One of the most important goals of any design professional is also one with the most ambiguity and subjectivity – the goal of being better.
Well, what does “better” mean in the realm of architecture?
Through conscious effort or habit, your mind is probably already coming up with answers to the question that will vary from the mind of another presented with the same question.
Nevertheless, this seemingly intangible goal is arguably the most profound career goal of them all, but that does not make the prospect of reaching a straightforward answer any easier.
It would help if you based the answer on your personal goals; whichever accomplishment brings you the most career satisfaction and the highest sense of self-fulfillment is what will enable you to become a better architect.
While goals are fundamentally person-specific, there is undoubtedly a set of attributes and practices to choose from in seeking the answer to what makes a great architect.
1. Aim to Stick Out Like a Sore Thumb
Architecture is a competitive field that requires an equally-competitive spirit to thrive within. If you want to gain respect and land lucrative jobs, you need to demonstrate that your skills are not easily fetched from the bottom of the barrel.
To be among the top 10% of architects and be compensated as they are, you need to outdo the other 90% through your designs’ exceptional novelty and the effectiveness of your work ethic.
Aim to be unique. Architects are a unique breed of professionals; so is the work others expect them to produce.
2. Continually Strive for Creativity
It is so blatant and entangled with the architect’s philosophy that it needs no mentioning. Nevertheless, no great architect can afford to overlook the importance of bringing new ideas to the world.
Creativity flows more naturally for some architects. For others, seek to analyze, understand, and build on examples of successful architectural work that the digital world has made ever more accessible today.
The creative mind needs feeding as much as you need to continue pushing your design limits beyond your comfort zone through steadfast applications without fear of failure.
3. Be Adaptable
The chances are low that an architect does the same work for the same firm between graduation and retirement.
When you chose to become an architect, you boarded a ship set to be tossed by the waves in a stormy sea, not the calm waters of the Caribbean beneath a clear sky.
To be a great architect, you need to anticipate and embrace changes to your job’s roles, career positions, and the state of the entire field.
When a plan turns on its head, do not let frustration set in. Embrace it; use creativity to produce a solution that makes the best of the development.
As with most fields reliant on technology and continually-shifting market need, change is the only constant in architecture; avoid falling behind.
4. Be Independent
As an architect, you are the one entrusted with producing quality designs.
Others may guide you and provide suggestions, but if there is one consistent facet to architecture, it is that you are the one who, put to your own devices, produces awe-inspiring novel creations.
You often work in a team – in school and at work – for a common goal, but architects ultimately have to strike out independently and build a style and voice of their own.
5. Be Dependable
Chances are that your firm depends on your independence. You likely graduated with the expectation that this job requires everything out of you on a day-to-day basis. Don’t forget this.
Ensure that, upon request, your firm can consistently rely on you to overcome obstacles and produce quality in a reasonable time and that your team can always look to you to lead them to a common solution.
You have Clients in architectural projects, but your employer is also a client you must seek to serve.
6. Be Cooperative
Sure, you spend a sizeable portion of your job in solitude, but the interactions preceding and following the design phase are critical.
Those moments where you communicate with your clients to establish their needs at the beginning and where you subsequently collaborate with construction industry professionals are the points of critically executing a project.
As an artist, you have your style, but cooperate with them; all stakeholders are after a shared goal.
7. Be Receptive to Alternative Ideas
Sometimes, there will be disagreement. It may even seem personal at times when the subject of the conflict is the design you poured your heart into. But there is no benefit in taking these things personally.
You need to accept any suggestions which could make a design better, even if they came out of someone else’s head.
After all, the design is the VIP, not ego.
8. Be Vocal
Never allow a great design to go unnoticed and unincorporated because you were too timid to advocate for it.
The idea of self-promotion may seem to be an abrasive tactic for some people and simply intimidating for others. The most successful architects are not only creative; they are loud and confident.
If needed, brush up on some anxiety-management techniques to ensure that you can speak up and receive your fair share of recognition.
9. Be Committed Long-Term
It can be challenging to stay committed in a stressful field, but it is essential to avoid letting that stress bring you down and demotivate you.
You have already sunk a considerable amount of time and effort into getting where you are. With the overall competitiveness in other fields outside architecture, you want to avoid backtracking at all costs.
Reflect on the things that inspired you to become an architect and embrace your career’s positive times in guiding you through the more negative ones.
If you reach a point where a change is necessary professionally, switch to one of the career options related to architecture instead.
10. Get a Running Start
It is an unscientific fact: life moves faster the longer you live.
Procrastinating is easy, but it comes at a cost to success.
As soon as you graduate from architecture school, you want to aggressively leap toward your goals by applying for jobs at the firms that will help you advance your career and giving architecture your all from the start.
