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Interview with an architect

We spoke to Chris Jaume, 25, who is currently completing his Part 2 Architectural Assistant placement as part of his journey to becoming a fully-qualified architect in the UK.

Chris, originally from southeast England, studied his Part 1 at Newcastle University and then went on to complete a year of professional practice. He has recently finished his two years of Part 2 study and is now in a final year of practice, after which he will take the Part 3 exam in order to register as a qualified architect with ARB (Architects Registration Board) and to become a member of the RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects).

We asked him about his study and career so far...

interview-with-an-architect-chris

Why did you choose to study architecture?Originally I chose it because it’s a very creative profession, plus the fact that you could have something that you've designed realised in real life. As time progressed, I began to be intrigued by how buildings could affect the way we live, our mood and behaviour. We spend most of our lives in buildings - through architecture you can influence the way people live their lives for the better.

Also, the building industry has the ability to influence 47% of the UK’s total CO2 emissions, so you have the opportunity to reduce negative impacts upon the environment through design.

Why did you choose the particular universities you went to?Both of them were in the top ten in the country for architecture, so that was the key thing. No matter how good the city was, I wouldn't have gone there if the university had a poor course reputation. I chose Newcastle because it was somewhere completely new to me - it threw me out of my comfort zone. It was very far from home; you couldn’t just nip home on the weekend - so it forced you to throw yourself into university life. It was a chance to experience a contrast in people and lifestyle. Also, I’d heard so many people say brilliant things about Newcastle and what a great city it was before I went there.

Manchester, again, was one of the best in the country [for architecture], and was located close to Leeds, where my girlfriend was studying for her PhD. The course structure also appealed, with the studio units taught in a very different way to Newcastle. Choosing to study in Manchester was yet another opportunity to explore a great new city and way of life.

What skills did you learn during your study?During my undergraduate degree, I learnt a huge range of skills, from technical drawing and construction skills - you need to know how things go together on site - through to conceptual and creative skills. We were set various buildings to design, each with a loose brief, and had to present our ideas as they progressed to the rest of the year – verbal and graphic presentation skills were key!

 


 

How did Part 1 and Part 2 study differ?The first part was much more creative, with life drawing classes, sculpture making, there was a bit of fashion involved - you had to make an outfit and parade down a fashion walk in front of the whole year. It was fun but hard work.

The second part is more enjoyable, and more intense. Your knowledge increases tenfold, as everyone there now knows they’re in it for the long haul, and not just tentatively seeing what career they might like to take. You have to drive yourself a lot more – there are no tutors saying ‘you have to do this, you have to do that’, they just give you a brief (often several at once) and a set of deadlines, then check on you every week or so, so you really have to be on top of it.

Do you have to have done design before you start an architecture degree?It depends, some courses are more technical based, but some are more creative, like Newcastle. But it definitely helps. If you go into architecture with no design beforehand, you’re going to struggle.

How did your Part 1 work placement develop your skills?One of the main things, I guess, is that you finally begin to know what an architect actually does. Only 10% of it is design, the other 90% of it is admin, ringing people and having meetings. If you get through that year seeing the nitty-gritty of it, then you know whether or not it is what you want to continue with.

So, what's next?After this year of practice, I have to take a two-day exam and produce a long document detailing all my architectural experience to date. Throughout your time in practice, you have to fill out logbooks every three months, detailing every hour you've spent on a project, what you've learnt and what you hope to learn in the following months.

Then from January through to September, the RIBA will start sending me through information packs which outline topics I need to understand, and suggest what I should be reading – there’s a lot to learn. When you qualify, you gain the right to call yourself an architect, so they've got to make sure that you are not only capable but an asset to the profession. 

What do you do on a day-to-day basis in your job?To be qualified, you have to see a project through from start to finish to show your competence, so I’ve just started on that. I’m redesigning the front entrances to 58 apartments on a housing estate in Manchester, which entails designing of the stairways, entrances and yards to the front.

