Interview: Susan King, Architect


The design challenges faced by architects can be quite complex. Because they design work environments, they must understand the various jobs and research or manufacturing processes that will go on in their buildings. The design of their structures must contribute to a smooth work flow. Once a building's design is sketched out, it must be drawn in such detail that a builder can construct it to meet the project's requirements, including the client's time and budget constraints.

Some architectural firms handle construction work, in addition to building design. Normally, the architect acts as the team leader on a project, coordinating the work of engineers and contractors to turn building plans into a structure. In this sense, the architect's job can be quite pressured. Buildings, after all, are expensive to design and construct, and the task of keeping an effort on-time and on-budget often falls to the architect in his or her role as project leader.

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Interview: Susan King

How long does it take to build a career as an architect? Chicago architect Susan King has constructed her career over 17 years. Her building materials included six years of architectural school and co-op internships and stints at three full time employers. She is now as an associate architect for Environ Inc. - with design work on numerous warehouses, manufacturing facilities and even an Arby's fast food restaurant to her credit.

Ironically, she never excelled in math - something her parents thought was a prerequisite for becoming an architect. She didn't enroll in an architectural program when she entered the University of Cincinnati, and after switching her major from interior to exterior design and graduating with a bachelor of architecture degree in 1987, she didn't pass the Architectural Registration Exam the first go-around.

Now, taking a moment to recount how she overcame those early challenges, King tells why the best path to a career designing buildings is not necessarily the straightest.

Q.  How important are great math skills to an architect?

When I say I wasn't strong in math, I mean that I sometimes earned Cs - between grades four and seven. In algebra, I got As and Bs, and I loved geometry. I also took trigonometry. My parents wanted me to skip algebra. But if you're like me and just make stupid adding mistakes, so what? We have computers for that now. And once you're working for a real company, you mostly rely on structural engineers unless you're working on small residential projects.

Q.  How much emphasis do colleges place on math?

The importance of taking the higher maths in high school should not be downplayed. Those classes will be required in order to be accepted into a college architectural program. It is just not absolutely necessary that you excel in math. If architecture is what you truly love, math should not hold you back.

This may not be true everywhere, but at the University of Cincinnati the emphasis was more on "applied" math know-how as in, say, understanding how the forces work on building structures such as a truss (a support that acts like a beam, but transfers pressure to many members rather than just its center). 

Q.  What's a typical project like?

Clients interview architecture firms and typically choose one that has done work similar to the project they want done. Then there are official work stages: the master plan (when the architect does a feasibility study of the potential work site); the schematic design stage (the fun part when we come up with the concept and draw "pretty" pictures); the construction documents stage (when we create the final, legal drawing of the structure to be displayed at the construction site); then if your client's the government, there's the bidding stage that could take months. 

The final result is what's called a site plan, with a "footprint," or outline of the building's structure, and a "floor plan" for the inside which matches the foot print with the exception of added details like interior doors and walls.

Q.  Are the hours long?

Currently I am working, on average, a ten hour day. This is because I have a large project - $12.5 million senior living facility - under construction. Overtime in the profession tends to fluctuate with the construction season. There are periods when a typical 40 hour week is worked and other periods where the 50 hour week I describe is exceeded. On the whole as in most creative fields, overtime is a part of the profession.

Q.  What's the pay like?

College graduates can expect to make somewhere in the range of $25,000 to $29,000 at their first job. In Chicago we are currently experiencing a construction boom whic has contributed, in a positive way, to higher salaries at the lower levels in the field. For comparison, at my first job after graduation, my salary was only $17,500 plus overtime.

Q.  What inspired you to keep working your way up?

Seeing your ideas and drawings become reality. The real satisfaction for me comes from observing the construction process and, upon completion, the knowledge that the end-user is satisfied, that your work has positively touched the lives of the people who either live or work in the spaces you helped create. 

The next project also inspires me, because each project presents different challenges and it is also an opportunity to do better then the time before. Ultimately, architecture is a difficult profession, the building of buildings is a complicated proposition and if you do not truly love the process, you probably should choose a different profession.

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Course Work

Architecture involves more than the design of buildings. The sketch of a client's project is just a first step in a process that can involve dozens of people and millions of dollars. Once a building is imagined, it must be drawn in such detail that a builder can construct it the way the architect and client envisioned it. The drawing itself must include realistic features, which the builder can construct within the timeframe and budget that has been allocated. The architect must be able to lead both builders and clients through the design and construction process, to be sure builders have the information they need to keep their work on track, and to make sure clients are satisfied with the results.

Architects in the United States must be licensed, or "registered." To become a registered architect, you must receive either a Master's or Bachelor's degree in architecture from one of the institutions listed on the Schools page; complete an internship of at least three to five years; and finally pass the licensing examination in the state or states in which you wish to practice. The specifics of internships and exams vary by state.

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Career Outlook

In 1992, architects held about 96,000 jobs in the United States, according to the Department of Labor. Most of these were in firms of fewer than five people. About one-third were self-employed, either as partners or running their own firms.

Not all architects work for architecture firms. Architects also work for builders, real-estate developers and agencies at different levels of the government.

The employment outlook for architects is difficult to predict because it depends on a number of factors. In addition, the outlook may be different in one part of the country than it is in another. Obviously, the demand for architects is tied to the level of construction, which is not expected to rise during the period between 1992 and 2005, according to the Labor Department. During those years, the employment level of architects is seen keeping pace with the national average for all occupations. Some job openings will occur as current architects retire.

Like many construction-related fields, architecture is particularly sensitive to the rises and falls in the economy. During slowdowns in the economy, architects face stiff competition for work and clients, which in turn can lead to layoffs, especially in firms that focus on residential construction. Architects who work on institutional buildings - such as hospitals or schools, for example - will be less affected by economic ups and downs, since the population of children under age 15 and people over age 65 is seen growing in the coming years.

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And The Pay...

Architects' salary levels vary depending on their experience and the type of firm in which they work. In 1992, licensed architects with between 8 and 10 years of experience earned a median annual salary of $37,000. Principals or partners earned an average of $50,000, though partners in some large practices earned $100,000. Benefits, such as vacation pay and sick days, vary depending again on the size of the firm.

Salary also depends on the type of work an architect focuses on. In 1993, for example, project managers at mid-sized firms earned an average of $45,000, according to the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture.

As is detailed on the Course Work page, you must complete an internship of at least three to five years - depending on the state - in order to become a licensed architect. The American Institute of Architects reported that in 1992, the median salary for interns was about $25,000.

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