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Surviving Your First Year At Architecture School
Embarking on the seven year pursuit that is becoming an architect is very daunting, especially since you can’t study architecture before university. It really is a journey into the unknown. When I started my first year I had so many questions and felt hideously unprepared. Most freshers probably do, so in order to help them out I’ve compiled a list of things I wish I’d known before starting the first year of my architecture degree. I have split the tips into three categories regarding work, materials/tools and wellbeing. Most of the points will be general, however some will relate specifically to the University of Liverpool where I studied.
Understand how relevant everything is
One of the fantastic possibilities of being an architect is that it can be a lifelong profession. With this in mind, there is a lot to learn, and therefore basically all the new information you’re presented with may be useful in the future. An ancient building technique you learn about in a history lecture may become useful in a decade when you’re working on a restoration project, or a revolutionary material that is currently too expensive to use commercially could be commonplace in 30 years etc.. Building up a vast knowledge of architecture will aid you for the rest of your life, so why not start soaking up all that information now.
Read around
On the same lines as the previous point, reading around will always throw up useful information. I often use books, websites and blogs as a source of idea generation. And even when not specifically searching for inspiration, I find materials, building techniques and approaches that I am interested in and then use on later projects. Last year I discovered Kebony wood on a Dezeen article, then clad a beach hut I’d designed in it. Using specific and out of the ordinary materials in your project is an easy way to show tutors that you’ve gone the extra mile in your work. I also used technical drawings from a library book in a close up section of my final project in order to ensure the construction detailing was fairly realistic.
Use the wealth of resources available to you
At the University of Liverpool there are tons of resources for architecture students. Over the last year I have used both university libraries, borrowing approximately 50 books related to architecture and engineering, e-mailed tutors in out of office hours (since most have a smartphone they should really reply within a few hours), used the expertise of the workshop staff to help create attractive models and discussed my designs with fellow students to realise where unsuccessful areas of my projects lie. You’re paying a ridiculous £9000 per year to study at university, so get your money’s worth.
Have confidence in your own work and don't compare yourself to others
To be studying architecture at university you must be clever. The admissions teams have seen something in you that has told them you’re worthy of a place. Therefore, whilst it’s hard in first year, be confident that your work is of a high standard and your designs are thoughtful and appropriate. During my first year I often compared my own work to that of other students, and was often disappointed with my output. However, I have now (finally) realised that everyone has different strengths, and in the profession there is a place for every type of architect. Artistic architects that are capable of producing stunning visuals may not be capable of imagining successful and innovative designs, who in turn may be terrible at pitching their concept to a potential client. The tutors recognise what each student’s strengths are, and are definitely experienced enough to see a bad project beneath the surface of some attractive drawings.
Narrative, concept and process
One of the biggest surprises I discovered after starting my architecture degree is how much emphasis is placed on concept and narrative. Every successful design has a strong concept around which everything is based. I cannot stress enough how important it is to have a consistent driver that runs throughout the project. A concept is often related to the site, whether that’s a transition from old to new, a particular material, or a common visual occurrence (such as line continuity or a particular shape etc.). It should be simple enough to describe in one or a few words. Behind this concept should be a narrative relating to either the client, concept or site which explains why you have made each decision. You must show the process behind your design in order to demonstrate why the outcome you have produced is the most appropriate, and that you have considered other options. The highest marks tend to be awarded to the students with the most complete, refined and sophisticated combination of concept, narrative and process.
Tutors aren't always right
I have huge respect and admiration for most of the tutors at my university. On the whole they are knowledgeable, helpful and experienced, and I am confident that they will shape me into a great architect. However, on occasions I have disagreed with their views, which is fine. I have had heated discussions with tutors multiple times when we’ve disagreed, and in general I enjoy them and am able to justify my point of view. Architecture is highly subjective, so whilst one tutor may dislike your design (inevitably you’ll have them for a critique) all of the others might adore it. A useful quote to put this into perspective is “Architecture can’t be right or wrong, but it can be good or bad”. In my article Architectural Photos vs Reality I outlined how architecture is more about space making than the building itself, and in this respect a design can be good if it functions appropriately or bad if it doesn’t. As long as you can back up your point of view, there’s no problem disagreeing with a tutor, apart from perhaps damaging their ego.
