“Is It Too Late to Start Pursuing Architecture Again?” (Q&A #7)

Got an email last night from Erika, a young, driven former schoolmate who had to put her architecture dreams on hold due to migration to a different country. Now she has a number of questions that I’d gladly shed some light on.  Let’s check out what she had to say.  

Hey Aldo! :)

I came across your website just recently. It's really refreshing to know that a Filipino site like this exists!

As a fresh graduate and someone already exposed to the working environment in the corporate world of Architecture, I thought you might be able to give me a lot of perspective on things. If you have the time to go through this, it would help me significantly! I'm sorry this popped in so randomly. Any kind of insight would be great.

This might be long and a little confusing; I apologize in advance, huhu.

Hey there Erika! 🙂 So nice to know that you appreciate the site. It’s really been my goal to put some Philippine context in the myriad of architectural learning sites for students. I’d be glad to help; go on and tell me your story.  

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 I'll start with a background on things. When I entered UP Diliman, I started with BFA Viscom in FA. I've been into the arts and design ever since I was out of the womb, and at this point, I can definitely call it my passion.

 I shifted to BS Arch after my first year because my interest in Architecture resurfaced. I developed the interest in Architecture a lot later in life, probably around early high school. It was only after my first year in FA when I realized that maybe I wanted to do something different, and maybe I wanted to finally pursue something new but always wanted. I also knew that Architecture was definitely a subject I could not learn by myself. I could read books, maybe, but it would never be the same as the actual experience.

I told myself that if I willed it, I could be an architect, illustrator and graphic designer. I told myself I wouldn't mind the extra years (huwow 9 years in school, amazing) at school, just as long as I get the two degrees I wanted. The plan was to finish Archi first, as it was the longer, heavier academic program in terms of units, maths and physics, and then pursue Fine Arts later in life (after or in between interning and studying for the board, etc).

I did enjoy my 1.5 years in Archi. I learned so much. You know how an abundance of students enter Archi thinking, "oh, this is art and science, the perfect mixture is great for me!" I remember our Arch 10 prof asking us why we entered Archi, and that's how most replies went. 

Later I realised that it just isn't enough to like "art and science and its perfect mixture," you have to like Architecture as a whole, individual unit. And I really did enjoy learning Architecture (of course, during the early sleepless mornings, I would curse it from time to time). I enjoyed spatial relations and learning how people moved around a certain structure and what certain problems prevent convenience, what were the specific, practical design solutions, etc.

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 I guess you're wondering where my problem lies.

I was forced (for a lack of a better term) to migrate for family reasons to the US. This resulted to: cutting my school year mid year and of course, getting delayed, should I decide to return to finish my studies. It also resulted to a sudden reevaluation of my life choices.

 Until this point I was still pretty keen on pursuing both Architecture and Fine Arts. But getting delayed yet again made me realize that I was losing time. And it hit me with a bigger realisation that it might be impossible to pursue two separate careers. Both were demanding, time consuming and rigorous. 

I also realised that although I did enjoy learning Architecture, I wasn't sure if I'd enjoy it as a career path in the corporate world. I realised that I loved it but, maybe I couldn't pursue it as a sole career for the rest of my life (I really want to finish the course, however). I was sure of one thing though and that was I'd never give up art and design. As aforementioned, it was my perpetual passion.

Throughout Architecture school I stayed a publicity member in 5 orgs (it was horrible, HAHAHAHA, it took a toll on my health and sanity, i'd say).

^ I can imagine. Killer situation. You probably had to stretch yourself like a rubber band. :))

 I knew I would pursue arts and design later. I just realized that if I did, I would not be able to become an architect, or at least, a truly successful one. The career of an architect takes time and discipline and full on heart and concentration. I wouldn't be able to juggle it with something on the side, especially something I'm quite passionate about as well. And vice versa.

 I don't know, I'm just saddened by the idea of having to sacrifice one or the other. I thought it might be possible to become two things, maybe not at once, maybe gradually, but I'm not sure. Is it?

I'm sorry! I warned you this was quite long HAHAHA. These are a few questions then, that maybe you'd have some insight on:

It’s all good. 🙂 I feel for you. You seem like someone who really thinks about their future, and having these situational delays must be frustrating. Sure, let’s tackle your questions one by one.

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1) What is the reality of becoming an architect after architecture school? I've done some research and they say a majority get into a numerous different fields/career paths, whether you are licensed or not. They say you don't design anything freely until maybe 10 years? You start at the bottom-line of a firm and slowly climb your way up until you are truly successful. And it may take some time. I'm not sure. Most of what I've read weren't in Philippine context.

