Who wouldn’t want to be an architect? They’re cool, they make buildings, and they’re always the lead character in rom-coms. We spoke to Trevor Gale, one of the directors at tp bennett – the architectural, interior design and planning powerhouse behind The Guardian headquarters, Skype offices and O2 Telefónica’s HQ in Slough – for some tips on how to be an architect.
First things first, what does an architect actually do?
An architect works, a lot, basically. “There’s an intensive briefing process to see what the client really needs, then we’ll do the initial plans internally, evaluate it and figure out the best way to present it,” Trevor explains. “With the O2 Headquarters, I was there right until the end, putting the pens on the desks. We work with a whole range of engineers, from structural to acoustic to mechanical, basically acting as the ringmaster for a whole team to make sure it comes together.”
His favourite part? All of it (“That sounds really sad doesn’t it? But it’s true!”). However, when pushed, he really likes watching the buildings grow, and seeing the designs actually coming to life. “I like seeing the buildings come out of the ground. It’s like huge Lego,” he says. “And working with people to solve problems is another best part – you become quite good friends with the clients. With O2 headquarters, we were there from 2007 to 2012 – longer than a lot of people in the business!”
OK that sounds pretty fun. What’s the down side?
The sheer amount of stuff you need to a) know and b) juggle. “The hardest part of the job is definitely balancing between cost, finance, engineering, time, limitations, clients who don’t understand… it’s a massive juggling act,” he says.
It’s also a long road to get there. “It takes the same amount of time to be a doctor as it does to be an architect, and there’s so many things you have to learn – quite a few people can’t hack it and leave halfway through to go into project management. Something that doesn’t involve the design side of things, but is still related to buildings.” To become a fully trained architect takes seven years, and you need to be fluent in everything from disabled access routes to which sorts of bricks to use. There’s only one way you’re going to retain all that information, and it’s not lounging about watching Netflix: “You can’t do this job for the money, you have to really love it. It only works if you’re genuinely interested in it. The reality is that you rely on other people, the other members of your team, to bring in the expertise … and then there’s always Google.”
How do I become an architect, then?
Trevor did a mixture of artsy and science-y A-Levels to give himself the best shot of getting onto a good course: “I didn’t know I wanted to be an architect - I fell into it because of this unusual mix of wanting to do both science and art-based subjects. I did Maths, Physics and Art, then saw an exhibition of architecture and it fitted,” he remembers. “There are loads of good courses around the UK depending on what area you want to go into – each course has a different slant on the curriculum, so you might get one that’s big on sustainability or another with particularly good planning links.” While the Architectural Association School of Architecture is supposedly the pinnacle of architectural learning, Trevor believes it’s a bit elitist as there are very good unis elsewhere – the Midlands, Glasgow and Manchester all have great courses.
The seven year degrees themselves include two placement years in industry, so you’ve already got connections and a CV before you go out into the world to find a job. And talking of jobs, there’s good news for those not wanting to necessarily move to London. “London is the biggest one, but the Manchester and Leeds areas are both good hubs, and you get smaller practices further out with a different type of clientele. So in Kent or Surrey you might specialise in housing, for example.”
What skills (degree aside) do I need to become an architect?
Communication, communication, communication. “You need to be able to communicate and convey information easily – you’ll have to have some difficult conversations, telling people they can’t afford what they’re asking you to do, for example,” he explains. “I like presenting ideas to the clients – sometimes you do a walk-through, a day in the life of coming to the office, as looking at drawings can sometimes be confusing for them. But then other clients will be more than happy to just look at the drawings.”
It’s about picking your audience, and figuring out the best way to get across your ideas. There’s also a lot of technical stuff involved, so it’s important to be happy to take the creative element with the practical parts of the job: “It wasn’t what I imagined – there’s the design element, but also lots of much more technical stuff you need to know. You’re also part-lawyer because you have to deal with contract planning legislation, which is a key part of things.”
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