What's working as an architect actually like? Even for students on track to become one, the answer isn't always clear or forthcoming, and for those outside the industry, common ideas about architecture rarely reflect reality. In this series of articles, three architects (two designers and one licensed architect) discuss their transition from student to professional, their changed perceptions of the career and the challenges and joys of their current work.
To use today's design parlance, Elizabeth Christoforetti came by way of architecture laterally – unlike so many architects, architecture was not a childhood dream or long-planned career destination, but a path she arrived at indirectly.
Now a vetted designer at Boston's Utile, Inc., an architecture, urban design and planning firm, Elizabeth's first design experience came while she was living in London in 2004 when she took a job as a researcher for DEGW (now known as Strategy Plus, part of AECOM), a design consultancy that specialized in analysis, strategy and design solutions for the workplace. DEGW's design process relied heavily on user research, gathering pre- and post-occupancy data about the habits and desires of the people who would ultimately use the space, which was the focus of Elizabeth's job at the firm.
The more constraints, the more design is like a puzzle and the more exciting it is."The work was essentially about identifying the issues at hand and solving for an improved user experience." Elizabeth helped "[figure] out what office workers wanted and needed in a space for improved life quality and performance." In compiling the research that would fuel strategy and design direction, she observed how workers interacted in their current space; she conducted pedestrian counts and interviewed user groups, but when it came to drawing insights from this research and creating new space, she handed her research off to the designers. Naturally, she wanted to be on the other side; she wanted to be the one that got to design the solution.
Later that year, with just three weeks until deadlines, Elizabeth made a last-minute decision to put together applications for M.Arch programs. She enrolled in an online GRE course, took the test on the last possible day, complied a portfolio, and when acceptance decisions were made, was admitted to Harvard's Graduate School of Design.
"I'm a relatively organized person, so I expected to come to Boston, get my work done at school and then go home at night. [Instead] I was riding my bike along Mass Ave. [a major Boston/Cambridge artery] at two in the morning because the buses weren't running at that time. The hours were a shock."
Despite this initial shock, the long hours and vigorous workload, Elizabeth enjoyed many parts of her time at the GSD. However, upon her graduation in 2009, a new shock was waiting: the recession. She recalls one commencement speaker at graduation advising the class, " You’re about to walk into the worst economy since the Great Depression. You should consider making your own job because there aren’t any out there waiting for you." And as it related to architecture, it was true. Out of Elizabeth's entire graduating class, only one grad had a clear job lined up, the result of a service obligation to the Korean military. Everyone else saw his or her job offers rescinded. Elizabeth lost two offers.
Like many of her classmates, Elizabeth found work consulting and in exhibition design. She, along with several GSD classmates, was hired by a U.S. military contractor to consult on infrastructure design in war-torn areas of the Middle East. Also during this time Elizabeth As firms' responsibilities and liabilities in increasingly complex building projects have continued to ramp up over the years, the pay for their work has continued to decrease on a percentage basis.had her first child and began her teaching career. One day she received a call from Northeastern University, which has both an undergrad and graduate program in architecture, asking her if she was, "available to teach housing two days a week – starting on Monday. "We are short one instructor in the Housing Studio and your name came up," the administrator explained.
She accepted the offer and found herself teaching alongside Tim Love, a principal at Utile, and in the summer of 2010, with the economy recovering, he invited her to join Utile. She's been a designer at Utile and a lecturer at Northeastern ever since.
Despite having to circumvent the challenges of the recession, Elizabeth's transition from school to career has lead back to familiar work. Half her role at Utile consists of front-end design work: creating the initial design of projects, responding to project briefs, submitting designs for competitions. "It's not too different than what I did at school," she admits about the front-end work. Yet what once were design constraints set by professors in studio are now the constraints of the real world. "You're talking with real people. A street has to be a certain length wide for fire trucks... The more constraints, the more design is like a puzzle and the more exciting it is."
