The 13 Most Important Non-Architecture Skills You Learn in Architecture School

Architecture school is a long haul and we all know it. Whether you get a 5-year professional degree or choose to take on a few years of graduate school (or both), it’s a grueling process. However, most would hopefully agree, it’s worth it for the knowledge you gain throughout those years (not to mention the friendships you form in the close quarters of the studio). Architectural education is about more than learning to design great spaces and whether or not you realize it at the time, architecture school is also a great teacher of other life lessons. All the skills below are those you’ll likely attain incidentally during your tenure in architecture school, but which will be an asset outside of academia as well.

1. Making Mistakes Quickly

In the spirit of doing things quickly, we might as well cover this one first. You may have heard the advice to not hang on to a bad decision just because you spent a lot of time making it. The bottom line is, you will make mistakes, both in design and in life. However, the important thing you learn in architecture school is to try things out, realize mistakes or unproductive ideas as quickly as possible, get rid of them, and then move on to a viable solution. It’s a version of “killing your darlings” that can be utilized in schematic design ideas as well as other tricky life decisions. If you master the art of making and realizing your mistakes quickly, you can cover all your options efficiently and you shouldn’t have to worry about spending too much time on something that’s fruitless.

2. Design Thinking/Problem Solving

Speaking of solving problems, one of the overarching threads through a design education is what instructors refer to as “design thinking” and what you can think of as a fancy term for problem-solving. An education in, and knowledge of, design thinking can be applied to any field where people need to solve problems. Architects are taught from the beginning to look at a problem from all angles (often literally), to gather information, study precedents, and then to make thoughtful choices when determining a solution and to analyze the effects of the moves they make. This process and these skills can be applied to any type of problem to make you more efficient and effective at solving it.

3. Learning, Reading, Researching

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Another widely applicable skill set is simply learning how to learn. No one is born with an innate knowledge of design motifs in Art Deco mosaics, but if you had to write a paper about them for an architectural history class you probably also learned a bit about the process of conducting research. When your professor assigned chapters of reading to be completed overnight, hopefully you also learned how to actually absorb what you read so that you didn’t waste your nights staring blankly at the same paragraph for half an hour. Having a skill set that allows you to accumulate new knowledge efficiently will always be beneficial, so ideally you’ll be able to hang on to some of your old study habits even once you’re out of school.

4. Time Management (Hopefully)

Full disclosure: many fully functioning adults, and architects in particular it seems, are just awful at time management. However, if you can gain some solid time management skills while you’re in school, your future professional-self will thank your past student-self endlessly. Of course good time management is incredibly handy while you’re in school to avoid as many late nights in studio as you can, but needless to say, it doesn’t stop being useful after you’ve graduated. Due to the often intense time pressure involved in architecture school, architecture students have a good opportunity to learn to prioritize tasks and manage their time wisely. Basically, if you succeed in having good time management while you’re an architecture student, whatever time crunch life throws your way in the future should be a breeze in comparison.

5. Not Taking Yourself Too Seriously

© Megan Fowler

If architecture school acclimates you to anything, it is comfort in being conspicuous. Whether they're drawing in public, measuring ceiling heights in a crowded classroom building, or carrying a 4-foot by 4-foot piece of cardboard across campus, the architecture student is sure to encounter more than their fair share of staring from those in less hands-on majors. Architecture school can force you to look more than a little ridiculous at times and the earlier in your education you come to terms with this, the easier it will be for you to do what you need to do to finish your work. Of course, this applies to any job or even social situation in which you may find yourself in the future. Focus on what you need to do, don’t worry about how absurd you’ll look or feel while doing it, and it can lead to greater confidence, better presentations, and less general awkwardness and anxiety.

6. Taking Criticism

Unless you’re the second coming of Frank Lloyd Wright, every architecture student has faced a bad critique. Hopefully, if you’ve learned the previous skill of not taking yourself too seriously, you won’t take the criticism personally, but it’s always hard to listen to an outside observer tear apart a project you’ve put your heart and soul into. Tough reviews can often feel like a personal attack and we all know the students who will blindly defend their work to the death without absorbing any of the reviewers’ feedback (most of which is hopefully constructive). This is not who you want to be in architecture school and it’s likely not who you want to be in life. There is a difference between correcting a misunderstanding about your work and just being argumentative. Because architecture school is full of opportunities for critiques and feedback, over time you will be able to thicken your skin and also to understand and integrate constructive criticism into your work.