Well Erika, the reality is (and this goes for a lot of questions that pertain to architecture) – it depends. Because there are so many things to consider, like the spirit of your work environment, your network, a country’s economic situation and even timing and luck – the flow of projects will always have its ups and downs, and there will really be times when the going gets tough.

I’m part of a discussion group called Disenyo, composed of passionate local practitioners, and we sit down once a month in a coffee shop or restaurant to discuss and share ideas on varying topics about architecture, professional practice, and good design.

These guys are some of the brightest minds in the country today, and as a young gun, I learn a whole lot about what it’s like to tread the design waters in the Philippines. Some of them have been practicing for less than five years but have been churning out great work regardless; others have been at it for more than a decade and have a lot of wisdom to share.

From our discussions I’ve heard the stories about how difficult but rewarding it is to stay vigilant and strive in your practices, whether the project is big or small, whether it’s a landmark initiative, a “pampalipas” token, or a probono contribution to society.  You’ll have low years, good years, and great years – and you need to be able to stay strong and ride the wave.

But the common denominator, from what I’ve seen, read, and personally witnessed from my mentors – is that if you constantly commit to improving yourself, you’ll go farther than those that don’t strive and stay victim to their situations. It’s how you respond that will shape your future.

“They say you don’t design anything freely until maybe 10 years?”

This assumes that you don’t have any sideline projects for yourself though. 🙂 My comment on this is that it will really depend on the firm you work for.

Is it an Assembly Line or a Design Studio?

Are you allowed to have sidelines?

Does the principal dictate all design directions, or is there a more open opportunity for the grassroots guys to give inputs?

In this respect, I’ve been very fortunate with my work environments. My first mentor, Arch. Florencio Sebastian, really made it a point to bring me to all the meetings, site visits, UAP functions, and even asked me for design inputs in the works. So I learned, got better, and felt like I was contributing in an open environment.

When I got to my current office (my 2 and a half years here have just breezed by), the streak continued. Despite its stature as a large reputable firm, I was surprised to note how homey and inviting the work environment was as a design studio.

The partners didn’t dictate design directions – because they wanted to mold the younger guys into better, more critical architects. So for a typical project, any person whether junior or senior can give their design inputs, with the partner in charge mediating while giving his or her own inputs in order to find a spirit of work that harmonizes everyone’s good values.

Here, you are also allowed to have sideline projects for your own personal practice, for as long as you do not let them hamper your responsibilities in the office.

It’s truly a great place to work and I’m very fortunate to be in it. You can work to progress your own stature while contributing to the meaningful work the firm churns out – for as long as you can balance both. It’s a fair environment.

For those who are under a less ideal working set-up, this will be harder to achieve. So again, it will all boil down to where you decide to work, because every firm is different.

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 2) Do you debunk that "Architects get rich" myth as well? Haha.

Yes. Yes I do. HAHAHAHA just kidding. With regards to this, all indications from my mentors tell me that it is very much possible to be extremely rich, but only if you put effort into investing wisely, maximize your number of income streams, and strive, strive and strive.

For architects that will only rely on design projects that come, unless you have a stellar clientele that will give you millions for a work, and come back to you regularly, you’ll be scrambling to build real wealth.

Having said that, there ARE wealthy architects, both because they went through decades of establishing themselves and managing their finances well. Anyone can do these things with discipline and commitment, but most of our countrymen don’t.

For those that don’t put in the work or are lazy to invest in important future things that sting today, I’ve learned that it will be near impossible for them to get rich.

Will a successful architect earn more than a successful entrepreneur? No. Heck no. 

Can an architect also be an entrepreneur? Yes.

Finances are never clean cut, and the moment you close your doors to other income streams (“I want to be a design architect. Just a design architect”), you’ve just imposed a large limiting factor on yourself.

Now, I’m speaking from the local, third-world situation. In developed countries more the design profession is more appreciated, the competition tends to be more cutthroat, and to really make it to the top (in case starchitect status is your dream) entails a whole different kind of animal. (Although you can be a wealthy architect who is not a starchitect as well)

This is where things can get great, or toxic.

One of my all-time favorite blogs is Notes on Becoming a Famous Architect by Conrad Newel. He very wittily, insightfully, and cohesively gives his take on the situation and strategies of starchitect firms in first world countries. I strongly suggest you check it out, if you want to dig deeper on how things run over there.

 3) Do you know any people in your batch or even in other batches that finished their degree yet didn't pursue a career in the field of Architecture? Would you know why?

