This post was originally published on the newsletter “A Better Built Environment.” You can check out other posts and subscribe for free here: https://blog.lucasgraydesign.com
There is no right way to pursue a career in architecture. There are a myriad ways each of us can impact the profession, serve clients and the public, and design a better built environment. Despite NCARB’s hold on the licensure process, the establishment’s grip on the use of the word architect, and old guard’s unwillingness to give up design control in firms, creative people are using their skills to break down established barriers and show that architectural training can have an impact far beyond the traditional firm.
This is trend I wish more people in our profession embraced. Rather than distance ourselves from those who took a different path we should celebrate people who leveraged their architectural training to impact other professions or society at large. Most of our politicians are former lawyers and it is no wonder their profession holds more influence. If architecture as an institution (be it the AIA, NCARB, firms, licensure boards, or individuals) embraced those who go into politics, film, marketing, or technology, wouldn’t we increase the voice we have and influence we wield?
If you studied architecture but are thinking there is a different way you want to apply your skills than working for a firm, please go do it. I can’t stress enough how much we need people to take design thinking and use it to impact the world in a thousands ways beyond traditional architecture practice. At the same time, if architecture is your calling, that is fantastic too, and it can be an incredibly rewarding profession. Everyone should be encouraged and supported to find their ideal way to positively impact the world we all share. We as a profession, need to do better at engaging and celebrating all the ways architects can contribute.
My Personal Story
My career is one example of many that can show how taking a different path should be encouraged. There is no right way to pursue a career in architecture. Experimentation can lead to opportunities and personal growth. I hope this can inspire others to try something different and break the traditional mold.
In undergrad I studied architecture, earning a B.Sc. Architecture degree from McGill University, but rather than following the typical path of staying on for an M. Arch degree I made the decision to take a break from school to gain real world experience.
I packed up and left the frigid winter of Montreal to move to Bangkok, Thailand. Thinking I would teach English for a year and travel, instead I soon found a job doing project management for CH2MHill, doing typical intern tasks like filing papers, running errands, and the occasional drafting assignment. After 6 months working for the Bangkok office I transferred to Shanghai where I got to work on an architectural team designing business parks. I did get to do some design work, but also spent a lot of time calculating the turning radii of trucks to create the ideal layout for deliveries and parking for a large logistics warehouse. Not the most exciting work, but I was living in China, learning, exploring, and gaining valuable experience.
After another 6 months at the company, I left to join a boutique design firm in Shanghai, Brearley Architects and Urbanists (BAU). Here I was working on an incredibly diverse team, with designers from around the world, and a wide range of project types. Most of our work revolved around entering design competitions. Typically we had 3-4 weeks to develop a concept and create a compelling presentation to send in for review – and immediately jump onto the next competition until we heard back. It was a very high speed, creative, and invigorating experience with the tight deadlines and wide range of projects types, from urban master plans, to sports stadiums, schools, office towers, hospitality and retail developments. Each week was a different challenge as I hopped from project to project, and each was a learning experience as I learned about new project types and developed my design skills with talented international designers.
After about two years at the firm (and three years abroad) I decided to return to school to get my Master’s of Architecture degree. At the time, I was still passionate about the more traditional path of practicing architecture and dreamed of working for notable firms and eventually starting my own practice. I returned to the US to attend the University of Oregon where I earned my M. Arch. Moving to small town Eugene from the giant metropolis of Shanghai, a culture shock for sure, I enjoyed the closer connection to nature and the program’s emphasis on sustainable design but I missed the fast pace and scale of international work.
Upon graduation I was lucky enough to receive a travel scholarship that allowed me to continue my passion for exploring the world. In the summer of 2008 I embarked on an around the world trip, starting in Australia, attending the Glenn Murcutt International Masters Class, and then to Japan where I started a 5-month overland and sea trip from Tokyo to Berlin without flying – although this is an adventure story for another day.
I ended up staying in Berlin for two years working for a couple of small architecture offices on residential remodels, small competition entries, a couple of train stations in Russia, all while living in an exciting cultural city and getting to travel around Europe. It was a great way to weather the worst of the financial crisis, gain more work experience, and see more of the world.
Knowing I wanted to start my own firm at some point, it was now time to find a place I could settle in long-term, lay roots, built a community/network, and take the final steps into becoming an architect. I returned to the US and moved to Portland, OR where I had some friends, connections from school, and a balance between the vibrancy of the city and connection to the incredible landscape of the Pacific Northwest.
An important interlude:
Working abroad was an incredible experience, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. But it is also something that the bureaucracy of architecture in the US often fails to respect. The US licensure process requires a set amount of experience needed to move forward on the path to licensure. Where this fails is that this experience must be working under a licensed US architect. Meaning the 5+ years of work experience working under Australian, Chinese, and German architects didn’t count towards my internship hours. Since all of my work experience was abroad I was basically starting the AXP program as if I was straight out of school with no work experience. It is complete rubbish.
