An in-depth interview that may help you decide whether you'd like to become an architect.
I sat down over morning coffee with Laura Arpiainen to learn all about the hectic life of a working architect. As I discovered during our interview, in addition to her full-time job for a public health authority, Laura also hangs out with her eight-year-old daughter, teaches yoga, and takes on the occasional “side project” for a friend. But despite her crazy schedule, she’s bubbly and full of energy — even at 8 o’clock in the morning.
“Architects have a pretty low life expectancy, because they have a high level of stress in their life,” she tells me cheerily. “I do a lot of yoga.”
Tell me a little bit about yourself. Where are you from? How did you become an architect?
I’m from Finland. I went to the Helsinki University of Technology, which is sort of a classic design school — a good school, and I have really benefited from my training. It’s important to choose your school carefully, because schools can vary quite a bit. But it was difficult getting into architecture school; it’s competitive. So I went to Paris, in France, and did a year of Fine Arts first, then I went to architecture school in Helsinki. That was great.
I moved to Canada in 1994. I was a licensed architect in Finland, but when I came here I had to do an internship for three years. I got myself a good job, even though there was a recession here. I just went for it. And that really is my advice: If you want to be an architect, just go for it. I basically moved countries for it, because Europe was in a recession. It wasn’t the only reason I moved, but it was definitely a big factor.
If you want to be an architect, just go for it. I basically moved countries for it.
I worked for my first employer for about seven years. They paid for my internship, which was great. I worked for another company for a while, took some time off on a sort of sabbatical, and then was asked to work for another company for about eight years. Now, I’ve been with the public sector for about five years. So I’ve been an architect for 25, 30 years — with no end in sight!
Tell me a little bit about what you do. What kind of architect are you?
Right now, I’m a strategic planner for a health authority in British Columbia. I’m officially in the Facilities Management Branch. We have thirteen hospitals and hundreds of community clinics that we build and maintain and renovate on an ongoing basis. I’m managing these projects and plan them at the early level. Once the project’s deemed feasible and there’s funding allocated, then we hire architects and run the construction projects.
I also have a private practice which I run from home, doing small projects on the side. I always say that I’m going to stop doing it, but then some friend will have a project that they need help with and I end up getting drawn in.
How did you get to where you are now?
I worked in the private sector for about 20 years, in classic design firms. In that role, I worked for companies that did a lot of public buildings and institutional buildings — projects such as schools, community buildings, pools, rec centres, multi-purpose buildings, and a lot of healthcare. Then I had a child, sort of late in the career. When I went back to my job after my maternity leave, it wasn’t really a good fit anymore. I made the change to work in the public sector, which has been a very successful move for me.
What’s the main difference between the work you were doing in the private sector and what you do now?
Back then, we would say that I was “on the other side of the table.” I was actually doing the design, now I’m commissioning the design and evaluating it.
Why is the public sector a better fit for you?
In the private sector, the pace is more unpredictable. There are ebbs and flows, and you might have to do a lot of overtime in a certain month, then another month might be slower. Whereas when you work for the government, you have more regular working hours, which for me was a benefit, having a small child. I also felt that my experience level was so established at that point that the government was really happy to have me. They actually created a position for me when I applied. Several things came together at that time; it really worked well for me.
What kind of education and training does it take to become an architect?
The registration process is not simple. It involves a long internship — two or three years, normally, that you have to work under a registered architect. And then you have to do standardized registration exams.
This is all after finishing school?
Yeah, after university. Most people have a graduate degree by this time. It’s a long slog to become an architect. As I said, I started in Europe. My university took about eight years — but that’s just because it’s a co-op type program. Some people do a Bachelor’s in Environmental Design or Fine Arts or something that’s sort of related. You can also do a Bachelor’s in Architecture. The usual career path in North America is to do your undergrad in something, then go to graduate school to do Architecture, then you do the internship.
The registration process is not simple. It involves a long internship — two or three years, normally ... .It’s a long slog to become an architect.
Was the internship helpful?
I don’t know what I think about the internship. I think it’s kind of disempowering for new graduates. I find that psychologically a very difficult thing. Just when you come through this degree and you’ve done so well, then you have to go and do door schedules for someone. I think it would be much better if young graduates could be given meaningful, lead-the-project kind of work from the get go, because they certainly have the drive required.
