What Does a ‘Great’ Architecture School Do?
I studied urban planning in college because I liked the idea of being around design, architecture and political issues that I might actually be able to resolve. I could draw well when I started college–my mother, a commercial artist and art teacher, taught me–but I did not have the science or math skills to realistically consider an architecture school as a high school senior.
Architecture has not been a high-demand field for some time. If you live in a suburban housing development, chances are that your house was not designed by an architect but a civil engineer. The more creative field of architecture, while requiring five years of education, pays less over a lifetime, than a career in civil engineering. Architects are subordinate to civil engineers at many private firms that purport to call them equals. But a great architect can earn the glory that comes with designing landmark buildings as well as a fine living.
There’s more to being an architect than being a good designer.
You need to understand building construction principles, real estate finance, urban planning law and site planning practices. It also helps to understand environmental issues, meteorology and sustainability. It’s very hard to fit all of this into a degree program. Architects must also have experience in an apprenticeship (called an internship) before they can be licensed–and without a license you cannot sign off on building plans.
With all this in mind, here are some questions you need answered when shopping for an architecture school:
What are your financial resources versus the possible financial aid that you might receive from the school?
The Federal Stafford Student Loan program allows dependent students to borrow no more than $31,000 over the full duration of their undergraduate education. With most other undergraduate degrees this would cover four years, plus one more semester, if necessary. The borrowing limit is $7,500 for a junior or senior and only the interest on $5,500 is subsidized. If you become a graduate student for the fifth year, you can borrow up to $20,500 for the year. That gives you more money to work with, but none of the interest on the graduate loan is subsidized.
Is a portfolio required?
Some schools will expect design or drawing skills at the start, others will not. If you enter a architecture school with no portfolio you start by learning the basics in design as well as architecture. You need to learn shape and form, photography and materiality (hard and soft materials that go into building a building). One downside; these courses may not fit into requirements for degrees (aside from free electives) in other schools within a university should you decide that architecture is not for you. However, the physics and math courses can help to fill your school’s general education requirements.
Is this a school where you believe you will earn only a bachelor’s degree or the bachelor’s and a masters?
Sometimes you can do a bachelor’s at one school, a master’s at another. Others will make you stay to earn both degrees. On the other hand I have met people who did not want a master’s in architecture. They preferred to work on a master’s in business, real estate or urban planning. Personally, I believe that if you spend five years in college you should come out with more work experience (through a co-op program) that also helps you pay for the extra year, or graduate with a master’s degree. Unfortunately, some deans who lead architecture schools do not agree. As one example, at Cornell you need to go five years for the bachelors.
Do you have any special interests?
At some schools, for example, you can learn historic preservation, at others you can delve deeper into sustainability in modern designs. Sometimes the special interest can turn into its own major and you can go into a direction other than architecture. At Philadelphia University, for example, it is not uncommon for students who start in architecture to switch into Construction Management or Architectural Design Technology, to name just two academic examples.
Can you knock on doors?
This depends on where the school is located or how well it remains in contact with its alumni base. Schools such as Cornell and Virginia Tech are not located in “hot markets” for architects; they’re in very isolated locations. However, they operate “urban center” locations, New York City for Cornell, Washington D.C. for Virginia Tech, where students can gain an urban experience and make connections. These schools also have strong alumni networks. Other schools are in large cities. However, in some cities, Philadelphia being one example, there are several schools that offer undergraduate and graduate architecture degrees. The competition for an internship will be more intense than it will be in cities such as Cincinnati, Columbus, Memphis or even Washington D.C. where only one or two schools offer these degrees.
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