This is a flawed requirement that should be overturned immediately. I am pretty sure I would be licensed if it wasn’t for this arcane rule that doesn’t reflect the globalized world we live in. It is a reason why I lost some passion for the profession and focused my interest in other areas.
Working abroad also wasn’t quite understood/valued by many of the firms I applied to after returning to the US. They didn’t quite know how to value my skillset considering interns are mostly used as revit monkeys, drafting the old guard’s ideas and details rather than being given a chance to design. The experience was valuable to me but it wasn’t valued enough by the companies with job openings.
After a few months job searching, I joined a mid-sized firm, Opsis Architecture, that focused on educational and institutional projects. I was on project teams for a performing arts center, a university student experience center, a community recreation center, and a renovation of a historic classroom building with a modern addition including new study rooms, classrooms and a lecture hall. Most important, I spent a year working in the firm’s marketing department, helping manage the redesign of the website, start up social media accounts and campaigns, designing marketing materials, putting together RFP/RFQ responses, and helping with interview prep. It was here that I realized I enjoyed many of the non-design aspects of architecture and my interest in the business side of practice grew. Understanding how to get work was just as fascinating and rewarding to me than doing the design work itself.
After a couple of years I decided to leave Opsis and started Propel Studio with a couple of business partners. We focused on residential (Accessory Dwelling Units, Custom Homes, and Small Multi-family projects), retail (cafes, barbershops, grocery stores), and community based projects (public art, street seats, non-profit work, affordable housing). I focused on running the business, leading the marketing and business development efforts, sales, finances, and resource management. I participated in the design of some of projects while my partners and our employees executed most of the architecture work beyond schematic design.
I’m now at a crossroads. After 7 years running Propel Studio in Portland, Oregon, my wife got a job at Sidewalk Labs in New York City that was too exciting to pass up. I passed the reigns of Propel Studio to my business partners and relocated to the East Coast. I luckily got a job during the Covid shutdowns, helping a design-build firm set up and grow their internal design department, and then moved on to join CVG, a business consulting firm focused on helping architecture firms improve their business practices and grow. Here I’m working with 9 small architecture firms across the country and working on business development.
What I’ve learned over the past 3-4 years, is that I’m more interested in entrepreneurship, business development, marketing, and business management than practicing architecture in the way our profession has standardized. At the same time, I find myself talking with more and more of my former classmates, friends, and peers who are in similar positions in their lives. These talented people are all questioning whether architecture is right for them, or if there is another path that can be more rewarding, fulfilling, and enjoyable (not to mention more lucrative).
Handfuls of my friends and colleagues have moved from architecture into other fields. A good friend got into film making, another real estate development. Some had kids and moved out of the city to live a quieter life closer to nature. Others, like my wife, took their architecture skills into a tangentially related jobs (she is helping start a factory to fabricate mass timber building components). I know some architects who switched to product design, web design, startup software companies, and real estate. A good friend, Mike, gave up practicing architecture to start a business that helps emerging professionals get licensed. Another got into teaching design. There is a whole Slack group – Architechie – focused on architects who moved into tech or to help those who want to.
More and more I’m having conversations with friends and colleagues about leaving architecture to get into tech. There is seemingly more freedom and flexibility to pursue new ways of doing things in the tech world, and our design thinking can be applied to a range of roles there. Plus, when I consider the inherent risks of practicing architecture against the miniscule compensation and the long hours, it is harder and harder to convince myself it is the right path for me and I believe that more and more people will start thinking the same thing. Not when there are other exciting opportunities that offer less barriers to entry, better work-life balance, and much much higher compensation for the skills we offer.
I share this story to give a glimpse into what I’m thinking and struggling with in my career, and hopefully to help others who are in a similar headspace know that they aren’t alone. It is hard to consider transitioning careers and it is hard to reassess what would make you happy professionally and personally. Especially if you have years of your life and thousands of dollars invested in your education and training.
We all want to feel valued, be productive and make an impact. I still want to be creative, use my design training, and create inspiring things, but no longer am I fixated on the things I create being buildings. Designing better businesses, products, ways of delivering services, or software may be just as rewarding or more so than following the more traditional path. Writing and about architecture and design, and sharing my experiences running a business and pursuing other paths can be a way I contribute and help others navigate the profession.
Take a different path. Try something new. Don’t let fear hold you back. And always know there is a community of people willing to help and support you along the way. And as a profession, we should be supporting and encouraging those with architectural backgrounds to succeed in other fields. It only grows our influence and impact on society.
Lucas Gray, Assoc. AIA, is a Senior Account Manager / Business Development Manager at Charrette Venture Group (CVG) where he works with architecture firms across the country, helping them run better businesses. Prior to joining CVG, Lucas ran an architecture firm with a focus on custom residential, retail, and community projects in Portland, Oregon.