What is the job description of an architect in your field?
I manage the architectural design team for custom residential projects. I generally enter a project after the conceptual design phase and coordinate all phases from schematic design, design development, all jurisdictional requirements (including permitting), construction drawings, and construction administration. I am also responsible for coordinating between all outside consultants, (i.e. interior designers, structural engineers, mechanical engineers, etc.) and the contractor, to ensure that everyone involved in the project has current and relevant information.
A significant portion of this job is client relations, as having a satisfied client is essential in custom work. This involves numerous meetings at the office, their home, various vendors, and especially the site, to help the client make informed and intelligent decisions throughout the process.
PayScale: How did you begin your residential architect career?
Jen: I decided I wanted to become an architect at a young age when I realized that my favorite subjects in school were art and math, and that architecture was a natural merging of the two. I had always liked to draw, and especially liked to draw straight lines, so I suppose it was a no-brainer! I went into college knowing that I wanted to pursue architecture, so I began taking the prerequisite courses during my sophomore year. I really enjoyed learning about architectural history and taking all the drawing courses.
Even after getting into the program and working my way through endless all-nighters building models and structures, I was still convinced that architecture was fun and this is what I wanted to do for a lifelong career. During my schooling, I was able to study abroad in India and Mexico for a quarter, working on a design-build rehabilitation clinic. It was during these trips that I realized I love to experience other cultures and actually get my hands dirty and work on the projects. I especially am passionate about serving others in marginalized and/or impoverished areas.
PayScale: What do you love about your job as a residential architect?
Jen: When I saw my first project that I had fully managed, under construction, I was thrilled. To see the house being built from the drawings I had done was so satisfying! Watching the house become more of a reality each time I visited the site was not only a learning experience, (those lines I drew actually mean something to the person interpreting them!) but a rewarding one; especially when seeing the clients so happy to see the end product of a long process. The cherry on top was being invited back out to the house for a party after the clients were moved in, and enjoying the space together!
PayScale: What are the biggest challenges you face as a residential architect?
Jen: One of the challenges in this field is that it is a looooong process to get to become an "architect." Once you finish the education required to become a architect, which is challenging enough itself, you enter your first job as an "intern," and spend several years learning the trade and paying your dues.
In this field, experience still trumps education, so no matter how many degrees you have behind your name, if you don't know how a building goes together, you're really at a disadvantage. After this "internship" period, you are eligible to sit for the licensing exams (currently there are 9 sections), which takes anywhere from 9 months to 5 years to complete. After passing these exams, you are qualified to call yourself an "architect.” Unfortunately, even with this achievement, the salary for an architect won't increase dramatically, nor will your position at your firm, which explains the reluctance of many to even take the exams.
Another challenge that we face is that we're taught in school that architecture is all about becoming the star designer, but most jobs in this field are more in a support role. We may spend hours in front of a computer drafting a stair detail or laying out parking spaces, when we thought that we'd be designing world-class art museums.
PayScale: What advice can you offer to someone in your field?
Jen: Practice drawing. It's important to keep your arm moving and train your eye to see details. Travel. Go see the world and see the people and cultures around you. There is so much more to this life than what we see and know in our small corner of the universe. These life experiences will go further than any schooling will.
Have an open mind. Everyone has good ideas, so listen to them. Go out and get dirty. Having first-hand construction experience will teach you so much. Volunteer. Organizations like Habitat for Humanity & Architects without Borders offer plenty of opportunities to learn construction techniques while you serve others.
PayScale: Could you tell us about some interesting moments from your architect career?
Jen: For me, the contrast between working for some very affluent clients who want for nothing in their 10,000+ SF house, and the two-room simple concrete block house that we build for a family of six in El Salvador, has been truly eye-opening. To see the difference between "want" and "need" and the various scales of that when it comes to one's home, is truly amazing.
I don't know if I will ever be able to reconcile those two things in my life - my paycheck comes by way of those who have plenty, yet the work I want to do is to serve those who have little or none. At the end of my life, I'd like to look back and wonder how many people I helped out. I doubt that will mean how many flat screen TVs I got to put in a house.
I'm lucky that I'm in a career that I truly enjoy and that also offers opportunities to be able to do more than just my daily work in the office. It allows me to be creative, to meet different kinds of people, to share my life with others ... and that is pretty satisfying.
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