Is architecture for you?
Before I started uni, I really had no idea what to expect. I was the only pupil in my school applying to study architecture and I didn’t know any architects or architecture students. I found little to no information online and in bookshops on what the course and profession are like. It was by pure luck that I absolutely loved it.
Architecture is an exceptional course with its own unique structure, culture and student experience. An architecture student’s experience of uni is remarkably different to most others. Some love it, and some hate it. Almost Architect aims to make the world of architecture more accessible and transparent to anybody who is interested. This article is an honest list of the pros and cons of the undergraduate architecture course from my personal experience and that of architecture students/graduates I have spoken to from universities across the UK. I hope it helps you figure out if architecture is the right route for you, so you don’t have to rely on dumb luck, like I did.
M(Arch) design project technical section
Reasons to study architecture
You are in the studio all the time, which means you become incredibly close to your course mates and form bonds that students who aren't on studio-based courses can only dream of.
Value for money
Architecture tends to involve regular one-to-one support from professors and architects, a permanent studio, printing facilities, a model-making workshop and sometimes 3D printing, events/yearbooks to showcase student work, trips abroad and direct involvement with practicing local architects, as well as the benefits that come with all other courses, such as, access to the uni library, lectures and seminars. It could be argued that architecture students get far more out of their university than those on other courses.
Unlike other courses, architecture students tend to have their own area of university, the studio. Many students spend a lot of time in their bedroom or the library. For most architecture students, the studio is where they spend their life. In my opinion and many others, the studio is the best part of the course, spending every day in there with your course mates means you form amazing friendships and learn so much as it’s a place where everyone collaborates on ideas and techniques. Our tutors told us at the start of university that we will learn as much from each other in the studio as we will from our lectures, and this was certainly true. Architects work in a studio, rather than an office. So, the studio prepares you for your future working environment.
Undergrad architecture provides you with skills that you can actually put into use in the future, at work. I, myself, have had numerous temporary jobs prior to finishing uni. Ten to be exact; from grocery retail to brand ambassador, from waitressing to lifeguarding. In most jobs the first few weeks/months were spent understanding what on earth is going on and only learning how to do things by doing them wrong the first time and getting told off. Whilst my graduate job is challenging, I am building on all of the skills I learned at university. From my first day, I was able to be of use to the practice. As you can imagine, I was pretty relieved to find that my degree was actually applicable to real life in the industry.
Learning to deal with a demanding schedule, without becoming extremely stressed, is a highly advantageous life skill.
The course teaches skills that are not only applicable to becoming an architect, but in wider fields such as: graphic design, product design and marketing, to mention a few. The undergraduate course teaches you how to think creatively, as a designer, and to problem solve.
Wide range of topics
Architecture is great if you’re like me and interested in way too many things. In school I loved maths, art, physics, geography, psychology, history, philosophy. I didn’t want to have to choose one. Architecture is all of these subjects and more – I didn’t have to choose, I still get to learn about all of them.
Freedom and flexibility
As you progress from first to third year, design project and essay briefs grow more and more, well, brief; allowing you to go down an avenue you are interested in. It is unlike scientific subjects, for example, where students are given a specific essay question, like, ‘how does the human papillomavirus vaccine prevent cervical cancer?’ For most essays on my course, we were given some loose parameters and then allowed to compose our own essay question in an area we found interesting.
Without sounding too nerdy, the speed at which you learn when you are spending so much time studying and creating is quite amazing. In one semester at university, I learned more than in a year of A Levels.
Reasons not to study architecture
The course is long
People are often put off the course because it’s 7 years in total. The traditional route is:
Three years of study
One year of work in practice
Two years of study
One year of work and study combined
So, it’s actually five years of university and two in work.
Personally, I don’t consider this a problem. It is no different to time spent working upwards in any career, as very few people start at the level they intend to remain at for their whole career. Many of my friends who studied other subjects also do further study, either to get a promotion at work or go into a more specialised area.
