What you really learn in architecture school
In the summer of 2015, I found myself answering the question that all high school graduates face, “What’s next?” Are you going to college? Which school? What are you studying? After telling a seemingly endless stream of friends and family my plans to attend Montana State University and study architecture, I was always met with a combination of the same responses. “That’s pretty much like engineering, right?”, “Oh I’ve heard that’s really hard” or my favorite, “Oh architecture…you must love math?” As the summer went on and I heard these questions more and more, I started to realize that I didn’t really know what an architect does. I knew they designed buildings, and a brief introduction in my high school drafting class taught me that architecture was this unique intersection between art and science, but I had no idea what I would be learning in architecture school. Based on the responses from my friends and family, most of whom knew as little about what an architect does as I did, I assumed it was going to involve an insane amount of high-level math classes. To someone like me, who took as many art classes growing up as I could, this sounded terrifying. But regardless of this daunting and ominous narrative that I was building in my head, I prepared myself for the first year of architecture school.
It didn’t take long to realize that I wasn’t the only one who came into the first year with these kinds of assumptions. Just about everyone I enter the program with knew the basics. Architects design buildings and we were there to learn how to do that. That world “building” would become very important in all our minds. It served as almost a beacon, a light at the end of the tunnel, that everything we learned in school would lead us to.
The first thing our professors did when we arrived for our inaugural day of class was take that assumption and destroyed it. Immediately, we were told to erase words like building, floors, walls, roof, and doors from our memories, and replace them with words like system, process, observations, and parti. The thing I was most surprised about was the complete absence of any math classes.
Even the word architecture was scarcely used. The undergraduate program itself is called Environmental Design, none of our first-year classes even had the world architecture in the title. Our projects had nothing to do with buildings either. They involved mapping natural processes, observing phenomenon, and trying to understand the world around us. From the very first project, which was observing the way shadows move across a room over the course of a day, I started asking myself, What does this have to do with buildings? How does this lead me to that light at the end of the tunnel? Our next project would make things even less clear. We were tasked with creating a physical object that would reveal a hidden process present within nature. This was about the extent of an explanation we were given for the project. With vague and inconsistent instruction from our professors and teaching assistants, it was safe to say most of my classmates and I were lost. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was the first of many tests hidden within the architecture curriculum. Our professors weren’t concerned with what we made. They wanted to see the process we went through to reach the conclusions we did. They were trying to teach us critical thinking skills, a realization most of us would only come to understand much later. All I knew was that I was trying to rethink the way people interact with tree bark and my professor didn’t seem very impressed.
In the first year of the architecture program, the school is trying to weed out the students who are not only up to the challenge, but also find those who have a real passion and dedication for learning about design. Every step of the process there are opportunities to leave, and every year people do. Most of the people who choose to leave do it midway through or right after the first year. In my class specifically, we ended the first year with around half the students that began the program. The amount of time and effort needed for each project proved to be too much for a lot of people. Those of us who stayed in the program after the first year had faith that the confusing, frustrating, and time-consuming projects were eventually going to guide us toward the beacon of designing buildings.
The second year in the architecture program at MSU begins with an assignment commonly known as the “Two Travelers” project. We were tasked with creating a meeting place that two travelers could meet up and rest from their adventures. We were given a kit of “parts” to assemble this meeting place, which included walls, a roof, and a hearth. We quickly realized this was the reintroduction of the word “building” to our vocabulary. After an entire year of trying to forget that word even existed, suddenly we were tasked with designing one. This project started out about the same way first year ended, with confusion, hesitancy, and far, far more questions than answers, but everyone was just excited to be designing a building. This project would serve as a quiet introduction to what our projects would focus on for the rest of school.
In addition to designing our first building, we started learning two new languages: graphics and client interactions. I say languages because these are two very important ways of communicating with people. Being able to communicate your ideas quickly and accurately through verbal communication and drawing is perhaps the most important tool a design professional can learn. To build this skill, we were introduced to our first real client, a Montessori school in Bozeman. They were looking for a design for a new school and teamed up with MSU which became the basis for our second project. Employees and officials from the school would come to our classes and critique our work. It wasn’t until much later that I would realize how valuable it was to have a real client in our classes talking to us about their needs and how we, as aspiring architects, can help meet their goals. Every week we were showing teachers and principals sketches of what we had done, using methods we were learning in our graphics class. At this point, I was starting to realize how an assumption I had going into school was actually pretty accurate. I was starting to see this intersection between art and science that I knew architecture was and I was starting to see how important the art classes I had taken growing up were.
The final piece of second year was an introduction to the fundamentals of building construction. Learning about different types of building materials, building methods, and building code, all seemed like exactly what we all assumed architecture school would be. This looked like a direct path to the light at the end of the tunnel. I could start to see how the things we learned would eventually translate into designing a complete building.
The third year of the architecture program at MSU is known as the most difficult and time-consuming year in the program. In addition to continuing to learn graphics and client relations, we added three new languages: Building Information Modelling, environmental control systems, and structures. With all three topics being worthy of their own college major, it didn’t take long for the myths and legends of third year to become a reality. Now that we’re starting to learn about computer modeling, heating, cooling, and air handling systems, and how to design a structural system within a building, we immediately jumped from designing a 200 square foot meeting place and a small school to designing 50,000 square foot research facilities and 50-unit affordable housing complexes. If coming up with the design wasn’t enough, we then had to take our designs and create a full set of construction documents that, theoretically, a contractor could take and build our projects. If that sounds like a big jump, that’s because it was. It felt like the ultimate trial by fire.