Be self critical to find solutions
If a part of your design doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t, and the tutors will pick up on it. A mistake I made in first year was continuing with a design over a few days even though I knew in the back of my mind that it had shortcomings. I was basically too lazy to change the design, and hoped that when I met with my tutor he wouldn’t realise the unsuccessful aspects. How wrong I was… He recognised how hard I’d worked on the bad design, and was sympathetic, however he convinced me to go back to the drawing board and make alterations. Looking back on it I’m glad he challenged me to make the changes, as my final design was far superior to the awkward one I’d previously been happy to finalise. Being self critical is difficult, and at the time making changes to a design you’ve worked hard on won’t be appealing. In the long run though being self critical will save time and effort, as well as improving your designs.
First year's for experimenting
In first year of an architecture degree all you need to do is pass with at least 40% overall. The marks don’t count towards your final degree, so you can relax a little. Obviously at the time the end of year marks will seem very important, however all the tutors make clear that first year is about learning the process of architectural design. Essentially they are teaching you the skills to be able to approach any brief and produce a considered, appropriate and successful outcome that is backed up with research, experimentation and a strong narrative. With this in mind, there is a lot of freedom in first year which should be utilised to try new techniques, materials and approaches so you can find out which work best for you.
(If you're at the University of Liverpool) get an ASoc card and use the ASoc shop
ASoc are the Architecture Society at Liverpool University. For a small fee you can buy a membership to them which entitles you to a 10% discount on purchases in the ASoc Shop. Over the year you should easily make back the £5 you spent on the membership on discounts, as the ASoc Shop is the most convenient and cheapest place to buy most basic materials such as card, foamboard, MDF and stationary, among other items.
Essentials shopping list
The department provide an equipment list which I think contains a lot of unnecessary items. In my opinion in most cases it’s best to buy equipment as and when you need it. Over the year you will build up a large amount of artistic equipment and spend quite a lot of money. Spacing out purchases over the year will perhaps save you money and feel less overwhelming than spending £100+ on equipment during fresher’s week. Here is a list of the bare essentials that I recommend you buy during your first couple of months studying architecture:
  • Black fineliners (I use Staedtler Triplus)
  • UHU superglue (Poundland is the best value retailer for this)
  • Greyboard (The ASoc Shop is the best value retailer for this)
  • 3m+ tape measure
  • Steel ruler
  • Decent mechanical pencils of sizes 0.3mm, 0.5mm and 0.7mm (I use Staedtler Mars Micro, quite expensive but you’ll appreciate how nice they are to use)
  • Cutting mat
  • Decent craft knife (I use one made by Draper)
  • Hairspray as fixative (a lot cheaper than proper fixative but does a similar job)
  • 12″ Adjustable set square
  • Toolbox and padlock to keep equipment in in the studio
  • (University of Liverpool students) An artistic media you’re confident with (paint/watercolour/pencils etc.) as it’s likely your first project will include a lot of sketching/drawing
Remember your work isn't everything
I find this advice hard to take myself, since when you are wrapped up in a project and working on it every day for hours on end, it is difficult to remember that there are countless other more important things. Happiness, relationships and health should always be prioritised over your work, since they will provide you with an enjoyable life. Whilst pushing yourself and working hard will result in marks that you are proud of and eventually aid you in getting a good job, it is incredibly important to maintain your wellbeing. Last year I worked too hard, and in second year I am happy to sacrifice a few marks in order to maintain relationships, get involved in other pursuits and have fun doing things that are not related to architecture at all. I’d like to think potential employers would want to see that you are a rounded person with decent social skills and other hobbies/abilities (such as a second language or playing a musical instrument or sport) as well as being an adept architecture graduate.
