The Honest Truth for New Architects

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The architecture industry is tough. It’s hard to find a job, it’s even harder to get a job, and it’s the hardest to get a good job that you like. If I go back in time and could give some advice to myself when I just became an architect, 14 years ago what would I say?

After some reflection on my own experience and discussing with other architects. I have come up with:

14  Important Truths New Architects Need to Know

There is roughly one for each year I’ve been an architect. Whether you’re starting out as an architect or you are a practicing designer, these truths should help you navigate your way through the profession of architecture.

1. No Architect Knows Everything

There is a common saying that architects need to know a lot about everything but not a lot about something. There is some truth to this. You need to know a lot and there is so much to learn. Because of this, you end up forgetting a heaps too. So what I have learned was to write the important information down for easy reference. The kind of information that you will likely refer to from project to project.

The Pareto Principle, or the 80/20 rule, states that 80% of the result comes from 20% of the effort. For example, fire regulations are complicated and I always have to refer to them time and time again, because you forget the details. Once I figured out 20% of what was necessary for me to learn, I wrote them down. Now, I just refer to my notes every time I come to design to fire code and I hardly ever need to refer to anything else

2. Not Everyone Cares Like An Architect

At university the tutors teach you a lot about the design philosophy of architecture and how important it is. Dealing with aesthetic value, artistic values and relationships with culture and so on. The truth of the matter is, most people don’t actually care about this stuff. An architect must care despite this.

3. Design Stages Don’t have to be So Complicated

RIBA makes this so complicated with the RIBA Plan of Work. There used to be 11 work stages, for heaven sake. Nowadays RIBA have changed to 8. People also change the names everywhere you go. For example, Schematic Design, Pre Concept, Design Development, Tender Stage. You can simplify this and narrow it down to only 4 design stages not work stages, which architects are mostly involved in. There is: Concept, Spacial Coordination and Technical design (which is construction drawings). The other stages, although important, do not involve much design.

4. Architects Might Not Design Buildings 

If you want to design a building then find a job where you design a building. Simple. Don’t wait for someone to give you the opportunity. Projects take a lot of time to construct. The design part is only a small majority of the process. A lot of architects are appointed to work on the whole duration of a project, after the design stages. You can be stuck on this for a long time. I found work less enjoyable when working on later stages, if you were not directly involved on the previous stages. When you look for a new job with an employer, ask them what stages of the project you will be involved in. Try and start a job on a project at the earliest stage you can. This makes the whole process more enjoyable and the experience is far greater

5. Different Types of Architects

Early on in your career, you need know what type of work interests you have and what you are good at. There are so many stages and roles for an architect. Don’t be forced into doing work you don’t particularly want to do. The first 5 years or so, an architect should try and get broad experience, to taste and see what you like. Otherwise it will be difficult to get out of the experience that shapes you. For instance, I landed a job working on healthcare buildings and I ended up doing that for years because people saw I had experience in it. It didn’t mean I wanted to work on hospitals all the time. I didn’t. It was very difficult to get out of the healthcare sector after that. The next 3 jobs I landed were because of my healthcare experience. This is great if you want to do healthcare. But I didn’t.

Your experience will shape your career. For example, If you do a lot of technical design you might end up becoming a technical architect, if you work on early design stages you might be a more conceptual architect. Look for work you want to do and learn to stay or leave when required.

6. Architects can come across arrogant

Don’t let egos and emotion make you arrogant. You do need to care about design, but be careful not to stick to your design because of ego. Designs will change and develop, usually for the better. But always be open to changes and revisions and most of all- cheaper alternatives! You will never get anything built or you may come across as arrogant, if you say ‘no’ without thinking. Learn to say “yes” and accept changes. This is an important lesson you need to know before you become an architect.

7. Hand Drawings and Physical Models are Rarely used

Every architect will say, you can’t beat the hand sketch to quickly communicate something to a client. Or a physical model is the best way to explore the design and see it. In reality, hand drawings are rarely seen in architect offices nowadays. If they are, then they are done by a selected few. As for models, I think I’ve made one in the last ten years. The house keeper threw it away because she thought it was trash.

Truth about hand drawings

8. Slave to software

One of the first things architects look for on your CV is what software you use. This is the sad truth of being a young architect. Proven software skills are overly rated, rather than design skills or even education sometimes. Which is kind of frustrating considering how long it takes to be an architect and how easy it is to learn software on YouTube. Ensure you make an effort, in your time. Do not rely on anyone sending you on a training coarse. Teach yourself or send yourself on a training course. No excuses.

9. Design is a very small part

Many people do not realize that part of an architects role (depending on the contract) usually involves being lead consultant and coordinating all the other consultants work on a project. That means checking all the other engineers drawings and ensuring they are correct according to the architects design. Traditionally it is the architects job to lead the other consultants. Ensure you are clear what your role is, especially if there is a Project Manager on the team. Design can be a small portion of an architects role, there is so much other work to do on projects.


10. It takes another 10 years before you are an architect

For me , the truth is, I didn’t actually feel comfortable calling myself an architect until around 10 years after registration. Once I was heavily involved designing buildings and coordinating them through to construction, my experience and confidence nourished. It was then I felt like I deserved the title. You need experience and patience. It will come, but it takes time.

11. Time Management is not used Enough

Architects have got a bad reputation about time management. There are all these stories about working all night. This stems from students. The best time management theory I can give for new architects is Parkinson’s Law. Parkinson states,

Parkinsons Law for new architects

“Work expands so as to fill the time available for completion.”

Which basically means, the amount of work required depends on how long you have to do it. You need to set deadlines early and stick to them. That does not mean your deadline is 7 in the morning

12. Copy like a True Pro

A lot of design is copying from other buildings. There is a reason why you do precedent studies for other buildings. Don’t reinvent the wheel. If it works, copy it. Nothing is original, anyway. Everything is copied from somewhere.

13. Architecture is rarely the work of a sole author

Teamwork is essential to success. A large majority of the work involved in designing a building come from the whole majority of the design team. That doesn’t even mean the architects. Ideas come from clients, engineers, even your wife or husband. Some buildings just come naturally and practically design themselves. Architects are trained to design and think by themselves at university. The process is solely focused. A successful architectural practice, turns that upside down.

14. It’s not what you know, its who you know

This is still true today. You need to have contacts. Reach out to as many people as you can. One perfect example of this was when my contract ended in Australia. I told someone in the office and straight away they called someone in another architects firm on the other side of town. I got a new job immediately. Now, if that didn’t happen I probably could have been out of a work for months. Social media is useful, especially LinkedIn.

The Truth Hurts

I hope these help in some way or another. These are based on my personal experience. I wish you the best of luck in your career. I hope these do not put you off your career. Architecture is a challenging profession that can be rewarding in so many ways. It’s an immersive, creative field that will provide you with opportunities to do some truly amazing things.


Russell M. Henderson (@ArchitectRussell) is a practicing RIBA Chartered Architect based in Tanzania, East Africa. Russell  also makes videos on YouTube , TikTok & Instagram sharing thoughtful and honest tips and knowledge he has learnt while working and living abroad.


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