Make it Through Architecture School with These Tips
Being successful in architecture school takes more than just a keen eye for design, and the ability to sketch. Success comes from being disciplined in combining multiple factors that are needed to succeed in school and in the profession of architecture. The realization for these tips emerged from re-occurring roadblocks in my own architecture school education, and in working with my classmates. I quickly found that successful application of these tips brought greater clarity, success, and enjoyment of my education.
These are tips and suggestions that I learned the hard way, and frankly still do not do all of these as well as I would like to. I have slowly learned these lessons over the past two years of my graduate architecture school education, and would like to share them with any current or prospective students. Here are my 11 tips to survive architecture school:
PROTECT THE ASSET
“The best asset we have for making a contribution to the world is ourselves” – Greg Mckeown
This term is coined from a really great book I read recently called Essentialism, and it resonated so strongly with me that it is at the top of the list.The chapter of the book this term comes from is on the importance of sleep, but I think this term applies much more broadly, especially in architecture school. Those who have been in a studio environment especially when there is a deadline coming up know how stressful, and hectic things can be. It’s not uncommon to skip meals, chug the caffeine, and work into the night/early morning hours, or even pulling an “all-nighter” or two. After falling into this crunch time routine time and time again I thought there has to be a better way.
When things get stressful, and we are under pressure to meet a deadline we often forget the habits and routines that have allowed us to operate at our max capacity. We stop exercising, we snack more, eat unhealthy foods, skip meals, and deprive ourselves of one of the most important things we all need… SLEEP! There are countless studies that prove that when we get enough sleep and exercise we are more productive, have better ideas, and work more effectively.
So when the deadline is approaching, do not treat exercise, getting enough sleep, and a healthy diet as negotiable variables. They should come first. Being physically and mentally sharp is crucial in any creative discipline and you can’t help anyone else unless you take care of yourself first.
DONE IS BETTER THAN PERFECT
“Our films don’t get finished, they just get released” – John Lasseter, Chief Creative Officer at Pixar
“If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.” – Reid Hoffman, LinkedIN Founder
This tip is one that I struggle with the most, and have found most creatives and designers feel the same way. If you haven’t figured it out already no design is ever finished in your mind, but at the end of the day you must have a version of the design to present to the jurors. The hard part about this is knowing when to STOP designing, and when to start producing drawings and boards for your presentation. This requires a lot of self discipline and willpower. Just accept that it may never be finished or just quite right, but showing up with an 80% completed design is better than not showing up at all.
PLAY TO YOUR STRENGTHS
You aren’t going to be great at everything, but you probably are great at a few things. You might be able to sketch really well, be great in Revit or CAD, or maybe model making and rendering are your strong-suits. Play to those strengths when putting your boards together. Personally, sketching and 3D modeling are my biggest assets and I lean on them often. Use your strengths, to convey your idea and do it over and over. I have a classmate who really struggles with 3D modeling and rendering, but his models are some of the best I have seen and he often does his renderings by hand using watercolor or markers, and they always turn out really well.
Use your strengths to highlight your abilities, but always try to push yourself to learn new techniques and applications.
BE AN ENGINEER
“People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are the most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy” – Seneca
This is mostly a play on words, but what I mean is you need to be able to reverse engineer your schedule. At the beginning of each semester you are given a syllabus and know exactly when your mid-term, final reviews, or major project deadlines are. Memorize these dates and begin to sketch out a schedule for yourself. Use a physical calendar so you can see the current week and the following weeks.
Work backwards from the day of your presentation and begin to outline tasks, in blocks of time that need to be accomplished. You’ve now created your own self imposed deadlines for when you need to finish certain tasks. You can use a gantt chart or a similar project management system to outline your ideas. I personally print off a blank google calendar and just start inputting the project deadlines.
“Stress comes from not identifying what is most important in our lives and breaking commitments we have made with ourselves” – Doug Nielsen
If you’ve been in architecture school for a while, you are probably able to gauge about how long certain tasks take you. Obviously, these numbers will change with the scope of the project but you get the idea. Now take those numbers and lets get realistic! Things ALWAYS take longer to do than we think, and we often always over-promise and under-deliver.