But there are important categories of experience you’re required to acquire during the internship: working drawings, negotiations with clients, dealing with authorities and jurisdiction, and then, very importantly, coordination of consultants.
Why is coordination of consultants such an important skill to have?
Because we work together with engineers. Within classic building design, we have structural engineers who deal with the building systems, electrical engineers who deal with power distribution and lighting, and then, these days, we also have information technology consultants. But there’s a whole team of people that work around the building design. The architect is generally the prime consultant, so the architect has to oversee and coordinate this team, and also be aware of how the work comes together. It involves much more than just knowing about architecture.
Would you describe architecture as a social career, then?
Social? Hmm… I would say that it has a lot of moving parts. [Laughs].
Was it difficult for you to get started as an architect? To get that first internship and to establish yourself?
It is very competitive. It wasn’t that difficult for me, because I never even thought that I would fail. [Laughs]. That’s just the way I’m wired; I just knew it was a given that I would be an architect, I was going to do it no matter what. So I guess my attitude was helpful.
What kind of advice would you give to someone who’s considering the career?
I get people who come to me often and ask, “Should I become an architect?” And I normally say, “Don’t even think about it!” Then I send them out to talk to three architects and ask them this one question: “Imagine that you are now 18 or 20 years old, looking for a career. If you know what you know now, would you go to architecture school?” I tell the student to write down what they say and come back to me, and then we’ll talk. So the person goes out, talks to three architects, and invariably, all three will say, “No, I would not do it again.” And then the student comes back to me and I say, “Do you still want to be an architect?” If the student says yes, I will help them in any way I can. But at least now they know that architecture is not what you'd think it is.
So do all architects have big regrets about their careers?
It’s not that these architects who’ve been in the business for ten or twenty years hate what they do. It just means that it ended up quite different than what we thought. We spend way more time dealing with cost consultants, dealing with authorities and jurisdictions, or trying to make sense out of municipal bylaws that changed last week. There’s this absolute jungle of legislation that you have to be able to navigate in order to get the building project successfully through, and that takes a lot of time.
People who think that we wear these white jackets and draw up these mansions for millionaires? They need to get a reality check. It’s not at all what you think it is.
People who think that we wear these white jackets and draw up these mansions for millionaires? They need to get a reality check. It’s not at all what you think it is. It’s low pay, long hours, little respect. Architecture in some ways is a dimension of the Real Estate business, of the development world. And this is not a comfortable world to be in; it’s a very profit-driven, numbers-driven world. So if you’re very idealistic coming into architecture, it can be a very disillusioning path. But if you know that you love the craft and the art of architecture and you’re willing to take on the challenge, then of course you’re unstoppable. That really is where the joy lies, in understanding the complexities and bringing them together.
If you know that you love the craft and the art of architecture and you’re willing to take on the challenge, then of course you’re unstoppable.
What would you say is your least favourite thing about your career?
My least favourite aspect is maybe that the position of architect as the leader of the project has been eroded by all these competing values. When I went into architecture in the 1980s, architecture was a highly respected art, and now, it’s more a service. It’s changed in stature, and that’s kind of changed the way that we look at things. But I don’t think it’s been demoted; architecture is always going to be great. And to know that and value it — it’s fantastic.
What drew you to architecture, initially? Why did you choose this career?
I was studying History of Art and I always liked drawing. I’ve always been good at design. I was also interested in sculpture. So for me, architecture was where this art — this three dimensional sculptural skill — came to life on a massive scale. I think that was really my biggest joy. It still is.
Is that pretty typical? Do lots of people find architecture that way?
Some people come to architecture from the technology side; they’re very technology-minded. Some come in from the real estate side; they like the development and the business side of things. There are different career paths within architecture.
What kind of career trajectory can you expect as an architect? Are there a lot of opportunities to move up in the industry?
There are different ways to practice architecture. You can be what we call a sole practitioner: have your own company and work from home, if you want. That’s really a good choice for some people. The drawbacks are that you may have to work late nights if you get a bigger project, and you can’t really divide the work. Classically, especially for female architects, they would fall in love with someone at architecture school, get married, and then have the husband and wife company. [Laughing] Because, you know, when you go to architecture school, there is no social life. You’re there all the time, so chances are that you’re going to hook up with an architect.
