Why I Quit Architecture (And What I Did Next)

“It’s one thing to know what makes a building beautiful, but it’s another thing to go out and raise the capital and build the damn thing.”

Brandon Donnelly Brandon Donnelly

Brandon Donnelly is an architect-trained and tech-obsessed real estate developer who runs an insightful daily blog for city builders. Join his 14,000 subscribers here.

A few years ago during a class at the Rotman School when we were all introducing ourselves, I had a professor ask why all architects seem to want to become developers. He asked because there were three architects (or at least architect-trained) in the class who were either currently working in development or planning to move into development following their MBA.

Indeed, it is pretty common for architects to make this jump. So much so that I’m often asked (as recently as last night) about how I made the transition from architecture to development. Given the frequency of this question, I figured it would be worthwhile to turn my response into a blog post — particularly because I did make the decision to write more about what it means to be a developer.

The first thing I should say is that I’ve never really worked as an architect. I interned at an architecture firm one summer, but that’s about it. I’m not licensed as an architect, and I have no plans of ever becoming licensed. Therefore, I’m technically not allowed to call myself one, which is why I often say “architect-trained.”

However, this doesn’t mean that I didn’t face a certain degree of stigmatization while I was completing my Master of Architecture and looking for my first real estate job. The real estate community often perceives architects as being impractical, fanciful and generally poor with money and business.

Louis Kahn; via Kimbell Art Museum

Part of this, I think, has to do with the fact that design schools often don’t like to talk about making money. It’s taboo. Design is supposed to be something purer and grander than money. Maybe that’s why it’s not uncommon for even the most famous of architects — such as Louis Kahn — to die deeply in debt.

But I think this perspective is bullshit. Which is why I spent every single one of my electives during my Master of Architecture over at the business school taking finance, economics and real estate classes. I was determined to be just as good as the MBAs at “the numbers.” And even became a teaching assistant for a real estate economics class.

So my first piece of advice to architects looking to make the transition to development is that you need to overcome the perception that you don’t understand money and business. You need to demonstrate that you can crunch numbers and that you know how to make money for investors.

This could mean getting an MBA or Master of Real Estate Development, taking extracurricular classes, starting a blog or just convincing somebody in real estate to give you a chance so that you have it on your résumé. Whatever it is, you need to reposition your personal brand so that it no longer says architect.

It doesn’t always have to be architect versus developer — you can use your skills to bridge the gap between these disciplines; still from “The Fountainhead” via Turner Classic Movies.

This is important because, from my experience, if a real estate company is used to hiring people with business degrees, then it’s going to be tough to get them to pay attention to you and your architecture degree. They just don’t understand the value that you might be able to bring to the organization (and you do bring value).

My second piece of advice is to find developers who have an architecture background and specifically reach out to them. There are lots of us. They’ll be sympathetic to your background and will probably give you more time of day. But you’ll need to come prepared with the right tool chest. Demonstrate to them that you have the skills necessary to be a developer (see above).

As I’ve said before, developers are, in many ways, a jack of all trades. So the more you can master all of those trades, the more likely you’ll get some hiring manager to take a risk on you. But when you do finally make that transition, I believe that you’ll be better for it.

What if you had a hand not only in designing buildings, but also in being your own client and developing them?; image via Fortune Weavers.

Not only because architects understand the building process, but because architects are trained to have an inherent sense of responsibility for the built environment. We get upset when buildings are ugly and public spaces suck. But we also know what will make them better.

The way I see it, by becoming a developer, you’re really just learning how to execute on your ideas. It’s one thing to know what makes a building beautiful, but it’s another thing to go out and raise the capital and build the damn thing.

So I don’t regret any of my architecture degrees. I got so much out of them. And I firmly believe that design is only going to become more important. Designers, after all, are the new rock stars. We just need a few more business and entrepreneurship classes in architecture schools.

This post first appeared on brandondonnelly.com.

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