A call for rethinking AEC education

May 29, 2022

Universities do their students a disservice if they leave their programs without a fundamental understanding of what the career they have chosen entails.

I’ve had many discussions with peers and recent graduates about the disconnect between an architectural education in the U.S. and the actual practice of architecture. Based on these discussions and my observations as the person responsible for hiring at our 40-person firm, I believe there is a strong argument for a significant shift in the curriculum and teaching methodology at architecture schools.

In the past 20 years, I have had three interns leave the profession in under a year because it was so different from their expectations. A while back, I had a recent graduate (two months out of school) seriously ask me how long it would be before he was lead designer at the firm. I told him a strong designer understands, and is inspired by, codes, budgets, client needs, and of course, how a building goes together. Without that basis, a design is sculpture for someone else to make a reality. But this is not new; at the University of Virginia, my first class was taught by a “professor” who was 25 years old and had left one of the finest design firms in the world after just two years for life as an academic because he had no interest in the reality of architecture.

However, on a positive note, the majority of our recent graduates were thrilled to discover architecture was a much more colorful tapestry than their university ever indicated. They thrived on learning how buildings went together, grew confident as they coordinated with engineers and clients, and some were even genuinely curious to learn about codes. One of my favorite parts of mentoring is getting to take interns who have been working on a project to “their” jobsite for the first time.

To get the perspective of recent graduates, I held a roundtable discussion with eight employees who had graduated within the last four years. They were from four-, five-, and six-year programs and half graduated from universities ranked in the top 15 of American architecture programs. The most common negative comments were that school was too theoretical/removed from the reality of architecture, did not prepare them for actually working in an office, and the projects often had ridiculous premises, for example, “design a grade school with a commercial drone landing site on the roof.” To a person, none had been taught or encouraged to take a class on any drafting program, though some could have chosen to take a one-semester CAD elective. All had been encouraged to pull all-nighters and had been in juries where students were berated until they cried.

What they appreciated about their education was learning the basic concepts and language of architecture, learning to understand plans and sections, learning to think through issues and problem solving, honing presentation skills, and having the time for creative exploration. Of the eight, the one person who felt they had been well prepared had been in a six-year IPAL program that included three years working full-time in an office.

Their answers to my last question was very telling and goes to the very heart of what I see as the basis of the problem with architectural education. I inquired how many of their professors were practicing architects or at least had solid experience as a practicing architect. Most of the IPAL graduate’s professors were practicing architects, since classes were after work – so the professors worked during the day then taught at night. After that, the answer was either no practicing architects taught their undergraduate program or there were one or two. No practicing architect teaching these students how to be an architect! Little wonder they graduated with no real idea of what it means to be an architect.

I have four suggestions for improving the education of students aspiring to be architects:

  1. The most fundamental change should be universities having more educators who are practicing architects. I understand the practical issues with this, but they would not have to be full-time staff; universities could have architects come in as visiting professors to teach a studio. Give students at least two semesters of experience with non-academics. The goal would be to have not only realistic projects, but to encourage enlightening in-studio discussions about handling clients and their expectations, and dealing with issues that inevitably arise, like zoning restrictions, neighborhood groups, environmental considerations, or how construction costs rising will impact a design.
  2. Encourage or mandate a semester, or summers, interning with firms.
  3. Allocate time for teaching at least a semester of drafting and reading construction-level plans. This would help the students with their in-school presentations, and it would also make them more prepared for the realities of working in this field and more valuable to employers. What is an architect who cannot draw or read construction documents?
  4. Stop the archaic practice of all-nighters and hostile juries. It’s obvious that no one does their best work sleep deprived at 4 a.m. (how many of us had a classmate go the emergency room with an X-ACTO injury?) and making a person cry is cruel, not a productive critique. Moreover, this practice sets expectations that long hours, even all-nighters, are not only acceptable but to be expected in the workplace. This allows unethical employers to take advantage of these emerging professionals, setting expectations of more than 60-hour work weeks on a set salary as they “pay their dues.” Simply because we were subjected to this unproductive nonsense is not a reason to continue the practice.

Architecture school is not a trade school nor should it be; a broader education improves critical thinking, reasoning, communication skills, and provides a more global perspective. However, universities do students a disservice if they leave their programs without a fundamental understanding of what the career they have chosen entails. 

Nea May Poole, AIA, LEED, AP is a principal and COO at Poole & Poole Architecture, LLC. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

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