Monday, August 29, 2016

Back to School? It Doesn't Stop There for Architects.

The phrase “Back to School” brings back immediate memories to most.  New lunch boxes, cool mornings at the bus stop and the smell of a brand new box of Crayolas are some of the first to come to my mind.  Heck, even the Rodney Dangerfield film of the same name is up there, regardless of how it dates me.  But that doesn’t matter, as I have a feeling I am going to date myself in many ways to follow here.

Architecture is one of those professions you “practice” along with Law and Medicine.  This term always fascinated me.  Here are three very different professions, each is entrusted with the public’s trust with every service.  But as a young architect, I quickly understood why we call it a “practice”.  School can never prepare you for everything that will be experienced when you begin to work, whether you’re a doctor, lawyer or architect.  These professions, more so than many others, require a deliberate dedication to continuing education, whether new to the profession or experienced.

I remember the summer between my fourth and fifth years in college.  I would go out and run into old friends who had already graduated and they would ask what I was up to.  Invariably I would tell them that I was headed back to school in the Fall, and they would look at me with either surprise or condescension and shake their heads at me.  “Oh, really?” they would say, “had such a good time in college you wanted to stay?”  And I would have to explain that: no, architecture is 5 years and I would be doing this thesis thing, and a BArch was one step further than a BS.  I know some of those “friends” just thought I was taking my time growing up.  It wasn’t technically graduate school, but I was furthering my education.

Then, when you get out of school you can’t even call yourself an architect.  You were an “intern” (there, I dated myself again – they don’t call it 'intern’ anymore).  While you first worked in the field, there was program where you would have to log all these hours to make sure you got a broad depth of experience.  At the same time, you would start thinking about all those tests you had to take for licensure.  In my day that was nine tests and they had just made them computerized (there I did it again, the test has been computerized longer than most of the people taking it today have been alive, and I think they consolidated it into seven tests now).  The topics covered by the exams ranged from art history to long span beam calculations.   You had to wait a minimum of three years before you could even sit the exam, so you continued to learn during that time.

The extra schooling, the intern program and professional exams don’t even touch on what architects do on a daily basis.  Interns have a lot of ground to catch up on in the professional world with real building envelopes, accessibility codes, learning to work with engineers and other consultants and a little thing called the budget.  These are all areas that are not focused on in school generally.  School teaches you how to think and solve problems.  The practice is literally everything else.

As professionals, we never stop educating ourselves.  If we’re lucky, when we’re new we will have the opportunity to work with experienced architects who are willing to share how they do things.  Sometimes their way won’t work for you, but that is all part of the learning experience.  New products seemingly spawn into existence every year; new technologies, new ways to shed water, new ways to frame the floor or roof, new requirements on conserving energy – things are always evolving everywhere.  Building codes continue to expand; rewritten every three or so years.  New guidelines can be written for particular building types that have to be followed.  Our noses should always be in some book or website.  I sometimes chuckle when I have to fill out the continuing education reports in order to maintain my AIA membership.  Sometimes it feels like I’ve done 18 hours of education in one day, depending on what I’ve gotten into that week.

And then there are our mistakes.  These are the school of hard knocks teachers.  In my role in technical code support and quality control in our office, my mistakes are what most directly help others.  I look for the things I’ve been nailed on in the past to make sure we don’t make the same mistakes again.  After 20 years of doing this, I’ve made my share of missteps.  But I’ve also fixed each and every one of them.  In that respect, that is what makes architecture a “practice” rather than a “job”.  And yes, Allen Iverson, I’m talkin’ about PRACTICE.  You’ve got to do it even when you’re hurt in our game.  Even as a youngster, I realized that architecture was truly a white haired profession, one that was only mastered as a result of continued experiences.  The only thing I didn’t realize was that I would, more or less, have the same color hair, just a lot less of it.

Don't let your mistakes get you down.  They come in handy later.

While our children may be headed to the bus stop for the first time soon, architects simply head to work to continue to improve upon their craft.

I can’t end without a Rodney quote from Back to School: “I mean, the high school I went to, they asked a kid to prove the law of gravity, he threw the teacher out the window!”

This post is part of the ArchiTalks series in which Bob Borson of Life of an Architect selects a theme and a group of us (architects who also blog) all post on the same day and promote each other’s blogs. This month’s theme is "Back to School"  A lot of other talented writers who also are architects are listed below and are worth checking out:

Enoch Sears - Business of Architecture (@businessofarch)
Back to school!

Bob Borson - Life of An Architect (@bobborson)

Matthew Stanfield - FiELD9: architecture (@FiELD9arch)
Designing Back to School

Jeff Echols - Architect Of The Internet (@Jeff_Echols)
What Have We Learned? It's Back To School For #ArchiTalks 21

Lee Calisti, AIA - Think Architect (@LeeCalisti)
good to go back to school

Lora Teagarden - L² Design, LLC (@L2DesignLLC)
4 Tips As You Go Back To School

Michele Grace Hottel - Michele Grace Hottel, Architect (@mghottel)
#architalks 21 "back to school"

brady ernst - Soapbox Architect (@bradyernstAIA)
Back to the Cartography Board

Brian Paletz - The Emerging Architect (@bpaletz)
Back to School

Michael LaValley - Evolving Architect (@archivalley)
#ArchiTalks / 15 Ways to Make the Most of Your Architectural Education

Eric Wittman - intern[life] (@rico_w)
getting [schooled] again

Jarod Hall - di'velept (@divelept)
Back to {Architecture} School

Keith Palma - Architect's Trace (@cogitatedesign)

Adam Denais - Defragging Architecture (@DefragArch)
[ArchiTalks #21] 10 Things Architecture Students Say Going Back to School

Tim Ung - Journey of an Architect (@timothy_ung)
10 Things I wish I knew about Architecture School

Marica McKeel - Studio MM (@ArchitectMM)
ArchiTalks: "Back To School"

Mark R. LePage - EntreArchitect (@EntreArchitect)
Back to School: Marketing for Architects

Cormac Phalen - Cormac Phalen (@archy_type)
Back to School Again

Michael Riscica - Young Architect (@YoungArchitxPDX)
Let’s Get Back To (Architect) School …or Work.

Sharon George - Architecture By George (@sharonraigeorge)
What's better than architecture after school?

Drew Paul Bell - Drew Paul Bell (@DrewPaulBell)
Back to School...Suckasssssss

Kyu Young Kim - Palo Alto Design Studio (@sokokyu)
Back to School: Seoul Studio

Jared W. Smith - Architect OWL (@ArchitectOWL)
Back to School...


  1. Nice post on the importance of continuing our educations. I like how you included learning from our mistakes as part of that continuing education, and the importance of helping others to not make those same mistakes.

    1. Thanks! What is better than learning not to make the same mistake again... Thanks for the comment.

  2. Practice, Practice, Practice. I am glad that I am in a profession that requires life long learning. Great Post.

    1. Thanks for the kind words - I think that may be the reason you don't see a lot of architects retiring in their 50's...well, one reason.