I Want Your Job: Architect

'You can improve people's lives'
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The Independent Online

Helen Taylor, 36, is a senior architect for Architecture PLB ( www.architectureplb.com), a practice based in London.

What does working as an architect actually involve?

My job ranges from presenting ideas to clients, putting together designs, and co-ordinating costs, to inspecting construction on site. I spend a lot of time talking to clients about what they're looking for, and trying to give them an idea of what a building might look like. Nearly all technical drawings are done on the computer nowadays, but sketching and model-making is still really important.

A lot of clients don't know how to read architectural drawings, so I need to be able to get out a pencil and translate ideas into designs anyone can understand. Going on sites in a hard hat is part of the job. The sites aren't always muddy fields - sometimes you're building in sensitive environments like a school or hospital, so you need to be sensitive to other people working around you.

What do you love most about being an architect?

I love starting jobs - getting to know the client, finding out what they're looking for and translating that into a physical building. The best architecture comes from a good relationship between the architect and the client. I also like working as a team - there are lots of other people involved, from site managers to landscape architects. You have the potential to improve lives - if you make beautiful and sustainable buildings, you're making a positive impact on the environment people live in.

What skills does a really successful architect need to have?

Communication skills are really important - presenting your ideas and communicating them graphically. You also need true enthusiasm, and to build up your experience. And you need to have confidence in your own vision. The best architects present theirs as the best ideas around. You're expected to provide vision and leadership. That doesn't mean being arrogant - it's not just talking the talk - you've got to walk the walk too, and actually deliver what you've promised!

What's your least favourite part of the job?

The money, and the long-hours culture. It takes a while to earn a good salary, and especially if people decide to work for themselves, it can be a struggle.

You're often working long hours, late nights and weekends - it's difficult not to succumb to the pressure to make things absolutely perfect. And the planning system can be frustrating for architects, although that's just part of the job.

What advice would you give someone who was thinking about a career in architecture?

Architecture is a really varied profession - creative and pragmatic - so the wider your education, the more you can bring to your designs. There's still a perception that architects are white males, but the profession needs diversity, and more women and ethnic minorities are going into the field. Lots of architects come from diverse backgrounds, in arts or sciences. For example, Daniel Libeskind was a musician before he became an architect, and the Japanese architect Tadao Ando was a boxer. My grandfather was an environmental engineer and my parents moved house a lot when I was a child, so I grew up around building sites, which might explain why I enjoy architecture! The most important thing is to be prepared to learn. Enjoy the built environment, look and learn how people use it.

What's the salary and career path like?

Don't go into architecture for the money. There are misconceptions that architects earn a fortune. Apparently, the average salary for a qualified architect with experience is between £30,000 and £50,000; but that average could be skewed by a few architects who earn very high salaries.

In my experience, it takes a long time to earn £30,000, because you spend so much time studying and may build up debt. Everyone's career path is different: the straightforward route is to gain qualifications and experience working for an architecture firm, before setting up on your own, but a lot of people get involved in other areas, like furniture design, teaching, or graphics. And it's a job where you can work around the world.

For information on practical training in architecture, go to the Royal Institute of British Architects' (RIBA) website, www.architecture.com. Another useful resource is the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland's website, www.rias.org.uk. For information and support for female and ethnic minority architects and architecture students, go to www.diversecity-architects.com