Regarding Transportation Design


I was wondering if anyone on here has experience working in transportation design (e.g. rail, aviation).

I understand that this is mainly practised in large multidisciplinary AE companies (e.g. Atkins, Jacobs). I have also heard that the architect's role in this kind of context usually revolves around technical coordination and production. If the project is noteworthy, then the firm teams up with a starchitect but very little design is executed in house. 

Is this all right? What is your experience with this sector?

The company culture seems appealing, in the sense that public sector projects don't involve the intense pressure found at design-led offices, however I can't help but wonder though how good these firms are in the early career years when it comes to gaining the right experience. 

For example, I know people who joined such firms in their late career stages, after first working in architecture first and developing as architects in a well-rounded manner. These people then transitioned in management roles in the said firms.

Provided that this is public sector work, can one safely assume that there is stability in recession times? I have heard that aviation in very stable (Covid era being an exception), however I have seen new stories about large companies making hundreds of people redundant in difficult times.

That being said, how does one transition back to traditional architecture after having worked at such a firm, doing for example transportation design? Or is this type of experience only marketable at firms doing such work, almost restricting you to a sector-specific career path?

I would love to hear all relevant opinions on this.

Feb 27, 21 8:58 am

my own story is relevant to your question, though i feel like my specific path is probably uncommon.

i started my career in a recognized design oriented arch firm specialized in high rise commercial and airport design. during the financial crisis the principal in charge of airport projects was laid off along with about 2/3 of all staff in every sector. i was working on a high rise apartment project which was in construction so i wasn't let go. i would say my experience was well rounded, though focused more on the design, detailing and coordination of high budget projects than construction admin or management.

i later left that firm for more money at one oriented towards planning and architecture, focusing on mixed use commercial and retail. after a few more voluntary job changes i have ended up in a large AE firm with a big focus on transportation projects.

though my experience is in commercial architecture and planning, i'm now involved on design of some transportation projects too. it's fun because the issues of integrating complex transportation flows into a compelling built space has much in common with commercial projects, especially retail.

in my case i think the opportunity came because of having complementary skills and a good understanding of how to work on projects with complex client structures. i don't have any specialized experience or knowledge of transportation design and rely on the work of our in house transportation planning team (who are mostly planners and engineers) to develop the technical basis of the project.

i would say someone interested in these projects should focus on working on larger projects which introduce large consultant teams and require a lot of cooperation with various stakeholders to move forward. being patient but caring about getting things done well are key.

i can't say i agree that the work is more stable than any other sector, but the pay has been satisfactory and the work hours generally ok. i don't know what you mean by "traditional architecture" as an alternative to this; the work is very much in the traditional role of architects as lead designers coordinating a team and getting projects designed before bidding. given my own background i also don't think it necessarily restricts your career path to only transportation projects - the principles of good design are relevant in any sector.

Feb 27, 21 9:31 am  · 

Midlander, thank you for the detailed reply. 

Can you be more specific in regards to your role in transportation design as an architect? Do you do front end design or is this handled by another department / design firm? Or does the architectural teams of the AE company function mainly as the executive architect? Also, do you think that transportation design would appeal to someone with a stronger fondness on technical vs creative work? Finally, what specialist roles are there for architects within this sector? 

Feb 27, 21 12:03 pm  · 

my role is specifically front end, developing concepts for the building form and overall masterplan and then developing facade systems and key spatial arrangements. my department has the capability to work through CDs and we have in house mep and structural engineering teams to support the design. We don't always work as the AOR or consulting engineer on projects so their contribution varies.

Feb 27, 21 8:20 pm  · 

i think there are important roles for architects interested in planning and concept design of functional spaces where the image matters but won't be the priority of the design. there are plenty technical roles needed - but for an architect most of those are quite generalized and could be done by anyone with experience in large scale commercial projects.

Feb 27, 21 8:23 pm  · 

most of the basis of design like passenger flow calculations and traffic system planning is done by specialists with backgrounds in traffic engineering or planning. i suppose an architect could learn it too through experience but don't know anyone who has followed that path, since it doesn't really engage the fun parts of architecture and is a niche specialist.

Feb 27, 21 8:26 pm  · 

the lead design is sometimes by my firm and sometimes by a name brand office - for those we usually remain closely involved helping them understand the project conditions and evaluating concept schemes.

Feb 27, 21 8:29 pm  · 

there are roles for design oriented and technical architects. as with anything, the best designers will have a strong understanding and appreciation of the technical work in order to lead with a suitable overall design concept.

Feb 27, 21 8:35 pm  · 

We do some transportation projects in our office, and a lot in our firm. And it seems to me like you are laboring under the false pretense that they are substantially different than any other large project type.

Like any project that has specialized program often there are specific consultants and people who might specialize involved, but this isn't really any different than most other large projects. 

There is no set structure for how these projects are run, and while often there are large AE firms, or large A firms that do a lot of the legwork with the design for smaller firms, there are even more who just do everything. Which is the case for any high profile project type. 

Feb 28, 21 3:27 am  · 

In my experience, with the O-Hare expansionism being the majority of it, the big transportation projects end up being split up among numerous firms to satisfy women and minority quotas. this is good for diversity but makes a huge complex project even more complex.  There is no guarantee that a huge project will happen and when political regimes at the state and local level change projects still in design stages can get scraped overnight or have the scope severely curtailed. Take for example the Florida rail system that was scraped that would have gone from the gulf to the Atlantic linking up Orlando, or the likely to be scraped California high speed rail, as the cost balloon these projects quickly lose political support and then finally succumb to the NIMBYs who think it is better to preserve a few trees than have high speed carbon free transport. If these projects were being designed in one mega firm then they would likely be on schedule and budget but the system of splitting contracts makes it hard to keep a cohesive design yet alone make deadlines and cost estimates as there is a diffuse group of firms responsible and thus no one is responsible.

No market is immune from political and economic forces that impact your career stability. Just like your stock investments should be hopefully the firms you work for have industry and geographic diversity.

Over and OUT

Peter N

Feb 27, 21 1:24 pm  · 

“ In my experience, with the O-Hare expansionism being the majority of it, the big transportation projects end up being split up among numerous firms to satisfy women and minority quotas.”


Feb 27, 21 9:19 pm  · 

Yes, there are a lot of women and minority firms working on the Airport. African American owned Milhouse, women owned Studio Gang and many others there are at least 37 design and engineering firms on the the O Hare Global terminal project.

Mar 6, 21 11:16 am  · 

Yes exactly it.

Feb 28, 21 2:38 am  · 

Exactly you are and did a great.job

Mar 6, 21 5:17 am  · 
jonah lower

Exactly you did the great gob appreciated.

Mar 6, 21 12:42 pm  · 

Block this user

Are you sure you want to block this user and hide all related comments throughout the site?

  • ×Search in: