Things I Learned in Arch School: Year One

My first year of architecture school is almost coming to an end… one more month to go!  It was tough and a very surreal experience.  As the semester is coming to an end, pressure have eased up a little.  Our final is due the coming Monday following our Easter weekend.

I learned a lot in arch school.  It’s kind of like the analogy that you learn a language faster if you were immersed in the language especially if it’s in the host country.  Another quote I’ve came across is “Thrown into the ocean and learn how to swim.”

(But that’s why grit is so important.)  This post by Benjamin Dockter on what architecture school is like rings true.

I probably still have a lot of learn, but these are some basic things I learned in my first year arch school:


Materials: 1.) modeling materials and 2.) construction materials.  

Modeling materials:

  • chipboard
  • museum board
  • basswood
  • balsa wood
  • Bristol paper, etc… things that you can build models out of.

Construction materials:

  • wood (1×2, 2×4, etc)
  • concrete, etc… things that you can use to construct houses out of, I call those construction materials

Materials I’ve worked with:

  • Museum board
  • Kraft paper
  • Britsol paper
  • trace paper
  • Mylar (acetate) sheets, drafting vellum
  • wood (1×2 and 2×4)
  • chipboard
  • foam core
  • basswood

Some rules I learned about materials… of course this is all opinion, and most of them are slightly skewed after being told that an instructor will discourage the use of (etc.) because of (etc.)

1. Don’t use foam core for building models. For massing models, topography, OK.

2. Don’t use balsa wood. Styrofoam quality. Opt for basswood.

3. Use hot glue sparingly and only when you can conceal you did use hot glue. Difficult for fine level of detail, leaves globs of glue. OK for large surface areas that will be hidden.

4. Line weights. Discernible differences in line weight suggest the relative depth of the planes.  A basic rule: the closer the object is to you, the darker the line.  The farther away the object is, the lighter the line.

5.  Hierarchy.  Different sizes make things interesting. Things that can be seen from 5′ and something that can be seen from 5″

6. Sketchbook everything.

I’m not sure if this is all I’ve learned in arch school, year 1.  One of the most important things I’m hoping to accomplish is to document my learning progress because it’s so easy to look back later and wonder… when did I learn this?

Life in architecture school

1. Get familiar with your school’s fabrication shop.

2.  Put a pair of closed toe shoes in your studio. For last minute shop work.

3.  Just build.  

3. Learn from your classmates.  This is in every piece of architecture advice I read on other blogs or sites.  And it’s true.

4. Learn to experiment.  A big thing about architecture school and college in general.  Learn to experiment with materials, with concepts.  Play around with them a little. Experimentation will undoubtedly produce failures, but they will also produce results that are stunningly above all else you’ve ever done.

 Take leaps out side  your comfort zone.  Never stop learning.  And continually to push yourself beyond what you’re comfortable with.

5. Final note: Architecture school needs money.  

Apply to as many scholarships as you can.  Maybe at least 10 every semester, because there will be some that you won’t get.  10 is a decent amount of writing… it might take time, but if you think about it… perhaps it takes you 10 hours to complete one scholarship application: to write the few required essays, a personal statement, a resume, and to fill in the application.  If you’re awarded a $1000 scholarship, you’re making almost $100/hr for 10 hours of work.  Where can you find a job that will pay you $100/hr?

This certainly isn’t everything!  But like with architecture, this is hopefully a start in the right direction.