So, I’m doing some design work on AutoCAD (a computer aided design package) at the moment. Also, as I’m in charge of this project, I have to make sure it adheres to all the regulations, so again there’s lots of meetings, lots of phone calls with the council and alsorts. Because I’m still an assistant, there’s still a lot of admin - I spent the whole of yesterday printing and folding drawings!

How did you find this job?At our postgraduate degree show, some directors from Manchester practices came and viewed our studio’s work with our tutor - like a private viewing - and a few of us were selected and asked to apply to certain jobs.

I did job hunt in Leeds, but there were no vacancies at any of the 127 practices I rung (that was a fun two days!) Then I got two or three ‘we recommend you apply here’ emails, so it was all fairly straightforward really.

Is that a normal thing to happen?Yeah, if you've worked hard over the two years and produced some good work, the tutor knows you’re a suitable candidate for a Part 2 position. The university is intertwined with professional practice, so a lot of jobs are got like that. I still had to have a two-hour interview though!

What do you most and least enjoy about your job?Admin is tedious – filing, printing and posting letters is pretty boring. But the best side of it is the design stage, followed by seeing your work realised on site; you see the foundations go in and you see stuff come off the ground. Also the atmosphere in the office - we have music on, we can have a chat, we do the crossword at lunch. It has an informal studio atmosphere, rather than an uptight ‘I’m sitting in an office at my desk’ one.

 


 

Is that common in architectural practices?In small to medium [sized] practices, that’s common, but when you get into the big companies it can get more corporate.

What are the highlights of your study and career so far?I would say the Edible Pavilion project in Manchester. Tom Petch, from the Manchester School of Architecture, and myself built a pavilion out of recycled timber on a nearby allotment site (see www.citygrowing.org).

We first designed a new community growing site on a disused plot, for the use of plot holders and a neighbouring school. Next, we recruited a team of fifteen undergraduate students to help design and build the pavilion on the new site. We got the students designing facade panels, which they then assembled from scrap materials, and planted with edible herbs and flowers. So far, that was probably the most enjoyable project, as it was ours from start to finish; we got funding from the council and our studio unit, and we got it built.

How did you end up doing that?It was in our fifth year at university, during the School of Architecture’s Event Month - in pairs you had to pitch a written project proposal to the first and second years [students], and they chose which one they wanted to get involved in, so that’s how you get your team of people. You have a month to get it all together from start to finish, so it’s quite intense. It was linked to the urban agriculture theme I was exploring within my studies, so it was a way of testing out some of those ideas I’d been playing with and seeing if they actually worked.

What do you think are the most important skills to succeed in architecture?You’ve got to be creative and be able to think in 2D and 3D, in your head and down on paper as well – there’s not always a computer on hand! It's a mixed bag – you need to be very meticulous and logical with what you do, but at the same time, you need a side to you that’s messy, hectic and allows you to throw yourself into creative exploits that aren’t necessarily within your comfort zone.

What difficulties have you faced during your study?The long hours and the expense; it is expensive due to model making, books and field trips. Over the two unis I’ve been on two overseas trips, one to Paris and one to Brussels, both of which you’re strongly advised to go on. And you need a good computer to be able to run the design programmes, so that's an added expense.

What advice do you have for students wanting to study architecture?First of all, they should be prepared for a low income when they graduate. You don't make a lot of money out of it, not until later. It’s not as well-paid as everyone thinks - not for the hours you do.

Secondly, be prepared to work hard and play hard. It's a very social career and very social at university – you form a very close-knit group of people simply through being in the studio all day. Also, get experience whenever you can, like on a construction site, or in an office, and read books, visit buildings - just really throw yourself into it.

What are your plans for the future?I intend to continue exploring the possibilities architecture and urban agriculture can offer by getting involved with as many projects as I can, collaborating with the contacts I have made over the last two years in Manchester. After I qualify, I would definitely like to experience working abroad for a while, before hopefully(!) setting up my own practice.