Melonie Bayl-Smith offers comprehensive advice on maximising opportunities in architecture, from building useful skills in aligned or non-aligned fields to identifying personal direction and core abilities, to fine-tuning portfolios and CVs.
Melonie Bayl-Smith is the Founding Director and Principal Architect of Bijl Architecture.
Economic downturns & lessons learned
I started my architecture studies at the height of the ‘recession we had to have’. The effect on us as students was that there were very few work opportunities available. Even (gasp!) unpaid work experience was thin on the ground, as many practices barely had enough work for the paid staff, let alone trying to entertain an enthusiastic student. Over the period of my studies, this made me quite convinced that I had to keep up the other ‘strings in my bow’ – my professional music work – which in turn paid off as it allowed me to survive when the going got tough as a graduate, several times over! So I guess I became resourceful and nimble in being willing to cross over fields so that I didn’t lose my architecture dream.
Later on, as a business owner, I had to guide my small practice through the 2008 GFC. Overall, thanks to the lean business model we had cultivated, the practice managed to do quite well, with a couple of keen clients who were focused and had ‘money in the bank’. Ultimately though, when we probably hit the worst patch during that period, we did have to make one graduate redundant, which forced me as the director to take over a whole lot of project-related work. This was rewarding in that it enabled me to cultivate some strong and lasting client relationships, but I did find that having to wade around in project details really distracted me from running the business and that always concerned me in terms of juggling a few too many things! I think for about a year we were pedalling very, very hard to keep everything on track – but it was worth it as the economy began to pick up in 2010. From this experience, I learned that I really needed to resource the practice properly to ensure I had the right balance of involvement in projects without the business suffering from a lack of attention.
Opportunities for the profession
I do think that perhaps this has recalibrated the expectations of many employers who still had a dim view of flexible working, part time working, and working at home. I think it is also an opportunity for the profession to make a case for why affordable, robust and well-designed housing is important. Too many images of the lockdown have been of cushy upper-middle-class homes with lots of space for everyone to work on a sparkling new laptop – when many of us know that the reality has been far from this, with families attempting to work in apartments, small houses and in spaces that are inflexible and poorly designed, dogged by bad lighting (natural and artificial). Architects should stand up and demand that there is a better benchmark for residential design that does not need to cost more, and that can be designed and delivered across the board and in a range of types and configurations – single dwellings, townhouses, medium and high density; compact, comfortable and capacious.
The profession & your future
The current times are really trying, I acknowledge that. But in all honesty, architecture is and will probably always be a challenging profession and industry, where career path disruptions like redundancies and role changes might occur for any number of reasons, simply because practices, people, projects and the building industry can all be volatile enterprises. So perhaps this is a time to build your resilience by growing your knowledge and to spend time thinking about how you can develop your specific architectural and design interests, priorities and personal direction through listening, reading, watching, drawing, participating, discussing. Or maybe this is a good opportunity to start preparing and/or studying for the registration process. It could also be the time for you to investigate being involved in the broader activities of the profession – joining student groups like SONA or your architecture school society, or becoming part of a committee, or even joining an interests or lobby group that is focused on improving the built environment or the local community. There are opportunities all around – you just need to take the time to look! And as an employer who is always looking for initiative-driven people, it will really pay off to be able to answer positively in future job interviews about ‘what you did during the pandemic’.
Oh, I have lots of advice! But to keep it succinct, here are my top 5 tips:
- Do your research. Find out who to address your letter to. The number of times I have received letters with the incorrect practice name, saying Dear Sir… those emails get deleted immediately because it is very clear the person has spent zero time finding out to whom they are addressing their unsolicited approach. Make sure you do know what the practice does, how big their team is and what kind of work they focus on. No point saying you love houses when the practice specialises in commercial office buildings!
- Take the time to write a succinct and honest CV. Focus on the things you can and have done. A good example of this is don’t include every software package under the sun, especially if you’ve got very little experience using them – just put the ‘top 5’. At the end of the day, any practice that ONLY hires you based on the software you have used is probably not a practice worth working for IMHO. And the fact is the CAD standards in practice vs what you have experience with as a student are two very different things. You are probably going to have to ‘learn on the job’ and receive training anyway – so don’t overcook your CAD experience. It’s also worth clearly indicating if you are good at model making, sketching, or have experience in digital fabrication software or other ‘specialist’ activities.
- Do include non-architecture work experience. It is understandable for many students and new graduates to have very little or even nil architectural experience. Do not panic! Instead, do write about the work experience you have had and summarise what sort of tasks you undertook. For example, over the years, I have found that people who worked in hospitality and retail were very well suited to small practice, because they were used to dealing with people, answering the phone, taking on the cranky customers. People with tutoring experience have also often been patient people who will take the time to explain ideas and answer the questions of even the most trying client. Volunteer work is also held in high regard. I would rather see that someone has been working than living off the ’rents!
- Do not include your high-school marks or information. Sorry, but nobody cares. Really. It takes up valuable space on what should be a succinct document, and it makes you look like you are desperate to prove yourself in some way! Better to just focus on your university studies (including any studies prior to architecture if you have done them) and where you are up to in your degree. You might choose to point out if you did an overseas exchange, special studio or similar, especially if this provides an insight into your broader life experience and interests.
- Ensure your portfolio is in reverse chronological order. And make sure that if you have projects from prior architectural work experience, you clearly separate this from your student work. If you are an M.Arch. graduate, I would counsel you to only include one, maybe two, undergrad projects in your portfolio at the most. Better to focus on the Masters work. Also, make sure that the portfolio has a logic and is ‘designed’ so that the different projects can sit neatly next to each other in your portfolio. Do make sure the file is not a zillion GB in size – take the time to properly compress the file so that you can email it. I really hate having to download portfolios from third party sites that are a bit dodgy. Google docs and Dropbox are acceptable if you want to send a link.
Working in aligned fields, further study and building skills
Well, this is exactly what I did when I couldn’t find work as a student (and even as a graduate!). And there are many people who have ‘taken breaks’ at times and then gone back to working in the profession. There is no shame in that. If you are unable to secure work in the profession, think about the skills you want to develop and then see if there is an allied field or even other discipline that might offer you opportunities to develop those skills, even at an entry level. This could be anything from contract administration and practice management skills, through to building and labouring work, writing and communication skills, drafting, curating, social media and marketing, user experience design (UX)… the list goes on.
Architecture is a wonderful discipline. We are asked to learn and take on so many different tasks because of the design thinking framework through which we are taught to synthesise ideas. So, don’t be afraid to pick apart what you have learned and to identify some core skills that you might wish to develop or for which you have a natural aptitude. After I was ungracefully fired from my first graduate job (never fear, I won my unfair dismissal case!) I applied and was fortunate enough to be interviewed for a junior curator position at the Powerhouse museum. While I was waiting to hear back from them, I ended up accepting an architecture role… and then a day later was offered the job at the PHM, which I then had to decline. Now, imagine if I’d taken that job… it would have been an entirely different career path for me, but nonetheless the interview experience was worth it.
Applying for a job outside my field challenged me to think about the value of architecture and the profession, something which I continue to explore in my thinking and research to this very day.