Only do all nighters when absolutely necessary
All nighters will mess you up for days/nights after you complete them. I’ve never done an all nighter, but have seen the strange and worrying effects of them on other students. Students tend to seem drunk when they’ve not slept all night, they can’t focus and mistakes are more common. If presenting during a critique it is likely that their speech will be slurred or not make sense, and as a result their presentation will often be disjointed and confusing. A medic friend of mine looked into the effects of all nighters with me, and we found out they are harmful in both the short term and far into the future. Unless it’s the night before the final deadline, I would recommend you never do an all nighter.
Reviews aren't really deadlines
Reviews/Critiques/Crits are presentations where you pin up your work before presenting it to a group of approximately eight of your fellow students, a tutor and sometimes a student in another year or guest from the industry. After presenting for five minutes or so, 25 minutes will be spent discussing your project and how improvements can be made. A lot of fuss is made about reviews as they induce anxiety and put your project in the spotlight for potential criticism (or praise!). Students therefore see them as a deadline and rush to get work completed for them, however this is not necessary. All that the tutors want to see is that your project is developing coherently and that you have a solid plan for where you’ll go next. Think of critiques as a group tutorial instead of a final presentation to calm your nerves and reduce anxiety about how far along the project you should be.
Be prepared to work long, but not really work hard
Architecture requires a lot of time, however the majority of the time you’ll be doing relatively easy, relaxing tasks, such as colouring or cutting up card to make models etc.. Whilst these jobs can become boring after a while, listening to music or having a tv show on in the background can make it feel as though you’re not working at all. Also, working in the studio is a lot more fun than working at home. The general buzz of activity around you will result in conversations and interaction with other students, which helps to break up the monotony of some tasks as well as making breaks more enjoyable and social. You should think carefully and intensely about the most important decisions in a project, because having to backtrack after heading in the wrong direction is a huge pain. I often use dead time (travelling on buses, waiting for dinner to cook etc.) to think about the recent decisions I’ve made on a project. Reflecting on a design though drawing or writing in your sketchbook when you’re alone and completely focused will highlight flaws and alterations that should be made.
Befriend other architects
Students that don’t study architecture will struggle to understand the degree. The amount of times people have asked me “So what do you do? Just draw houses??” is laughable. Having friends outside your degree is important, however since you’ll spend the majority of your time in the studio, your best friends are likely to be other architecture students. It is nice to know I can vent to my friends about the stress of a looming deadline or annoyance at a tutor for their recommendations and they’ll probably relate to me. There is a definitely a collective team spirit among the other architecture students in my year, and everyone tries to encourage and help everyone else.
Keep your eyes on the prize
Since each project tends to last a few months, it is easy to fall behind. Short terms goals such as planning what you should have done by the end of the day or week will help you to stay on top of work, allowing you to complete everything that is required by the deadline. As most of the marks are applied to coursework instead of exams the degree is intense, and on many occasions during the year you will be jealous of other students who seem to do much less work than you. You will also probably question your decision to study architecture at times, however thinking about the long term future should put things into perspective. After completing your seven years of architectural education you will be setup for a job for life in a respected profession that has the potential to take you all over the world. If you’re passionate about architecture (which you should be if you’re undertaking the degree), then upon completion of your education you’ll be able to work in the field you love for the rest of your life, essentially never “working” (in the boring, monotonous, 9-5 stereotype) ever again. And if that isn’t enough motivation to work hard, I don’t know what will be…

In my opinion architecture is a very different degree to most others, and it only suits a certain kind of person. Starting university is daunting enough as it is, and even more so when you know it’s potentially your first year of seven instead of three. It is important to remember that everyone is feeling the same as you, and that in general everyone else knows as little as you about what the following year will entail. Architecture is an amazing subject to study, inducing a range of intense emotions from huge joy and pride when you pin up your work to intense stress when deadlines approach. The best advice I can give is to enjoy the rollercoaster ride of feelings, keep everything in perspective, remember where the degree is taking you, and most importantly that some things are more important than your work. Good luck!