Monday, December 13, 2010

Lulu's Mailbag: Is becoming an architect worth it?

Today's question comes from B in Australia (wow!):

I am currently studying architecture in Melbourne, Australia and have just completed my first year, with another four to go :(.
I feel that you might have the best advice for me. I'm starting to consider a drafting course as I have been hearing that it is a 3 year course and obviously less stressfull than archtiecture.
My question is, is becoming an architect worth another 4 years of hard work? Is there light at the end of the tunnel? Or are the long hours even worse in the work force?

Alas, B, this is the million-dollar question: is any profession worth the effort and schooling and stress and time? I have friends who went into architecture and, after having been laid off a couple of times, are now pursuing other jobs and even other careers: government work, teaching architecture, not teaching architecture, managing a small business, construction management, and so on. Others have stayed as close to architecture as possible, even if they weren't able to actively work in the field. After spending six years in school and ten and a half years in the profession, I can honestly say that I really like architecture and enjoy practicing it, though there are some aspects of it that annoy and sometimes even infuriate me.

I'm sure that the 3-year drafting degree will lead you to a job that is less stressful than architecture, but will it be as satisfying and interesting as the career and jobs you get with the five-year degree? It depends first on why you started the architectural program in the first place. Do you have a passion for design, for thinking creatively, for making and shaping space, for having a positive effect on people and the built environment? If so, then stay with the 5-year program. If you just want to draw buildings, then maybe the drafting program is the way to go. Neither approach is "right" or "wrong"--it's about what your ultimate goal is, whether you want to just row the boat, or if you'd like to help steer it as well. Some people are totally happy to just row, and that's excellent. Some people want to help steer, and that's great, too. I know plenty of people who went through the trouble of architecture school, and they have become glorified drafters and refuse to get licensed, even thought they're pushing fifty years old. But the position they have makes them happy, and who am I to tell them their choices are bad?

And that brings me to a third option, B: with the five-year degree, you can be an architect or a really well-educated draftsperson who can think beyond the average drafter, but if you just get the three-year degree, then a drafter is all you'll ever be. That three-year degree may make it harder to move up and ahead into architecture, if you ever decide that you want to do so. (Now, granted, I'm giving you all of this from an American point of view. Here in the U.S., there are very, very few architectural drafters--we architects do our own drafting. Engineers (mechanical, electrical, etc.) are more likely to hire drafters, people who simply put into software what an engineer has hand sketched for them.) With a five-year degree, the extra years of training can open more employment doors and opportunities for you.

And that can be good news. When you get out of school in four more years, the economy will very, very likely have rebounded and recovered, and there will be more jobs for you to do and places for you to work, both in Australia and here in the U.S. if you'd like to move. If architects are using pure drafters, they're going to use people in India or China, not in Australia or the U.S. Having the extra two years of thinking will only help.

I realize I'm handing you advice without really corresponding with you on this, B, but that's my superficial two cents' worth. If you (or any of the readers) have more questions or comments, feel free to post them in the comments here or send me another email.


  1. From my experience in job hunting in the last year, it isn't always a positive thing to have an architecture degree and pursue a purely drafting position. I applied with my BS and M. Arch to a couple drafting positions at planning firms, and both times was told they were seeking someone who was more of a career draftsman rather than someone who might try to use it as an entry position to work-up from.

    So being a really well educated drafter can actually work against you sometimes. Plus, the drafting degree with familiarize you with more of the correct symbols and protocol for a variety of professions, which an architecture degree probably won't give you.

    I have seen some draftsmen (and draftswomen) stick with a firm long enough to get some serious design responsibility, but they do hit a ceiling when it comes to project management and client interaction.

    Lulu hit's this one on the head though, that she can't really answer this question for you. Ultimately everyone decides for themselves and lives with it. If you feel like you want to play a major role in the creative process or lead your own design team someday, I'd suggest sticking it out with architecture. If you're more drawn towards working out the details, knowing your building materials taking pride in describing buildings in almost artful drawing sets then I'd say drafting is more the road for you. Good luck!

  2. I've been an architect for 18 years... enduring the ups and downs. However, I have found there is a complete lack of respect from the client and unrealistic deadlines... It seems in the scheme of things, to most people we are a necessary evil of construction. Seldom am I listened to regarding my wisdom of form and function - everything is the bottom line and it is a cut throat profession with work going to the low bidder. 99% of clients only care about the bottom line and only care about design when something doesn't work the way they want.