Yes. And there are many, varying reasons. There are tens and thousands of architects in the Philippines, a country where the design profession is undervalued. Unless you are really good at bettering and marketing yourself, it’s admittedly easy to be overshadowed and in turn have to navigate to other industries. As an architecture graduate, you’ll find that we have a flexible course that allows us to pursue many other aspects of the work – only very few will really become true blue designers.

Some really didn’t enjoy the course, and just grinded their way to graduation freedom.

Some had family businesses that they had the responsibility of continuing, so architecture had to take a backseat.

Some couldn’t handle the cutthroat competition and saturated market, so they became call center agents.

Some still stayed in the field, but didn’t want to design. They saw that other aspects of the practice like being high-ranked quantity surveyors, project managers, or contractors earns a ton more than just being a pure design architect (it’s true).

And if you truly enjoy the managerial and nuts-and-bolts technical checking aspects of the practice over the designing side, it’s a natural and justified career path.

The field of architectural practice is very wide. There are so many aspects that you can niche yourself into. If you look at the Standards of Professional Practice in the Philippines, you’ll see exactly how diverse our education is.

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4) How different is Architecture in the US vs Architecture in the Philippines? If I learned Architecture in the US would it be applicable in a filipino setting? Would it affect my chance of getting into firms and internships? And vice versa.

By this question, am I right in inferring that you have plans to come back to the Philippines to practice? If so, I’d like to quote part of a section of the law that governs practice here in the Philippines, RA 9266 – The Architecture Act of 2004.

“SECTION 27. Reciprocity Requirements

“A person who is not a citizen of the Philippines at the time
he/she applies to take the examination shall not be allowed to take the licensure examination unless he/she can prove, in the manner provided by the Rules of Court that, by specific provision of law, the country of which he/she is a citizen, subject or national either admits citizens of the Philippines to the practice of the same profession without restriction or allows them to practice it after passing an examination on terms of strict and absolute equality with citizens, subjects or nationals of the country concerned, including the unconditional recognition of prerequisite degrees/diplomas issued by the institutions of learning duly recognized for the purpose by the Government of the Philippines””. 

So if you are a US educated architect, you can definitely practice in the Philippines, provided that you take and pass the Licensure Exam for Architects. 

It’s possible. Just take a look at Ed Calma. He went to Pratt Institute and then Columbia University, came back, passed the exam, and remains to be at the helm of one of the country’s top firms.

Will you be in unfamiliar territory coming from a foreign country and then taking the Board Exam here? Yes.

For a lot of the technical aspects, such as structural design and building utilities, the information will be virtually identical – except for key differences due to climatic conditions.

Where you WILL have to really catch up on are the Local Laws, Architectural History in Asia and the Philippines, Endemic local practices, and Tropical Design and Site Planning.

Understanding not only unique cultural ramifications (like Oro Plata Mata), but also the unique implications of our climate on building design and site planning (wind systems, thermal insulation, heat gain, humidity, sun path, seismic susceptibility) can be an entirely new feeling out process under a sea of new information.

Our Laws are different from Western and International Codes. They tend to be admittedly more prescriptive and less performance-based, and can be a headache to absorb if you try to devour them all too quickly.

More than the local codes pertaining to building safety that you’ll have to know by heart come exam time (National Building Code of the Philippines, Fire Code of the Philippines, BP 344 Accessibility Law), you will also have to know the practice documents and supplementary laws (RA 9266, Standards of Professional Practice, Code of Ethics, Cultural Heritage Laws, etc).

It can be a lot to take in if you don’t give yourself enough time, or if you don’t have the drive to conquer them.

But it can be done.

My friend and orgmate Sean worked in Singapore while reviewing for the Local Board exam but still garnered a Top 4 slot with due diligence, regardless of a different working situation.

5) As a follow up, how differently would they teach it here? Would you think that getting an Architectural education abroad would be advisable, as it is a very cultural and people-oriented profession?

As far as I know, this is another big “it depends“. Because there are so many schools with varying focuses and philosophies in the states, you’ll really have to dig up info on the prospect school itself to get an answer to that. The fact that each state has a different micro-climate will also affect the brand of design process they will primarily impart.

However, by virtue of the US being a first world country, I do have a few insightful guesses as to what the spirit of your education would be like.

I’ve worked with a number of foreign consultants from first world countries, and they’ve told me that their education has a good grasp on theory, philosophy, and historical movements of architecture. They tend to be very well-read on the Archi-speak and aesthetic, structural, and programmatic philosophies that characterize architectural history.

However, they admit that the environment of abundance has some of their contemporaries produce wasteful, meaningless, environmentally irresponsible work that is flashy and ego-serving.