If you are later in your career and realize that you have neglected to do this, you can start now – rumination takes additional time.
11. Get Familiar with (ever-changing) Technology
From the growth of computer-aided drafting to architecture models based in virtual reality, technology has quickly swept architects off of their feet and into a new world.
For better or worse, technology and architecture become increasingly entangled by the day – you can choose to resist or embrace it, and you probably know which strategy is more logical.
12. Practice Sustainable Design
Society is currently entering a new industrialization stage where innovation must consider the implications of the future over short-term benefits.
In the past, architecture protected itself from the environment, but now it is becoming increasingly critical that architecture protects the environment.
Whenever you can, take the initiative to reduce the carbon footprint of buildings you design collaboratively or independently and getting them LEED-certified.
Be a LEED-accredited architect yourself; you have access to better jobs at higher salaries.
13. Practice Networking
Your success as an architect is sustained by the clients you meet, the industries you interact with, and the firms that employ you. When you establish connections, do not limit yourself to any single niche, experience level, or age group.
In some cases, you might be the valuable connection that lands a promising young candidate his or her dream job. If you are looking for a specific organization to meet people, consider joining the AIA.
But don’t limit your professional network within architecture; expand it to reach real estate professionals and entrepreneurs in other industries.
14. Maintain Professional Connections
First impressions matter, but lasting impressions matter just as much, if not more.
Connections are more valuable than a set of references for a job. They are a network of industry allies that can keep you motivated and provide a fulfilling social element to your work.
Never underestimate them as a source of future job referrals, in and outside architecture.
15. Practice Futurism
As you know, architecture is one of the most malleable career fields you could choose. It changes continuously and will continue to do so, so how do you anticipate what your livelihood will look like even five or ten years from now?
Work with the present conditions, but have an eye on the future.
Be proactive in seeking skills development to cater to future needs; do not passively wait for the consequences of complacency to catch up with you.
The architects who can see the furthest ahead are the ones who have the most success in keeping their skills relevant.
16. Practice Patience
Sadly, it is nearly impossible to avoid encountering problem clients with any people-focused job, and architecture is no exception.
Thanks to the Dunning-Kruger effect phenomenon (source), there can be a tendency for clients who know the least about architecture to make the most unreasonable demands and question your abilities when you ask questions.
Patience is a virtue that will allow you to deal with less-than-optimal circumstances while maintaining a clear head for the more important tasks ahead of you.
17. Practice Compassion
Many architects might overlook the simplicity that their services can be defined by economic terms as a “luxury good.”
While some of your clients might have no incentive to object to your prices, most clients make a significant financial decision when seeking your services. Understanding a client’s point of view and helping to lower costs provide a long-term payoff in the form of loyal clientele.
Similarly, put yourself in the shoes of the occupants who will use the buildings you design. Be creative and detailed in tackling design issues, and be thoughtful in the solutions you offer.
18. Be an Architectural Martyr
Many are correct to assume that architects make decent money.
However, when one considers the extensive education requirements, competitiveness, and exceptional skill level required to perform the job, the argument that architects are actually under-compensated begins to make sense.
As an architect, speaking up for your professional cohorts and advocating the value of the services you provide can help bring about positive change in public perception.
19. Consider Being a Mentor
In keeping yourself committed to architecture, serving as a mentor to an intern or recent graduate can be an incredibly purposeful experience.
Not only do you inspire younger generations to build the legacy, but the person you mentor can also encourage you to continue being passionate – perhaps by showing you a younger version of yourself.
20. Avoid Getting Trapped by Tradition
Anyone who graduates begins working for a firm, and introspectively, “alright, so this is how things are,” will encounter some shock later on.
You can probably safely hold on to the idea of “designing great buildings” without having it torn away, but anything else can be slipped from under you at a moment’s notice.
Just keep moving forward – don’t look back.
21. Avoid Succumbing to Pessimism
It is easy to do as you advance in your career to look at the younger architects show a work ethic you can’t wrap your head around or do things in ways you don’t like.
It can be incredibly hurtful when they outright disagree with one of your core values. For many, it is straight to the “in my day it was right . . . now it is wrong” mentality, but this only perpetuates feelings of pessimism and disconnection with architecture altogether.
Remind yourself that there is no right and wrong and that there is a consistency to architecture that has remained true for all time: disagreement drives innovation through the need to bridge expectations.
Learn to listen to opinions without being controlled by them.
22. Continue to Learn
The five or so years you spent in architecture school are far from the extent of your education. You probably have learned more as a practicing architect about how to do your job better than you did through formal schooling.
Keep an open mind; it is an architect’s most useful tool.