Though Elizabeth sees the path she took out of the GSD as atypical given the exceptional economic factors at play in the early years of her career, she says it's common for GSD grads to secure front-end design positions at prominent firms after their time at Harvard. For such students, she explains, to work on competitions and other early stage projects is not so different from the design-centered studio projects common in most academic environments.
These design-focused positions are not the norm in the profession, however, and she acknowledges that the leap from complete design autonomy and big academic ideas into years of long hours poring over construction documents has been difficult for some of her friends and former students. The gap between school studios and professional work can be significant. She notes that schools like Northeastern have "effectively addressed this divide” between all-design-all-the-time and the more typical skills of professional practice though its co-op program, which places students in internship positions and helps students get an in-depth view of every day practice and the technical skills required to execute on design. She believes that this experience in the field "both sets realistic expectations for post-academic work and fosters valuable long-term professional connections.”
Elizabeth describes the other half of her work at Utile as "entrepreneurially-oriented master planning," which she sums up as "analysis, strategy and design to make the experience, operations and brand of an institution or corporation better." She cites Utile's partnership with the Codman Academy and Codman Square Health Center as an example of this work. The academy, a charter school located in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood, and the co-located community health center seek to take better advantage of their overlapping education and healthcare programming through a shared campus that addresses environmental and social issues. Elizabeth and Utile are tasked with expressing and strengthening these values and goals through the planning, programming and design of the Codman campus and its surrounding urban fabric. "It's redefining or clarifying an institution or brand through design."
The broad scope of projects Utile takes on, from interiors to urban planning, has helped the firm find work and extend the application of design and development strategy into domains outside of a traditional architecture practice. This strategy is innovative as well as practical, giving the firm access to a diverse range of projects and revenue in both the private and public sectors, a daunting challenge for most firms.
In Elizabeth's view, architecture should have hit a breaking point with the last recession. As firms' responsibilities and liabilities in increasingly complex building projects have continued to ramp up over the years, the pay for their work has continued to decrease on a percentage basis. “The value and untapped potential of our design training is significant and should be Most women graduate around the ages of 26 to 32, the prime child-bearing years, and you aren’t going to get rich or feel well rested in your early years in practiceextended beyond the traditional conception of an architect’s role as designer-of-buildings. We have more to give to our clients and our communities and it is our responsibility to put ourselves out there.” The financial feasibility of running a firm can be a constant challenge, and when the construction market slows or stops, countless professional architects find themselves jobless.
In addition to architecture's susceptibility to a weak economy, "the career is tough on young families," admonishes Elizabeth, who's been a mother since shortly after graduating from Harvard and is candid about her desire to see this pernicious aspect of the profession receive more and better attention. "Most women graduate around the ages of 26 to 32, the prime child-bearing years, and you aren’t going to get rich or feel well rested in your early years in practice," Elizabeth says, but she's quick to point out that the career is "just as tough on men" who start or want to start families. Childcare is a necessity if both spouses work, but often one spouse ends up having to stay home in order to ameliorate the costs, which for Elizabeth and her husband are staggering. "We both continue to work because we believe in our practices and the future of our careers, not because my job is a great financial boon after the costs of childcare." Elizabeth acknowledges that her situation at Utile is better than average in terms of flexibility and autonomy, and that if she was in a more traditional practice, having a family would be more difficult.
Looking forward, Elizabeth's goals in the profession are simple and cogent: to help engender and push for ideas that advance the impact of design in the public discourse. To this end, she recently accepted a fellowship with the Social Computing Group at MIT’s Media Lab, where she will work with data from a local tech start-up to research new opportunities for urban analysis, development projections — and ultimately design — at the block and neighborhood scale.
Though her pathway is not that of a traditional architect in the profession, and she has no intention of receiving her professional license, Elizabeth is happy with her career choices and her current trajectory. As she says, she does not regret her choices in training and practice; she loves what she does, yet she adds, "this doesn't mean there aren't things that need to be changed in the profession."
I write, travel and take pictures. My interests include design, identity and natural and urban landscapes.