The Internship Guide 1: What Are the 2 Major Kinds of Design Firms?

Architecture is learned best through practice.

And when I say practice, I mean hands-on, integrative, and synthesizing work. The kind that makes you take everything you know and piece them together in a meaningful puzzle.

It’s for this reason that reading books day-in and day-out without any application probably won’t give you the best retention and bang-for-your-buck.

The solution? Practice. And make sure you’re in the best environment possible while doing it. The kind that makes you feel the weight of your actions, gives each line purpose, and provides you with mentors that hold you accountable for your output – like an architectural office.

I’m a firm believer that every architecture student should experience working for a firm or sole practice at least once before they graduate.

I spent two summers of my undergrad life as an apprentice, intern (and eventual employee), and they were invaluable learning experiences. The kind that expanded my view of the truths of the practice, and made my succeeding works a whole lot more guided.

But of course, there are lots of things to consider and be aware of when dipping your toes into the workplace. It isn’t all fun and games, and there some very important decisions and attitudes you need to be cognizant of.

This series of posts entitled “The Internship Guide” number things you should be very receptive to, so you can get the most of each and every day.

To start off, let’s talk about the two most common organizational set ups of a typical architectural design office, starting the discourse on which one could be better for you based on your own needs.

(c) Aldo Mayoralgo

What kind of firm set-up do you want to be immersed in?

Every architectural design office will have its own organizational structure that determines how people will work together to continue to churn out quality buildings. It’s interesting to understand it because it give clues to what the firm prioritizes.

Speaking for most standard architectural firms (in the Philippines anyway), they are generally within a spectrum from either a “Design Studio” or an “Assembly Line” –  each set-up having its own implications on business and mentorship.

Picking one or the other will provide a different focus for the learning-hungry architecture student.

The “Assembly Line”: Efficiency and Specialization.

“Assembly Line” is a compartmentalized set-up that has each project run through a stream of office divisions. The respective divisions have their own specialties, much like how each machine in a factory is calibrated to a specific purpose.

For instance, let’s say an assembly line firm is commissioned to do a high rise residential tower. One typical scenario is as follows:

The principal architect undergoes meetings with the client/developer and his client relations division. He internalizes the general concept based on the discussions, and oversees the information which the project management division will pass down the chain.

During this time, they coordinate with the programming division – which systematically does their code checking and programming tabulations based on the project requirements, subsequently turning over the architectural program to the schematics division.

From here, the schematics division starts planning out the broad strokes of the development, guided by the concept set by the principal, and coordinating with the engineering divisions (if any) for MEPFS concerns.

Once the broad strokes are set in stone, the project is passed to the design development division to chisel some of the finer points into the scheme and fine tuning some loose ends of the planning.

Once the design is moulded as such, the scheme is passed to the different detailing divisions, and things start to get interesting. Depending how large the firm is, the level of specialization in the detailing compartments can be simple or elaborate.

In the case of our high rise residential tower, the developed design will be picked apart and detailed either according to space (bathroom division, kitchen division, office division) or according to component (curtain wall division, fenestration division, roof division).

The finished, detailed design is then passed on to the checking division. That’s right, some firms have a compartment that does nothing but check for mistakes and inconsistencies in release documents. It’s really important because a mistake in a signed and sealed document can have harsh legal and cost ramifications. So as you might guess, checkers tend to have a very high salary for their critical work.

The end product of this work chain is a complete design ready for bid/construction release. One that has the vision of the company’s principal, is guided by complete requirements distilled by the client relations and programming team, then is planned by the schematic division, molded further by the design development division, crafted meticulously by the detailing compartments, and verified for 100% accuracy and aptness by the checking division.


The assembly line set-up is very efficient. Each person in the respective division is a practiced specialist, so there is a less chance of oversight, less wasted man hours used up in a learning curve, and an easier way to trace and correct mistakes.

However, because it’s a rigid, compartmentalized work flow, In terms of giving the young architects complete training in all phases of a project, that’s not really where the assembly line shines.

As you can infer, it’s ideal for maximizing profits, improving the monetary aspects of the business, and promoting meticulous quality control.

You’ll see a lot of corporate giants in the architectural world subscribe to this set-up. When your firm has to be on top of so many projects, it’s only natural to gravitate towards elements of this set-up, lest the firm goes into constant disarray when trying to pinpoint where mistakes occur.

Moving on, let’s dip our toes into the opposite side of the spectrum.

The “Design Studio”: An Ode to Mentorship.

Unlike the assembly line’s task-based set-up, the design studio runs on a project-based grouping.

Every project is headed by a partner (or two) who manages a team composed of associates, project architects, junior architects, landscape designers, interior designers, etc. How many there are in a team will depend on the scale and complexity of the work.

Basically, each phase of the project is overseen by everyone on the team, with tasks divided amongst each other. From interpreting the terms of reference, to code checking, to planning and schematics, design development, detailing and contract drawings, you name it – each team member is involved in all project phases, and roles can switch according to needs and adaptations.

It’s as if you all have a baby you’re nurturing together – under the guidance of the head of family. In essence, it’s not unlike the project teams you have in design school – except with a more definite chain-of-command and greater liability.


The beauty of the design studio is that it’s so conducive for holistic learning and training. It’s a relationship that goes both ways.

For a young budding architect, it’s great because you’ll essentially be gaining experience in all horizons of a project.

For the older and wiser partner, it’s an opportunity for you to pass on invaluable knowledge to help hone the future generation – while at the same time taking advantage of youthful tech-savviness in production. You get a pair of extra hands and hopefully ensure the continued quality of the firm once you take a backseat.

The design studio mentor-apprentice spirit has its beautiful roots in the great learning partnerships of human history – like in the Renaissance, or in Star Wars.

It’s a great environment to learn, hone the many aspects of the craft, and the connection with each and every project is much more intimate.

However, it’s not necessarily the best model for business.

Of course you could argue that the design studio is an investment in the future leaders, but it is fundamentally more costly because of the feeling out processes.

Unlike an assembly line where everyone is an intuitive specialist in their specific niche, time and resources will have to be devoted by the partner to train the apprentices in tasks unfamiliar to them.

There is an intrinsic set of learning curves in the design studio that the firm has to shoulder. It’s as if the company is paying you to devote a percentage of your man hours to slowly learn a skill or submittal and get better at it – when a specialist could probably get it done in half the time.

If the assembly line is a well-oiled but compartmentalized machine, churning out work at a dependable pace, the design studio is interrupted by lead times, queries, and revisions for unfamiliar tasks.

It might not sound much, but it does make a big difference in maximizing resources and increasing profit margins. And lets face it, if you own a company, it’s very important that you manage a business properly.

Now that we’ve seen the two ends of the design firm spectrum, the question now begs itself…


Which one should you apply for?

Off the bat, based on my descriptions, I’m guessing you’re all giddy to fast-pitch your resume to a “design studio”.

Not so fast, friend.

Halt. Cease and desist. Hold your horses. Before you can make an informed decision, you have to dig deeper on the intricacies of firms on a less theoretical level. Things are never black and white, after all. There’s always a spectrum to be studied.

In the next installment of this Internship Guide, I’ll be giving you a number of factors that would help determine what kind of firm would best help give you the learning environment you specifically need.

Stay tuned, and stay hungry.

End Sign

If you have any questions, suggestions, or comments, I’m easily reachable by our Facebook and Twitter, or by email at

Don’t hesitate to ask. 🙂

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