Young Architect Guide: 6 Differences Between Your First School Project and Your First Real Project

Samantha Raburn Markham Samantha Raburn Markham

Samantha Raburn is a newly licensed architect at Stantec Architecture in Plano, Texas. Her blog, The Aspiring Architect, recounts her journey to become qualified and acts as an insightful guide to all those following a similar path into the profession. 

During my five years of architecture school, I often wondered how applicable the projects and challenges I faced in school would be once I was out working in a firm. I knew there were some obvious major differences — things like having a real client that paid your fees, setting a real budget that couldn’t be altered and producing drawings to the level that a building could actually be built from. Those differences are understandable — architecture school and the real world are intentionally different. There’s no way you could face all of those real-world problems and challenges in school projects.

School teaches you the fundamentals of design and problem solving. You learn about the real world stuff by getting internships and working in a firm. But now that I have worked for a while and been part of a few major projects, those differences between school and the real world are even more clear. So here’s another list for you — my list of the six major differences between your first school project and your first professional project.

My first project in architecture school: The Glass Box Theater, a cinema and performing arts theater; via The Aspiring Architect

1. An actual client versus a professor acting as a client.

As I mentioned before, this one is an obvious difference. There’s a really big variation between your professor acting (or creating) your client and having an actual client. Your professor can answer your questions and come up with reasons, but there’s no real consequence to one answer or another. My first comprehensive project in school was a cinema and performing arts theater for the city of Ruston, Louisiana, where my university is located.

Our teacher did a great job of answering our questions, but he could only answer them as he thought best. There was no benefit or consequence to our questions and his answers. A real client has to consider every person their answer affects — the teacher that may have to get a smaller office, the team that may not be able to get new locker rooms, the janitor that would only get one closet for every two floors. Every answer or decision a client makes has a very real impact on their organization, school or company and an even bigger price tag to go along with it.

Via Ficere Writing Solutions

2. The budget — a very real, strict, stress-inducing budget.

I had a few projects during school where we were asked to do price estimating. It was always extremely eye-opening to see just how much a building can cost — and how quickly the costs can go up. It was even more eye-opening during my first project I worked on after graduation — a renovation and addition on an existing high school just north of Dallas. I was fortunate that I was able to join the project team right at the beginning, so I was able to see it from Schematic Design all the way through Construction Documents (and now a little Construction Administration). During the design and documentation process, we had the project estimated multiple times.

Each time I was able to hear the thoughts and reasons behind what would get cut to save money or what absolutely had to stay to maintain the design intent. For example, keeping glazing between a classroom and a collaboration space so that the teacher has connection and supervision to students in both spaces is something not acceptable to cut for costs. Changing the countertop material to one that doesn’t exactly look how you want it to but is just as durable is a change that saves money and doesn’t have a major impact on the teacher or students. Real-world budgetary decisions can be the crucial difference between a building being just “good” and being “great.”

An example real-world project: Delaware County Community College by Stantec Architecture; via Stantec

3. The bigger picture is seen.

On most projects in school, you are in your own little design world. Population: 1. It’s your project, your design, your problems and your decisions. Yes, your professor definitely weighs in on those problems and decisions, and sometimes your studio mates may give their opinion. But in the end, you get the final say — it’s a very small, focused picture. During that first high school project I helped with, I had to make myself “zoom out” on things. Every decision I made had to be purposeful and with the best intentions for the client.

Walls I slightly moved in all of the classrooms had to be coordinated with the entire team — structures, mechanical, electrical, plumbing. I learned to be efficient with how I spent all of my time because I knew that each person on the team is staffed at only so many hours per project to keep within the budget — and I didn’t want to be the one to bust my hours. And when I was “zoomed out” the farthest, I saw the incredible picture of this project being built and that something I helped with would have students using it just a year later.


4. Teamwork is a necessity.

On that cinema and performing arts theater project I did in school, it was just me. Like I said in Difference #3, it was my project, my design and my decisions. That’s not how it works in a firm. You WILL be working with a team — a team made up of designers, project architects, project managers, engineers of every discipline, the clients, consultants, construction managers and more. All of these people have to collaborate to make the project happen.

Along with collaborating, they have to coordinate EVERYTHING. They move this — it affects that. You change this — it affects that. Everything is cause and effect — and you have to work with your team to account for each cause and effect made.

Example architectural details; via

5. Oh, so many details.

I think this is another obvious one. By the time I turned in my cinema and performing arts theater project, you could have classified it as early Design Development. In school projects, you are constrained to the semester or quarter schedule. You can only do so much in that amount of time (especially since you have other classes to pass, too). I got much further into documentation and details in projects in fourth year and graduate school, but it was still nothing close to an entire Construction Document set.

It could take one person working weeks on one series of a CD set to get it ready to actually go out to bid. There’s so much to document and so many details required to produce a good CD set. It’s something that takes time and experience working in a firm to fully understand the entirety of it. After all, a BUILDING has to be constructed from those drawings.

6. The end result is much, much sweeter.

It was a fantastic feeling to turn in that cinema and performing arts theater project and have my reviews over with for that quarter. Every architecture student knows that great feeling of being done with a project and then rushing off to get food and sleep and to catch up on your social life.

As awesome as that is, though, it doesn’t compare to seeing your first real project come to life. Seeing something you helped draw and produce being built is one of the greatest reasons we all become architects. That first moment you see a student walk into that space you created for them and to see them interact with all the details you slaved over, NOTHING can compare to that sense of accomplishment and pride you receive at that moment.

This post is part of the ArchiTalks series in which Bob Borson of Life of an Architect selects a theme and a group of blogging architects all post on the same day. Enjoy this article? Check out more of our Young Architect Guides:

The 7 Secrets to Happy Interning

7 Tips for Getting Hired After Graduation

Building Great Architecture Models

Architectural Redlines

5 Lies Told About the Profession You Must Ignore

How to Convince Your Audience With a Powerful Project Narrative

How to Write About Architecture

5 Specifying Tips for First-Time Architects

Cover image via MAP

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