If it’s the full-time study you find off-putting, there are other routes into architecture worth considering. Some require as little as two years full time study and more time in work, earning money as you learn. This includes PlanBEE, a campaign initiated by Ryder Architecture for change in Built Environment Education, and part time postgraduate apprenticeship courses. These options tend to come with far less, if any, student debt and are, perhaps, the future of architectural education with the increasing interest rates on student loans.
I am currently doing my Masters in Architecture as a graduate apprenticeship, whilst working. This means I haven't needed any student finance for the postgraduate degree and am still earning.
To conclude, whilst the course length is often off-putting to prospective applicants, this doesn’t have to be a ‘reason not to’.
Don’t do it if you don’t love it
Architecture is a course that you can become completely immersed in and fascinated with. However, I would not have had the motivation to put in the required effort if I didn’t love art and design. Don’t put yourself through three years of something you don’t love.
It is not engineering
If you prefer maths and science to creative subjects such as art, then you would probably prefer engineering. Some of my friends who dropped out of the course, realised that architecture wasn’t what they thought and transferred to engineering or surveying. They had expected it to contain more maths and science, a reasonable assumption as maths and science are often considered core subjects that lead into architecture.
It is important to understand that the reason mathematical ability is useful to an architect is because architecture is complex problem solving. For example, a successful floor plan is a complex solution and balance of many competing priorities, including views out, privacy, sun path, heat loss, convenience, acoustics, area requirements, budget, structure, etc, etc... Finding a solution requires the same kind of thinking required to solve a mathematical problem. However, it tends not to take the form of an algebraic equation. It is rare in undergraduate architecture to need to solve an actual mathematical equation. I studied and loved A Level maths. However, the most actual maths I did a uni was some simple trigonometry to figure out a roof pitch. Architecture is the artistic side of building design. If you are interested in doing the equations that tell us exactly the load that the roof can hold, or exactly how wide a material can span, then this is engineering and perhaps something you would enjoy studying.
If art and design don’t interest you, then you could be more suited to other careers in construction, such as engineering, surveying or project management.
Although in the pros section I spoke about potential long-term benefits of doing lots of work, in the short-term, the stress is, of course, unpleasant. The heavy workload is not for everyone. So, I felt obligated to add this to ‘reasons not to’. On the other hand, stress is an inevitable part of life, and learning to minimise and deal with it early in life is an invaluable skill. So, although this made the ‘reasons not to’ list, it is not necessarily a bad thing. Hard work always pays off in one way or another and is not something you have to be afraid of.
Far too much of your student loan is spent on buying card
During my second year of uni, I was told at the craft shop that I had £5 on my rewards card. I sceptically asked how much I earned per pound spent in store. I was informed that I earned 1p per every £2 spent. So, I did the maths and, yep, that means I had spent £1000 to earn this £5 reward. £1000 in less than a year since I had started the rewards card! Think how much beer I could have bought with that! This isn’t the most serious of reason not to do the course. However, it is an expensive course in terms of materials. Unsurprisingly, I was not the most sympathetic when my friend doing business studies complained about the £5 he had to spend to bind his dissertation.
A reccurring theme within the pros and cons I’ve listed is the workload. Architecture is known for having a large workload, arguably the heaviest workload, even versus subjects like medicine and law. However, it is important to consider that the type of work can feel much more enjoyable than constantly writing essays and studying for exams, as the majority of work is visual and creative: drawings (digital or by hand) and diagrams. The course I studied was approximately 80% design/visual work and 20% written.
Is it worth it?
Something I have become more conscious of lately, is that, although part of the reason I went to uni was to have a good time, I was not going to uni to chill out for 3 years. If this is why you want to go to uni, architecture is not the course for you. In fact, uni in general is probably not a good idea. Hard work always pays off. Architecture students come out of uni with, ‘a very particular set of skills.’ This makes you extremely valuable to employers and, therefore, at an advantage when finding fairly paid, enjoyable work. With the cost of student loans and obscene interest rates, uni has become a poor option if you are not expecting to gain a lot from the experience.
'Choose a job you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.'
Here’s an article I found on ArchDaily on reasons to become an architect. This is more about architecture as a career, rather than specific to the university course and learning process. If I haven’t already put you off too much, you may find it an interesting read…
BA (Hons) design project interior perspective