My wife can attest that this is one of my greatest weaknesses. I will tell her, “I just need 30 minutes to finish up this floor plan,” then two hours later I’m wrapping it up. Once you’ve figured out roughly how long a task will take you, total up that time and then add 50-75% depending on your track record. This may seem impractical, but it's the truth. So, if you think it will take three days to make your final model, slot four and a half days in your schedule and you can thank me later.
“K-I-S-S, keep it simple, stupid.’ Great advice, hurts my feelings every time.” – Dwight Shrute
Keep it Simple: this reference comes from a variety of different places, but in my world it comes from Dwight Shrute in Season 3 of the Office. I have also heard the acronym stands for Keep it Super Simple. Regardless of the original meaning, the core message stays the same. Intentional simplicity will trump irrational busyness every time. I had a studio professor tell me once that you want to make one move that will satisfy multiple needs. In Steal Like an Artist, Austin Kleon says it well: “In the end, creativity isn’t just the things we choose to put in, it’s the things we choose to leave out.”
Critically look at your design and see what you can take away that isn’t needed while leaving your main idea as the focus.
BUILD THE MODEL FIRST
This one may seem obvious or confusing to you, but it’s one I have learned one too many times. You get the requirements for your final jury a few weeks before you present, and the chaos begins. For some reason, most people start producing their drawings first (while still designing, of course), and save their final model(s) for the last few days, or even hours before the review. So you and your classmates are all following the same workflow and then the laser cutter sign-up sheet becomes a page long, and that certain type of acrylic you wanted to use is out of stock because a dozen of your classmates wanted to use it too.
Do the work that requires the tools of others first, because that is something you can’t control. Work that can be done anywhere can be done at any time.
SHOW THE GOOD STUFF
When given a list of requirements for a jury don’t treat that list as a checklist, treat it as a suggestion list. Your project may not need to show all of the drawings on the list to portray your idea(s), or you might want to show a drawing that isn’t on that list. Show whatever you need to adequately portray your idea, and spend any extra time making sure the drawings you are showing really work for you.
Last semester I was in a studio that designed workforce housing in Park City, Utah. In my final presentation I didn’t even show a single section because I feel it didn’t add any value to my project. No one even asked me about not having a section and I aced the class.
The architecture studio has an odd way of engulfing your time, and narrowing your creativity if you spend too much time there, at least it does for me. I’m sure you know a few students who are in the studio before you are and are still there after you leave, and their stuff isn’t any better than yours. The studio environment used to be one of collaboration, and it can be sometimes, but now it often tends to be a major distraction.
In Susan Cain’s book, Quiet, she cites a study of expert violinists at the elite Music Academy in West Berlin. A portion of the study examined three groups of violinists (best, good, and teachers) and they were asked to keep detailed diaries of their time for a given period.
All three groups spent nearly the same amount of time in school, practicing, and in social activities. But, the top two groups (best, and good) spent most of their music-related time practicing in solitude. This isn’t to say that everyone works better alone, but if you do, work in solitude as much as you can.
Work where you are the most productive and comfortable. This could be a local coffee shop, the library, or at home. I do most of my work from home and the local library because it’s quiet and I can focus on my work.
LOOK OUTSIDE THE DISCIPLINE
Many of us have at least a dozen of interests other than architecture that can influence our design IQ. Think about this—if you only look at architects and architecture for design precedents and inspiration, eventually your designs will start looking like everything else that has already been done.
Look at photography, graphic design, nature, art, music, books, and even movies. Bring your hobbies into your designs and it will give you a unique design sense and you will start to differentiate yourself from your peers.
“People are effective because they say ‘no,’ because they say, “this isn’t for me.” – Peter Drucker
If you are anything like me you, say yes way too quickly and don’t say no enough. This concept is also an Essentialist concept, and is one I have tried to apply throughout my life, not just in school. Architecture school is a stressful time as it is and if you add on family, a job, a social life, outside interests, etc.. your time begins to be pulled in a number of different directions. Realize that school will not last forever, and while you are in school, BE in school. Absorb it, get as much as you can out of it, and trim out the rest.
Author: Gentry Griffin