7 Rules to Follow for a Happy (and Productive) Architecture Internship

Internships can be both interesting and rewarding — not to mention downright fun!

The Angry Architect The Angry Architect

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It’s that time of year again. Architecture students are in the throes of the final battle to complete their thesis projects, striving for design perfection with every fiber of their being. At this turbulent time, minds will undoubtedly be preoccupied with intricate cardboard models, strong coffee and seemingly endless nights in the studio, each hardy soul wielding his or her trusty X-ACTO knife in a final flurry of creativity.

Of course, once the dust settles (and you have recovered from the submission day party), you will realize that the hard work is far from over — it’s time to get some real-world experience in the form of an internship. The word “intern” has become something of a dirty word in recent times, and was technically retired by NCARB in 2015. However, I have chosen to retain it for the purposes of this article, partly because our collective familiarity with the term, but largely because the negativity surrounding it is completely unfounded.

Down the years, the word “intern” has been used purely to distinguish between those aspiring to become architects and fully licensed professionals — purely a matter of legal clarity. There was never anything wrong with the title or the responsibilities it entailed: the reality is, a good internship can be as valuable, if not more so, than all your years in architecture school combined. The knowledge you can gain from working alongside experienced professionals is golden, and if approach your internship with the right attitude, it can be both interesting and rewarding — not to mention downright fun!

Here are a few pointers to consider if you are venturing into the world of architectural work experience for the first time. Good luck, and remember — anything that doesn’t make you want to drop out of architecture school and become the next Courtney Cox or Ice Cube makes you stronger …

1. Consider many options when job-hunting

The most obvious problem when considering locations for your internship is money — limited savings and a modest salary means many begin their search for a position as close to home as possible, concerned about the cost of living away. However, don’t discount other, potentially amazing options further afield — you just never know what might emerge if you remain flexible and open-minded.

I was living in the UK at the time of my first internship, but when I had an interview with Will Alsop in London, I inquired about the possibility of working at one of the firm’s satellite studios in Asia and North America. This resulted in an 8-month placement with financial support for accommodation in Toronto, Canada, where I learnt so much — both professionally and culturally. I was hugely fortunate to be given this opportunity, but it came about because I posed the question. Remember, asking never hurts.

2. Approach every task with passion

Once you manage to secure an intern position, it is tempting to dream of designing the next Guggenheim Museum or Burj Khalifa the moment you step through the door. Of course, the reality can be startling — Life of an Architect blogger Bob Borson recounted how he was ordered to mow the lawn on his first day as an architecture intern. While your work experience will (hopefully) not start out quite like that, it is common for interns to be given the pesky jobs others don’t have time for — or simply don’t want to do. Filing old projects, sorting out the resource library, making the coffee — you name it, interns across the globe will be doing it.

Make no mistake though, if you carry out these menial tasks efficiently and enthusiastically, your more experienced colleagues will be appreciative. In time, you may well find your responsibilities grow, and you are soon given much more interesting and creative tasks around the studio. It is also in your firm’s interest to help you complete your Intern Development Program (IDP; soon to become the ‘Architectural Experience Program‘ in June 2016), so if you feel your experience is falling short in this regard, gently remind your mentor of this overriding goal and ask what you can do to work towards it.

3. Look for ways to help

This follows on from point number two. If you’re stuck at the copy machine, but you overhear a colleague complaining that they can’t find a decent precedent study for the project they’re designing, you could offer to do some research for them. After all, there are many great resources out there! Being careful not to step on anyone’s toes, this can be a great way to prove your worth outside the cycle of administrative jobs you have been tasked with, and who knows — you might become the go-to person for these things in the future.

Other tasks architects will hugely appreciate your help with (talking from experience!): building scale models, sorting out the material samples (bonus: you can learn a lot about specifying while doing this), maintaining the firm’s various social media platforms and contributing to the company blog. Who knows, that last one could even lead to a career in architectural media (just look at me!).

4. Ask lots of questions (even the ‘stupid’ ones)

We’ve all been there — that awkward moment when you forgot your colleague’s name; you can’t figure how to lock the door of the staff restroom; you totally lost track of the company standards for filing construction drawings. No matter how trivial the matter, never be afraid to ask your mentor or any other available colleague for help. We’re always concerned about wasting architects’ precious time, but asking questions will save them time in the long run, when you can work progressively more autonomously.

This one comes with a caveat — try not to ask the same question over and over. If you ask how to manipulate a roof structure on Revit and someone gives you a thorough walkthrough, write down the key steps in your notepad and have a go on your own the next time round. Also, make sure to bookmark every useful website you come across. There are countless Sketchup YouTube tutorials and inspirational design websites that will help build your knowledge and make you look extra proactive.

5. Learn about every department (even the ‘boring’ ones)

If you secure a placement in a multi-disciplinary firm, you have a fantastic opportunity to learn about everything — and everyone — that contributes to great buildings. While you may not dream of career in services engineering, cost control or project management, learn as much as you can about these roles and how they relate to the work of architects throughout the life of a project. The long term benefit of this knowledge cannot be overstated.

Being mindful not to disturb those in the middle of a deadline-day sprint, chat with people outside of the design department about their roles within the studio. Ask if you can sit in on meetings, even those that don’t involve the architects. Go for coffee with the engineers! These encounters will teach you more than you can imagine about the construction industry, and help you form a great understanding about the relationships between different consultants from conception to completion of a building.

6. Document, document, document

If you follow points three to five, no matter what size or type of firm you intern at, you should learn an incredible amount — and it is vital to record this experience in as many ways as possible. Ask to take photographs of models and of the studio itself, and collect the most compelling drawings and renderings you helped to create. The value of presenting good quality imagery for professional projects in your portfolio and resumé cannot be overstated.

As well as documenting material contributions with the firm throughout your internship, it is also important to record what you have learned during that process — and even what you didn’t learn. Question everything — are you learning about aspects of the profession that align with the IDP or its equivalent for your country? Are you being given enough to do and getting the most out of the experience? Do you feel out of your depth and need more support from your mentor? It is always better to self-assess in this way and seek help where needed — you’ll benefit in the long run.

7. Get paid

This is a topic that has polarized opinion since time began. While some architects have defended unpaid internships — Sou Fujimoto called them a “nice opportunity” to gain experience at a top practice — the Royal Institute of British Architects requires all interns to be paid at least the minimum wage, arguing that no compensation devalues the profession and damages morale across the board.

I am fully in support of RIBA’s position on this issue — regardless of experience, an intern’s time and productivity is worth something and this must be reflected in the form of compensation, however modest. Furthermore, it could be argued that a culture of unpaid internships spills over to an unhealthy work ethic throughout the practice, with countless architects working overtime for no additional salary and effectively reducing the value of the entire profession.

Architects: If you have enough commissions to need interns, you should have enough liquidity to pay those interns! Interns: Prioritize paid placements, and only consider other options as a last resort. Your time and skills are to be valued!

All comics by Architexts; top image © AstroStar via Shutterstock

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