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The Real Poop

Just as programmers program and alligators alligate, architects…design stuff. That is, they are responsible for creating the "blueprint" plans that construction workers then follow to build that bridge, construct that castle, hone that home…. Architecture is an "artsy" job, and the rewards go to those with longevity in the field. The junior players do lotsa work for little pay—the senior guys (who win the trust of clients) make all the hay. But if you like to exercise both sides of your brain (left on the elliptical, right on the dead weights) and aren't turned off by dealing with a slew of demanders who don't really know what they want their castle to look like, this career may be right up your Gothically-inspired alley (pointy spires, a gargoyle guarding the gate).

Architects are the kind of people who were born doodling. But their doodles actually made sense…looked like something. Even something pretty. Balanced. Neat. If you really don't scrawl, your dreams of being an architect you may want to overhaul. (Sorry.) Creating buildings is inarguably cool as a career choice—so as you might guess, there is a ton of competition to do it. Thousands would (ironically, given the core task) give their right arm to be able to design a beautiful building that will outlive them. If you despise numbers, forget about this gig as well, because you'll be drowning in them. Corner joint angles have a number and if you don't love them, they won't love you back. You have to be computer literate and must have excellent communication skills as well. Trying to figure out what the guy across the table means when he says, "No, I want the porch to look like this!" and he is pointing to a magazine tear of The Taj Mahal…. Patience is a virtue here as well.

The rocking chair can go right…there….

You have to research and make yourself knowledgeable about building codes and zoning restrictions, and deal with government people who have better things to do with their time. Designs are never really "done," so have a gallon of adrenaline in your veins at the ready to burn midnight (we prefer whale) oil making last-minute changes to your designs when instructed to do so by The Man. If you ever want to be The Man instead of just work for him for likely low wages, you need to be a darn good salesman as well. If you own your own shop, it's up to you to convince potential clients that you're going to design them a structure that a) meets their specifications, b) fits within their budget, and c) won't collapse the second the wolves huff and puff. You are standing behind (or beneath) your own work, so this process is easier to embrace emotionally than selling dress socks at Macy's. You also need to be willing to invest in a number of books about architecture that you can spread out on your coffee table at home, or people are not going to take you seriously. You will also need a frame around that sheepskin you'll hang on your wall. (In the center. Balanced. Just the right place.)

A wide range of opportunities (jobs, pay, locale…) exist in the field of architecture. You will start with an internship (key phrase: "You want cream in that, Sir?") and gradually work your way up the spiral ladder. After your internship, you will probably start out assisting an associate architect with their schematic designs and construction documents (and he'll start actually paying you decent money—yay!). Specifically, it means that he is designing a home or something and you are just filling stuff in. You've seen cartoons, right? Well, the hard stuff to draw is the main character walking and moving and throwing stuff. The easy stuff is the background, the rooms, the sky. That is more or less how you start out in ArchitectureLand. Then you progress into more complex drawings while taking on more responsibility. At the point where you can handle doing a full set of drawings on your own, maybe then you become a principal or partner in a major firm. Things get really tricky because you can spend all your time drawing more drawings—or you can go for the dough and spend most of your time wooing clients, which is where the real power lives in the industry. The joke runs something like: "What is an architect?" Answer: "Someone who can get paid for drawing stuff." We didn't say it was a good joke.

We knew someone would find it funny.

There's an important point in there somewhere though. Ah…here it is. We all love to draw—or doodle on napkins, at least—but there's a huge difference between sitting by your phone and waiting for Disney to call and offer you a job animating their next feature, and having a steady job designing buildings. Sure, it may not be quite as much fun, and it will certainly be less colorful, but the "steady" part more than makes up for it. If you want to draw what you want to draw, become an artist or illustrator. If you want to draw what other people want you to draw but also have the security of a roof over your table and food on your head (strike that, reverse it), then become an architect.

Oh, and what you are designing makes a difference, too. If you're drawing plans for a four-walled shed, you're probably not going to make as much money as if you are in charge of designing the new largest skyscraper in New York. In general, you can expect to see a higher salary if you're working in a large national firm on major commercial construction projects than drafting blueprints for residential homes.

The problem for many architects is that, because they are artistic individuals, they have to struggle to exercise that left side of their brain as well as their right. It is as much about creativity as it is about knowing the codes and laws, understanding the physics of what you are designing, and creating a practically useful building rather than just a theoretically interesting one. But if you are one of those rare individuals with a whole brain (it really is less common than you might think, trust us), architecture could be your gig.