When you go to architecture school, there’s no social life. [Laughing] You’re there all the time, so chances are that you’re going to hook up with an architect.
Then there are salary architects who work in a mid-sized or large private company. You basically work on salary for another architect or a group of architects who have a partnership. That’s very common. In those companies you can advance to a Senior Project Manager or an Associate with the firm or a Junior Partner. If you advance to the partner level, then you have to invest in the company. That means you have to buy shares. It’s a significant financial undertaking, but at the same time, you become a partner in the profits as well.
Is it hard to get promoted?
I find that many people think that they are automatically going to become partners, and that’s not at all the case. There’s always more staff than there are partners; the pyramid gets narrower at the top. So you have to have some real, specific partnership skills. You have to know how to get work. You have to have the business savviness to market yourself, to be a good worker, and to be good at delivering projects. But you can’t be really ego-driven, because when you start being a principal, you also manage teams. I find that it’s good to have sort of a tempered personality: you’re a leader, but you can’t be too invested in your own work. You also have to be able to tolerate risk. There’s a lot of risk, because the market is volatile. If anything happens in the real estate or in the investment market, there can be some very lean years. There are companies who lay off sixty percent of their staff when the dry years come. It’s a bit of a feast or famine sometimes, depending on what kind of work you do.
You have to be able to tolerate risk. There’s a lot of risk, because the market is volatile. It’s a bit of a feast or famine sometimes.
Advancement in the public sector is also possible, because it’s sort of a hierarchical structure. But it depends what you want; working on a Director or Executive Director level in the public sector is pretty intense. I can see that some people with the qualifications may choose not to do it because of the pressures of the job.
Can you walk me through a typical workday?
In my work as a strategic planner, I go to work in the morning, I check my emails, then I have meetings. I may have meetings with some project team or some clients, or it might be with the Public Steering Committee. That would be a bigger meeting with stakeholders where we discuss the status of the projects. We would show some drawings or some calculations depending on what work we’re doing and then we would get some feedback from the client or the stakeholder group. They would say, “Oh, that looks too big,” or “That doesn’t work.” We get the feedback, we minute the meetings, and then we go back to the consultant team and we let them know that this needs to be developed in this direction, etc. I might go back to the office or I might have another in-house meeting about another project. Finally, I might have a rare bit of time at my computer. I would be reviewing some cost estimates that we’ve received on a couple of projects.
What kind of hours do you typically work?
I have a very progressive employer, so I am what’s called a mobile employee. My official hours are from 8:30 to 4:30 everyday, but I don’t have a desk anywhere. This is also a factor of my particular job’s portfolio; we have building sites all over the Lower Mainland so it makes no sense to pay rent on a desk for me when I’m out and about all the time. Sometimes I work from my home office, sometimes I’m at the sites, and sometimes I’m at our corporate office.
The hours tend to stretch because it’s flexible time — you end up finding that you work in the evening if you have too much to do. Like tomorrow. I’m taking four days off for a personal trip, so I know that tonight I’ll be working late to be able to go. But that’s fine. On the whole, I’m really grateful for the progressive nature of my employer. They know that between 8:30 and 4:30, I have to be available by Blackberry anywhere, but they don’t really say that I need to sit at this desk every morning. If I don’t have a meeting until 10, then I can work from my home office until 8:30 to 9:30 and hop in the car to go to my 10 o’clock meeting — which is fantastic.
What’s the social culture like?
People skills are so critical in architecture, because you never work in isolation. You are working to make somebody else’s dream come true. That’s a good thing to keep in mind: somebody else is paying for whatever you design.
On the team, there are always a huge amount of people who make a building project a reality. So it’s important to really understand the big picture: What are we really trying to do here? To understand how we can all play into the same goals. If you have that skill, it smooths out any of the corners and angles that come from people’s interests pulling in different directions. Even if you take a classical house project, you may find that the husband and wife have completely different opinions about what should be built. So you need to have the capacity to see the forest for the trees, to understand how you can really work with these conflicting desires and figure out a way, ideally, to satisfy them all. It’s very complex and it takes a lot of thinking capacity. For me, when there are personal polarities — which happens a lot on jobs, it’s human nature — I don’t put my loyalty with any particular individual around the table. My loyalty’s not with the person, it’s with the project. What’s the best for the project? How can the project be the best it can be?
