Experiencing a construction site early in your career can deliver many benefits, writes Chris Simmons

Chris Simmons

Young people very often enter the architecture profession with a desire to build - to take an idea from their head to paper, to computer and finally to site; it is the end goal for us architects. But the realities of their experience are far from this initial dream, as early career architects continue to face the long-standing disconnect between university education and the architecture profession.

The limited availability of site experience is a critical barrier to career progression within the profession and it remains the part of the architectural process that is most lacking for many young architects. This experience is difficult to get in the first place and usually falls to more experienced architects. And as with most hard-to-find things, it is hugely valuable. Nothing can replace on-site learning during construction if you want to progress in your career as a well-rounded professional.

One of my first projects as a Part 1 was working on a private hospital scheme in Kent. It was an overwhelming experience and I think I was pretty useless to the rest of the team, but I remember a seminal moment that I experienced a few months in. During a visit to the site, walking around with the project architect, I looked up and saw the acoustic ceiling that I had set out.

Yes, it was a minor contribution and a pretty standard design, but that was the moment when my drawings become something tangible. I was one of the lucky ones to experience the construction site early on, and it has paid dividends throughout my career, but not everyone is so lucky.

Universities are doing good work around sustainability, and materiality, with some even teaching the physical act of making. But on the whole, students continue to be failed by these institutions. Construction technology often feels tacked on, taught by separate tutors and not well integrated with the design modules. Meanwhile, it’s still commonplace for those teaching ‘architectural design’ to lack real construction experience themselves - perhaps because on-site experience also alluded them in their careers, leaving them to only understand architecture as an academic act. As a consequence, many architecture students leave university with few tangible skills, and with a limited understanding of the design and construction processes.

Only through visiting the site do we truly appreciate the sequence of construction

Many of the students that I mentor communicate their frustrations with the current system and feel let down by the lack of direct knowledge imparted during their university education - including the lack of relevant skills that their future employers are asking for. Even by the time students get to their Part 3 level, they are often still struggling to get site experience, which is particularly evident when trying to complete their case studies.

future of the profession

When entering practice it is common for students to be given tasks that align with their current skill set, such as early-stage design, drawings and visualisations. Naturally, the more experienced architects gravitate towards leading construction. Over time, young architects hope to gain this experience, but many do not, being pigeonholed into the areas that make the most sense for the practice; a focus on efficiency over empathy.

Even with the best will in the world, young architects will never be able to fully understand the impact of their design decisions and the reality behind the lines they are drawing without first-hand experience of seeing a building come together. Only through visiting the site do we truly appreciate the sequence of construction, what happens at the junctions and how to allow for tolerance. We architects talk of craft, but a real understanding is not something that comes just from observing. It can only be developed with an appreciation for the opportunities and limitations of material and process - we learn so much from witnessing craftspeople first hand.

Contractors often complain that architects draw things that are not buildable, or at least that we have not taken the time to understand how construction happens and how our designs might be constructed. The adversarial setup between architect and contractor stems from this lack of understanding and empathy - it can only be improved through a better understanding of each other’s role, the things we each value in a project and acceptance of our differences.

The message is clear - if you are a young architect who wants to progress in your career then GET TO SITE

With this continuing lack of site experience and construction knowledge, my fear is the further devaluing of the profession within the next generation. We should worry about a future where architects are only concerned with aesthetics, with all elements of detailed design and risk passed to the contractor. 

Much of the industry has already adopted this approach (at least on larger projects), with concept architects producing the initial design and then either a delivery architect working with a contractor or the contractor’s in-house designers undertaking detailed design and on-site delivery. This only exacerbates the lack of understanding between the parties and forces many architects to be pigeonholed into certain disciplines, and often left frustrated at only experiencing part of the process. We have all witnessed the result of projects where aspects like buildability and cost have been considered too late in the process.

So what’s the answer? The creation of beautiful and functional architecture is only achieved with an understanding and experience of materials, craft and ultimately construction. For the most part that experience can only be developed through exposure to the building site, seeing it for all of its grubby and noisy beauty. This is a call to action for both strata of architecture - the young graduate and the experienced practitioner - to improve the profession for the future.

Students and young graduates need to enter the workplace with drive and passion, to gain varied experience and fill gaps in their current knowledge. They need to take charge of their careers, not just be passengers, and understand what is good for them in the long run. Eventually, they may even need to leave a job, when a practice is not providing the opportunities that are necessary for their growth. Many young or aspiring architects might actually benefit from time spent working for a contractor. Numerous friends and colleagues have shared similar experiences, with some even taking a year out on-site to work and learn on the job, eventually returning to architecture at a later stage.

Practitioners and managers need to accept their responsibilities and put in the time and effort to mentor young professionals, getting them on-site, even if it takes extra time and cost. You cannot overestimate the value of that experience for the young person - actually seeing something built for the first time.

The message is clear - if you are a young architect who wants to progress in your career then GET TO SITE, by any means necessary.

> Also read: The history of architectural drawing reminds us just how detached architects have become from building