Paul King is quite clear that the process of becoming an architect in the UK takes commitment and, as a qualified architect with 20 years’ experience and as director of his own architectural practice, he should know. ‘Early on, you appreciate it is going to take a long time before you qualify and you must be committed from the outset,’ he recalls. ‘In my first year at university, there were 70 students who started the course and only 15 who continued through to part 3.’
It doesn’t stop there either: ‘Once qualified, to retain your chartered status you need to complete training every year. To be successful, it takes a lot of hard work and determination. I spend many late nights in the office, but architecture is wonderful and a career I feel very passionate about.’ Find out more about the process of becoming an architect in the UK (including the new apprenticeship routes).
TARGETjobs asked him for his advice on getting that part 1 or 2 placement and his insights into having a successful career.
How can students find and apply for architect jobs?
There are a number of architectural journals (paper and online) that advertise architectural roles – such as RIBA Appointments – but it is not uncommon for students to apply directly to individual architectural practices to see if they would hire them. We are a small practice and, as a rule, we receive one or two CVs a month.
We tend to receive mostly digital CVs, which allows you to send out more applications more quickly, but if you particularly want to target a specific practice I would suggest a hard copy in the post, with a follow-up call or even an impromptu visit.
Which employers offer jobs to architecture students?
Mostly, you can find vacancies with architectural practices. Larger housebuilders will also have their own in-house design teams. When I first started, local authorities would have employed architects but this has since become a thing of the past.
You may find opportunities in unexpected fields. Many years ago, I worked for BMW Motor Group as its on-site architect for the development of the MINI Plant, Oxford. However, as a student who wants to progress to part 3, I would definitely recommend securing a position in an architectural practice, which will be set up to ensure you obtain the right experience and skills.
It’s quite common for students to work for a number of practices during their training and flexibility is essential; you often have to move to where the work is. My part 1 was in Oxford and part 2 in London, partly because of the economy.
What advice would you give to RIBA students compiling their CV/portfolio?
Make sure you do your research on a practice and adapt your CV to suit the practice and/or role you are applying for. For example, don’t send lots of pretty images of high-rise buildings if you are applying for a heritage position. Keep it simple so that it is easy to see what you have achieved. Everyone is very busy at the moment, so it would be an advantage if your CV emphasises that you could work independently.
What do you look for when reviewing a CV or interviewing a candidate for a role in your architectural practice?
We look for evidence that they could progress projects without too much guidance. We want to see someone who is dynamic and passionate. As a small practice, we need someone who can turn their hand to most things, so they should also have a practical mindset. It is an advantage for students to show that they would be comfortable in a range of different situations: indicating an interest in travel and different cultures might be one way to show this.
What does working as an architect really involve?
We are a small practice so I am involved in all aspects of the business: meeting clients, conducting feasibility studies, design, production information, providing on-site support and administering contracts. Being an architect is so much more than just design; it takes a multitude of skills. There is a lot more admin than one would expect. Some weeks, I spend more time writing reports, minutes and taking care of contract admin than designing.
As you’d expect, nearly 100% of design is completed on the computer. Since leaving university in 1998, I have only completed a handful of projects by hand and sold my drawing board many years ago! I might still use a pencil to work out some construction details or sketch with clients at design review meetings (due to the swiftness of sketching), but all information is transferred into a digital format before leaving the office.
I tend to start the working day by spending an hour or so catching up on emails and projects before actually starting design work. For the main part of the day, I will be in the office working on either planning or building control applications but, if I have any projects on site, I may be out at a site visit or doing some contract administration. Most weekday evenings, I will return to the office for a few hours to keep on top of matters. It’s a long day but one I enjoy very much.
Who else do you work with?
Construction projects are a team effort. On a project generally, I work alongside structural engineers, quantity surveyors, topographical or building surveyors, arboricultural consultants, energy assessors and ecologists. There are a number of other specialist professionals that we call upon on a project-by-project basis as required, for example rights-of-light consultants.
What tasks would a part 1 architectural student undertake?
They would do basic design and construction drawings, simple contract administration and accompanied site visits. It is unlikely a part I student would take a project lead unless it was a very simple and straight forward project.
What tasks would a part 2 student complete?
Depending on the practice, a part 2 student may become heavily involved in the project and take on the role of a ‘project architect’ but with office guidance and support. As a part 2 student, I was very lucky to be involved in some large complex projects, which enabled me to gain lots of experience in readiness for the part 3 exams.
What impresses you when working with architectural students?
Initiative, determination and confidence. Having a student who can take the lead when appropriate, offer support and apply their skills in a professional and productive manner would be welcome.
What skills and behaviours does an architect need?
Key qualities for architectural professionals just starting out in their career are:
- Patience – it is sometimes hard to explain to clients (in our case, they run the gamut from domestic to larger organisations) how long the process of construction takes. Occasionally, we work on projects for a number of years before even breaking ground on site. As experienced professionals, we can sometimes achieve a lot more than the client is expecting but there are processes to follow, which all take time.
- Resilience and a positive response to criticism – design is both objective and subjective. At the start of a project, you may think you have the right solution to a client’s brief but, through the design process, that solution can take many forms before settling on the final design. Also, you learn very early on in your career that every design can be improved, so it is best not to be too precious and to accept positive critiques.
- Communication skills and relationship-building skills – when meeting a client for the first time, you need to impress without being arrogant and continue to develop relationships throughout the project. Most of our work comes from repeat clients or referrals.
- The ability to inspire confidence – your role on a construction project may be project lead consultant, client advisor or simply to develop designs. It is important to understand that how you portray yourself will affect the way the project is delivered and how others perceive you. Confidence is linked to your communication skills and these will develop with experience.
Do architects tend to specialise as they gain more experience in their career?
This largely depends on the individual practice or the needs of your employer. As a small practice, we do not specialise and will consider most projects, although we wouldn’t tackle very large projects or projects that required a specific area of experience such as healthcare. If required, we may appoint a specialist consultant to assist but this is not the norm. Some practices do specialise but, as an architect, it is important to understand your limitations and if the market sector dries up you need to be able to diversify quickly.
Whether you opt for self-employment depends on the individual and the experience gained during part 1, 2 and 3. I was very lucky and started working for myself pretty much after obtaining my part 3. I know other architects who started up on their own quite late in their career. Sometimes the economy will dictate the situation.
What are the highs and lows of an architecture career?
The joy of taking a client’s brief and turning it into a reality can be very satisfying: as an architect, you have the potential to influence the way people use and perceive the built environment. It is great to see projects through to completion – for me, this is especially the case with residential where you can see the positive impact it has on its owners.
However, you have to be able to multitask and meet deadlines. One day you may be working on a residential extension and the next, a multi-storey office building, so you need to enjoy diversity.