No matter what your profession or passion, the early years will be spent seeking out where you fit and what you enjoy. In a series of posts over the coming months, I will talk about my lessons learnt, drawing on my experience in small architecture practices, and what it means to me, to be a young person in construction.
Buildings take time, and so must our learning.
Ironically, you can lose years worrying about what you are going to be doing in ten years time. In the end, you just need to get on with it. With this in mind, I'll kick things off in no particular order, I hope you find it useful:
If you don’t plan ahead, or think to raise attention to an issue soon enough, it will not get dealt with properly or worse, can cause harm to a project. The key is catching issues before they develop. Of course this is easy to say, but one of the greatest challenges as a young professional, because we all learn from experience. Learning is an iterative process, and it will take time to develop the beginnings of wisdom, the key in my own mind is to act with sincerity and diligence and always be accountable for your actions.
"Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers." Alfred Lord Tennyson
The greatest frustration as a young architect is that large amounts of time must be invested to each of these iterations of learning. However while the learning process for architects is slow it will never cease. This is the greatest privilege that one could hope to be offered by an occupation.
2. Client Relationship
I believe this is a significant shortcoming of architectural education. Lawyers, Medics and Vets are all taught and assessed on client interaction, negotiation and conflict resolution. Architecture students are made to learn these vital skills at the very end of their training through, purely academic frameworks, chance observations of senior members of staff and clumsy first forays. Rarely is the professional etiquette or formal process explained or shared with junior staff members.
Then there is the skill of self-editing the information you share with your client to avoid saturating them with technical detail. While attention to detail is essential to the overall success of a project, overloading the client can do more harm than good. A client may not care how their roof is to be supported, they just want your word that it will stay up!
These softer skills currently sit on the periphery of the formal education system, but they are at the very heart of this business. 'Architecture' is taught as a means of serving the people who use it, but the hard methodology for delivery in today's fractious society is absent from the education system.
3. Adding Value
The reality architects face is that the priority for the majority of clients is to see as higher return from their investment as possible. This is an area where our experience as architects should come to the fore, but 'adding value' is sometimes seen to be somewhat vulgar or developer-like.
Something that is widely misunderstood is the length to which architects go to for the fees they charge. There are multiple constraints at play at any stage in a building project, be it early design stages or nearing completion. The great skill is communicating where and how you have added value to the project.
More often than not, clients are happy to credit a good idea, and criticize a bad one, helping people see the savings and the successes from a project is the challenge. Great architecture should strive to overcome adverse circumstances in order to achieve the sublime. It is the journey, not the destination that makes a successful building.
A business can be described as either a product or service. In the purest sense, architects offer design, administrative and project management 'services'.
Some members of the construction industry, namely housebuilders and developers, can streamline workflow by improving the processes involved in each job. Developers margins stay comparatively high by creating a product rather than a service. That is to say, residential property becomes a 'product' that is marketed to a commercial market, rather than to individuals per se.
Small architecture practices often focus on the needs of a single end user. These show high variability and so to system-ize your output is risky and creates a hit and miss series of outcomes for both client and architect. This is why small practice is considered the most difficult sector in which to make a steady living.
Larger architectural firms I would argue, walk a much tighter line between service and product. So while the method of delivery remains the same, they are not just developing efficiency in their design practice (or style), they are also building their 'brand'. This starts to enter the quagmire between product, service and brand. I will be the first to admit I know little about these things, but what I do know, is that when combined they wield tremendous power in our world.
In my mind, an architect’s success is inextricably tied to a client's satisfaction, be they a homeowner or a national government. The success of any project is dependent on how well an architect can interpret and fulfil a client's brief. This illustrates the fundamental challenge of being an architect.
A brand is something that any venture must build in order to succeed. To be known for doing something, and doing it a certain way, while adhering to a certain set of values.
The best brands are less about the product being delivered, and more about the way in which it is achieved. You need to be able to take the client with you on the journey through the design, development and delivery of a brief.
Where To From Here?
The reality is that Architecture in the UK is a two-tier profession, with a proportion of new graduates joining the large and established commercial firms, and others joining the comparative cottage industry that is small practice, serving the private residential market. Both streams have established client bases and a healthy amount of competition.
I believe that the current Architectural Education system is weighted heavily towards supplying the commercial firms, rather than inspiring the next generation of entrepreneurial risk takers. Where will the next Assael Architecture come from if no new graduates are prepared to take the risks that John Assael took all those years ago?
I hope you enjoyed Post #1 of Being Young In Small Practice, plenty more to come in future!