Coversely, in the Philippines, economy is always a driving factor. Hence, much of the focus in the practicing is a spirit of maximization of resources, efficiency, and structural resilience. The fact we are very susceptible to earthquakes, typhoons, storm surges, volcanic eruptions, in conjunction with a corrupt political system lends to the boring but “efficient” architecture we see here. However, as pragmatic as we are, our universities certainly don’t forward a vigor in architectural theory comparable to that of first world countries. Only a few in this country truly break the mold, I think.

So there will be differences. It’s a give and take, plus and minus kind of thing. There’s always something to learn, and something to be desired.

Rest assured though, the principles and empirical aspects of architecture are universal, and world history is sort of universal (as it is affected regional perspectives), so there will be a lot of common ground that you will learn there.

And I certainly believe there are a good amount of things they’ll be able to teach better there, as much as there are certain things you’ll be able to grasp easier here. 🙂 It’s up to you to make efforts to fill in the holes.

On another note, I strongly suggest you check out Bob Borson’s blog Life of an Architect. He’s based in the US and really gives a good, honest viewport into his daily life as a practicing designer. It might be very helpful in enlightening you.

 6) In my case, do you think it's possible to get into the architectural field and the arts field at the same time? Or architecture + any separate path in general? I was looking into degrees in the US, and some schools offer minors in Architecture, I was wondering how beneficial that would be. And maybe there could be a way of practicing Archi without being in a solid firm?

As far as I know, this will always depend on the laws governing the state you stay and study in, so you’ll have to find that out yourself.

On principle though, I don’t see why you can’t get into both in the long term. There are so many architects who have side-businesses and complementary businesses. Some have franchises, product lines, and books. A good number practice architecture and also have careers in furniture design, fashion design, music, and yes, art.

There are architects who design buildings and endorse their art and furniture businesses to their clientele. The result is that they are able to sell the design service, and at the same time sell a painting, sculpture, or other art piece. Quite complementary, if you ask me.

It’s possible. I think the key will be how you are plan out and follow-through a long term game plan to balance out your two passions. Take it from a guy whose long term goal is to balance an Architectural Design career with an educational/publications career. 🙂

However, if you plan on becoming a licensed architect here in the Philippines, I believe your main degree will have to be Architecture. Whether or not that holds true for practicing in a US State, I wouldn’t really know.

 7) If you were licensed, however, how hard would it be to pursue Architecture, whether as a sole career path or as a sideline (is it even possible as a sideline?), by starting your own firm or any type of architectural service?

This would really depend on how many projects you have, where you’re practicing, and how busy you are with your other endeavors as you fill your day. And again, how much careful thought and dedication you put up in managing them all is a gripping factor.

I have friends who work their day jobs in a firm, and do their sidelines after hours. Then they schedule their sideline meetings and site visits on Saturdays. In addition to this, some are also delving into product development and other side businesses.

There are no doors too small for an effectively executed gameplan.

In the Philippines, you can set up your own sole proprietorship practice, even if that means it’s just you and a laptop. You can make your architecture a side business, and do other things as well.

Don’t be afraid of diversifying what you have to offer. Just be cognizant of the work you’ll have to put in to get there. 🙂

 8) Do you believe in "it's never too late to do what you want"? If a person decided to pursue architecture school at the age of 28, knowing that he/she still had a long way to go, would you encourage it?

Yes. If it’s what you really want, then by all means a couple of years delay is nothing, I think. But of course only you know your personal situation. Only you will be able to feel through the years whether or not you really want to pursue architecture as a licensed practitioner.

If you really want a great headstart while you’re still in this sort of impasse, I suggest you read the Architecture Books of Francis Ching. They are, bar none the best universal resources for learning architecture. And they are easy to read as well as highly informative.

Maybe you can sort of read them in your leisure time. Since they are a window into the vast field of architectural design, maybe peeking into them will help you decide if its the field you’d like to immerse yourself in.

For a good architect, every single line has a story that points to a better standard of life.

Thank you so much for your time! Any insight at all would be immensely helpful. I'm confused and mid-college and in truth I am just afraid my life has no direction and I don't want to waste time taking the wrong one. I just want to be as wholesome and as content as I can be.
Your posts were inspiring. Because you were so sure of yourself. You had a set vision, and one that was very attainable.

I wish you the best in all your endeavours! :)
PS: I watched a portion of your thesis presentation last year. This is a late congratulations!

Awww. Thanks very much Erika. 🙂 Hope this post will be of help. I wish you the best, and I pray you find the road where you will find the most fulfillment. Kaya mo yan! Keep the faith!

Be process oriented, listen to yourself, and Learn, Plan, Commit, Adapt.

Cheers,
End Sign

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

Send me a direct message right here, or feel free to comment publicly below. 🙂


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