any Architect, so long as they are suitably qualified and registered with the appropriate governing body. Many people move back home and work for an office round the corner from mom and dad, I went to Sydney. I worked for a small practice called White-Box Architect and had a great time. I learned things University cannot teach you, like how to deal with builders, clients and planning departments.The year flew by and at the end I was sad to leave. This is often the first time many graduates earn their own money and live independently, that can be hard to give up and some don't bother to finish their education.



Back to Uni:


After the year out you will come back to university, you don't have to go to the same institution that gave you your first degree, many take the opportunity for a change of scene. This part of your Architectural Education is more intense than before, there will be fewer students and more full time tutors. You will have to pass written examination in subjects like, construction technology, history and theory, structures, professional management and so on. You may also have to produce a written dissertation on a topic of your own choosing but you will have to produce a thesis project. Depending on the institution you are studying at you will be aiming for an honors or masters degree, these will be graded 1st class, 2.1, 2.2 3rd class etc. Students frequently obsess over this result but unless you want to pursue further academic study, they have little impact on your future career path.This degree takes two to three years to complete, at the end of which you graduate and, like before get an automatic pass for the Part 2 examination. This is the end of most peoples academic career, after this you will go out and find work for a practice. Some people go back to their year out firm others travel abroad for work. When times were good most graduates got snapped up in a matter of weeks, I got headhunted the same day I finished my degree. These days its very tough, the current crop of graduates are going to have to work very hard just to get an interview.The really tough break is that after six years of study, you are still not allowed to call yourself an Architect. Technically you are an Architectural Assistant and it is at this point that most people learn, for the first time, how to do the job of being an Architect.


Part 3:


This is the daddy, the big one, the examination you've been wanting to sit for most of a decade. At present a candidate must have a minimum of 24 months experience working for a qualified practice. This experience is recorded in a log-book, this used to be a real paper book but now its on line. You will be expected to have experienced a variety of responsibilities, job running, dealing with clients, public bodies, contractors as well as a demonstrating a knowledge of professional competence, contractual awareness, legal and regulatory understanding. The exam itself is tough, it consists of three parts; a written exam paper, a written case study and an interview. The written exam or practice paper, is just 10 questions long and you are given 48 hours to complete it. You will need most, if not all, of the 48 hours. Its an open book exam so you can consult anyone, other than another candidate. The questions vary from general issues affecting the profession, to specific contractual problems dreamt up by the exam board. The case study is a 6000 word document. It can be either based on a project you worked on or on an abstract aspect of practice, some issue affecting the profession. Most people do the first type and discuss a project they worked on. Its important to stress here that the Part 3 exam, unlike Parts 1 and 2 has very little to do with design. It is a examination in professional management and is designed to see if you can cope with running your own practice. In theory, you could set up working on your own the day you pass. The interview examiners will have read your case study and your practice paper as well as reviewed your log sheets. They go through these and raise points for discussion. The interview is designed to weed out people who shouldn't be setting up on their own. As one examiner told me, "we just want to see if you are a safe pair of hands". It's tough, very few people I know who have gone through the interview enjoy it. The failure rate is roughly 20%.But its the last hoop you must jump though, after this you are an Architect. No more exams, unless you count all the continuing professional development you have to do, but that a story for another day....

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