When there are personal polarities … I don’t put my loyalty with any particular individual around the table. My loyalty’s not with the person, it’s with the project.
How would you describe your work-life balance?
Oh, I work too much. That’s definitely an easy answer. But I am in my dream profession, and not many people can say that. Despite all the turbulence, all the forms, all the red tape and bureaucracy, I still love what I do. It’s what I always wanted to do, and I am so grateful for that. So I just do it. I don’t like dropping the ball, so when there’s a little bit too much work, I just tend to push through.
I am in my dream profession. Not many people can say that. Despite all the turbulence, all the forms, all the red tape and bureaucracy, I still love what I do.
Who succeeds in your line of work? What kind of person would you recommend your career to?
You definitely have to want to be an architect. You don’t need to be a mathematical wizard, but you do need a little bit of math in architecture school. I personally think it’s good if you have some artistic disposition, just some artistic skill and eye, because it is a design profession. And you need to really have a capacity to persevere in the face of frustration and adversity. We don’t have unlimited budgets and there’s frustrating building regulations that tell you not to do things that you felt were right, so you have to have a capacity to persevere in the face of these multiple requirements and setbacks. And you need to be humble, I think. To understand your place in this big game of the built environment. I find that the people who get ahead are the ones who just have this sense of acceptance and contentment. If you’re not happy with architecture, you won’t last.
The people who get ahead are the ones who just have this sense of acceptance and contentment. If you’re not happy with architecture, you won’t last.
It also requires professional development every year to remain licensed.
What kind of professional development? Is there a test?
No, no test. But you do need to do some accredited courses. It’s mandatory continuing education. It just keeps people in the learning mindset. That’s essential; you can’t think that you’ve got it all. Life is a learning process.
What do you wish that you’d known before going into this career?
That’s a good question. I wish I’d known that it’s not just design. And I wish I knew, even though I did well, that no one’s going to look after your career. You need to make your own career moves. No one’s going to make them for you. So it’s easy to get stuck. There comes a time when you’re a certain age that it’s harder to get hired. People get stuck in the same position and get frustrated with the lack of seeming opportunity to advance.
How do you prevent yourself from “getting stuck”? How do you keep moving forward in your career?
It’s just a sort of general awareness: Have a bit of a global outlook. Stay connected to other people in the field and compare experiences. Compare salaries. That’s always good.
Is the architecture community supportive?
Certainly in Vancouver, we have this great network of Women in Architecture. I’ve been active and mentoring and supporting in that group. I wouldn’t say that the male architects are. That’s a bit of an inflammatory statement, but there certainly is a bit of an old boys’ network. It’s just a factor of how the whole development world has been structured; all the companies are run by men. It used to be that in the men’s networking, they do the business. I don’t know what the number is now, but of registered architects, it used to be that under ten percent were female.
There certainly is a bit of an old boys’ network. It’s just a factor of how the whole development world has been structured; all the companies are run by men.
What other advice would you give to someone entering the field?
Architecture school can be competitive. I’ve heard weird stories: people won’t share their notes, things like that. Architecture is not a hobby. I’ve seen people consider architecture because they like it. I like opera, but I can’t be an opera singer. You need to be sure that it’s a good choice for you.
Architecture is not a hobby. I’ve seen people consider architecture because they like it. I like opera, but I can’t be an opera singer. You need to be sure that it’s a good choice for you.
Why do people tend to leave architecture?
There are a lot of people — in Vancouver, for example — who have an architectural degree but aren’t in architecture. Some because of their own choice, and some because they just couldn’t get a job. People should know that it doesn’t guarantee that you’re going to be able to make a career out of it if you study it.
What’s the biggest misconception about your job?
The biggest misconception is that we just do design. But design, at the end of the day, is maybe under ten percent of what you end up doing.
What’s the best thing about your career?
Oh, I just love solving those complex problems. There’s no better feeling than when all the pieces fall into place. And not only that! Something grows out of your work that’s also beautiful and amazing. That physical manifestation — that beautiful built element — is just so rewarding. I love it. It’s worth all the long nights.