Forget Talent. It’s All About Grit

Architecture is a very skills based field, and like any professional field, it requires a lot of diligence and ‘talent’ , or otherwise being very good at what you do, whether it be “design”, drafting, or even managing.  This semester’s studio has been difficult for me, as I slowly recognize the way my brain is wired is starting to change, and the most pressing issue is that it might not be a positive change.  Unlike many of my peers, who joined architecture with seemingly pre existing talents in the arts, I am coming in with a blank slate.  More and more, I feel like I want to trade this career for one in medicine.  I think I can do medicine, I tell myself.  I’m compassionate, I’m sympathetic.  And I once thought about pursuing medicine in high school.  What changed?  So I told myself maybe I’ll take some pre-med classes next semester.  And you know, just prepare myself for med school, as a plan B.  I have no talent for architecture, maybe I have a knack for medicine? Then I remember, it takes 10,000 hours of hard work to be good at anything, roughly 10 years of deliberate practice.  10,000 hours of voluntary regulation of behavioral, emotional, and attentional impulses; 10,000 hours of sustained interest in and effort toward very long term goals.  (However, as Cal Newport points out, 10,000 hours of regular practice is not enough, it needs to be deliberate practice.)  In other words, being good at something is not about talent, it is about deliberate practice and grit.
The following is summarized in the above linked research paper by Angela Duckworth (UPenn) and Christopher Peterson (UMichigan):

The achievement of difficult goals entails not only talent but also the sustained and focused application of talent over time.

Gritter individuals made fewer career changes than less gritty peers of the same age.

Accomplished individuals worked day after day, for at least 10 or 15 years, to reach the top of their fields… Liberal arts universities that encourage undergraduates to sample broadly should recognize the ineluctable trade-off between breadth and depth.

The goal of an education is not just to learn a little about a lot but also a lot about a little.

In addition, the researchers concluded by quoting several researchers, “Bloom (1985) observed that in every studied field, the general qualities possessed by high achievers included a strong interest in the particular field,  ‘willingness to put in great amounts of time and effort‘…Winner (1996) concluded, ‘Creators must be able to persist in the face of difficulty and overcome the many obstacles  in the way of creative discovery…'”

Do you have grit?  Duckworth published a self-test to help you determine your grit score.  Not surprisingly, I got a score of 2.  I’m not very gritty.  I think a few years ago, I would have scored higher; I was very determined and gritty in high school.  I’m not sure what changed, whether it was just my mindset or my environment.

Reading Shelf

I have not yet read any of these books, but their summaries sound related to grit, habits, and self control, and therefore will be compiled on a list I call the “reading shelf”:

This reading list was compiled with recommendations from Edutopia:

1. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg

2. How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough

3. David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcom Gladwell

4.  Performance Values Position Paper by Character Education Partnership

5. KIPP’s Character Report Card

6. “Promoting Grit, Tenacity, and Perseverance: Critical Factors for Success in the 21st Century” by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology

Following this study I am now more determined to completely get both my feet wet at this career I chose.  Although at times various aspects of architecture gets me nervous (in particular when it is related to job security, and all the points mentioned on this forum post on Archinect), I hope I can calm some of my qualms by fully immersing myself in the field with dedication, grit, and deliberate practice.  I will keep updates of this progress.

Uncomfortableness is Necessary for Constant Improvement

Are you uncomfortable? If yes– that is good. If it’s no, then you’re not pushing yourself hard enough.

This is something I am working on telling myself, as I come from a more technical and objective background that differs greatly from the subjective analysis and artistic intricacy present in the field of architecture.

Still unfamiliar to drafting, modeling, and the heavy software know how required of architecture students, I am finding myself constantly sweating about my projects because I know my design skills and craftsmanship are not to the point where I want it.

But in life, everything is about constantly drawing and re-drawing, determining and re-determining your comfort-zone. To expand skills, we must always go just a wee-bit out of what we are comfortable with and what we know, in order to learn something new.

Life/ Studio Rule #1: A constant state of uncomfortableness will yield results in the (sometimes not-so) immediate future.
Every time I think I want to give up (which honestly has been quite a number of times this semester), I think of how uncomfortable I once was with the English language in elementary school.  I was old enough to remember.

I spelled every word wrong.  My grades were below average.  Minuses (-) were checked in every column of the carbon copies!  (They’re now over a decade old)

Fast forward to high school, where I was decent at some subjects, but also fared very, very poorly in other subjects…

Right now I am struggling in design studio.  I am very mediocre with drafting and building models, and secretly a technophobe especially when it comes to software.

But I’m optimistic.  Every time I feel that I’m worn out and struggling in studio, I remind myself of how far I’ve come, and all the work that I had to put in before I could reap results… how this state of uncomfortableness is necessary in order to excel at everything I want to do.