Third year serves as another one of those major tests I mentioned earlier. A crash course in and first real insight into the day-to-day life of an architect. The third year asks students the question, “Is this something you want to do on a daily basis?” For those of us who said yes, we were committing to seeing this process through. We were holding on to faith that the countless hours spent working would lead us to accomplishing our goals and getting one step closer to graduating. For those who said no, this was the last real opportunity to get out of the program before losing another whole year to something that you weren’t 100% committed to, which plenty of people did. By the end of third year, we lost somewhere around another third of the students that I entered that year with.
If you made it this far, there’s a pretty good chance you are serious about graduating from the program. This is the point when you are given some options. You have control over the way you want to learn. You can study abroad in Europe, you can stay at MSU and take another studio class, you can transfer to another school in the U.S. for a semester, or you can intern at an architecture firm. I chose the latter and got an internship at CWG Architecture in my hometown of Helena, MT. The idea was to use the knowledge that we had acquired over the first three years and apply it to a unique learning situation. It was then that I began to understand how each of the years of school applies to the day-to-day process architects go through when designing a project for a client.
The very first project I worked on during my internship was a residential project located on the northwestern edge of Helena. Just like the first year of school, we started by looking at the natural qualities of the site. We identified views, sun angles, water drainage, and climate conditions, and started to put together a diagram that would serve as the basis for the design moving forward. Next, we asked ourselves what the basic needs of the client were. Not unlike the two travelers in need of warmth and shelter, we wrote down the basic elements of a house based on our client’s needs; a bedroom, living room, kitchen, garage, etc. After laying out all these different rooms we created a schematic plan. Next was modeling the design in the computer, incorporating passive and active environmental control systems, and starting to look at structure, all areas of focus in the third year of school. By the end of the process, we had a finished design that incorporated every aspect of design we had learned throughout each level of school into a final design and a set of construction documents we could then hand over to the client.
After just a short six-month internship, I could see how the pieces of the puzzle start to fall into place. I finally had real experience in an architecture firm and some real confidence in the importance of the tedious, mind-numbing, time-consuming, free-time-burning, projects I had been working on for the least three years of my life, and just in time to graduate.
After receiving the Bachelor of Arts in Environmental Design, some of us decided to take the keys to our car and head off into the world. Grad school was the opportunity for us to explore any topic we wanted to. The only difference being, instead of taking the keys and heading off on our own, we were given the tools to build our own roads. An opportunity to explore anything we wanted in the form of a thesis project and find some way to tie into the path of design school we had been on for the past four years.
As soon as we were told to start looking for a thesis topic, I thought of sports. I have always been a big sports fan and love the atmosphere and experience of watching live sports in a huge arena. In search of inspiration, I began by looking at existing sports stadiums around the state, country, and the world. In doing so, I found a consistent problem with almost every sports stadium I came across in my research. These massive buildings were only being used a fraction of the days out of the year. My project ended up being a brand-new multi-use building, that could theoretically be used all day, every day throughout the year which presented an interesting solution to the issue of these buildings lying dormant.
What I’ve learned on the job, so far.
Now, over six months into returning to CWG and starting my new full-time Architect-in-Training position, I’ve continued to build on my understanding of how my schoolwork translates to working in the profession. More importantly, I’m building my knowledge of the things we don’t learn about in school that are vital to the success of a project. Even through the later part of the undergraduate program and through grad school words like budget, consultants, building code, constructability, construction administration, and a host of others pertaining to the logistical and economical side of a project, rarely get used. We hear from our professors that school is the time to play. It’s time to learn without limitations like budget, accurate structural loads, and building codes, but as soon as you step into a real project, these things become very real driving forces behind a design. The importance of finding a balance between the more creative side of design and the logistical, economical, and realistic side of getting a building constructed, has been my biggest takeaway so far from my time working at an architecture firm.
Another thing I’ve learned while working in an architecture firm is the importance of a team-centered working environment. So much of school is done on an individual basis that it created a disconnect between learning design while at school and applying your skills to real projects while working. I know that every firm is different, but understanding the role of the architect, an architect in training, a project manager, an interior designer, and the variety of other positions a firm may have, helps ease some of the stress associated with completing a project.
I had just started my first semester of grad school and there were some high school students visiting campus. As I was walking back to the architecture building from the bookstore, I was stopped by a high school student and his family and asked if I could point them in the direction of the architecture building. I told them that’s where I was headed, and they could just follow me. As we started walking, they asked if I was in the program. I said yes and all of their eyes lit up and they ask “Oh… what’s the program like? There’s probably a lot of math classes, right?” I was kind of excited when I heard that. I finally had the knowledge and experience to tell someone what goes on in architecture school.
My best advice to anyone interested in going to design school and becoming an architect is to be open to change and your goals looking different, and just try it. At every step of my journey, an assumption was shattered, a goal changed, and the light at the end of the tunnel looked a little bit different. Don’t be afraid to go down a path just because you can’t see the light at the end.
Also, don’t let any horror stories and uninformed assumptions discourage you from pursuing something you have an interest in. Even if architecture is not for you, there are people at every stage of the process ready to help you off the path and put you on the right one. A degree or even just an interest in architectural design could lead you to any number of creative career paths. I would hear stories all the time about graduates from the program who have become, engineers, shoe designers, and furniture makers, so even though you may dream of architecture, always be open to that dream evolving and changing.
Austyn Traxler , CWG Architect-In-Training