7. Defending Your Work and Your Opinions

© Megan Fowler

With the above in mind, what you should not do is sell yourself short on review day. It’s a delicate balance, but you’ve put a lot of work into this project and are literally the chief expert on the topic of your design. If a reviewer questions your choices or motives, you should be able to answer the questions and explain your work clearly. Have a strong argument and hold to your opinions, but listen to feedback. This can be done without getting defensive. After spending time in architecture school, you should know how to have a constructive dialogue and debate about your work as well as someone else’s.

8. Marketing Yourself and Your Work

If you have a clear understanding of your work and your opinions, you will be able to market yourself and your skills to potential employers and/or clients with a cohesive argument. Through the process of making a design portfolio, architects and designers spend a lot of time with their work and therefore learn how best to describe it to others. In fact, by the time you get to a job interview, you’ve essentially practiced the same pitch more than once during studio reviews. Taking pride in your work and speaking confidently and intelligently about it can get you far in life and in your profession.

9. Public Speaking/Presentation Skills

© Megan Fowler

It’s been alluded to more than once already in the list, but they say practice makes perfect and in architecture school you get a LOT of practice presenting your work. Whether you’re explaining your ideas to skeptical group members, trying to convince your professor that you know what you’re talking about, or defending your design in your final review, architecture school is full of presentations of all shapes and sizes. Once you become comfortable speaking or presenting in front of different-sized groups of people, that’s something you can take with you into your post-school life and the more often you’re forced to do it, the easier it will become.

10. Working With a Team

By this point, we’ve all been disillusioned by the architect-as-solitary-genius stereotype and the reality is that if you work in an architecture firm, you will be working with a team. Thankfully, architecture school allows you to practice this with group projects galore. Though it may be a process full of frustration, you are learning valuable lessons about how to work with (deal with) other people, and possibly how not to. It may sound like a cliché, but good teamwork skills are truly invaluable to employers. In a pragmatic sense, they likely aren’t interested in hiring you for your unique genius and flawless taste, but because they want someone who can work with the rest of the office to get things done. If you can’t do that, your design ideas are not worth much to them, whereas if you can work well with (and eventually lead) a team, all your other skills are just a fabulous bonus.

11. Working With People from Other Disciplines

Speaking of teams, getting a building actually built requires a lot more than just a designer, and in fact a lot more than just a design team. Hopefully in your architecture education you have the opportunity to branch out and possibly take an interdisciplinary studio or some classes in another field, because if you do you’ll be preparing yourself for life outside of the cloistered architecture bubble. In the practice of architecture, communicating and cooperating with contractors, subcontractors, engineers, and clients (to name a few) is vital to completing a project and also to building relationships. If all the structural engineers in town refuse to work with you, that’s going to be a problem. Beyond practicing architecture, learning to think outside of your box of experience and to really be willing to listen to and learn from others will make your entire life run more smoothly.

12. Following Instructions

It sounds terribly boring, but designing buildings (and life) often comes with rules. Many an architect has been discouraged by code requirements or a client’s program demands, but the bottom line is that your design has to function and meet the needs (and life safety requirements) of your client. While architecture school is often free of many of the constraints of the real world, architecture students nonetheless learn to work within a set of given parameters. This applies directly as a general life skill because in a variety of life scenarios, you will be working or functioning under someone else’s rules. The sooner you come to accept this, the sooner you can move on to the last skill on the list...

13. Breaking the Rules When Necessary

Once you have a full understanding of the intent of the rules, you can begin to bend and possibly even break them while still meeting the needs to solve the problem. Clients and bosses won’t always agree, just like architecture professors won’t always agree, but the undeniable fact is that if you only view rules as a strict barrier instead of trying to understand their greater purpose, you will suffocate as a designer. Not all risks pay off in design or in life, but if you understand the full extent and implications of the risk before you take the leap, you have a better chance of surviving the fall and you may just find your way to true innovation.

About this author
Cite: Megan Schires. "The 13 Most Important Non-Architecture Skills You Learn in Architecture School" 15 May 2017. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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