Mid-career pivot to Architecture


I've seen a number of these posts but want to get thoughts. I'm an undergraduate mechanical engineer / math major from east coast target school for finance, and have worked in finance/consulting since graduation. I currently work at a hedge fund but find the work soul crushing and want to get back to the technical, physical work that drew me to engineering in the first place, so I applied to an M.Arch +3 at USC. I'm from LA, always loved architecture (would've studied that / civil if my school had -- and I get it, loving beautiful buildings is not the same as designing bathrooms for commercial boxes) and have connections in RE development, however everything I see on this forum says don't do it, the grass is not greener. 

Question is this - given you can work toward licensure as a student in the program, is it really that uphill of a climb to break into the industry if I'd be starting the M.Arch program at 31? And what are the mechanisms for people to improve comp? Is it purely developing infill / multifamily and solo-sponsoring a design firm? I guess I am struggling to understand where the earnings torque comes from for independent architects or how such an expensive / risky line of business is so broadly underpaid. 


Jun 5, 24 5:34 pm
Non Sequitur

consider this, how do you think you'll do when you have to compete for junior jobs with kids several years younger than you?  Architecture can be very difficult and has a day-to-day workflow that differs greatly from the popular/romantic "idea" of architecture.

Now, if you're well off and think you can start up your own gig, then go for it.  Getting the min hours and passing the exams can be done in a few years post grad for those who are motivated but you'll have a hard time finding a unique angle unless you have something else to offer that us poor peasants don't.

Broadly underpaid is not the correct way to look at things.  Yes, junior and production roles can appear underpaid but that's mostly because the complaints come from dreamers (ie. idiots) who thought 100k student loans would buy them super design stardom.  Most of us are doing fine but keep in mind that few people actually need the services of architects (compared to p.eng or other white-collar services) AND schools are pumping out thousands of clueless grads so there is not that much cash to share.  Best option for you is find a M.arch speciality that will make you stand out and go in that route.

steps off soap box.

Jun 5, 24 6:06 pm  · 
1  · 

There's been quite a few finance folks in my M.Arch program. They've gone on to do pretty different things - almost all of whom are atypical:

1) Real estate developer
2) Tech entrepreneur
3) Artist
4) CFO
5) Runs own design studio

Most did not proceed on to a traditional architectural position. Lord knows what their personal reasons are, but Non Sequitur has a point in that competing with kids for junior positions can take a heavy toll financially and mentally. The most fortunate ones are already financially set and can afford to live their dreams as an Architect with their own studio, while more enterprising ones combine their design and finance backgrounds into a real estate career. Very few head down the path of an architectural profession, possibly because it doesn't take full advantage of their unique background.

shOp is an example of a major firm founded by Wall St guys - though it was no easy path.

Going back a few decades, Charles Luckman had a career trajectory that might be of interest. He finished his business career as the youngest CEO of a major corporation in the US, before turning to architecture. There, he created a highly successful midcentury practice where his business acumen proved superior to his contemporaries.

Jun 5, 24 6:23 pm  · 

A joke:

Q : What did the architect say when he won the lottery?

A : "Wow, I am just going to keep working till I burn up all of this money"

Good luck, try to avoid college debt for this profession.

Jun 5, 24 6:43 pm  · 
3  · 

if you really love doing beautiful designs then I suggest being your own developer. No degree or college debt required. There’s a lot more money in owning the completed building than there is doing the “necessary evil” of construction e.g. drawings and permits. If you’re working for a hedge fund you’re probably in a big city where real estate is rather unaffordable. I suggest moving to a market that has cooled and start building. In 2 years time you’ll have no competition since all the inventory is coming online now and interest rates have killed most projects for the time being. Start small with a simple starter home and go from there. Try to break even doing the construction management. Next one you should have lots of experience and turn a tidy profit. Then when you have sufficient cash coming in you can focus on making buildings beautiful. You sure and shit won’t learn how to make beautiful buildings in architecture school. Use your downtime to learn what you find beautiful about certain buildings. And how can you approach a similar emotional reaction with today’s construction techniques and code requirements? It’s cheaper to hire an architect for a project than to become one. Learn from them and apply that moving forward. At the end of the day, form follows finance. Just get used to drawing over internet plans and elevations. Understand the flow of space and the street presence of the facade. 

As a side bar, I was looking at salaries in Seattle for positions requiring 3-7 experience. I was making $62k pre covid. The salaries haven’t changed in over 3 years despite 15% inflation since 2021. House cleaners make more per hour than salaried employees. Save yourself and start developing as a side gig (6 months planning a build, 6 months building). Keep your job and slowly grow into building multi family rentals over several years. Then you can build whatever the hell you want. 

Jun 6, 24 1:30 am  · 
1  · 

Yup, firms say they "cant find intermediate level architects" but dont want to pay more than a pittance.

Jun 6, 24 2:01 pm  · 
1  · 

mission_critical wrote: 

 if you really love doing beautiful designs then I suggest being your own developer. No degree or college debt required. 

Still requires a lot of money, intelligence, and experience / connections to make it work.

Jun 6, 24 2:20 pm  · 
 ·  1

And it's not necessarily the technical and physical work the OP is seeking. It's very finance, sales, and managerial, which OP would have to learn somewhere, like working for another developer.

Jun 6, 24 3:08 pm  · 
1  · 

I assume the OP is intelligent. If he’s working at a hedge fund then I assume they know what asymmetrical risk is and should apply this same investment concept to real estate investing. There’s plenty of materials out to how to become your own small scale developer. The key here is not starting with a 50 unit apartment building requiring a proforma and outside investors. Start with a single family house where construction costs aren’t exorbitant (east/west coast). 

1. Read Contracting Your Own Home

2. Take a boot camp and look at the materials by the Incremental Development Alliance

3. Take a look at Bigger Pockets. Both the podcast and books. Again this is starting small, and risk adverse.  Start small and by yourself. Your goal is to make sure you have a proven track record of being cash positive before you take on more complicated/bigger builds, or forgo ROI by investing more into the beauty of a building. 

4.  Real estate development can be very approachable if done right and you know have some wherewithal about money. Keep up to date in real estate cycles. Look at bigger players, such as Ken McElroy, for insights on the changing market  

5. Optional: if you really want to quit your job, dump some more money into higher education, and want to pursue another career, look at real estate development degrees. For example we have the Runstad center here at the UW Seattle. It’s a good program and you can land a job working for a large corporation like Microsoft or Starbucks and be involved in their real estate. (This translates to connections, salary, plus familiarity with real estate). 

And remember, everything is hard until it’s easy. Just like with everything else, you just need to put in the hours. 

Jun 6, 24 10:26 pm  · 

Ditch finance from hedge fund office and go into architecture? Oh man, I don't get that logic. The work will likely still be soul crushing. It will still involve management, meetings, interact with clients, deal with endless problems. You will have absolutely huge edge over your peer junior applicants when you graduate. Trust me, huge. A firm would love to get a mature professional with finance background and work experience. Your transition will be easy and smooth. However, the BIGGEST caveat, is your pay. Probably the similar 50K-60K starting salary as other junior architects. I don't know why anyone would do that unless the family is absolutely loaded. You just need some Arch experience before opening your own studio or Real estate development work.

Jun 7, 24 12:25 pm  · 

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